And he can’t help himself. He lets out a little, sissy-like wail and flinches at the noise.
—Nicole Cushing, “Yella” in Cassilda’s Song (2015) 39
Colors take on symbolic meaning, adapted to the syntax of their era. Robert W. Chambers’ seminal collection The King in Yellow (1895) was published during the “Yellow Nineties,” when publications like The Yellow Book (1894-1897) gained a reputation for decadence and eroticism, and that aesthetic can still be felt in stories like “Flash Frame” (2010) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Through the auspices of The King in Yellow, the color itself has become a byword and hallmark for activity in later fiction, giving its name to the “Yellow Mythos”—which might otherwise be the Chambers Mythos (to parallel the “Lovecraft Mythos”), the Cassilda Mythos (to parallel “Cthulhu Mythos,” yet keep it distinct from the “Hastur Mythos”), or the Carcosa Cycle (echoing Lovecraft’s reference to “the Arkham Cycle”).
Yellow can have many other connotations, however. “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman showcases a woman’s slow descent into madness, with certain thematic resonance to Chambers’ work. Yellow journalism is cheap, tawdry, sensational, and degrading; named after crumbling, fast-fading newsprint. Yellow is the color sometimes associated with fear and cowardice.
“Yella” by Nicole Cushing embraces the latter. Not the sudden fear of bodily harm, or of sudden climactic revelations, but the slow gnawing death by inches that comes from not wanting to act, to interfere. Fear of consequences, of being left alone, of what people will say and think of them. Adult fears, real and poignant, the kind that people bottle up inside and drown sip by sip from a whiskey bottle.
The basic premise of Cushing’s story echoes several other Mythos tales, particularly since it involves a male protagonist who appears unable to bring themselves to interfere with a female they are in a relationship with, even as she grows more distant from normal behaviors and closer to stranger things; August Derleth’s “Innsmouth Clay” (1971) and Ann K. Schwader’s “Mail Order Bride” (1999). The specter of fertility issues on relationships has been given a Mythos twist in stories like “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens and “Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter.
What sets “Yella” apart is the focus on fear—and masculinity.
It’s enough to make any man prissy-prance his way outta there, but he ain’t gonna be scared off. He’s gonna do what he shoulda done days ago. Gonna be a fuckin man.
—Nicole Cushing, “Yella” 41
As in “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg, there’s a focus on both the internal narrative of masculinity and the external expression of it. Billy, the “empty man” protagonist of Cushing’s narrative, is hounded by the image of how he thinks a man should be and act, juxtaposed against his actual actions and inaction; his failures to confront his wife and his inability to impregnate her. His wife Patti uses those same fears against Billy, throwing his failures in his face, threatening his masculinity:
Yer gonna turn sissy fer him, ain’tcha? Ya turn sissy fer Him, He’ll give ya babies, too. Don’t make no difference if y’ain’t gotta pussy or a womb. He’ll make some fer ya, claw some into ya!
—Nicole Cushing, “Yella” 43
Billy’s fear that his wife will leave him for another man, that Patti has gone crazy, run up against a harsher reality. His fears, small and personal as they are, showcase the limits of his imagination—and what is really going on with Patti and her Yella Angel is much worse than what has Billy hitting the bourbon.
“Yella” plays with all these themes, stemming from and circling back around to the name, what it symbolizes and implies—the King in Yellow, Billy’s cowardice and its association with unmasculine behavior, sexual decadence, a woman’s descent into madness—and it does so quickly, pulling no punches, no graceful glances aside or slow build-up. Patti’s foul-mouthed speech is raw and perfect, brash and detailed where Billy is reticent and afraid to put his fears into words.
Billy is raped near the end of the story; and it is a rare event in the Mythos for a man to be penetrated. It is the culmination of Billy’s emasculation, and the fulfillment of Patti’s promise, at least from a certain point of view. Certainly, Billy didn’t ask for it—but in many of ways, that lack of choice may be the point. Rape is an expression of power and dominance, not sexuality; power and dominance are key aspects of patriarchal systems and cultures. Billy’s attempts to prove he is a man by dominating Patti, verbally and physically, ultimately fail…and ends up with roles reversed.
The real horror is that this isn’t Billy’s punishment, either for acting or failing to act. Getting raped, body and mind violated by the Yella Angel in its tattered robe, is not some vicious moral for failing to act up to a John Wayne standard of how a man is supposed to act. It would have happened anyway. There was nothing Billy could have done to prevent it—and there is nothing he or anyone else can do to prevent it from happening again. Billy’s reality is wakening up to how powerless he and everyone else is. A bleak and utterly appropriate nihilistic end, in the best traditions of the Yellow Mythos.
“Yella” was published in Cassilda’s Daughters (2015). Nicole Cushing’s other Mythos/Lovecraftian stories include “A Catechism for Aspiring Amnesiacs” (2012) and “Diary of a Sane Man” (2016); her story “The Company Town” appeared in the Thomas Ligotti-inspired anthology The Grimscribe’s Puppets (2013).