“Lilloth” (2006) by Susan McAdam

Now what if I told you that there is such a work available for study, but this particular body of knowledge is near impossible to correctly interpret because sheer madness is the irreversible result from the mere reading of it? That’s right. You know the text.
—Susan McAdam, “Lilloth” in Rehearsals for Oblivion: Act I (2006) 107

The stories in The King in Yellow are structured as tragedies, in the sense that there is a certain inevitability that accompanies them, with all the characters’ actions leading them inexorably on; their fates cannot be otherwise, because they cannot be or do otherwise. This has often found expression in the stories of the Yellow Mythos: sometimes they evince a quiet irresistible force, as in “The Viking in Yellow” (2014) by Christine Morgan and “Yella” (2015) by Nicole Cushing, or as a portentous foreboding of doom, as in “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files and “Flash Frame” (2010) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. There are rarely horrors to be fought in the sense of a raised fist, a drawn sword, or a loaded gun; no spell to ward off the inevitable. Though certain outward manifestations may be halted, the knowledge of the horror remains…and the terrible reality is there, waiting, in Carcosa.

In “Lilloth,” Susan McAdam takes advantage of both these approaches. The titular character’s name combines ‘Lillith’ from Jewish mythology and the -oth ending favored by Lovecraft in names like Yuggoth, Yog-Sothoth, and Azathoth, suggesting something of her nature—and she acts as both catalyst and focus for the story, narrated by an unknown, not-quiet-omniscient narrator, somewhat in the manner of Arthur Machen’s “The White People.” Lilloth is the beginning and the end of the story; the doom of her teenage friends is foreshadowed long before it is developed, and the nature of that doom is inevitable as it is, to a degree, self-inflicted. The teenagers act as they must, being who they are. The reader watches it unfold, like a horror movie, third-party witness to the event.

How a story is told matters at least as much as who the characters are, the setting, or the actual events of the plot. One of the advantages of operating within a specific Mythos is that a certain amount of the heavy lifting is already done: the reader is familiar with basic concepts, familiar names, disbelief is partially suspended already. The reader wants to read the story.

Such a pre-investment can allow room for experimentation, and so it is with McAdam: Lilloth’s story is told in fits and spurts, as though the narrator was piecing everything together from disparate newspaper accounts, interviews, police reports—all for the purpose of illustrating a point about reading between the lines, and the dangers of connecting certain dots.

It’s a familiar Mythos trope, as old as Lovecraft’s line “We live on a placid island of ignorance…” from “The Call of Cthulhu,” and there are many more old favorites in “Lilloth.” The actual plot of the story is less interesting than the way it is told, the connective tissue between the scenes somewhat thin, as might be expected of a piecemeal narrative. Most of the mysteries are left untold, and that’s perhaps more fun.

Lilloth joins the new generation with Helen Vaughn, Wilbur Whateley, and Hester Sawyer, and the circumstances of her conception are perhaps less of interest than that of her coming of age—and that is an aspect of these characters it is interesting to compare and contrast. Born of human women, they live for a time a changeling’s life, though often apart from humanity, teenage alienation made flesh—a theme sometime explored, as in Stanley C. Sargent’s “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997) or W. H. Pugmire’s “The Child of Dark Mania” (1997). Lilloth’s characterization is in between those of Wilbur Whateley and Hester Sawyer: conscious of her heritage, but ignorant of the details; she has to learn, to grow as a person before she can take the next step, to transition from childhood to adulthood, from humanity to whatever lies outside of it…and there are casualties along the way.

“Lilloth” was published in Rehearsals for Oblivion: Act I: Tales of the King in Yellow (2006). It has not been reprinted.

 


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“Cordelia’s Song from The King in Yellow” (1938) by Vincent Starrett & “Evening Reflections, Carcosa” (2011) by Ann K. Schwader

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow,” Act 1, Scene 2.
—Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow (1895)

The canon of The King in Yellow consists of a few fragments and tantalizing hints strung out over the first four stories of Robert W. Chamber’s strange collection. It is a play in two acts; there are at least two characters with speaking roles, Cassilda and the Stranger, and Camilla is mentioned besides, along with several odd names (Demhe, Hali, Carcosa, Yhtill, Hastur, etc.) Cassilda has a song. That is almost all.

Entire plays based on Chambers’ cryptic fragments have been written; an entire corpus of “Yellow Mythos” tales have spun out from the weird, decadent, almost nihilistic fin de siècle atmosphere. As with the Lovecraft Mythos, most of the energies of subsequent generations of writers and poets has revolved back around Chambers himself. Whatever expansions, interpretations, and embellishments other writers might add, there is that small, hard core of canon: Cassilda’s song.

One of the earliest such embellishments was by the noted bookman Vincent Starrett; his poem “Cordelia’s Song from The King in Yellow” was published in Weird Tales (Apr 1938):

The moon shines whitely; I shall take
My silk umbrella, lest the moon
Too warmly fall upon the lake
And cause my bridal flowers to swoon.

The sparrow’s sorrow is in vain,
And so does he his bridge forget.
I wed the long grass and the rain,
And seven sailors dripping wet.

And shall not you and shall not I
Keep tryst beside this silent stream,
Who thought that we should rather die
Than wed the peacock’s amber dream?

The moon shines whitely; I shall take
My silk umbrella, lest the moon
Too coldly fall upon the lake
And chill my bridal flowers too soon.

The work is subtle; Starrett was too canny a reader to go for pastiche, or overt references to Carcosa or the Hyades; there is a lake, but not specifically the Lake of Hali. He does not specify where in the play this song is placed, either in the first act or the second…or does he?

The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.
—Robert W. Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations” in The King in Yellow

The “innocence” certainly seems to fit, though it may be Starrett was hinting at a connection with one Chamber’s other weird works, “The Maker of Moons” (1896). Still, it introduces a third female character—Cordelia, Cassilda, and Camilla—and by giving both Cordelia and Cassilda songs, it may suggest that Camilla has one as well.

The “missing song” is provided, at least in part, by Ann K. Schwader, whose poem “Evening Reflections, Carcosa” bears the subtitle “(Camilla’s Song),” which begins where Chambers ends:

Cassilda sings the dying twilight down
Again to me tonight from her soul’s tower
—Ann K. Schwader, “Evening Reflections, Carcosa” in Twisted in Dream 98

Schwader likely took inspiration directly from Chambers, just as Starrett did. Certainly, “Evening Reflections, Carcosa” references directly and explicitly the mythos of The King in Yellow—and builds on those cryptic hints, suggesting a lament. If Cassilda’s and Cordelia’s songs were in act 1, then Camilla’s song feels as though it might have a place in that second and final act. Perhaps the play ends with Camilla singing:

Cursed as we all are with his bitter Sign.
(ibid. 99)

—and leave the audience to decide whether she is addressing them as well.

Starrett and Schwader’s respective contributions are both inspired by “Cassilda’s Song”; it is the crucial bit of lore that both have fastened on, the well of inspiration for their respective imaginations in their individual ways—and they are not alone. It has given its name to an entire anthology of female contributors: Cassilda’s Song: Tales Inspired by Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow Mythos (2015), just as the song itself has inspired fiction such as “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files.

“Cordelia’s Song from The King in Yellow” was first published in Weird Tales (Apr 1938), and subsequently republished in The Spawn of Cthulhu (1971), and Peter Haining’s Weird Tales reprint anthology (1976, 1990).

Ann K. Schwader’s poems relating to The King in Yellow include “Postscript: The King in Yellow,” “A Phantom Walks,” “Autumn, Lake Hali,” “Stargazing, Lake Hali,” “A Lost Song of Cassilda,” “Evening Reflections, Carcosa,” “A Queen in Yellow,” and sonnets XXIV-XXVI of “In the Yaddith Time” all contained in Twisted in Dream: The Collected Weird Poetry of Ann K. Schwader (2011); “The Queen’s Speech”, “At the Last of Carcosa,” “Outside the Chamber,” and “Finale, Act 2,”were collected in Dark Energies (2015). She has also written stories related to the Yellow Mythos, including “Tattered Souls” (2003) and “Dancing the Mask” (2015).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow,” Act 1, Scene 2.
—Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow (1895)

Alice is a forensic pathologist is called away to a remote tropical island to dig up and reassemble the bodies from a mass grave that the locals have been adding to for centuries. Down through the layers and the bodies, peeling away one onion-skin layer of mystery at a time. The inbred, insular locals aren’t talking who killed the victims or why—”it’s a serious Innsmouthian situation ’round these parts” one character chimes; a good line, though the character isn’t quite genre-savvy enough to survive the final act.

The island’s name is Carcosa.

Robert W. Chambers, H. P. Lovecraft, and so many other authors built their mythology on evocation and intimation, explicit references which implied a wider body of lore, names to conjure with and carefully detailed, realistic descriptions. The mystery, and the connections that tie stories together, is part of the attraction of the Mythos. The appearance of the terrible play The King in Yellow is what helps tie together the first stories in Chambers’ 1895 collection to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Readers never see Hali and Carcosa in those stories; the eponymous King remains off the page, so that the reader fills in the gaps with their own imagination, stranger and more terrible than anything Chambers could have come up with.

Yet exegesis is a long tradition in Mythos fiction. While stories like “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys may offer expansions and emendations of Mythos fiction, to enhance, extend, and revisit, the purpose of exegesis is to re-contextualize and explicate. That’s what Gemma Files does in “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars”—totally removed from the play itself, through the eyes and ears of Alice, she unravels a Carcosa and a Lake of Hali, twin suns and black stars. The result is a double narrative: there are the events of the story itself, as the dig unfolds, going deeper into the black volcanic soil of the mass grave, and there is the story of Carcosa—what it is, who lives there, what little of its history and folklore that can be passed on in pidgin or through their interpreter.

The Innsmouth reference is no accident, though maybe a touch of red herring. Lovecraft was fond of the twin narrative structure in his own works: stories like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” focus not only on a contemporary plot but the deeper mystery that led up to current events, which come together in a single revelation and climax. In particular, Files picks up one of Lovecraft’s most popular themes—the reclusive, insular, inbred community with its dark secret. Carcosa is re-imagined as Lovecraft Country, akin to Dunwich and Innsmouth, Averoigne and Stregoicavar; a volcanic outcrop set in a far and obscure archipelago off of Indonesia; where the natives have lived generation after generation with little contact from outsiders. The re-build is done with great care for realism, reflecting real-world research. If there was such a place as Carcosa, set where Gemma Files has set it, then that place and that people would look and sound as she describes them.

This is not “the” explanation for the strange and obscure imagery from the excerpts of the play in Chambers’ stories. It is one explanation, one writer’s personal exegesis, one possible explanation to fit the images and plot of Chambers’ fragments. The exegesis forms the secondary narrative of the story, the history being told to Alice. Her story, the first narrative, is in the bodies being dug on the island, weird anatomies that speak of a small genepool compounding small mutations—and it is in Alice herself.

“Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” is a story told in second person. The reader is addressed as if they are Alice, the perspective is told through her senses, though the reader is not always aware of everything Alice has said and done. Our sense of Alice as a person is limited: not sexless, but not focused on reproduction like Dr. Katherine Cullom, the protagonist of “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens. The narrative notes her practical modesty in the disposable “grave bras” she brings to the dig, garments to be worn for the duration of the time at the gravesite and then discarded when the dig is over, but not romantic entanglements or threats of rape. Like in Lovecraft’s fiction, sex doesn’t enter into it unless essential to the plot.

Reproduction is the engine that drives this story, although it takes Alice to piece that together, one bone at a time. The story as Alice discovers is one of biological determinism different from anything Lovecraft imagined, borne out in the pathologist’s perception of the world, rather than the racialist science of Lovecraft’s period. Instead of measuring facial angles, Alice looks at how the bones fit together (or don’t), the interplay of connective tissue, the signs that indicate whether this skeleton was male or female. The native Carcosans, for all that they form a definitive cultural Other for the story, largely feature only be reference, or through the dead. Even the interpreter Ringo, who tells Alice so much, is seen by his relatives as an outsider rather than a prodigal son…and that’s probably for the best. The Carcosans are different, they are Other, but they are neither stereotypes nor monsters; Alice knows them as different, because of their anatomical anomalies, but still recognizably human.

Which is an interesting lesson for Mythos fiction. That an individual people can be distinct, physically and culturally, yet still recognizably people and deserving of respect. Alice as a scientist can differentiate anatomy without bias; the one character, Ken, who is notably bigoted toward the inbred nature of Carcosa is universally depicted as uncouth, his moralizing judgments on their way of life unnecessary. The rest of the team are focused on the excavation, the crime that was committed—has been committed, for who knows how long—and in a real way, they are proven right. Incest is not the cause of the problems in Carcosa. In lost Carcosa, the mystery Alice unveils one corpse at a time is stranger still.

“Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” was first published in the Yellow Mythos anthology A Season in Carcosa (2012) and reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 24 (2013). Gemma Files is a familiar name among the current generation of Mythos writers, several of her notable Mythos and Lovecraftian stories and poems include”Marya Nox” (2009), “Haruspicy” (2010), “Jar of Salts” (2010), “[Anasazi]” (2014), “The Harrow” (2014), “Hairwork” (2015), “Grave Goods” (2016), “Little Ease” (2016), and “Every Hole in the Earth We Will Claim as Our Own” (2016).

 


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)