“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).

 

“Flash Frame” (2010) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

After that he killed the time at a cheap cinema show, seeing the inane performance over and over again without paying any attention to it.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch House”

Scene: Mexico City, 1982. A character in its own right, which fills in the role of the story just by showing up. The narrator is a freelance journalist, hard-boiled as they come, carefully devoid of name or gender. The framing of the story is so slight, the reader might gloss over it: the narrator is in the present day, where Wikipedia makes a mockery of research, but recalling an incident from 28 years prior. A new editor wants something better than the usual stories, the journalist sniffs around for one—and finds it, at an adult theater named El Tabu, where a cult does private screenings, once a week.

“Flash Frame” is a member of an obscure club, literary kin to Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images (1989), Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (1991), Simon Spurrier and Smudge’s Chiaroscuro (2000 AD Prog 1507-1517, 2006), and John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns (2005). Weird fiction where instead of a forbidden book or manuscript, the central mystery revolves around a film. A throwback to the idea that the camera captures something more than mere image. Lovecraft toyed with a similar concept in his story “Nyarlathotep”, but the possibilities remained undeveloped until succeeding generations of writers brought it to the page and the screen.

The story is lean, devoid of excess description or introspection from the narrator, who remains very grounded—like a journalist, presenting the facts and their impressions, not their theories. Unlike many Lovecraftian tales, the horrors are described, sometimes in terse but graphic detail; it’s the surrounding mythology which is only hinted at, a blank space left for the reader to fill in by reading between the lines…and that is not the Cthulhu Mythos. Not explicitly.

The book is rigidly suppressed by the authorities of most countries, and by all branches of organised ecclesiasticism. Reading leads to terrible consequences. It was from rumours of this book (of which relatively few of the general public know) that R.W. Chambers is said to have derived the idea of his early novel The King in Yellow.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The History of the Necronomicon

Before Lovecraft ever put together the idea of a shared universe, Robert W. Chambers some names from Ambrose Bierce’s stories “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886) and “Haïta the Shepherd” (1891) for stories in his weird fiction collection The King in Yellow (1895); Lovecraft and his contemporaries would go on to add elements from that seminal work to the Cthulhu Mythos, but the “Yellow Mythos” as an original expansion of Chambers’ work and shared concept in its own right, not dependent on Cthulhu or the Necronomicon (though occasionally tying into it), has developed a fairly dedicated audience and coterie of contributors.

“Flash Frame” sits in no easily definable frame of Mythos reference. Moreno-Garcia doesn’t play the game of name-checking popular entities like Cthulhu or Hastur, no tomes pop up in the course of the story, and even the name of the cult is an unfinished, undefined ellipsis trailing off into disinterest. The framework of the narrative borrows strongly from the Lovecraftian tradition, but it isn’t written to be a defined part of the shared universe. It exists as it’s own thing, ambiguous enough to suggest an avatar of the King in Yellow or Nyarlathotep without needing to nail it down with exact certainty what is going on or what entities are involved. The narrator probably doesn’t even know. They heeded the warning.

The story works as well as it does because the narrator and the setting are absolutely grounded, far way from the poor pasticheur’s focus on cramming Mythos references into the story, Moreno-Garcia makes sure the character of the narrator and the city are well-defined, because they help carry the story. Readers believe that El Tabu existed, and that’s because it, or something like it did—in the Mexico City of the author’s youth.

Well my Mexico, the Mexico of my youth is quickly eroding through the work of time and distance, although I suppose that is true for any of us when we look back at our youth. What is captured in the stories is my vision of a time and place that was and never was because any time we look back we distort the place we came from. The factories near my home are gone, they’ve built expensive condos. The butcher moved. The park got a makeover. So every time I go back to visit I’m looking at a superimposed image of what was there and what is there now.
—Silvia Moreno-Garcia, “An Interview with Silvia Moreno-Garcia”

This transposition of the Mexico of yesterday and today is brought home in the end of the story, where the frame completes itself and the narrator brings the story back from 1982 to the present. El Tabu is gone, replaced by a block of condos. But something survives…

“Flash Frame” was first published in the Cthulhurotica (2010) anthology, edited by Carrie Cuinn. It contains sexually explicit imagery, but the way sex is presented in the story is as a vehicle for horror, rather than a mechanism of reproduction. The yellow woman is an intrusive, otherworldly element, the juxtaposition of carnal imagery with the vivid description of imposition and disgust demonstrates the violation of the narrator’s personal space—even into their mental space. There are always images we cannot unsee, sounds we cannot unhear, words we cannot unread. The narrator’s response to this unwanted contact is not arousal, but unease and revulsion…not because of risk of pregnancy, or rape, but from mere exposure.

This is an aspect of sexual horror which is often overlooked: the exhibitionist who violates taboos of acceptable dress—in the past, exemplified by the naked man or woman in the trench coat, today the unsolicited dick pic—and it is different from biological contagion. An STI can be treated like any other disease, but information cannot be so easily forgotten or erased; nor can the subject forget their inherent vulnerability. A victim can potentially fight back against a physical assault, but it is impossible to close oneself off completely from all unwanted sounds and images…though the narrator, who has given the matter some thought, definitely makes a considerable effort to do just that.

“Flash Frame” has been reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu (2011), and in Moreno-Garcia’s collection This Strange Way of Dying (2013); it was also adapted on Tales to Terrify (2012). Despite her success with short stories and novels, Silvia Moreno-Garcia is perhaps better known as publisher at Innsmouth Free Press, and together with Paula R. Stiles edited works including Historical Lovecraft (2011), Future Lovecraft (2011),  Innsmouth Magazine (2009-2014), Sword & Mythos (2014), and She Walks in Shadows (2015, also published as Cthulhu’s Daughters).