“While The Black Stars Burn” (2015) by Lucy A. Snyder

It was the first and last time she had been glad to be a disappointment in the eyes of the universe.
—Lucy A. Snyder, “While the Black Stars Burn” in Cassilda’s Song (2015) 120

Rape has the primary definition of sexual trespass, but in the broader sense encompasses a variety of behaviors which force or take from a subject without their consent, and often against their direct wishes. Rapists often seek, not sexual gratification, but control and dominance. The sense of inevitability that accompanies the Yellow Mythos can play into such fantasies, sometimes literally as in “Yella” (2015) by Nicole Cushing, but more often a kind of metaphysical invasion and entrapment—as in Lucy A. Snyder’s “While the Black Stars Burn.”

At least half of this story is untold. Caroline Cage-Satin doesn’t know it, and the audience is left to guess at the cruelty of her father, drunk and sober; his fixation on her development of a violinist appearing to be more than an extension of parental ego. When the scar breaks open on Caroline’s palm, readers will have to wonder how much of the whole incident—from the Maestro pulling out the burning brand to the doctor who completed the sign—was planned, and who was in on it. How many people, knowing and unknowning, had pushed and pulled Caroline to that moment, to be that person, desperate enough to wrap her crippled hand around the neck of a violin and face the music?

Worst of all she knew—since she’d been repeatedly told so—that she was quite plain, good as a violinist but unremarkable as a woman. Her music was the only conceivable reason anyone would welcome her to a wedding.
—Lucy A. Snyder, “While The Black Stars Burn” 122

There’s a skill in the half-built nature of the story, in that it doesn’t feel incomplete—and in the characterization of the protagonist. Caroline never loses her agency. She can say no, and she does. Despite being raised by a cruel and egotistical father, Caroline does not demonstrate those traits herself. Her act of striking back against the world is self-sacrifice: to throw away her instrument, abandon the course charted for her. To seek a new life.

This is exactly what is denied her, choice ignored, as she finds herself playing the piece once again. Caroline does not consent to what happens at the end of the story…but it isn’t about what she wants. It’s about what others want, what they can make her do.

Rape.

A search for literary forebears and parallels turns up two interesting pieces: H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” and Charles Stross’ The Annihilation Score (2015). Zann is the quintessential musical touchstone of Lovecraft’s Mythos, his music on the viol keeps whatever is outside at bay. In this sense, Snyder’s story is an inversion of Lovecraft’s: where Zann forces himself to play, Caroline is forced to play, and the results of their playing are exactly opposite.

Stross’ novel actually touches on Lovecraft’s story—the heroine’s bone violin is a Zann Special—but the violin itself and the score in question are tied to Carcosa; it represents a coincidental parallel to Snyder’s story. Stross also makes an explicit sexual tension between Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien and her violin, and outside forces pressure and shape her toward specific ends against her will. Like in Snyder’s story, O’Brien in Stross’ work is ultimately forced to play…but she at least has the resources to find a way out.

“While the Black Stars Burn” was first published in Cassilda’s Song (2015), and also appeared in and lent its name to Snyder’s collection While the Black Stars Burn (2015). It has been reprinted in Turn to Ash, Volume 1 (2016), Apex Magazine (Sep 2017), and Pseudopod #574 (2017). Snyder’s other Mythos fiction includes “The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul” (2014), “The Abomination of Fensmere” (2015), “Cthylla” (2015), “Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars” (2017), “Sunset on Mott Island” (2017), “The Tingling Madness” (2018), and “Cosmic Cola” (2018). Many of these are included in her collection Garden of Eldritch Delights (2018).

Lucy A. Snyder has also written nonfiction articles/reviews about Lovecraftian fiction for Horror World, and the essay “Unreliable Narrators in Kiernan and Chambers” (7 Oct 2015, Apex Magazine).


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

“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)

“Yella” (2015) by Nicole Cushing

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).


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

“The Viking in Yellow” (2014) by Christine Morgan

My favourite moments are when the title and concept come to me in a kapow, often for a themed call like “The Viking in Yellow.” It was just bam all there.
—Christine Morgan, “Christine Morgan: The Closest Thing To Telepathy”

The foreign warriors that went a-viking harried the coasts of Europe, burned towns and looted monasteries of their treasures, raped, pillaged, and plundered…then climbed back into their ships and left, perhaps to return again next year. They were an intrusive force from outside, a force beyond prediction of control. Sometimes they could be bribed, rarely they could be fought off, but often they appeared before defense could be raised, and overwhelmed the coastal settlements…and there was little defense against them.

But when the striped yellow sails appear on the coast…and the grim silent warriors with the odd painted shields march to Marymeade Abbey, led by a chief in a tattered cloak… There are dearer things at stake than silver and golden, lives and virginities…and the Viking in Yellow will claim his own.

A mythos represents more than a collection of tales in the same setting or with shared characters, but variations on a narrative theme. Robert W. Chambers set “The Repairer of Reputations” in an alternate future, one strange to the eyes of 1895, but not unbelievable. The play The King in Yellow has fewer indications of when it is set, but that hardly matters. The Yellow Mythos can be adapted to almost any syntax and setting, by a writer with skill and imagination, the narrative echoes of Chambers’ play can repeat themselves in the far future or the distant past.

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1

Christine Morgan has both considerable skill and imagination. The reality of the small community that exists to serve the abbey and its parent monastery is well-developed, full of small, realistic details. The fear of and reactions to the warriors from the sea is natural, and perhaps appropriate for any normal band of roving Norsemen—but not these gaunt sailors with the strange yellow glyphs on their shields, or the chief with the tattered cloak, a plume of pale yellow horsehair on his helm. When Sister Gehilde defies him, her words echo an old formula:

“You come here, nameless and face-hidden, and call them weak? Call them cowards? For shame! Take off your visor, then! Show yourself unmasked, if you have such strength and courage!”
—Christine Morgan, “The Viking in Yellow” in In the Court of the Yellow King 

The charm of “The Viking in Yellow” is both Morgan’s reflection of the scenes and elements from Chamber’s play and the original details she adds to subtly expand upon that narrative tradition…and she does it without once invoking figures directly in their familiar and ominous capital letters. This is a Yellow Mythos story without any mention of the Yellow Sign, though yellow signs abound; no King in Yellow, though there is a stranger who fulfills the role; no Cassilda and Camilla, though another pair of sisters echo their lines; no Carcosa either, though the lake of Hali makes a brief appearance at the end, with a city of strange towers and black stars.

In plot, it’s a viking raid with a twist; a premise that is laid out and fulfilled without complication. Morgan has written a number of viking previous to this, and teases mundane horrors which are ultimately subverted. The turn of the plot, when it comes, owes a bit more to the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game than anything Lovecraft or Chambers wrote—the kind of stock madness that sees robed cultists crop up in stories like “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer—but it works well enough in context, and faithful execution of a straight premise is satisfying in its own right.

“The Viking in Yellow” was published in In the Court of the Yellow King (2014) and has not yet been republished. Christine Morgan’s other Lovecraftian fiction includes “With Honey Dripping” (2014), “The Mindhouse” (2014), “Unfathomable” (2014), “The Ithiliad” (2014), “Lascivious Tongues” (2014), “Thought He Was A Goner” (2015), “Ninesight” (2015), “Professor Patriot and the Doom That Came to Niceville” (2015), “Incense and Insensibilty” (2015), “Aerkheim’s Horror” (2015), “The Arkham Town Musicians” (2015), “Pippa’s Crayons” (2016), “The Keeper of Memory” (2017), and “Fate of the World” (2017).

Christine Morgan’s viking fiction, including “Aerkheim’s Horror” but not “The Viking in Yellow,” is collected in The Raven’s Table: Viking Stories (2017).


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)

Ex Libris Miskatonici (1993) by Joan C. Stanley

Joan Stanley is a long-time science-fiction and fantasy fan who fell in love with Lovecraft’s writing by reading At the Mountains of Madness while in the tenth grade. To a life-long resident of Boston, those shoggoths pouring out of the cave resembled nothing so much as a speeding MTA streetcar coming out of a Tremont Street tunnel, or a subway train screeching through the Park Street Under. She often wondered if Lovecraft had once been terrified by the city subway system. In real life, she is a criminal lawyer (that can mean whatever you wish) whose only previous forays into writing have been in the appellate courts.
Ex Libris Miskatonici, back cover copy

During the lifetime of H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries, the Cthulhu Mythos was created and grew. Different writers came up with their own unique contributions—Lovecraft with the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, Dunwich, Innsmouth, Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, etc.; Robert E. Howard with Nameless Cults, Justin Geoffrey, and Stregoicavar; Clark Ashton Smith with the Book of Eibon, Tsathoggua, and Averoigne; Robert Bloch with Cultes des Goules and De Vermis Mysteriis; and so on and so forth. What is more exceptional, and made a true shared setting, was how they would borrow and share each other’s creations in their stories: Howard’s mad poet Justin Geoffrey would be from Lovecraft’s Arkham, Smith would slip a reference to Shub-Niggurath into tales set in Averoigne, etc.—and those strange and terrible tomes with the evocative names would end up piled next to each other in macabre libraries. It is a process that continues even today, as in “The Land of the Reflected Ones” (1995) by Nancy A. Collins.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when writers who had very different styles were writing stories far apart from one another, without any centralized source for the mythology they were concocting, there were discrepancies. Details in one story were not always in agreement with other stories. This was not all to the bad, by Lovecraft’s estimation: the little disagreements sometimes echoed real mythology, increasing the verisimilitude of the whole. It also provided a kind of literary game for readers, if they wanted to track down those different references, to see how they connected, and to theorize about the bigger background hinted at. More than a few of those writers would go on to offer their own exegesis of the Cthulhu Mythos, its history and cosmology, as in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys and “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files.

Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici: A Catalogue of Selected Items from the Special Collections in the Miskatonic University Library (1993), however, is something on an entirely different scale. Ostensibly, this is a (mostly) in-universe document (the copious footnotes providing real-life references for various titles and citations), a brief history and description of the Miskatonic University Library’s Special Collections related to the Cthulhu Mythos, written in the style of a catalog. A massive investment of time in effort to collect, collate, and synthesize the vast amount of eldritch pseudobiblia created by Lovecraft & his heirs over seventy years, distilled down into a 66-page staplebound pamphlet. While there have been previous efforts to collate Mythos tomes in essays like Lin Carter’s “H. P. Lovecraft: The Books” (1956), or to collect and synthesize data on works like the Necronomicon in Mark Owing’s The Necronomicon: A Study (1967) or the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici represents one of the most substantial effort of bibliographic creativity in the Mythos until The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time (2014).

It is a work of love, as well as scholarship and imagination.

It also represents a relatively unique opportunity to look at the occasionally problematic history of several of these Mythos tomes, and how Stanley did or did not choose to address them.

The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan were mentioned in passing by H. P. Lovecraft in “The Other Gods”, and became adopted as part of the Mythos by later writers. While Lovecraft only refers to this occult collection in “The Other Gods” and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, both set in the Dreamlands, later authors have them appearing in the waking world on Earth—and often with an affiliation for the Cthulhu Mythos in China and other parts of Asia, if not directly attributed to some Chinese scholar. The whole issue highlights the fact that most Cthulhu Mythos tomes, like most of its writers, are culturally tied to “the West” (Europe, North America, and Australia, more or less). It’s a largely implicit cultural bias which is slightly less apparent because a large number of Mythos tomes ultimately derive from some alien or pre-human source: the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic cult in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” for example, is rumored to be headquartered in China, but the closest thing there is to a central text for the cult is not a Chinese tome, but the Necronomicon.

The use of the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan as a Chinese cultural artifact of the Mythos is probably a solution to both the lack of such a specific text in the works of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, and a desire to avoid an over-reliance on familiar standbys like the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Cultes des Goules. While European contacts with Asia goes back thousands of years, making it not impossible for copies of these texts to have traveled the physical distance, the appearance of European Mythos tomes to the exclusion of written works in the indigenous languages and cultural context would somewhat disenfranchise local Mythos-goings-on: after all, Asia has a very long history of literacy, religion, and occultism, there is no reason why they should not have generated Mythos tomes in local languages and writing-systems. While some writers have created new tomes set in Asian context, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan have become something of a default, the Chinese equivalent of the Necronomicon for many writers purposes; it serves this function in the Masks of Nyarlathotep (1989) campaign for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, for example.

Stanley’s approach to the Seven Cryptical Books is synthesis, striving to bring together all the disparate references to the tome which had seen print to that time and grounding the text in actual Chinese language and history. The result is one of the best sections of Ex Libris Miskatonici, and leads into one of the most curious: the Book of DzyanHelena Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine (1888) had claimed the Book of Dzyan as a source for her Theosophical materials, and Lovecraft referenced the book in “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” (with William Lumley) and “The Haunter of the Dark.” Stanley, however, chose to gloss it as actually an ancient Chinese work, not the more familiar Theosophical text, and thus acts as a sort of rider to the entry for the Seven Cryptical Books and previous sections in this regard.

Another consequence of Lovecraft and his contemporaries’ lack of broader cultural familiarity and penchant for exoticism were errors that cropped up in naming: “hazred” is not a proper Arabic name, nor is Al Azif; the Greek for Necronomicon is erroneous; Unaussprechlichen Kulten is not the proper German translation of Nameless Cults, and so on. Stanley, to her credit, tries to make the best of the situation by pointing out the errors and inconsistencies and offering possible solutions rather, sometimes working off the work of others (she cites Sandy Petersen’s explanation for “Abdul Alhazred” from the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, for example, with her own flourishes). For later writers and their fictional works, like Brian Lumley’s Cthaat Aquadingen, she was forced to get more creative, working up a container title (Codex Dagonensis), and then presenting Lumley’s title as a British localism.

Taken as a whole, Joan C. Stanley’s book is an exceptional example of a small and somewhat obscure form of fiction, one that seeks to mimic creative non-fiction with all the care and attention to detail of a good hoax. This kind of effort to create an “in-universe” document (more or less) is more typically associated with the occult (such as the Simon Necronomicon (1977)) or roleplaying games (such as Le Culte des Goules (2012) by Antoine Téchenet), but it represents the fundamental desire that readers have to interact with the Mythos at a deeper level. Ex Libris Miskatonici is a high-level example of the interaction between fan-fiction and fan-scholarship, showcasing not just the mental gymnastics that some Mythos writers have to go through, but that something positive and worthwhile can result.

Necronomicon Press published Ex Libris Miskatonici in 1993, and a second edition in 1995. It has since been out of print.


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)

“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).


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