“Do not worry,” the King said. “If the man decides to cut you into pieces, I’ll have him relieved of his head before a quarter hour has passed,” to which Triboulet replied, “Would it not be possible to relieve him of his head a quarter hour before?” The King laughed even harder, stopping only when he saw the look in Triboulet’s eyes.”
Joshua Chaplinsky, “Mummer’s Parade”
“It is my constant complaint that allegedly weird writers fall into a commonplaceness through reflecting wholly conventional & ordinary perspectives, sympathies, and value-systems; & in [The Outsider] (as in others) I sought to escape from this pitfall as widely as I could.”
—H.P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, June 19, 1931.
Some stories have the almost magical ability to instantly transport you to another time and place through the right combination of diction, syntax, and imagination. It has been a long time since I have read a story that accomplished that as well as Joshua Chaplinsky’s “Mummer’s Parade,” found in his 2019 collection WHISPERS IN THE EAR OF A DREAMING APE, published by Clash Books. I am grateful to Mr. Chaplinsky for providing me with a free e-book in exchange for this honest review. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised when I began to read this story because the title is used in its original context. Because I lived in Philadelphia for a number of years I was immediately put in mind of the Mummer’s Parade held there every January 1 – a drunken, raucous affair with sometimes unpleasant overtones. However, this present story is about an original mummer’s troupe of sorts, meaning a medieval group of performers in disguise. Dating back to as early as 1296, and possibly earlier, mummer’s troupes would dice with the royalty in court for jewels of great value in a kind of forbidden derring-do only permissible on select occasions. Gradually this evolved into roving bands of mummers who would go door to door in costume with the offer of a dice game, usually for something of value. Over time, the dice fell out of favor, and the troupes performed whole plays. The earliest extant play we have is from 1779 in Lincolnshire, England and is called “Morrice Dancers.” It was a Christmas show.
There is something inherently creepy in the idea of a roving band of performers in masks and costumes who knock on your door and offer to gamble with you for something of value. A threat is almost implied, as if taking the gamble is the only chance you have of escaping consequence. A simple refusal to play might not be permitted. Think of “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN,” the menacing scene in the gas station when Anton invites the owner to call a coin toss asking him, “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?” It is into that same sense of quiet menace that Chaplinsky strides. We quickly learn that our main character, Triboulet, was “won” by a mummer’s troupe, relieving his parents of the burden of caring for their deformed child. Triboulet, you see, suffers from macrocephaly, a disease where the head swells to sometimes grotesque proportions causing a host of attendant difficulties. A poor farming family would not have had the resources needed to care for such a child, to say nothing of the potential social stigma. Likely, a macrocephalic birth would be regarded as a very ill omen indeed.
Triboulet’s very name accomplishes the goal of instant transportation that I mentioned in the opening. You need to know nothing of history to hear the sound of that name and be taken to the middle ages. But for those who do know history there is even more. For Triboulet was a real historical figure, a French court jester for Kings Louis XII and Francis I. Victor Hugo included him in one of his plays, and Verdi’s famous opera “Rigoletto” is based on that play. In Switzerland, the word “triboulet” came to mean a jester dressed all in red, a reference, which in the case of our present story, could easily become an allusion to a blood-soaked joker.
The mummer’s troupe which bought Triboulet was no ordinary troupe, but was in fact the young prince of the land and his friends who were out to sow their wild oats. When he returned to his princely duties Triboulet went with him, for they had become fast friends, and more than that, Triboulet was a source of wise counsel for the future king. Things rarely work out well in these kinds of stories though, and Triboulet grew jealous of the prince-now-King. Triboulet’s disease eventually robbed him of his powers of speech and he lost his usefulness to the King. Betrayed, Triboulet takes matters into his own hands and effects a coup, deposing the King and taking his place. From there things get even weirder and I don’t want to say much more because I want you to read this wonderful, weird story yourself, the ending of which will send you right back to the beginning to start all over again.
Chaplinsky’s writing is marveous. It is succinct yet possessing a rhythm that carries you along. He often is darkly humorous, making you chuckle quietly until you are embarrassed at what you are chuckling over, for it is terrible. One of the best examples of this is actually the first two sentences of the story, which are just wonderful for all the reasons I’ve already said, “Triboulet was known throughout the realm for having the King’s ear. He wore it around his neck on a silver chain.” This tells you almost everything you need to know about what kind of story you’re getting into and I was all in from the start. He deploys delicious words like “maudlin,” and “proffering,” and “imp,” that carry more than their weight for setting the scene. If I have one complaint, it’s that in a story so clearly well researched and meticulously laden with historically accurate medieval European markings, I was mildly frustrated to see a kris make an appearance at one point. A kris is a wavy bladed dagger said to be imbued with talismanic power popular in Southeast Asian cultures. Because I knew that, it totally clashed with the pseudo-European setting Chaplinsky had so well established and it took me out of the story. (I have nothing against kris daggers or Southeast Asian cultures in and of themselves.) That said, if that is my one complaint, it’s extremely minor!
I have said nothing so far of the Lovecraftian connection for this story, and that’s because there actually isn’t much of one, at least to Lovecraft’s fiction. An argument could be made that it shares themes of being a misfit with HPL’s “The Outsider,” and perhaps during the alchemy scene one can see shades of “From Beyond,” but not much else. No, instead, I think this is a story Lovecraft would have been very happy to read. “The Outsider” is widely acknowledged to be emotionally autobiographical and the Old Gent may have seen in “Mummer’s Parade” a glimmer of his own sense of displacement. More than that though, Lovecraft liked weird fiction to present a different, uncommon sort of viewpoint and this story excels in that aspect.
That does it for this review friends. I loved this story and recommend you check it out as well as this whole collection of weird and unsettling fiction.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,