“The black stars, a trick of that same light, because they weren’t black, not really, not stars really—something to do with the atmosphere, some sort of dust in the air, like how the northern lights could make the sky seem alive and crawling, the black stars were like that, except they made the sky seem dead, they made the sky seem like a giant bloated corpse crawling with flies…”
It’s Women in Horror Month! From the Women in Horror website: “Women in Horror Month (WiHM) is an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre.” Here at the Miskatonic Review we want to celebrate all of the Women in Horror, but particularly those who are writing in the Lovecraftian vein. When I think about Molly Tanzer, S. P. Miskowski, A. C. Wise, P. L. McMillan, Nadia Bulkin, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Angelica Walters, Ann K. Schwader, (of course) Helen Marshall, and so many others, I don’t think “women in horror,” but rather about a group of artists who are in the forefront of the weird renaissance. You can read a lot more about WiHM at their website, linked above, and you can see particular individuals highlighted over at Horror Tree or Thinking Horror: A Journal of Horror Philosophy. At the Miskatonic Review tonight though, we want to highlight Helen Marshall.
Helen Marshall is the author of two short story collections, two poetry collections, and a forthcoming novel from Random House Canada, “The Migration” (available March 2019). I encountered her in the Chaosium, Inc. anthology “Cassilda’s Song” edited by Joseph Pulver, Sr. (2015). Her story in this anthology is entitled Exposure, and before some of you purists cry “Foul!”, I am aware that Carcosa, the King in Yellow, and the whole bit is first an Ambrose Bierce creation (An Inhabitant of Carcosa, 1886) and secondly developed in Robert W. Chambers weird fiction collection (“The King in Yellow,” 1895) all before being played with by Lovecraft (principally in The Whisperer in Darkness, 1931). From there it was adopted into the Mythos primarily by August Derleth and the rest, as they say, is history. So yes, we are doing a King in Yellow story on a Lovecraftian blog. What makes it even more appropriate for this posting is that Cassilda’s Song is an entire collection by female authors. From Pulver’s introduction, “Cassilda’s complicated sisters, unwilling to be hidden away and boarded up, sound the thunder. Hot and colorful, in full view and shaded by the aroma of discord, they stand before you unmasked.” Pulver is not only an excellent assembler of anthologies, but also an expert on the King in Yellow mythos, and so is an apt guide through these ladies’ stories.
Exposure begins with a troubled tourist trip by a mother and daughter to a very real place (in the story) called Carcosa; it seems to be an island in the Mediterranean near Greece. While the mother clearly has reasons for going to such a destination, it does not a vacation make for Serena, the daughter. She’d much rather party on the white sandy beaches of Mykonos than visit lost, strange Carcosa. “Fucking Carcosa. She could have gone to Venice. She could have gone to Barcelona. Or Paris. Carcosa was nothing but rocks, ruins—no one went to Carcosa, not now, not anymore.” I loved how Marshall immediately locates Carcosa within reality, even though she hints with an enviable economy of words that it’s not what it once once. And Serena’s whiny gripe isn’t totally true either, because they’re on a sightseeing boat loaded with camera-laden tourists bound for Carcosa’s dim shores like it was Disney. Once they arrive there, she and her mother resume their argument and eventually split up, exploring the island separately. But when it comes time to go, and the captain calls all aboard, Serena’s mother is not among them.
A strange negotiation ensues in one of our first clues (though admittedly I blew right by it) that something is off. Serena says they can’t leave yet because her mother isn’t back, but the mate doesn’t care. He says they have to go, telling Serena in broken English that she will stay on the island and after he drops off the rest of the group back at home-base, he’ll return for her and her mother. “They left her on the shore, standing in the wavering sunlight, feeling naked and exposed as they watched her, each of them smiling, each of them with their fucking cameras, each of them grasping after one final, fatal shot of the shoreline.“ Hours pass. Day turns into night. And then what has been an entertaining if fairly prosaic weird tale takes a left turn. Greatness follows.
In the final act, Marshall takes us on our own tour into the madness of the yellow king as things move from bad, right past weird, on their way to worse. When the black stars of Carcosa ascend, the night goes strange indeed. There’s a party around a bonfire, a liberated sensuality, a transmogification, all shrouded in a sort of cosmically out-of-place feeling that twirls and whirls the reader in its dizzying dance steps. Keep up. Carcosa is not a place where you want to fall out of step or time.
I really enjoyed Marshall’s writing throughout. It never got in the way, even when she deployed the f-bomb on numerous occasions. Not a word I like to use very often, but from Serena’s angsty lips it seemed right. Again, I loved the feelings she was able to evoke in the space of so few words. She sometimes had these long sentences, brimming with description but they never felt over full. They might have been long but they didn’t contain a single unnecessary word. And they flowed beautifully. It felt at times like I was in Serena’s head, just behind her eyes, seeing what she was seeing, and feeling what she was feeling (which in at least one scene was particularly uncomfortable, but that’s a credit to the author). This is a terrific story in a wondrous collection, and you’d do well to familiarize yourself not only with these works, but with these women authors.
The title of the story relates at first to the argument between the mother and daughter over sunscreen, but then at the end it relates to what was exposed on some film. Marshall doesn’t share with us (for we would go mad) what was on the film Serena picks up. It might have been the Yellow Sign, but I like to imagine that it was the Yellow King, Hastur, him(it)self. At a deeper level, I thought about how far we’ll go in pursuit of our goals, the sorts of things, people, environments, even philosophies we’ll expose ourselves to in chasing after selfish aims. The danger of overexposure is not only that we ruin the picture by saturating it with too much light, it is also that we desensitize ourselves. Sometimes it’s better to stay on this side of reality. Sometimes, when they tell you that the play will drive you insane, you should listen, and burn your ticket.
This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist, “The King in Yellow,” compiled by Andy Michaels, and the electronica album called “The King in Yellow,” by Martin Kuzniar.
Until next time I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
Movement in the Carcosa Rave: “She knew it. This was where she was supposed to be. This was always the place she was supposed to be. Maybe it was fucking Carcosa, but it was also fucking Carcosa, baby…She went out onto the dance floor, trailing blood-stained footprints behind her.