Exposure, by Helen Marshall

“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…”

j5jRPVci_400x400[1]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.

cs+small[1].jpgHelen 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. camera in surf“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.

GFmc66T[1].jpgThe 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,
~The Bibliothecar

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.




SPECIAL DOUBLE FEATURE! Azathoth in Arkham; The Revenge of Azathoth, by Peter Cannon

“At the end of the session, I impulsively proposed to host the next meeting at my place, the very house where Edward Derby had grown up! The gang enthusiastically accepted my offer, and a date was set for the following week.”

9781568820408-us[1].jpgPeter Cannon kept company with an esteemed literati, including such lofty Lovecraftian personages as Frank Belnap Long, Dirk Mosig, S.T. Joshi, Robert Bloch, and others. Whereas a lot of the authors I read and review here are more modern in their context, Cannon was active in the early days of this contemporary renaissance of Lovecraftian literature. These two stories were first published in 1994 and collected in the volume in which I found them, “The Azathoth Cycle,” edited by Robert M. Price and published by Chaosium, Inc. in 1995. Do you remember 1995? Braveheart was in the theaters, that’s what I remember; and I loved it. But that was before most of us recognized that Gibson was an ass with a Messiah complex. In any event, these Chaosium volumes are intriguing, collecting stories focused on a single Lovecraftian entity or concept for the particular purpose of providing background reading to those who delve into the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Now, I’ve never played that myself, but these resource books are actually a fantastic boon to fans of the Mythos. Admittedly they are a little hard to read straight through due to the lack of variety (I mean, there’s only so much Azathoth I can take, you know? At least in one sitting…), but when you just want a story about that one elder God and can’t remember which collection you found one in, voila!, here you go.

Peter Cannon brings a vast knowledge and love of the original tales by the Old Gent, but doesn’t fully prostrate himself at the altar. Were he to visit the supposed grave of HPL, I imagine he’d smile wryly, maybe give the headstone a pat or two, and then walk away. He certainly wouldn’t leave a silver key, read poetry, or offer a malediction of blood, all things done fairly regularly there at the Swan Point Cemetery. galaxyy[1].jpgThis one-step removed posture allows Cannon to write with a wink and a nod, and infuse his compositions with an informed humor that you can only chuckle at if you’re as well-read as he in the native tales.

These stories are both sequels to The Thing on the Doorstep, imagining that it was Azathoth which somehow infected the minds of Asenath and Ephraim Waite. The first story, Azathoth in Arkham, follows the exploits of Edward Derby Upton, son of Edward Derby’s best friend, though never a particular fan of his namesake. “I confess that I never much cared for ‘Uncle Eddy…’ as a youth keen on such manly sports as boxing and baseball, I found Derby too flabby, too feminine.” The story takes place a little over a year after the events in Thing and finds Upton attempting to settle his own father’s affairs, who had died following a fit of madness and brief incarceration in the same padded cell at Arkham Sanitarium that had held Edward Derby. While doing some research on his father’s interests he learns of a group of young men who’d formed an interest group of sorts, the Dead Edward Derby Society. (Here, as elsewhere, we get a glimpse of Cannon’s sense of humor.) He ingratiates himself rather easily into the society and soon invites them to his home for their meetings, the home where Edward Derby had grown up.

The Derby House in Salem, MA
They’re astonished and immediately accept the offer, though after a rich repast upon their first meeting there, the young scholars request spaghetti for the next dinner, which was lovingly prepared by the house butler, Soames. As with the previous story based on Thing that I covered, the tale ends unsurprisingly with a bit of a switcheroo.

However, Cannon isn’t done yet.

The second story, The Revenge of Azathoth, retells the action from the first story, but from the perspective of one of the Derby acolytes in the Dead Edward Derby Society, a young man named Vartan Bagdasarian. It’s important to read these stories both in order and together, otherwise you run the risk of missing important details and the full extent of Cannon’s authorial whimsy. In this sequel to a sequel, we learn the why of certain events from the first story and a fuller picture comes into focus. Vartan is a literary critic who isn’t as star-struck with Upton as his compatriots. Rather, he has a deeper drive to research Derby, and Azathoth, and will use the fortuitous happenstance of the Society encountering Upton to his utmost advantage, especially after glimpsing a cupboard that contained some of Derby’s writings. “There was a silence as I  waited for him to make the obvious offer. Finally, I spoke up, and in as casual a tone as I could muster, suggested that I’d be glad to save him the effort of examining the cupboard’s contents, not that I wanted to impose or anything…” A female foil (from Innsmouth, of all places) named Wendy is introduced, who provides a focal point for Upton’s transforming appetites. I do have to add, though, that there is a flavor of misogyny present around this character—even if it’s written in a less than flattering light—that this reviewer found distasteful. In the end, another rather unsurprising conclusion is offered as we all are once again supposed to gasp at miscegenation.

The second story is better than the first, though neither of them particularly blow your hair back. Sure, there’s a chuckle or two to be had, especially with the flip way in which Cannon handles Lovecraftian material to which other authors, and HPL himself, assigned such grave importance and cosmic magnitude. There was something human in that, and somehow that was a bit refreshing. There is real genius in the second tale, though, and I would have missed it, I admit, had it not been for Robert M. Price’s introduction to the story. I quote, “The literary cult of Lovecraft himself becomes the basis for the “Dead Edward Derby Society,” and the chief Derby zealot who has moved to Arkham for the sole purpose of living among his hero’s haunts, Vartan Bagdasarian, is based on both August Derleth…and S.T. Joshi…” That’s both a fun and a tongue-in-cheek move, and I’m indebted to Price (who isn’t the darling he once was in the Lovecraftian community on account of his own outspoken xenophobic beliefs, and more recently, his public approval of Donald Trump as President) for pointing it out.

These two stories are a good example of some of the earlier work being done in this current wave of Lovecraftian fiction. Derleth, Bloch, Campbell, Carter, Ashton-Smith, and others wrote a lot of pastiches on the way to laying down a few of their own original bricks. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But this isn’t even on the same playground where Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlín Kiernan, Ruthanna Emrys, and others are currently giving flesh to some of the best dark fiction period. If it took some pastiche work, and some less than inspired stories to get to where we are today, then I’m deeply grateful. Don’t get me wrong, gentle reader, these aren’t bad stories, and if you’re a Lovecraft fan you’ll have fun with them. They just aren’t up to the mind-blowing, reality-shifting status of some of the others I’ve reviewed here. I may be in danger of overvaluing the present at the expense of the past, but I don’t think too much so.

One final point, despite the intent of these tales, and despite their titles, they didn’t have a lot to do with Azathoth. I’m still in search of a really good Azathoth story, so if you know of one and can point me to it, please do so in the comments. I don’t know exactly what Daniel Upton found on his doorstep, but if Azathoth had anything to do with it, it was only in the inspirational sense.

This review was composed listening to the Spotify playlist “Classical in A Minor” compiled by Laura Guthrie.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

“wash away my demons” by Deviant Artist: crimsonnonyxx