Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review: A Season In Carcosa - Joseph S. Pulver Sr.

The late 1800’s were host to a few pieces of literature that would forever alter the way readers see the color yellow. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, saw publication in 1892, and focused on a wife who obsesses with yellow wallpaper, driving herself mad. As creepy as this story is, it is mostly known today as an important work of feminist literature. It was three years later, in 1895, when Robert Chambers’ collection The King in Yellow would see publication, taking the connection between yellow and madness one step further, into the realm of the supernatural.

The first four stories in Chamber’s collection are connected by common plot devices and themes: a play titled The King In Yellow, a mysterious and evil being also referred to as The King In Yellow, a symbol called The Yellow Sign, decadence, decay, and madness. Over the years these stories, along with others by various authors, have become something of their own Mythos, similar to what many people have dubbed the Cthulhu Mythos or Lovecraft Mythos. Despite the similarities and sometimes overlaps between stories from either Mythos, the “Yellow Mythos” is proving more and more that it can stand independently .

One of the authors who championed Chambers for years is Joseph Pulver Sr. He has written several stories and poems dealing with the King in Yellow, along with promoting other writers that do the same. One of the fruits of his labor is the recently published A Season In Carcosa. This small press anthology, published by Miskatonic River Press, contains twenty short stories and one poem, all dealing with the mythology of Chambers’ stories.

Anthologies are usually a mixed bag, and a perfect anthology is a rare thing indeed. While this anthology is not perfect, the good manages to far outweigh the bad. Pulver has managed to gather a nice variety of stories, from a very talented group of authors. Madness, decadence, and the King himself are explored in several ways. Some tales are modern and others take place in the past. The one common thread that connects all of them is the link between madness and the color yellow.

Some favorites include:

Beyond the Banks of the River Seine is another example of why Simon Strantzas is a must-read author. It has an antique feel and explores themes such as jealousy and competition between two young music students. While easy to see where the story is going, the arrogant narrator and beautiful language makes for an entertaining read.

It sees me when I’m not looking, by Gary MacMahon, has a noir feel, and follows a poet as he comes into contact with the Yellow Mythos. It’s definitely a more subtle tale, and is all the better for it.

Cody Goodfellow’s Wishing Well features a paranoid, mentally ill protagonist as he deals with a haunting past as a cast member an a surreal kid’s show. The man’s foggy memory mixed with the sheer wrongness of the show helps this story to leave a lasting impression. As I read passages about the show’s history, I couldn’t help but think of One Got Fat, a 1962 bicycle safety video which has the cast of youths wearing macabre monkey masks and never speaking a word.

Richard Gavin’s story, The Hymn of the Hyades, stands out because of the main character. Instead of a troubled or artistic adult, we are treated to a story from a child’s point of view. It’s refreshing to experience the madness of the King through the eyes of a child who can’t even come close to understanding what is happening.

Sweetums by John Langan is one giant set piece of madness and terror. Literally. A down on her luck actress takes a role in an auteur’s film, and wanders around a large movie set. It is literally a tour through scene after scene of surreal madness. The way she flits from room to room and sees smaller parts of the whole adds a very dreamlike quality to the story. There’s enough creepiness here for the story to stick with the reader long after reading.  

MS Found in a Chicago Hotel Room is one of the best stories of the collection. It is such an interesting spin on the King and has a nice twist on the ending. I will definitely be hunting down more work by Daniel Mills.

Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars by Gemma Files is another standout story. Files utilizes a second person narrative, which is rather uncommon. This is not an easy task to pull off, as it often comes off as feeling “gimmicky”, yet in this case it only seems to help immerse the reader into an unsettling tale about an eerie island that may or may not be a gateway to another world. This might just be the best story in the anthology.

Laird Barron also has a standout tale, D T, which is a story dealing with an alcoholic author and his doppelganger. Barron has never disappointed, and doesn’t start now.

There were a few mediocre to good stories, and only two that I found to be weak. One story in particular makes me wonder if the printed version was an unedited early draft. Movie Night At Phil’s is plagued with errors, both spelling and grammatical, to the point that it was a struggle to finish the story. As a lover of film I was looking forward to the story, but it just seems sloppy.This doesn’t seem typical of Don Webb, as his story Sanctuary (Cthulhu’s Reign 2010) is one of my favorites from that anthology.

Kristin Prevallet’s Whose Hearts Are Pure Gold is another story that didn’t work for me. The story has an interesting premise, following a sheltered girl who goes out on her own and spirals out of control. It also raises a question as to whether she is just mentally ill, or if the “yellow pin” she found at home is really the cause of what’s going on. As much as I loved those questions that were raised, the style in which it is written is extremely bland, blunting it from making much of an impact at all.

Overall, A Season In Carcosa is a strong anthology with a good amount to offer. If you’re a Chambers fan, than this anthology is must have. If you’re a fan of Lovecraftian horror, or any horror dealing with madness, then odds are that you will greatly enjoy this anthology. For any casual horror readers this book would greatly serve as a modern introduction into the “Yellow Mythos”. Highly recommended.

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