Monday, March 03, 2014

Book Review: A Season in Carcosa, Joseph S. Pulver, Jr., ed.

16062930 4.5/5
A Season in Carcosa is an exceptionally well-edited tribute anthology in honor of Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories, a story cycle about an accursed play, set in "dim Carcosa," which, when merely read (never staged!), leaves madness and chaos in its wake. Chambers' "KiY" stories, though there are only four, left a small but persistent imprint on the weird, influencing Lovecraft, to start with, whose Necronomicon owes not a little to that "cursed book"-within-a-book trope.

But on to Pulver's collection: a couple of the tales are a bit mannered for me; for example "The Theater and its Double" by Edward Morris, which marries Artaud's surrealism and "Theater of Cruelty" with the infamous play. I've never much liked the Surrealists, and, though Morris does slip in some beautiful language, that particular story felt bloated and self-indulgent, containing as it does both an imagined version of the play, and "Artaud's" musings on art, politics, morphine, dreams, and the terrors of the Yellow King. Also, Gary McMahon's "it sees me when I'm not looking," which tells a fine tale, but does so with purposefully mangled punctuation and random capitalization, an artistic decision which only made me want to copy-edit it.

However, the bulk of the stories evoke the drear decadence of "dead Carcosa" with its pallid masks and its tattered King to uneasy perfection. R.W. Chambers' vision of cosmic horror, though Victorian in its origins, holds up well to contemporary scenarios; issues of mental health and the media's omnipotent hold on our minds underpin many of the stories in the collection. Highlights include "Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars," by Gemma Files, in which a Physicians for Human Rights forensic anthropologist investigating a massacre pit unwittingly unearths something still more dreadful; and (the late) Joel Lane's "My Voice is Dead," whose narrator, a devout Catholic losing his religion and dying of cancer, finds faith in Carcosa on the internet. And addressing media manipulation of our collective sanity, we have a fantastic trifecta: John Langan's "Sweetums," in which a struggling actress gets more than she bargained for when hired for an experimental film; in Don Webb's dark and hilarious "Movie Night at Phil's," the wrong videotape puts a gruesome end to a family tradition; and my favorite in the book, Cody Goodfellow's "Wishing Well," in which a mentally unstable former child actor traces his problems back to his role in "Golden Class," a cult children's show something like "Romper Room," only with a lot more creepy masks, ritualistic games, and marionette "visitors" from the "Golden City of Carcosa."

I only stumbled over the cult of the King in Yellow by way of its interbreeding with the Lovecraft mythos, and initially I was surprised so many gifted artists are still influenced by Chambers' little-known mythical play-within-a-play. But it certainly spawned one disturbing and compelling collection. It seems as though Chambers' tales may be having a cultural moment -- HBO's slow-burn creepshow "True Detective" referenced Carcosa and the King in Yellow several times in just the first few episodes. Not sure where they are going with it, but I'm hooked. Maybe the time is right for the return of the King?

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