Welcome to Week 48 of my horror short fiction review project! In addition to three books that we have been working our way through, we have a new fourth story collection to add to the mix: The Yellow Sign and Other Stories by Robert W. Chambers, which is a collection of nearly all of Chambers’ weird fiction (it is missing a single novel). Since it would probably be cheating to list Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations” as my favorite this week since I reviewed it just two weeks ago, we’ll say that the best newly reviewed story this week was Lovecraft and Price’s “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.”
The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
“Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (with E. Hoffmann Price)
Another Randolph Carter/Dreamlands tale, and a direct sequel to “The Silver Key,” but it’s a much pulpier story than is typical for Lovecraft, almost certainly a product of his collaboration with E. Hoffmann Price on the story. Any time you have the reading of a contested will after a disappearance in which a mysterious Indian swami is in attendance, you know you’ve solidly entered pulp territory. Randolph Carter, one of the world’s foremost dreamers, has been missing for years. The swami reveals that Carter encountered an entity that gave Carter the ability to enter deeper into the cosmos and plumb its mysteries. Unsurprisingly, Carter took the being up on its offer and passed through the “Ultimate Gate.” Carter encounters another being, probably Yog-Sothoth, who places Carter’s consciousness in the body of a member of the race that inhabits a distant world called Yaddith. Carter screws up and can’t escape that body, meaning that he and the being whose body he now inhabits periodically wrest control of the body away from each other. Carter eventually figures out how to suppress the alien mind and return to Earth to get some materials he needs. The swami advises the estate attorneys to leave Carter’s estate in trust. They don’t believe him and tear off the swami’s obvious disguise. It is, unsurprisingly, Carter still trapped in the alien body. The lawyer who tears off Carter’s disguise suffers a fatal heart attack on seeing his hideousness. The event also allows the alien mind to reassert control over its body, and it promptly departs using a piece of alien technology. There is an odd little postscript that speculates that the swami was simply a common criminal who used hypnosis but adds that some of the swami’s information was eerily accurate. Personally, I think the story would have been strengthened by not including that postscript. Not a terrible story by any means, but probably more convoluted than necessary. Let’s blame E. Hoffmann Price for some of those infelicities.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“What Was It?” by Fitz-James O’Brien
Really more of a vignette than an actual story, or at least a story with an actual point. A man moves into a boarding house that is reputed to be haunted. Nothing happens for a while, then one night a person or humanoid drops onto his chest and tries to strangle him to death. He fights it off and ties it up. He turns on the light but can’t see anything; he can feel the person/being and can hear it breathing, as can his fellow boarders and the doctors/experts he summons. They tranquilize the thing and take a plaster cast of it, and it’s human-ish. They offer it food but it refuses to eat. It dies a couple weeks later, then they bury it. It remains invisible, even in death. Disappointing.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)
“Waller” by Donald Tyson
Not a bad story, but it seemed a little silly to me for some reason. A man is diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He gets drunk, slumps against the wall of an alley, and passes through the wall only to find himself in another world. The locals spot him immediately as a “waller,” and start hunting him. After interrogating some locals he learns that he is being hunted because they consider his cancer to be a “life seed,” an object their priests will reward them handsomely to obtain. These priests are in the service of hideous entities interested in using the life seed to grow…something. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story, but the premise was sufficiently quirky that I had a hard time taking the story seriously.
The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)
Robert W. Chambers is an interesting figure. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he was a best-selling author, with more than eighty novels and short story collections to his name, but most are utterly forgettable romances; he’s now really only remembered for a single collection, The King in Yellow, and only by true aficionados of weird fiction. Chambers would periodically return to weird fiction throughout his career, and this collection collects essentially all of his weird fiction output, with the exception of a single novel, The Slayer of Souls, which editor S.T. Joshi doesn’t like so he didn’t include it. What is most interesting about The King in Yellow is that it took a few names of beings and places from Ambrose Bierce and then spun them into a coherent mythos of their own. H.P. Lovecraft and many of the writers in his circle, and their many later imitators latched onto Chambers’ work and did more with them, just as some of Lovecraft’s own work would be later incorporated into the collection of literature that would come to be called the Cthulhu Mythos. Thus, Chambers’ work represents both a small body of literature that is cohesive but also much expanded by other authors, as well as a kind of adjunct to or even proto-Cthulhu(-esque) mythos. Some of Chambers’ weird fiction elements were used to inspire some of the elements in the HBO series True Detective’s first season, though none of the supernatural elements were ever explored in as much detail as I would have liked. (I don’t think Chambers would have minded his ideas being used there; at least it wasn’t plagiarized whole-cloth like Thomas Ligotti’s.) Some of the main elements of Chambers’ mythos are:
- A widely-banned play entitled The King in Yellow, published in book form by the same title (not the same content as Chambers’ book by the same name, but an actual play in two acts) that is said to drive men mad who read it or see it performed. This is an interesting concept of a kind of memetically-induced insanity that would take a long time for others to develop in new directions.
- A place called Carcosa that may exist in a dimension other than ours, or perhaps on another planet in the Hyades star cluster, or near Aldebaron. Carcosa has an evil reputation as a doomed city—probably by the King in Yellow—on the shores of the Lake Hali.
- A masked (perhaps) malevolent being known as the King in Yellow. Some later writers have described the King in Yellow as an avatar of the god or Great Old One known as Hastur, though in Bierce’s and Chambers’ work, Hastur is pretty clearly the name of a place and not a being.
- A strange glyph or symbol called the Yellow Sign that is associated with the King in Yellow; may drive viewers to madness.
So all in all, there are some fascinating elements here, and ones well worth exploring in more detail.
I reviewed the first story in the collection, “The Repairer of Reputations,” previously, in Week 46 found HERE.