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Robert W Chambers inspired Lovecraft in many ways, but apart from the odd nod here & there from comics like The Invisibles or TV shows like True Detective, his King in Yellow mythos never gained the same cultural foothold as old HP and his unseen tentacle business.
The King in Yellow presents the idea that there exists a play which drives readers, performers and audiences mad. The original book dives straight in with a verse from the play and sets you up for creepiness in a way that’s hard to forget.
From that powerful base, 18 women whose stories are gathered here have been inspired to twist the Yellow King in some weird and wonderful directions. Here are the 5 I liked best.
First off, Black Stars on Canvas, a Reproduction in Acrylic by Damien Angelica Walters. It’s the first story and a fantastic opener, as an artist called Neveah tries to understand an invitation from a patron by doing what she does best – painting. The more real she makes the lost town of Carcosa, the closer the nightmares get. Really unsettling stuff, with a great spin on the art=madness concept.
Right after this you get Yella by Nicole Cushing, which not only has a genius play on words in the title, but also some creepily effective rural horror. Bordering on the splatterpunk style of Edward Lee, a bewildered hick tries to understand what’s happened to his wife, and gets a bit too close to the truth for his own comfort. This promises terror from the start, which it really delivers by the end.
I was completely ruined by Exposure by Helen Marshall. Placing you in the mysterious town of Carcosa alongside a tourist and her mother as their holiday is steadily ruined, this is genuinely terrifying stuff. Realistic characters being plunged into terror so well realised I had to walk away at one point because it was too much. Any twitter followers here will know that I already spilled the beans about this – I couldn’t bring myself to turn the pages at one point. But turn them I did, and so should you. This is a seriously harrowing, fantastic story – beautiful, mesmerising and horrible all at once. It gave me a leg cramp I was so nervous. I’m not kidding.
Then there’s Old Tsah-Hov by Anya Martin, which brims with imagination and surprise as a prisoner remembers her glory days while awaiting her fate. This is a masterful piece of storytelling, revealing just enough when it needs to, leading you quickly through its many shocks and surprises. There’s nothing else like it in the collection, making it a genuine highlight, with an ending both heartbreaking and terrifying.
Last of all, but in no way least, we have Dancing the Mask by Ann K Schwader, who uses some brilliant, vivid imagery to pull you in alongside a failed dancer called Cee. She’s lured by a yellow invitation to find her feet again – taking taking the idea of art being some kind of magnet to the weird citizens of Carcosa is expanded on here. Why limit it to just a play, after all? Why shouldn’t any art lead to madness? That was my takeaway from this story, and many others in the anthology.
Beyond these five you’ll find an essay-turned-nightmare, children corrupted by power, interdimensional destruction, book-based obsession and more besides. You definitely get your money’s worth in terms of variety. My only gripe is that the book starts off so strongly, when the near-inevitable mid-anthology slump takes hold, it makes some of the more typical stories feel like a slog. Maybe I judged some of the later stories more harshly because the opening ones were so incredible.
Despite this, it’s definitely a collection worth checking out. That aforementioned variety makes this a fantastic companion to – and expansion of – The King in Yellow, with a few stories managing to match and even surpass the book that inspired them.
Grab a copy via www.chaosium.com/fiction/