Monday, August 20, 2012

(Recommended Reads) The Yellow Sign and other stories By Robert W. Chambers (S.T. Joshi Editor)

The Yellow Sign
and other stories
Robert W. Chambers
S.T. Joshi Editor
It begins for me with Hastur

You see years ago, when I was in Junior High, my parents got me TSRs Deities and Demigods as a Christmas present. It was a mythology-based supplement for the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. The book gave you all kinds of information about Norse, Greek and Chinese gods and monsters, but it also had details about certain fantasy writer's mythologies. This was how I learned about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric and his cursed blade Stormbringer and the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft.

Let me tell you something about life changing events- a body doesn't forget his first glimpse of Cthulhu!

It was also in that section of the rules that I spotted the illustration by the great Erol Otus of a giant wormy dinosaur thing,
The book told me that this guy was Cthulhu's half-brother Hastur and if your 12th Level Elven Freemason even so much as whispered his name Hastur might show up and wreak all sorts of mad god havoc.

That idea and image stuck in my mind for some time.

As the years went on I graduated from reading about Lovecraft's strange mythos in gaming supplements to actually reading the stories themselves. Now if you are any kind of horror fan I don't have tot ell you that those were great stories but the thing is Hastur The Unspeakable isn't in any of them.

Hastur is mentioned once in Lovecraft's tale 'The Whisperer In The Darkness'. One time, in one sentence, that's it. In fact here is the very sentence;
"I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections - Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R'lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L'mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandum - and was drawn back through nameless aeons and inconceivable dimensions to worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way."

I would later find out that August Derleth, a member of Lovecraft's literary circle, just kind of took that name and ran with it. He made up his own little 'Hastur Mythos' as a part of Lovecraft's mythos. Some might consider this a blasphemy but I don't, it seems like everyone wants to add a new annex to the house that Lovecraft built- even me.

Years later I was working on a story and in it I had a very prissy wizard who when he cursed would take Hastur's name in vein, it got me thinking about the Unspeakable one again. Wouldn't my work be more interesting if I knew more about Hastur?

It was an almost creepy coincidence that I came across a anthology called The Hastur Cycle published by Chaosium Inc. It collected a good number of the stories that explored the Hastur mythology.

The anthology contained two stories by Robert W. Chambers and thanks to the editor's notes I would discover that while Derleth might have been building on Lovecraft's work, Lovecraft had to a certain degree been building on the work of Chambers. Hastur, the Lake of Hali, and the Yellow Sign were all references to Robert W. Chamber's classic anthology of weird fiction The King In Yellow. (Furthermore, the term Hastur itself is taken from the works of Ambrose Bierce- but we are not going to get into that!)

So this is how I came to discover the King In Yellow and the Yellow Sign but we only get two of Robert W. Chamber's stories in The Hastur Cycle. I was intrigued by what I read and wanted more, a quick web search showed me that some of his works, particularly the King In Yellow- themed ones were available online. Still I wanted more.

When I found out that Chaosium was bringing out an anthology that collected all of Robert W. Chambers' weird tales into one volume I was more than a little excited.

Why you ask? Because here was an author coming out of the tail end of the Victorian era who was writing the kind of off the wall material that authors like Thomas Ligotti and Patrick McGrath are doing now. It's one thing to hear the Eagles version of 'Ol 55', it's another thing to hear the original version by Tom Waits.

Enough backstory, let me tell you about the anthology.

Its a thick volume, about 645 pages of small text, its not so small as to give you eyestrain but it is a little intimidating in an English Textbook sort of way. The anthology contains excepts from five of Robert W. Chambers' story collections and the complete text of two of his novel-length works. I will examine each of these seven volumes separately then I will comment on my overall opinion of the collection.

The anthology opens up with an overview of Robert W. Chambers' career by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi. It is detailed and helps give us an understanding of why this formerly best selling author is almost unknown today. Then we move into Chambers' most remembered work The King In Yellow. Each of the six stories have an almostTwilight Zone kind of surrealism going for them and several of them are linked by the presence of the blasphemous, chock-fulla-madness play The King In Yellow. The two standouts here are 'The Repairer of Reputations' and 'The Yellow Sign' both have this strange otherworldly quality to them and you are left wondering if the events described really occurred or if the narrator was simply stark raving mad. 'Repairer...' does a particularly good job of this; creating a cast of characters that are as twisted as the world they inhabit. The other stories in this book are all involving and enjoyable but I was left feeling ambivalent about the prose poems included under the title 'The Prophets Paradise'.

In The Maker of Moons there are two novellas, one shares its title with the volume, the second is called a 'Pleasant Evening', both stories worked very well but were occasionally be dragged down by authors penchant for syrupy melodrama. ''The Maker of Moons' almost reminded me of a Lovecraft story in many ways. The story begins with an investigation into something odd but innocuous but this investigation leads to the discovery of a strange conspiracy and nightmarish otherworldly creatures. By the end of the story the protagonists are reduced to horrified observers as insanity erupts around them. The other nice thing about 'The Maker of Moons' is the wry sense of humor revealed in some of the scenes, it makes a nice counterpoint to the stranger elements of the story. (I liked this story so much that I referenced it in 'Shadows of Polaris')

The stories in The Mystery of Choice vacillate between comedy, mystery and horror. The first four stories the main characters are an artist and his sweetheart and they seem to blunder in all kinds of trouble, heck all the needed was a dog and a van and they'd be all set. Yoiks! The remaining tales in 'The Mystery of Choice' I think exemplify the author's weaknesses, when he gets pointless he gets pretty damn pointless. I know I read both 'The White Shadow' and 'The Key To Grief' but I couldn't tell you a darn thing about either of them.

Moving on to In Search of the Unknown we get comedy adventure with a dash of weirdness. The best analogy I can come up with for the flavor of these stories is the style of X-Files more lighthearted episodes. The main character is a zoologist on a quest to find rare and lost species of animals- I guess that makes him a cryptozoologist huh? The novel is very episodic in nature, each section of the book showing the quest for a different creature. Chambers prose is still flawless but the humor tends to vary from clever to painful.
The anthology then gives us an excerpt from The Tracer of Lost Persons. The book itself is another episodic affair about a man that tracks down the lost loves of lonely gentlemen.

Wasn't this a TV series once?

Anyway the chapters shown to us are from a story that hinges on the idea of reincarnation. A nice piece but not as strong as 'The Repairer of Reputations' or 'The Maker of Moons'.

The stories in The Tree of Heaven are a refreshing return to the style of The King in Yellow but while the themes of the previous work seemed to be concerned with madness and mystery, the Tree of Heaven's stories all seem to hinge on love and death. I found 'The Carpet of Belshazzar' to be particularly haunting.

The collection concludes with another of Chamber's fantasy-humor concoctions Police!!! It shows us the further adventures of In Search of the Unknown's bumbling protagonist but I found this tale to be too much of a rehash of what had come before. I don't even think they needed to include this material to give me a full glimpse into the scope of Robert W. Chamber's creativity. For my money they should have just wrapped things up with The Tree of Heaven stories.

That was a bit of a harsh note to conclude on so please don't think that I'm not going to recommend this anthology because I am. There were some really great stories in this anthology and I think that a fan of horror and fantasy can appreciate it as both entertainment and a glimpse into the roots of modern weird fiction.

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