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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Cassilda's Song

19th Apr, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Published by Chaosium Inc in 2015, Cassilda's Song is the second anthology of stories inspired by "The King in Yellow" mythos of writer Robert W. Chambers to be ushered into existence by the much missed editor and writer Joseph S. Pulver, Snr (1955 - 2020), following in the footsteps of 2012's A Season in Carcosa, which I reviewed in Black Static #33. This time around the emphasis is on the distaff side of the mythos and all the contributors to the anthology are female.

Raising the curtain is "Black Stars on Canvas, a Reproduction in Acrylic" by Damien Angelica Walters in which an artist seeks a mysterious patron. The story is beautifully written, capturing both the will to artistic success and the feeling of something ineffable lurking at the back of reality, something that will reveal itself only to those willing to make the greatest of sacrifices. In "She Will Be Raised a Queen" by E. Catherine Tobler a young woman is rescued from a sulphur yellow lake, transforming the lives of the men of the family who take her in, the story beguilingly written and hinting at the numinous, while throwing into perspective the presumptions of ordinary mortal men. Nicole Cushing's powerful "Yella" borders on stream of consciousness, as a man comes to terms with his wife's impregnation by the Yella Angel. It's a story that seems to put a Chambers' spin on the Nativity, but with shit and pus in place of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The text of the feared play surfaces for the first time in "Yellow Bird" by Lynda E. Rucker, the tale of a young woman whose mysterious mother came from Carcosa. It's backwoods horror, with a strong sense of place and exotica deftly woven into the thread of the narrative. Helen Marshall's "Exposure" is the story of Serena, dragged all round the world by her mother until they end up in Carcosa, with predictable results. Marshall gives us a novel piece on the perils of 'extreme tourism', the story moody and with an atmospheric setting, while the barbed relationship between mother and daughter is perfectly captured. The heroine of "Just Beyond Her Dreaming" by Mercedes M. Yardley finds relief from an unhappy marriage with her dream lover, the story tying in to Chambers' mythos and informed by a lovely fairy tale feel. You sympathise with benighted Hester and can see why the Yellow King appeals so to her, as she tries to shake off the shackles conferred by her unfortunate name and unhappy marriage.

For the downtrodden children in Chesya Burke's story "In the Quad of Project 327" finding a copy of the forbidden text is a path to empowerment, Burke playing things close to her chest with an ending that is open to interpretation, but at the narrative's heart is a compelling story of a bully getting his just desserts and the downtrodden standing up for themselves. In "Stones, Maybe" by Ursula Pflug, Peter mourns a lost love and what might have been, the story elegiac and reflective, the sense of loss keenly felt. Juliette, the protagonist of Allyson Bird's "Les Fleurs du Mal", is a time traveller, visiting and acting as muse to various creative individuals, and pursued by her nemesis. More a series of dizzying and vivid snapshots than straightforward narrative, it is suitably evocative and in some ways reminded me of Moorcock's stories of Catherine Cornelius and Una Persson.

One of the most moving stories in the collection, "While the Black Stars Burn" by Lucy A. Snyder tells of an abused daughter who cannot escape her composer father's influence even after he has died. The way in which Caroline is hurt by her father and his method of avoiding exposure is truly horrific, so much so that you can't help but feel for the poor girl and rejoice in the abuser's death, but sadly it turns out to be only the prelude to something far worse. Anya Martin cleverly reinterprets the mythos to tell of the fate of street dog "Old Tsah-Hov", whose devotion to Cassilda, when she takes him from the streets, proves to be his undoing. It's an engaging story, one that holds reader interest with ease, with a sense of something akin to fate underpinning the narrative, so that we know Tsah-Hov is doomed from the very start and the role of the King, a fierce wild dog, is pivotal. Selena Chambers details the life of poet Helen Heck, author of a little known book titled "The Neurastheniac", telling of how she was inspired by reading The King in Yellow and visiting the ruins of the Lethal Chambers. The end result is fascinating, with lines of text that hint at something monumental taking place outside the page, a sense of the numinous tugging at the borders of our consensus reality.

Crippled dancer Cee discovers the true nature of reality in "Dancing the Mask" by Ann K. Schwader, a story that is wonderfully phrased and evocative, but ultimately felt a little too abstract for my taste. Maura McHugh's "Family" has a brother lured back by his sister to perform in the play written by their cursed father. This is a strange story, one that shifts direction, initially appearing to be about coming to terms with an unhappy and abusive childhood, and then reveals that one of the children has come to terms with the past in her own, unique way. The relationship between siblings is beautifully rendered and the hints of the numinous are served up with panache in a story that has levels of meaning. Nadia Bulkin's "Pro Patria!" has a professor witness the transformation of his protege from a freedom fighter to a tyrant under the influence of The King in Yellow. While the fabled text is a catalyst of sorts to the plot, the real thrust of the story concerns the betrayal of our fondest hopes and dreams, the way in which power corrupts, and the disillusionment of those who expected better.

Like the Bird story, "Her Beginning is Her End is Her Beginning" by E. Catherine Tobler and Damien Angelica Walters travels through time and space, with Cassilda interacting with various historical figures, all part of her ongoing struggle with the Yellow King. It's a fascinating piece, one that will probably reward further readings, though I have to admit that after just the one, tantalising as it all was, I felt that the true meaning of the story stayed beyond my reach. Molly Tanzer's "Grave-Worms" details the relationship between go-getter Docia and a nihilist theatre critic, undone by their different reactions to a certain play. This was a lively piece with some neat characterisation and a wonderful reversal of viewpoints at the end. And I liked the character of Docia a lot. Finally we have "Strange is the Night" by S. P. Miskowski which I reviewed in Black Static #64 when it appeared in the author's short story collection, also titled Strange is the Night, and I had this to say - "a vindictive theatre critic gets his much deserved comeuppance. Miskowski is excellent at portraying Pierce, the ways in which he exploits his position and the self-loathing and sense of failure that drives him to act as he does, then brings it all to a glorious conclusion with an outré and highly appropriate resolution, one in which the macabre invades and swamps the everyday.'

And with that the curtain falls, our jaundice hued reviewer bows to whatever remains of his audience, adjusts his tattered garb and exits stage left, cackling madly.





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