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He took another step forward as if hypnotized. The cabin door banged against the support post, a sound as loud as a gunshot. He swung the light on it again, caught a part of a window.
And something else, grinning back at him through the dirty glass.
American horror is dominated by the legacy of Stephen King. Any upcoming writer looking to introduce a plot involving the supernatural is measured against his incredibly popular body of work. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for scientifically reliant horror thrillers like Patient Zero which I reviewed yesterday. It is a different niche for the writer to explore, without the risk of having to measure up to the King of horror.
Nate Kenyon’s Bloodstone throws caution to the wind by letting us know from the opening pages we are taking another trip into the mystical hinterland of American horror. The story begins with the abduction of a Miami drug addicted prostitute named Angel. Her kidnapper, Billy Smith, convinces her that he is being compelled to bring her with him to some unknown destination due to a series of dreams. Angel reveals that she too has being experiencing vivid nightmares of loved ones returning from beyond the grave, but now twisted and evil. The two quickly bond due to this unusual connection between them and soon they find themselves in the town of White Falls, where they believe they will find an answer for the frightening premonitions they have witnessed.
There a disturbed young man named Jeb Taylor is losing whatever loose grip he already had on reality. Having survived the brutal murder of his mother at the hands of his father, Jeb has already lived a lifetime of abuse at the hands of the community for being the son of a deranged killer. Then he is told his father has died behind bars. The prison leaves him what few possessions his dad had, all contained within a single trunk. Jeb’s grandmother begs him to throw away the trunk. She has a dark suspicion as to what caused her son to commit the heinous crime he did. Despite her best efforts, history soon begins to fall into a familiar pattern.
What Billy and Angel discover in White Falls is a town teetering on decades of buried history. The dark tale related in the letters of settler Frederick Thomas who founded the community in the 18th century hint at the true nature of the horror waiting for the town’s inhabitants.
Kenyon embraces the tropes of supernatural horror – a community torn apart by secrets, pagan cults, possession, witchcraft – even the Necronomicon makes an appearance. Actually I found this book more enjoyable than Stephen King books I have read. I make the comparison as many of the reviews quoted on the book jacket mention that Kenyon’s writing resembles ‘early Stephen King’. I imagine this comparison can also be made due to Jeb and Billy’s addiction to alcohol, which even leads to a hallucination in a pub that is not unlike Jack Torrance’s encounter at the hotel bar in the Overlook Hotel.
What is more the characters are realized quite well and while some of the elements of the plot might seem familiar, it is executed with aplomb. Furthermore there is a disturbingly perverse undercurrent to the proceedings. The sexual guilt experienced by Jeb becomes the catalyst for his downfall and the discovered diaries of Frederick Thomas hint at incest and satanic rituals. Then there is the growing paranoia of the inhabitants of White Falls, with each of them slowly becoming aware of the sense of being watched by someone. The town itself sits on a bruise on the permeable membrane between this world and the next.
Plus it is actually scary. Finally a book for this Halloween season that actually manages to creep me out. A bewitching debut.
It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.
The magical book is a recurring trope in fantasy and horror fiction. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story are two sides of the same coin, both describing a powerful tome that can contain whole worlds (the one a gateway to madness, the other escape from the cruelties of the ‘real world’). It is possible that this symbol of a book that is far more than a book is a reaction to the cultural perception of the Christian Bible, which is said to contain the word of God Himself – and is therefore far more than just a book. In recent years the trope has become almost a cliché. Everything from The Care Bears Movie to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (and even Nicholas Gurewitch’s wicked Perry Bible Fellowship) have riffed on the notion of an ageless book that has magical properties. Before any of these, however, there was Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow.
The titular book is never fully described, yet carries a dire reputation. Chambers features it within several stories in this collection, with the fateful encounter between a protagonist and The King in Yellow acting as a catalyst for the onset of madness. The title refers to a malevolent god, described as wearing a ‘Pallid Mask’ whose realm borders our own. The publication of the book is seen as an initial sortie, a sign of an inevitable assault on our world itself.
As an ex-patriate American art student in Paris, Chambers became enamoured with the Bohemian lifestyle of his fellow students. The protagonists of his stories are therefore also often artists and Americans, speaking French with a degree of fluency afforded to the well-educated upper class, but also vulnerable to flights of fancy that lead to the disintegration of reason.
Interestingly the first story of the collection, The Repairer of Reputations, is set in a projected future 1920’s New York. America has instituted tighter immigration controls, Europe is under the sway of Russia and legalised Lethal Chambers have been opened (is one of Sarah Palin’s advisors a Robert Chambers fan?). The protagonist Castaigne is a young man who after suffering a fall from a horse was committed to an asylum, mistakenly he believes. There, fittingly, he encounters a copy of The King in Yellow. Following his release he encounters a fellow devotee, Mr Wilde, who explains how his own future and that of the American nation itself, is bound to the vision of the book.
With each following story Chambers quotes from the opening chapter of The King in Yellow, revealing little of its content beyond names and places described featured out of context. The seeming innocuousness of such references – Carcosa, the Lake of Hali, the Pallid Mask, Hastur – disguises the true danger of reading the book, after which madness, and oftentimes death, is the inevitable result.
The Mask and The Yellow Sign both feature Americans abroad in Europe, enjoying the pursuit of artistic ideals. However, the stories end very differently, with the former’s protagonists enduring much suffering, but eventually discovering a curious kind of happiness. The latter, however, is a ghoulish tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Unlike in Lovecraft’s fiction, with its indiscriminate Outer Gods crushing the sanity of unwary explorers, Chambers seems to be suggesting that the King in Yellow subjugates with his dreadful yoke only those who deserve to be damned. Retreating to holy ground, such as a church, or hiding indoors provides no sanctuary from his touch.
The remaining stories are divided between more traditional ghost stories such as The Demoiselle d’Ys and romances, as well as a story of a besieged Paris in a future Franco-Prussian conflict. Chambers consistently writes with a beautifully descriptive manner, typical of his training as an artist.
A milestone in American horror fiction.