Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Robin Laws’s “Full Bleed,” first published in his New Tales of the Yellow Sign collection in 2012. Spoilers ahead.
“Portfolio sitting out on table. I flip it open. Glimpsed sketch may refer to text: a face that may be a mask, or may be monstrous.”
Unnamed female [probably –RE] narrator works for an unnamed agency, and these are her surveillance notes on subject Michael Aubret. Aubret frequents a hip Toronto cafe called Profundity, where he hangs out with other wannabe artists, clutching a portfolio about which narrator is deeply curious. She establishes herself as a Profundity regular to infiltrate Aubret’s social circle. Though the hipsters gabble endlessly, no one mentions “the text,” which appears to be her chief concern. She gets glimpses of Aubret’s drawings, but he’s suspiciously secretive about the project he’s working on, a comic book that may or may not be inspired by “the text.”
After reviewing her agency’s ethical guidelines regarding “subject/Officer romantic contact,” narrator goes on a movie date with Aubret. After attempting a kiss (she dodges) he invites her to his apartment to see his etchings, er, comic book in progress. She goes, to find Aubret visibly agitated. He shows five of the eight classic signs of “text exposure,” and sure enough, his comic is a contemporary adaptation of the text, set in a cafe called “Hali” and starring friends Cam and Craig, both of whom fall for a beautiful Stranger. When the Stranger chooses Craig, Cam stalks her. Gradually he realizes her face is not a face, is not human. During a subway struggle in which Cam tries to tear off her “mask,” both fall on the tracks. Cam hits the third rail, is electrocuted. After death, he finds himself on a subway train that contains the whole alien landscape of Hastur—and the Stranger, who will now punish him for undefined sins.
Narrator pretends fascination with the comic, while inwardly exercising “mental defense routines against text contamination.” Aubret admits he based his work on a story originally published in 1895, long available in various print versions and now on the Internet. Oh dear, how deluded he is, obviously “irretrievably enmeshed in Text Psychosis.” Again she dodges his romantic overtures, but not before ascertaining that his paper drawings are the only copy of the comic.
Soon afterwards narrator meets Aubret to search used bookstores for a copy of the text. She maneuvers him to a section of subway platform blind to surveillance cameras—and pushes him onto the tracks in front of an onrushing train! Calmly, unobserved, she exits the underground and goes to Aubret’s apartment, where she destroys his comic and confiscates his computer hard drives for analysis by the “electronic intelligence department.”
News reports state that Aubret’s killer remains unknown, so narrator decides there’s currently no need for “headquarters” to initiate any “extraordinary intervention into judicial process.”
Case closed, except for a “carryover to new file” addendum: Narrator’s home situation is becoming “untenable,” as her mother has apparently found and read the above report, maybe others. Mom’s also gotten into her “blackbox,” but she insists narrator’s ID is “homemade,” her badge a “brass toy.” Oh dear, Mom suffers from a “Class Two delusion” and has slipped from incipient “secondary Text Psychosis” to active status. How ironic, the way she threatens narrator with psychological evaluation!
So, unless narrator gets contrary instructions, she’ll treat Mom as her new subject, possibly to be “neutralized” as Aubret was.
What’s Cyclopean: This week’s offering is written in perfect deadpan Man In Black report language. Unless it’s more like Rorschach’s diary. Speaking of masks…
The Degenerate Dutch: Scripts “rife with misogyny” do not an effective courting gift make, our narrator informs us.
Mythos Making: The King is a harsh ruler. And he likes to play with his subjects.
Libronomicon: Is The King in Yellow an almost thoroughly suppressed work, its secrets protected by the harshest of government oversight? Or is it freely available in the public domain, with said public protected only by its obscurity?
Madness Takes Its Toll: Two words: text psychosis.
Compared to Lovecraft’s Mythos, Robert Chambers’s sister universe provides scant material. In addition to the two stories we’ve covered in the Reread, “The Mask” and “In the Court of the Dragon” (along with miscellaneous poetic snippets) complete his sojourn in Carcosa. Rich enough material, though, for going on a century and a quarter of follow-ups. Robin Laws is one of the modern scribes of the deadly play; his latest contribution is a Kickstarted role-playing game currently in production. New Tales of the Yellow Sign is an earlier offering, “Full Bleed” the short and sharp first story in the collection. Though if you think I managed to stop reading after just one…
Like a box of sweetly poisoned truffles, these things.
Our narrator sets us comfortably in a familiar trope: the secretive government agency protecting the world from Things Man Was Not Meant to Read. The Laundry, the Technocratic Union, the Agency With No Name That Tells You Off For Seeing Aliens… of course they’re out there, right? There has to be a reason, other than random chance, that Cthulhu hasn’t eaten us yet, right? Someone must be imposing a little order on that ol’ uncaring universe.
And if The King in Yellow, or the sign itself, is really out there, it makes sense that you’d want to devote a whole department to the thing. Given the play’s tendency to spontaneously appear on random bookshelves, you’d have plenty of work. And plenty of opportunity for, um, exposure.
The Toronto starving artist scene, admittedly, isn’t where you’d expect to find a Mysterious Agent. Perhaps that’s why they’re passing as a “bubbly hipster,” mooning over aspiring playwrights, rather than wearing the more traditional Suit. And skirting the edge of ethical violations. How else is a Man In Black supposed to get a date for a Friday night? The side comments on the actual quality of the script in question—and for that matter of the date in question—hone the story. They’re hints of real personality shining through the tropes, and through the murk of what we may as well call text psychosis. Hints of what the narrator has lost to the King.
As with “The Repairer of Reputations,” it’s not clear how much of the world is complete narratorial delusion, and how much true horror built by the play from the raw clay of its readers. Maybe there is no agency, and the brass badge is merely a toy. Maybe there is no rebellious army ready to rise, and the crown in its timed safe is only paste. But the play exists, and the narrator isn’t its only victim. And the narrator knows things they must have learned somewhere. From the unseen organization they’re convinced stands behind them? Or from the whispers of the King Himself?
The play exists. And someone’s dead on the tracks. For everything else, we all know how reliable the King’s Narrators are. And even if they’re telling the truth, perhaps it’s better not to listen. Perhaps it’s the stories they tell that bring the world a little closer to Government Lethal Chambers.
In his introduction to New Tales of the Yellow Sign, Kenneth Hite describes Laws’s stories as launching themselves “in fugue from one (or more) of Chambers’s originals.” “Full Bleed” takes “The Repairer of Reputations” into the 21st century. It features a narrator as maddening a puzzle of unreliability as Hildred Castaigne; and like Hildred, she may or may not be involved in a secret group influenced by that most sanity-cracking of plays, The King in Yellow.
The big difference between secret groups is that the one directed by “Reputation’s” Mr. Wilde seeks to restore a descendent of the King in Yellow, as it were, while “Bleed’s” shadowy agent seeks to prevent promulgation of His eponymous play and, presumably, the epidemics of “Text Psychosis” that would follow. Simply put—probably too simply—Wilde’s conspiracy is bad. “Bleed’s” shadow-agency is good. That is, if The King in Yellow even exists. That is, if Wilde and the shadow-agency exist. That is, if Hildred and the “Bleed” narrator aren’t paranoid schizophrenics with imaginations as powerful as they are twisted.
Well, whatever the “Bleed” narrator is, she’s studied her police procedurals and espionage novels and has the jargon down. It’s a clever move to put her story in the form of a case log—the structure of concise dated entries adds credibility, as do the official tone and the emphasis on what-happened rather than how-I-felt-about-it. For me the narrative scaffolding didn’t get really shaky until the last paragraph, when she reports that Mom has gotten into her black box of agency bona fides, only to ridicule them as clumsy fakes and toys. Nice how this parallels Chambers’s undermining of Hildred’s believability, also centered on a box of “credentials,” there the supposed safe and imperial crown which cousin Louis sees as a biscuit box and stage trumpery.
Oh, though, what tangled webs writers can weave when they practice to deceive, or, worse, to deceive us into wondering whether they’re deceiving us, and to what extent. Hildred claims to have killed his psychiatrist and to have had Louis’s fiancée assassinated. We know he didn’t kill the fiancée, for she’s still around at story’s end, but what about the doc? Unknown. The “Bleed” narrator reports she’s killed Michael Aubret. She also implies, in her remark that the third rail in Toronto subways doesn’t claim too many victims, that Aubret isn’t the first guy she’s shoved off the platform. All per agency orders, of course. But maybe she didn’t kill Aubret. Maybe she’s just gotten tired of him as the focus of her paranoia, especially since he’s getting all ickily, decadently sexual with her, and icky decadent sexuality is one of the evils of THE TEXT, the influence of which she must staunchly combat with mental defense strategies. So why not just write she’s offed Aubret and is closing the case. If she writes it, all official like, she can believe it, can’t she?
Or what if her only contact with Aubret has been through his published comic book based on “The King in Yellow”? To compensate for the existence of this comic, which her paranoid fixation holds as contagion creeping outward from the original, she might construct a story (in log form) about how she saves the world from Aubret’s work before it spreads beyond him.
And what exactly does she hold the original abomination to be? When Aubret describes his source as an 1895 story published in various print media and now available free online, she calls his claim “bizarre,” another of his delusions. Yet we know Aubret’s citing Chambers’s “King in Yellow,” indeed still in print and widely anthologized and out there in the wild, wild Web. So is “the Text” for her only the play of Chambers’s fiction, which play is NOT fiction but (luckily for mankind) remains very rare, certainly not to be found in any used book emporium in Toronto?
Chambers’s own conceit is that the play “King in Yellow” is real. Even practical Louis of “Repairer” acknowledges its existence and disapproves of Hildred’s reading it.
As usual, these rascally unreliable narrators have me reeling with confusion. But you know what I like to do when this happens? I like to say, to hell with the psychological mazes within mazes. This narrator isn’t unreliable at all! Everything he or she claims is absolutely true! In “Bleed’s” case, there IS a sanity-leaching play designed to bring one in contact with the dreaded King, and we’ve GOT to stop its spread, damn it, even if it means shadow-agencies with agents licensed to kill, I mean, neutralize.
Because you know if we let Aubret publish his comic book, that will surely lead to an anime version with the King in Yellow rendered as a prepubescent girl with violet hair and aqua eyes, or else a slightly more pubescent girl in a maid’s uniform with platinum hair that sticks out at the temples like antennae. You get the picture, and it ain’t pretty, is it, people?
Anyhow, confuzzled or no, I liked this one. Looking forward to reading more New Tales of the Yellow Sign.
Next week, Shirley Jackson offers up a different sort of unreliability in “The Daemon Lover.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” is now available from Macmillan’s Tor.com imprint. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.