The Chromatic Court – Peter Rawlik (Ed.) – Review

The Chromatic Court

Peter Rawlik (Ed.)

18thWall Productions

[Please note that this title was sent to me by the publisher in return for a fair and honest review]

I do enjoy a good Lovecraftian horror anthology, and was on the hunt for one to read when I was approached by the lovely people at 18thWall Productions about their new collection, The Chromatic Court. I’ve admired their work before, though not reviewed any, and I readily accepted a review copy. The title of the anthology intrigued me, as colour played a key role in several of Lovecraft’s original stories, and exploring that role appeared to be a genuinely original angle in a genre that often seems to be running out of fresh ideas. The cover blurb lured me in with talk of new authors mingling with veterans of the Mythos, as well as the fact that lesser-known deities within the Mythos would be covered; while I can happily read about Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep and Tsathoggua for eons at a time, it is nice to see some different Great Old Ones and their hangers-on get some time in the limelight. However what made me want to review the collection more than anything was Johannes Chazot’s gorgeous piece of cover art, a wonderfully ethereal piece with a striking use of colour which perfectly evokes the dream-like realm of Carcosa, and its enigmatic patron entity The King in Yellow.

[As per my blog policy for anthology reviews, to save myself and my readers time I usually only specifically mention tales that I particularly enjoyed or that affected me in some way, though this should not be taken as a slight against those not included in the following review.]

The anthology’s introduction, The Color of Things by editor Peter Rawlik, is one of those rare beasts – an introduction that is actually both entertaining and informative. I hadn’t realised that the original King in Yellow mythos didn’t include Hastur, and that this was only a later invention, with the two eventually becoming conflated together. It’s interesting that there are therefore ‘purists’ who won’t include Hastur, and others who will go with popular perception of the two being one and the same. Then of course there’s the great idea of having collection of stories based around colour-based avatars of the other Mythos entities; it seems like a unique dimension to explore both the King in Yellow and the Mythos in general, and I couldn’t wait to see what had been produced.

Christine Morgan opens the anthology with When Lavender Is In Bloom, a multi-layered and complex tale about the effects scents and smells can have on the memory, and how even mere flowers can convey deep and detailed meanings and messages. Morgan is one of my favourite horror authors, always able to find a unique and terrifying angle on whatever slice of horror she’s writing about, and this tale is no exception. I’d never really considered just how powerful scents could be to someone, particularly in evoking and controlling emotions, but here Morgan provides a masterful reminder. You certainly won’t be able to look at something so pure and simple as Lavender in the same way after finishing such an evocative and quietly haunting story.

In The Grey Queen by Paul St John Mackintosh, Cassie is a young Scottish student focusing her studies on Trompe-l’œil and other such optical illusions becomes enamoured with a strange, shimmering pattern that suddenly appears in her University Library. Unfortunately for her it’s the Yellow Sign, associated with a certain banned play, and her growing obsession leads to nothing good. There are some fascinating ideas in this story, with Mackintosh really digging into the theories and psychology behind the Yellow Sign and what would make it so attractive and so deadly, even before the fatally memetic nature of the play itself becomes involved. I absolutely adore Cosmic Horror and Lovecraftian stories that don’t just take a trope for granted, but actually start to analyse it as part of the narrative. That angle makes the narrative stand out from so many others written about the King in Yellow, and it’s well-written and has an even pace that brings you along on Cassie’s ill-fated investigation. Add to that some truly evocative atmosphere that evokes the oppressive, claustrophobic and dull surroundings of Glasgow as a comparison to the liveliness of the Yellow Sign, and you have the makings of an excellent Lovecraftian horror story. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, so to speak, with the last few pages feeling rushed and the ending feeling rather baffling and controversial for controversy’s sake; but it’s still the kind of writing needed to keep the Cosmic Horror genre fresh, particularly where Carcosa is concerned. I look forward to seeing more stories from Mackintosh in the future.

I’ve said many times before in previous reviews that there isn’t nearly enough historical Lovecraftian fiction, so I was delighted to see that Rick Lai’s contribution to the anthology, The Man in Purple Tatters, revolves around the translation of a pair of 18th Century stories from a book of French folk tales, which apparently drove the translator to suicide. Lai presents us with a fast-paced, multi-faceted story that encompasses a number of potent ideas and concepts: the Crusades; Islamic vs Christian ideology; the nature of human groups such as these interacting with supernatural and eldritch groups and entities; and even the complex hierarchies to be found amongst the latter beings. Wonderfully complex with political infighting, scheming cultists and plenty of masks and disguises, The Man in Purple Tatters is one of the best stories in the anthology, and represents the kind of historical focus desperately needed to keep Lovecraftian fiction from going stale. Following on is The Green Muse by Jon Black, another story that opens with a hook that grabbed me immediately. A rash of murders in early 20th Century Paris attracts the attention of the media; but the murders are of cubist painters, people who produce a type of art reviled by more conservative lovers of art. An art journalist is assigned the job of doing undercover and learning more about the murders, with the aim of producing salacious, gossipy articles that will discredit cubism forever. That’s an amazing concept, and I loved the snark in the opening pages about various types of artist, the (real-life) snobbery to be found in the heat of competition between hierarchies of artists, and the conferring of respectability.

But of course this is Cosmic Horror and not mere historical crime fiction, and it soon becomes clear the dead artists had stumbled into something eldritch to do with their paintings. As the investigation begins, we get a detailed and fascinating look at pre-1914 Paris, with Black deftly bringing to life a city of duality; a snobbish and charming exterior that has a chaotic underworld, one full of artists, pimps, anarchists and a thousand other types. It’s intensely atmospheric writing, and makes the weird, unsettling nature of the murders feel somehow integral both to the nature of the Cubist artists, and the city’s anarchistic culture at that time. I really enjoyed the central mystery that unfolds, becoming more eldritch and unsettlingly ill-defined as time goes on, and the way that Black is able to make the theoretical underpinnings and philosophy of Cubism so central to that mystery. There’s even a cameo from the previous story, The Man in Purple Tatters, which is much appreciated and helps build a shared universe between stories. An enthralling and disturbing story in equal measure, The Green Muse is another stand-out tale in the anthology.

The Songs of Burning Men by John Linwood Grant takes us to the trenches, mud and shattered bodies of Flanders in 1915, and an isolated company of British troops whose officer is slowly losing his sanity from the constant fighting and death all around him. Grant certainly has a way of getting inside a character’s head and making the reader empathise with them; within only a few pages I felt like I was vividly experiencing this hellish reality. As if being stuck in the trenches wasn’t enough, a strange French record begins to obsess the soldiers; even when it isn’t playing on the phonograph, they’re whistling the weird, brooding tune. Things only get more grotesque and disturbing as the plot goes on – disappearances, insubordination, visits from mysterious senior officers, all revolving around that off-sounding tune. Grant blends all of it incredibly well with the horrific conditions of being in the front-line trenches, creating a deeply sinister yet compulsive atmosphere that brings you along with it. Grant himself describes it perfectly thus: “…the shared sensation of being the only two sane men in some terrible asylum.” The ending is grim, depressing and yet thematically perfect, in many ways the purest invocation of the anthology’s themes.

Curse of the White Inferno by Glynn Owen Barrass, is set in a rather unusual location for a Mythos tale, but also very welcome because of that: the set of a radio studio, focusing on the performers as they undertake the titular play, an episode in a popular crime-fighting radio serial. It’s a short, sharp and to the point tale, which the author executes with great flair and imagination, really using the radio studio and cast to their full potential. In many ways it feels like a Call of Cthulhu scenario brought to life, and I’d love to see it converted into one for players to run through.

I don’t think I’ve ever vocally sworn in shock when starting a story – at least not until I read the opening to Tatterdemalion in Grey by Micah S Harris. The first sentence is like a physical force, a sucker punch, followed by a sort of queasiness in the pit of your stomach as Harris continues the story. I am always wary of stories set in the Holocaust or any other genocide, particularly Lovecraftian ones, as those I’ve read before have often crossed the line into triteness or even just plain bad taste; but here Harris judges the pitch perfectly, delivering a story that evokes the horrors of the Holocaust without demeaning them. For once I won’t go into my thoughts on the plot, as it would spoil such a powerful piece of fiction; suffice to say that the tale of a Jewish puppeteer enacting a banned play to gain vengeance on the Nazis is a stunning idea, and one that the author merges well with the innate horror of the killing fields and death camps. A powerful, difficult piece, and one that deserves multiple re-reads to truly comprehend.

After the previous story some lightening of the tone is sorely needed, and fortunately David Bernard provides it via his contribution, The Frieze of Helmsly Ainsworth. It’s a darkly humorous, almost comic, tale of a ridiculously rich dilettante who stages scandalous art exhibits to generate controversy and make him infamous. When he becomes involved in an art installation that appears to defy the laws of physics, it’s up to his jaded attorney to try and implement the exhibit and keep his client out of danger; but he was only expecting legal danger, not a threat to the his client’s soul – and his own if he isn’t careful. Very well written, with an enjoyable and suitably ironic twist at the end courtesy of a certain Lovecraftian entity.

Ink and tattoos, the permanent marking of skin with signs and sigils, is certainly a cool way of introducing the Lovecraftian deities into a story; and it’s a process that is central to The Duke of Rust by Matt Loughlin. It turns out that browsing an antiques shop while bored and making an impulse purchase of an ancient spellbook, and then using the symbols as inspiration for tattoos, might not be the smartest move. Tattoo artist Cricket discovers this, unfortunately post-tattoo, and falls prey to one of the lesser known – but just as deadly – deities in the Mythos. Some great atmospheric writing, and creative ideas around linking ink work and the power of names in mythology, makes a disturbingly fitting end to the anthology.

The Chromatic Court is one of those increasingly rare beasts in the Lovecraftian genre – an anthology that actually came up with a unique take on the Mythos, courtesy of veteran editor and author Peter Rawlik, who brings together a group of new and experienced authors to execute the concept flawlessly. All of the stories found within the collection are well-written, engage fully with the Mythos, and are filled with grotesque, terrifying and often unsettling themes and imagery, with some particular standouts from Christine Morgan, John Linwood Grant and Micah S Harris amongst others.  It’s another knockout publication by 18thWall Productions, and I would hope to see a follow-up before too long.

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