This week’s bit of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “Ms Found in a Chicago Hotel Room”, Daniel Mills, 2012.
There is a sort of reader of fiction – not exclusive to fantastic fiction – who enjoys the cloth of a created world so much they like to see multiple writers sew their own pieces onto it, thread new and allusive patterns into it, and quilt in secret connections and new characters. It’s literature as a quilting project across the decades or even centuries.
You can all provide of this, writers and works that compel successors to works of literary embroidery. For this piece, that would be Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow and H. P. Lovecraft.
But creating new chronologies for characters, new associations between them, giving us veiled allusions to pre-existing work is not weird of and by itself. It may be, to one degree or another, an entertaining fictional game and fan service, but it’s also decadent in the sense that the main effort goes to elaboration, reference, and explication and not creating something new.
This story kind of straddles the line between giving us a truly weird story and just playing with The King in Yellow and Lovecraft.
Our story opens in New York City sometime in the latter part of the 19th century. The narrator notes the one armed clerk at the hotel he checks into is old enough to have lost his limb in the Civil War. Everett the clerk tells him how to find the establishment the narrator seeks, the establishment with no name.
He should ask for Camilla when he gets there. He’ll know the place by the yellow sign. Oddly, even as he goes out to find the place, the clerk asks for his room key.
Walking through the slums of the Bowry district, the narrator can’t find the place and sits to rest.
A voice asks if he’s alright. It belongs to a handsome young man in good clothes carrying a valise. His name is Robert.
He puts the narrator at such ease that he mentions the place he’s trying to find. Robert knows the place. He’s headed there himself.
Following Robert’s lead through the Bowry, they come across a nice part of town where the men and women are well-dressed, the trash and poor urchins gone, and the streets have names like Genevieve Street and Castaigne Court.
At last they come to a three story building nicely done in the Queen Anne style, and the men go inside to a very nicely appointed lounge with many clocks, none of which have the right time.
Robert asks to see Cassie – again — and goes off to her room upstairs. The skeletal woman attendant then asks the narrator what he wants. Since it’s his first time, he has to elaborately sign in, and he notices the woman has a Derringer under her hand. The narrator gives a fake name and asks for Camilla.
“Camilla? You sure of that?”
He is and goes upstairs three flights and passes down a wall decorated with wallpaper showing a castle and a woman standing on its walls, her back to the tower, her body arrayed in silks. A naked man kneels before her. Further along the battlements, another man observes the scene. This has all been added to the factory produced scene of the castle.
Camilla herself is gowned in silk and masked with porcelain. Presumably, though the narrator never says it, he’s there for a sexual assignation. Camilla says nothing, lights a pipe, her robe falling open to review her nakedness.
After Inhaling her pipe, she kisses the narrator through the mask and blows the smoke into his lungs.
Lying on the bed, the narrator has a cosmic vision of moving suns and of a boy – the boy he thinks will be reading this manuscript, this account of something that happened before he was born.
Outside Camillla’s room, the narrator meets up with Robert again. He is very shocked that he was in Camilla’s room because Camilla is the King’s girl, Silas King, the King in Yellow, a local smuggler and ship captain. He does not take kindly to other men visiting Camilla. In fact, Robert suspects Everett wanted the narrator to see Camilla and be killed so he could steal his stuff at the hotel.
The two do escape the King. Robert warns the narrator that the King might not find him since he doesn’t know his name. But he should stay away from the Bowery. He’s hunted men as far as San Francisco for slights. Robert himself is off to Paris to the School of Fine Arts there.
At the end of the story, years after his encounter with Camilla, the narrator tells us of his nightmares and how they are haunted by the King. Only when his son was born did he “begin to understand the nature of the blessing and the curse that Camilla had bestowed on me.”
The manuscript ends with the King’s cane tapping down the hall to that Chicago hotel room.
That ending may bring to mind Lovecraft’s “Dagon” or some of his other tales. But the very final three words of the story are absolutely and definitionally Lovecraftian: “WS Lovecraft, 1893”.
That would be Winfield Scott Lovecraft, H. P. Lovecraft’s father, who, like our narrator, was a traveling salesman. WS Lovecraft was hospitalized for insanity in 1893 and died in an asylum five years later.
So Mills has linked Lovecraft the author, in this story, to Chamber’s fictional world, and, of course, the Robert of the story is Robert W. Chambers who did go off to Paris to study art. The street names and names of the women are all from Chambers.
The act of creating a secret history for Lovecraft’s father and Chambers is not that new. There are lots of stories where we learn that an author’s story was based on some fantastic event they experienced and that was not recorded in history.
More interesting is the metaphor here of what WS Lovecraft gets from Camilla
There is a very good basis for thinking that the insanity of Lovecraft’s father was from tertiary syphilis. Here what happens to WS Lovecraft is akin to mental contagion that passes from reader to reader of that titular play of Chambers’ novel. Not only may it drive Winfield Scott Lovecraft insane, but, metaphorically, the visions of Chambers’ prophesy not only H. P. Lovecraft’s arrival but the direction of his artistic endeavors. Perhaps Mills even wants us to believe that, whereas Lovecraft’s father did not infect him with syphilis, his father may have infected his son with an interest in cosmic visions somewhat akin to what WS saw in Camilla’s room.
That’s the weirdness in this tale, not the game playing of mixing the history of Lovecraft’s family with Chambers’ novel.
Of course, it is rather unfair to judge Mills in this regard. He wrote this tale for a Chambers’ tribute anthology which is not identical to setting out to writing a weird tale. It is only the context of the Deep Ones’ discussion group that made me approach it that way.