The Vengeance of Nitocris

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Cover illustration by CC Senf.

In her mind the queen Nitocris was seeing a ghastly picture. It was the picture of a room of orgy and feasting suddenly converted into a room of terror and horror, human beings one moment drunken and lustful, the next screaming in the seizure of sudden and awful death. If any of those present had been empowered to see also that picture of dire horror, they would have clambered wildly to make their escape. But none was so empowered.

Everyone today will be marking the Tennessee Williams centenary by noting his theatre work, of course, or his subversive celebration of outsiders and, yes, the gays. I’ll confine myself to reminding people that Williams’ first published work was a short story entitled The Vengeance of Nitocris in Weird Tales for August 1928, written when he was only 16. The story reads like the work of a teenager but editor Farnsworth Wright evidently enjoyed an atmosphere of lurid Egyptian melodrama which you can appraise for yourself here. Also in this issue was the debut appearance of Robert E Howard’s Solomon Kane, and The Demoiselle d’Ys by Robert Chambers. Seeing the name Nitocris I have to wonder whether Williams chose it after reading HP Lovecraft who used the name twice in earlier stories published in the same magazine, Imprisoned With the Pharaohs (1924) and The Outsider (1926). That last piece was one of Lovecraft’s most popular tales, and it’s easy to imagine its grotesque parable of alienation making an impression on a would-be writer who, as a gay youth, would have looked upon himself as another kind of outsider.

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The King in Yellow

The King in Yellow

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Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

The King in Yellow, Act i, Scene 2.

Rearranging the bookshelves this week had me looking again at this old Ace paperback of Robert Chambers’ weird classic, one of that select handful of books which can bear a blurb from HP Lovecraft. Any Lovecraft aficionados yet to read the first four stories in Chambers’ collection (the others pieces are of lesser interest) are missing out. These are as good as anything that Weird Tales published and together they achieve that unique blend of science fiction, fantasy and horror which Lovecraft and others also managed in the days when writers, and readers for that matter, were far less concerned with the definition and boundaries of genre.

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My Ace edition was the first paperback printing from 1965 and the cover painting is by Jack Gaughan, credited inside as being based on Chambers’ own first edition design. I’d often wondered what the original cover looked like and now, of course, it’s easy to find. Whether Chambers himself drew this is unclear but whoever the artist was, the design is rather more finessed than Gaughan’s sketchy painting.

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Searching around reveals two further variations, one of which—the green cover—is described on a bookselling site as the actual first edition of the book from 1895. Yours for a mere $1,750. The other cover is probably a later reprint which gives a clearer view of the mysterious King. What’s notable here is the curious sigil on both the Neely editions. I was hoping this might be the dreaded Yellow Sign which is the subject of Chambers’ fourth (and Lovecraft’s favourite) story; it’s certainly more suitable than the squiggle which seems so unaccountably popular among certain quarters of Lovecraft fandom. It isn’t the Yellow Sign, however, it turns out to be the monogram for publisher F. Tennyson Neely. Perhaps this is just as well. “The solution to the mystery is always inferior to the mystery itself,” as Borges said, and some things, like the malevolent play which gives its name to this collection, are best kept out of reach.

The King in Yellow at the Internet Archive

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