The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Wakefield Press has been publishing some wonderful translations of works that are under-exposed to readers of English-language books. “Overlooked gems and literary oddities,” as they put it. Their presentation is clean, tight, and, in the examples I’ve read, accompanied by erudite and insightful analyses and introductions.
Normally, I would elucidate each story in a collection, but not this time. There are 21 stories contained in this book, each of them only three or four pages long. If you’re interested in my little notes on all of them, you can find those notes in my status updates. It’s not that there isn’t something wonderful in all of these stories – there absolutely is. But the stories are so short and so concise that to mention even a sentence-worth of insight on some of them is enough to give the whole story away. I found them punchy and immersive, the perfect thing for reading a story on every lunch break at work (which is exactly what I did – one beautiful story a day for 21 working days – the perfect thing to help me through my day).
I live in a rather small home. Three bedrooms, 1200 square feet finished, one and a half bathrooms. We raised four children in this home. Now that they are (mostly) out on their own, it’s the perfect size for us. And that’s how I’d characterize The King in the Golden Mask - the perfect size, with perfectly-sized stories.
But these stories were expansive mentally, emotionally, mythically. Speaking of myth, I have to admit that my initial draw to the book was that title, evocative of Robert W. Chambers “The King in Yellow”. I noticed, as I read, that many of the themes that people often associate with The King in Yellow were present in Schwob’s book, and I wondered if aficionados of the Hastur mythos don’t conflate Chamber’s work with Schwob’s (and, frankly with Poe, as well). The themes of disease, masks, and the upending of existing social order is prominent in all three, but I feel that with the titular story of this collection, Schwob best integrates these themes and allows their mythical symbolic implications to carry the story and add a depth of internal resonance somewhat lacking in both Chamber’s and Poe’s works.
I cannot deny that a confluence of events aided me in enjoying one work in particular, the story “The Terrestrial Fire”. The imagery in this story is absolutely stunning. My reading of the story was nearly simultaneous with the announcement of the Sunn O))) LP, Life Metal. If I were to set this story to music, it would be to this album. Stunning and beautiful and horrifying, all at once. The serendipity of the timing of the album’s release and my reading of the story is Magic.
Imagery is not the sole strength of Schwob’s work, not by a long shot. What is even more compelling is Schwob’s breadth and depth. From the far-post-apocalyptic “The Death of Odjigh” to the weird-pirate story “The Flute” to the pastoral “The Return to the Fold” to the sheer medieval brutality of "The Faulx-Visaiges,” this work runs the gamut of tone, mood, and genre.
Schwob is at his best, though, when he plays the part of the ancestor to the weird tale. If, for example, I used the phrase "Shades of Carcosa," I could not use a more appropriate phrase, full of multi-layered meaning, to describe the story "The Sleeping City". Part Robert E. Howard, part Clark Ashton Smith, part Robert W. Chambers - a beautifully-wrought weird tale that precedes and possibly informs Smith and Howard’s work (Schwob and Chambers were roughly contemporaries, and I’m not sure if they knew or read each other’s works). Again, there is a certain internal resonance that Schwob’s work contains, Smith’s does occasionally, and Howard’s simply does not.
My favorite story of the collection was “The Blue Country”:
In a country town I wouldn’t be able to find anymore, the sloping streets are old and the houses are decked with slate. Rain runs along the sculpted pilotis, and its droplets all fall in the selfsame place, with the selfsame sound. The round little windows have sunken into the walls, as if to keep from being struck. There is nothing brave in these streets, save for the ivy above the doors and the moss atop the walls: the ivy’s dark and shiny leaves bare their teeth, and the moss dares consume all the large stones that sit outside its yellow velvet – but the people here are as fleeting as the shadow of rising smoke.
An uncharacteristically hopeful(?) ending (at least for all those who aren't the narrator) punctuates this sluggishly-whimsical story. I absolutely loved "The Blue Country" and even have a soundtrack recommendation to go with your grey, drizzly-day reading of this fine, dark tale. Alas, you will be done reading this tale long before the soundtrack is over. So, read it again. And again. And again.
In fact, do that with the whole collection. I will. I will. I will!
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