Review originally posted at FlamesRising.com - http://www.flamesrising.com/new-tales-of-the-yel-
New Tales of the Yellow Sign by Robin D. Laws is a collection of eight short stories that invokes and draws inspiration from The King in Yellow, the 1895 psychological horror collection of Robert W. Chambers. In writing New Tales, Laws undertakes what is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult projects for an author—writing a short story collection built around a core concept or a small number of central themes. The challenge in doing this is that whether readers are trying to or not, they tend to judge each short story on its own, instead of how it fits into the collection’s overarching concept and themes. In composition, I see a collection like New Tales to be akin to concept albums. Each has “core tracks” that advance the concept. Each may include “voice breaks” where the audience is addressed directly as a way to make the message more explicit to the audience. Each often contains a “cover song” or a selection that pays homage to a past artist that the overall work is drawing inspiration from. Finally, both short story collections and concept albums try to avoid “filler tracks”—the selections that don’t really fit with the rest of the collection, but are sometimes included anyway. Approaching New Tales of the Yellow Sign from this viewpoint, I believe that Laws’ collection should be considered a creepy, disturbing success. From my point of view Laws strikes an acceptable balance in his collection having four and a half “core tracks,” one and a half “voice breaks,” one “cover song,” and only one bit of “filler.”
The core stories of New Tales of the Yellow Sign revolve around themes of madness, horror, and unexpectedly love. “Full Bleed,” “A Boat Full of Popes,” “Distressing Notification,” and “The Dog” are all core stories, while the story “Gaps” straddles the line between my view of a “core track” and a “voice break.” Throughout these stories Laws develops a North America that is both familiar and alien. There is just enough of our modern world exemplified in each story so that the weird and metaphysical additions to each story come through as more disturbing than they might otherwise in a vacuum. Through these stories Laws explores the weird, disturbing, and sometimes redemptive, aspects of modern society through the lens of psychological and metaphysical horror characteristic of Chambers’ original The King in Yellow. Of the core stories in New Tales of the Yellow Sign, I found “Distressing Notification” and “Gaps” to be the most disturbing and entertaining. In “Distressing Notification,” Laws turns a horoscope app for smartphones into a terrifying specter of doom while also playing on the disturbing intrusiveness of modern technology in daily life. In “Gaps,” which is far and away my favorite story in New Tales, Laws explores the horror of lapses in memory and control over your body in one of the best uses of a second person narrator I have ever read. “Gaps” is immersive, suspenseful, and the horrifying lack of control I felt as a reader mirrored the horror the narrator felt over his or her lack of control. Overall, each of the core stories offers a compelling view of our modern world and the strange horrors that we refuse to acknowledge or lurk the periphery of our consciousness.
Laws pulls the reader directly into the weird world of New Tales in aforementioned “Gaps” as well as the bombastic, in your face finale, “F@&k You You’re Not Getting Out of This Car.” From my view, these two stories serve a similar role to voice breaks during an album. They directly engage the audience. In “Gaps,” Laws pulls the reader into the story as a means to impart that something is not right in the world of New Tales. While the narrator is grasping at the inexplicable gaps in his or her memory, the reader grapples with the weird and impossible aspects of the world of New Tales. Suspense builds as the plot skips towards the resolution, and as the reader struggles to figure out what is not right in the world of the story. Laws ends New Tales with a hammer blow of a story in “F@&k You You’re Not Getting Out of This Car.” Written in second-person, just like “Gaps,” the reader is placed in the role of a person who is trapped in a car with a bitter, disenfranchised lunatic. The overwhelming message of “F@&k You” is that there are crazy people in the world, crazy people who are dissatisfied with their marginalized existence in mainstream society and they’re not going to take it anymore. While lacking in subtlety, the chilling part of the story comes from the sliver of uncertainty about whether the railing lunatic screaming at the narrator is just a violent madman, or if he is a righteous protector, striking down one of the pervasive, weird, or alien evils that have assaulted others throughout the pages of New Tales.
The final two stories in New Tales, “The Blood on the Wall in the Fortress” and “Pendulous,” represent one homage piece and one filler story. “The Blood on the Wall in the Fortress” pays homage to the original work of Richard Chambers. While set in World War era, as opposed to the late 19th century, the story gives a direct nod to French settings used in many of the stories in The King in Yellow. “Blood on the Wall” is itself, a frightening commentary on the dangers of standing out as different in a group, as well as the psychological tolls of war. While not a bad story by any means when viewed on its own, “Pendulous” struck me as a text that was included in New Tales of the Yellow Sign because seven stories did not seem like enough for the collection. For a collection otherwise filled with impactful and imaginative tales, “Pendulous” seemed bland and banal in comparison. In an otherwise sweetly orchestrated collection of fiction, “Pendulous” sticks out in my mind as the one sour note.
In closing, New Tales of the Yellow Sign is, overall, a quality and entertaining collection of strange and disturbing tales. I feel that any fan of the original The King in Yellow, as well as fans of authors in the vein of Lovecraft and Bierce, will enjoy this collection of short stories put forward by Robin D. Laws. Even people who are not fans of horror, but enjoy the occasional suspense-thriller, should find enough to like in New Tales of the Yellow Sign to justify a read. The only audiences who I would not recommend New Tales to are people who dislike any type of horror, and perhaps younger audiences, as Laws does use strong language in some of his stories. I enjoyed my time spent wandering through the varied world of New Tales of the Yellow Sign, and would not hesitate to give the collection another read through in the future.