The Pleasure Merchant by Molly Tanzer, Lazy Fascist Press, 2015
Review by Teodor Reljic
With Halloween now upon us, you’d probably expect me to crank out a review of some of the hottest horror titles currently on the shelves – in which case I would go on to recommend Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts and Nathan Ballingrud’s novella The Visible Filth – and you may find yourself disappointed when, casting your eyes on the review currently sprawled before you, that the book in question contains none of the lurid horrors one would normally associate with the annual celebration of All Hallow’s Eve, and all of the popular permutations it has since taken on.
However, Molly Tanzer’s latest novel – her second in a prolific year in which she’s also given us the highly entertaining alternative-history romp Vermilion – centers on the fluctuating fortunes of an 18th century wigmaker’s apprentice, and what could be more appropriate for Halloween than wigs? But tenuous theme-shoehorning aside, Tanzer’s novel – a pastiche that marches to the beat of its own drum – also darkens its richocheting social comedy with real menace. After all, its full title is The Pleasure Merchant; or The Modern Pygmalion, and at its core is a sometimes funny, sometimes upsetting expose of The Evil That Men Do.
For the most of its duration, however, the novel’s protagonist – though not, crucially, its narrator – is in a fact a male of the species, albeit one that gives the impression of not being fully formed yet. Plunging us into the turbulent society of 18th century London, the novel introduces us to Tom Dawne – the aforementioned wig maker’s apprentice – who finds some comfort in his profession but – as tends to be a red flag in such period dramas of social mobility – still wants more. At the onset of the story, however, his dreams are hardly extravagant: an orphan – because, of course – he longs to secure some form of independent income so that he can marry his sweetheart Hizzy, who happens to be his boss’ wife.
But when the young fop Callow Bewit walks into the shop and seemingly tampers with one of their most important commissions, Tom ends up unceremoniously fired from his job – his hopes of tranquil family life seemingly dashed for good. But on the site of his disgrace, a convenient benefactor is found looking on.
When Tiercel Bewit, father of the mysterious Callow and a respectable but deeply unhappy aristocrat, takes pity on Tom and offers him a job as his ‘cup-bearer’, Tom doesn’t hesitate to question the vagueness of his new post and accepts a position which would, at the very least, ensure he has a roof over his head.
But the Bewit household turns out to be a bit of a handful. Not only does Tom have to contend with a jealous coterie of servants – who take exception at what they perceive to be preferential treatment in the way Mr Bewit treats this new upstart – but he’s also confronted with the stentorian figure of Hallux Dryden. A cousin to Mr Bewit, the overbearing scientist views Tom as being little more of an insect, and whose respect for Bewit himself is hardly much better. That Hallux ‘has something’ on his cousin is one source of intrigue, but more intriguing still is the grip he seems to have on his apparently feeble young wife Sabina.
Bolstered by the hidden hand of the enigmatic narrator – the Prologue suggests this to be the ‘pleasure merchant’ of the title – Tanzer clearly has a blast manipulating the intersecting fates of this coterie of eccentrics and pretenders. The focus here is on plot dynamics rather than period immersion – those expecting a historically meticulous reproduction of the sights and sounds of 18th century London will be sorely disappointed – and Tanzer is an expert at keeping those pages turning.
This is a telling stylistic choice. Tanzer is from a generation that has internalised not just 18th century literature but its corresponding film and TV adaptations, and The Pleasure Merchant’s unapologetically breezy approach to form and period detail speaks to that aesthetic – there’s very little framing that’s necessary because readers are by now well trained to recognize the world they’re entering.
But just like Vermilion employed alternate history to comment on the dynamics of ethnic and sexual minorities in America, so The Pleasure Merchant taps into our collective imaginary of the 18th century to give a contemporary gloss of gender politics. Hallux Dryden is the novel’s most obvious illustration of the institutional belief that men – in their infinite superiority – are charged with keeping women under control for their own good (Tanzer plunges the knife deeper when she uses Dryden to poke fun at ‘friend zone’ moaning too).
But the other men in the story are also complicit in this – though some of them may not know it – and the fact that Tom is our protagonist for the bulk of the story is a clever move, allowing us to see how deep-rooted chauvinism can be, and how it can afflict even the ‘nicest’ of people.
True to its title, the novel is also remarkably bawdy. It’s during these joyously dirty passages that we realise that, despite the fact that the cornerstones of 18th century literature are name-checked and acknowledged – among them the likes of Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe – The Pleasure Merchant’s true spiritual forebears are the pioneers of smut such as Fanny Hill and The Pearl.
But Fifty Shades of Grey this ain’t. That is, it’s way better.
King in Yellow Tales Vol. 1 by Joseph S. Pulver; Lovecraft eZine Press, 2015
Review by David Hudson
Multiple editions of the original Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow are introduced with a warning: ‘Beware reading this book,’ perhaps echoing the diabolical nature of the fictional and eponymous play that so many of the characters fall victim to. After reading the play, the characters are stalked, given the ‘yellow sign’, haunted by hallucinations and lunacy, and are eventually murdered or they die by their own demented hand.
The tales in this original anthology are certainly mysterious, but as E. F. Bleiler points out, what is certainly a mystery is how and why this anthology was largely overlooked despite it being a very important work in the vein of supernatural and horror fiction that bridges the gap between Poe and the Moderns. Its influence has been sly but fundamental to writers like H.P. Lovecraft, whose ideas, especially on his Necronomicon, are largely owed to Chambers.
Joseph S. Pulver’s The King in Yellow Tales: Volume 1 is a love letter and celebration of the original Chambers anthology and to succeeding Lovecraftian horror. This collection features a myriad of themes, voices, and forms, ranging from scripts and plays to poetry and love stories. But all with elements of grotesque horror. The writing is tangential as was Chambers’s signature in The King in Yellow. Pulver has an intense capacity to paint an image that not only disturbs, but is sustained by excellent writing. He manages to take us where Chambers hadn’t—to Carcosa itself and the Yellow Sea, and the imagery and writing are unwavering reminders of hollow worlds with red skies, Goth clubs, and sulphur.
While all the tales are different and reflective of our contemporary language, the spirit of the Chambers original is left unchallenged. And all the better for it. Pulver is an expert on the subject and has, apparently, kept the pallid mask of the yellow king on the surface along the years. It is for this reason that the tales retain the combined flavour of Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lovecraft. While paying immense respect to these greats, Pulver pulls off something incredibly original: the maddening narrative of what we assume the eponymous and diabolical play sounds like.
The narrative has a devilling structure and a dreamlike quality. The prose is tattered and radical but seems to effortlessly conjure the world that Robert W. Chambers has imagined, but with an exquisite transformation—Chambers’s world of Parisian orgies and drunken debauchery becomes a phantasmagoric American noir of hookers and rejects. And while Chambers is present, the end result is entirely different. It is Gothic weird fiction that does away with the contemporary horror clichés.
The neglected magnificence of Robert W. Chambers (who according to Lovecraft wasted his talents for horror to write popular romances) has been gloriously resurrected. Perhaps Pulver is not only paying tribute to what Chambers has summoned with The King in Yellow but is also honouring his unwritten genius by adding detail to the canon. This is not your average anthology of linear stories, but a messy canvas of labyrinthine descriptions and hellish imagery on which Carcosa is painted.