Under Twin Suns Edited by James Chambers

I received Under Twin Suns: Alternative Histories of the Yellow Sign as a Christmas present and read it in only a few days. Unfortunately, January and February were busy months, and I couldn’t finish my review of this anthology until now. In the time since I read Under Twin Suns, it made the final ballot for the 2021 Bram Stoker Awards. Congratulations are in order for the editor, James Chambers, publisher, Hippocampus Press, and all the authors. The Bram Stoker nomination is a well-deserved accolade for this fantastic collection.

I’m an avid fan of Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow. I’ve written a few tales loosely connected to the King in Yellow, and I even took a trip to visit the author’s grave in Broadalbin, New York. Suffice it to say, when I first heard about Under Twin Suns, I was excited by the prospect of an anthology consisting of King in Yellow-inspired stories. My excitement only doubled when I found out some of my favorite authors, such as John Langan, had tales included.

Per the advice of James Chamber’s introduction, I read this collection from front to back. It’s a testament to the quality of the work in Under Twin Suns that I was able to do that with no issue. I often find that anthologies have ebbs and flows, like a novel, and some stories prove to be more or less engaging based on your mindset while you’re reading. Occasionally, you may even skip a tale to revisit. There wasn’t a single story in Under Twin Suns that didn’t hold my interest. I read each one and moved right to the next until I was finished.

I’ve listed a few of my favorite tales in this collection below, but I wanted to note again that each work included in Under Twin Suns is great. These stories are just the ones that resonated most with me on my first reading. “Robert Chambers Reads The King in Yellow” by Lisa Morton is the first tale, and I loved the meta nature of it. “The King in Yella” by Kaaron Warren felt like a modern take on Karl Edward Wagner’s “The River of Night’s Dreaming.” “The Yellow House” by Greg Chapman ramped up to a stunningly insane climax. “Freedom for All” by JG Faherty felt topical as it dealt with a conspiracy theory driven cult. “Y2K” by Todd Keisling gets props for bringing David Bowie into the King in Yellow mythos. “Veiled Intentions” by Linda D. Addison was an excellent poetic inclusion. Lastly, “The Exchange” by Tim Waggoner was a perfectly Twilight Zone-esque story with a wonderful ending.

If you haven’t read Under Twin Suns yet, I highly recommend you pick up a copy. That said, be sure you’ve read at least “The Yellow Sign” and “The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers before you dive into this anthology. I’m sure you can still enjoy this collection if you’re not familiar with those tales, but you’ll get a lot more out of each author’s work with some prior knowledge of The King in Yellow. If you need a taste of Chamber’s prose before picking up his work, you can check out this video, where I read an excerpt from his story “The Yellow Sign” while visiting the author’s final resting place.

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The Christmas We Get, We Deserve by Jeremiah Dylan Cook

I wrote this story as a Christmas gift for my father in 2020. He’s a veteran of several musical Christmas shows at our local coffee house. With his permission, I’m sharing the tale as a 2021 holiday treat for all.


The Christmas We Get, We Deserve

by Jeremiah Dylan Cook

I finish tuning my guitar and strum each string to confirm my adjustments. The sound is crisp and true.  Outside the windows, the snow starts to pick up. The inflatable Santa Clause just beyond the door has a thin white layer hiding his ruby red outfit. Passing vehicle traffic slows with every minute.

The middle-aged barista, Mary, deposits a cup of water on a small table next to me. “Doesn’t look like we’ll get many folks tonight.”

“It’s the holiday season. You never know what can happen.” I respond, not really believing my own words. I’d been playing a Christmas show at the Cozy Mug for two decades, and there’d been some good times, but the crowds had gotten thinner each of the last five years. I wasn’t sure if I’d be asked back next December.

“You can start whenever you’re ready,” Mary says.

The seasonal music cuts off, leaving the room in silence. I think of the Cozy Mug as intimate in my head, but in truth, the place is tiny. There are only six small, round tables filling the space in front of me.  One is occupied by an old lady wearing a babushka. She uses her index finger to peck out a response on her phone. Stools line the left wall, with a window looking out at the street. A young couple trades a phone back and forth. The boy, with neon green glasses, makes a shocked face at whatever the girl, whose head is half shaved, has shown him. To the right, Mary stands flanked by tall canisters of coffee and a glass case of pastries at the counter. She passes the time by scrolling through her phone. The door, with snow-covered Santa just outside, is opposite where I’ve set up.

I tap the microphone in front of me. “Hey, everybody. My name is Magic Marvin, and I’m so glad you could be here. In honor of this festive time of year, I’ll be playing Christmas tunes tonight. If you know any, feel free to sing along. And if you’ve got any requests, don’t be afraid to shout the titles at me. I might even know some.”

The couple turns to regard me with suspicious expressions. Green glasses guy whispers something to shaved head girl, and they exit. As they pass Santa, they both give him a quick sucker punch. Snow puffs off his rotund form as he rocks back and forth.

Undeterred by their departure, I start “Christmas All Over Again” by Tom Petty. My fingers work their way through the chords as I strum out the tune. I’m surprised at how effortless it feels tonight. I close my eyes and sing, “underneath, the missile toe, we go. We gooo.” I get lost in the music. “It’s Christmasss all overrr, againnn.” I slip into the groove. It’s the only time all my worries, doubts, and fears fall away. As the song comes to its end, I let the last reverberations of the guitar linger in the air.

Someone claps loudly, and I open my eyes. A well-dressed, lanky man, with shoulder-length blonde hair parted in the middle of his forehead, applauds. I’m struck by a strong sense of déjà vu I can’t explain. He collects his coffee from Mary, drops several bills in her tip jar, and sits one table over from the old woman, who is still engaged with sending a text.

“Thanks,” I say.

The man smiles. “No problem. You don’t happen to know “Run Rudolph Run” do you? I love me some Chuck Berry.”

“Sure!” I work my way through the rocking intro to the requested tune. “Out of all the reindeers, you know you’re the mastermind,” I sing.

The newcomer’s foot taps along to the rhythm as I work my way through the song. The old lady glances up as a dapper-looking African American man, wearing a ship captain’s hat, enters the Cozy Mug. The same déjà vu I’d previously experienced rears up again. He orders a coffee from Mary, tips well, and joins the other gentleman. They nod along as I finish the final plucks of the requested ditty. Both men applaud.

The newest arrival speaks up. “Good cover. You don’t know “Thank God It’s Christmas,” do you? I dig Freddie Mercury, and it’s been ages since I heard that one.”

“I do. Let’s see if I can remember how it goes.” I work my way through an acoustic cover, finding the song little by little. It starts to come back to me, and I progress faster. My deeper voice alters the piece, but I make it my own by the time I reach the end.

Applause erupts again, and I notice a new person who’d managed to sneak in while I was playing. At the table closest to me, a man sits with short, cropped hair, a mustache, and a flamboyant yellow jacket. His t-shirt says a single word in bright red font: Flash. He sips a coffee, and I look back to see Mary’s tip jar overflowing. I’m struck again by déjà vu, but instead of focusing on it, I consider my next song.

The man in the yellow jacket stretches his legs out. “That was good. I liked your version quite a bit. Know any John Lennon? “Happy Xmas” seems an appropriate choice.”

“Certainly.” I launch into the old familiar tune without much effort. This is one of the most oft-requested songs I play for this time of year. While I’d thought I’d lost my taste for the number after repeated performances, I find myself enjoying the process of playing it again. It helps that the entire audience, the old lady included, seems to be loving the song as they nod and sway.

The group joins in for the finale, singing, “war is overrr, if you want ittt.”

Another applause follows. It’s the loudest yet. I now count six people in the establishment. A new person somehow joined our fun mid-song. I’m not sure how I could’ve missed him coming in, but he sits at the table in front of the duo who arrived first. While all the others have been familiar, I’m shocked by this guy’s recognizability. He must be a huge Beatles fan because he’s obviously modeled his appearance after the late, great John Lennon. The circular glasses, white suit, and long hair are uncanny. Before I can comment on his look, he stands up.

In a British accent, he says, “Not bad. But what about a true classic like “Peace on Earth?” The one Bowie and Bing Crosby did together.”

I nod my accordance and begin as the Lennon imitator grabs a coffee. The song is an old favorite of mine, but I’m not sure the traditional duet works as well with only my voice performing. If the group’s bothered, they don’t show it in their enthralled expressions. When I’m done, the room claps again, and a pair of men walk out of the snow into the Cozy Mug and join in the adulation. The new arrivals are both older men. One wears a blue sweater vest over a white dress shirt, his thin hair is combed back. He sits by the old lady. The other man has his silver hair gelled up in a fashionable look that makes him appear decades younger than he is. At a glance, his eyes appear mismatched, and when I focus on him, I realize his left pupil is larger than his right.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you it wasn’t nice to stare?” The man asks playfully.

I’m shocked to hear another British accent in my small, Pennsylvanian town.

“I’m sorry,” I apologize. “But you look, well, you all look remarkably familiar. Mary, is this a prank?” I look over at the barista.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know who any of these folks are, but they tip well.”

“I’ve got another big tip for you if you can give me a double macchiato.” The man with the strange eyes sits next to the gentleman in the yellow coat. “Hello there, Freddie. It’s been a while.” He looks back at me after greeting his friend. “I’ll forgive the rude gazing if you can play my favorite holiday song.”

“If I know it, I’ll play it.”

“It’s called “I believe in Father Christmas,” and it’s by Greg Lake.”

“Of course, I know that. It’s one of my favorites too.” My fingers work through the intricate opening tabs, and I lose myself in yet another Christmas classic. The tune passes in a blur as I realize it’s almost over already. “I wish you a brave New Year,” I sing as the song reaches its final crescendo.

Yet another visitor enters the Cozy Mug, leaving the storm. He sings, “the Christmas we get, we deserve.”

I let the song end, having been beaten to the final line. This time there’s no doubt in my mind. I’m staring at a young Greg Lake. I survey the room again. Tom Petty sits with Chuck Berry just over from Bing Crosby and an old lady who has no clue who she’s with. Freddie Mercury and David Bowie are seated directly in front of me, and John Lennon sprawls out by himself, enjoying the fact that no one else is at his table.

Greg Lake walks toward me, smiling. “Now, I’ve got a request. I want to hear a Magic Marvin original. Don’t you have a Christmas song?”

A shiver runs through me. I’d written a Christmas song eight years prior, just after nearly ending my life in a fit of despair over a hard breakup with the woman I’d thought was my soulmate. I’d never told anyone about the song, and I’d certainly never played it live before.

“We’ll join you for the chorus,” Greg Lake adds, standing next to me at the front of the Cozy Mug.

The other musicians all get to their feet and make their way to us.

“Mary,” Bowie calls. “Won’t you be a sport and record this for Marvin?”

The barista smiles and pulls out her phone. She angles the camera toward us and backs up to capture everyone. When her device is ready, Mary gives us a thumbs up.

For the first time ever, I play my Christmas song out loud.


Christmas Future

I finish tuning my guitar and strum the strings to confirm I’ve got what I want. The sound is pitch-perfect. Outside, it’s a clear, cold night. I smile at the thought of trudging through the blizzard to get home last year.

Mary deposits a tip cup next to my water on the table in front of me. “Packed tonight, isn’t it?”

I scan the room. Each table is overcrowded with strangers looking eager for my show. The stools are just as packed. More people file in through the doors. Mary’s new assistant works the counter.

“They’re just here to see if any ghosts show up,” I reply. “But I’ll give them my best show.”

“Ready when you are.” Mary pats my arm and turns around.

The seasonal music cuts off.

I tap the microphone in front of me. “Hey, everybody. My name is Magic Marvin, and I’m so glad you could join me tonight. Most of you are probably here because of a video I posted last Christmas. I know everyone and their mother told you that I must be a genius with deep fakes and computer forgeries, but I’ve never even been able to do basic HTML on my own website.”

The crowd chuckles.

I take a quick sip of water and continue. “Last year, I was visited by some friends whose Christmas tunes I’ve played for years. Maybe they were only great impersonators? I don’t know what the truth is, but what I do know is that after that video was uploaded, my Christmas song shot up to number one in the country for a week, and now you’re all here because of it. And if that isn’t a Christmas Miracle, I don’t know what is. So, how about I play that tune for you?”

The crowd erupts into cheers, and I start my guitar intro. My fingers work their way up the neck of the guitar as I progress from chord to chord. In the back, just outside the doors, I spot the faintest wisps of seven smiling musicians from holiday’s past standing by the inflatable Santa.


Happy Holidays

Creatures of Will & Temper

Creatures of Will & Temper CoverIt was an absolute pleasure to re-discover the joy of book binging with Creatures of Will & Temper. My excitement levels were high when I discussed starting this novel in my post about coping with the world’s current COVID-19 situation. I am happy to report that my enthusiasm for the story carried through its entirety. I read it in only four sittings, and I finished the last 150 pages in a mad dash, the sure sign of a page-turner.

As an English Major, I was immediately captured by the Victorian setting and the elements derived from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. As a genre reader, I loved the short excerpts from the grimoire, On the Summoning of Demons, which start almost every chapter. As a writer, I was extremely impressed by Molly Tanzer’s pacing. She spends much of the tale’s first half developing the characters and adding layers to her world instead of rushing forward with heavy doses of plot, but the book’s momentum is never hindered. In fact, I think getting to know these characters and their world might have been my favorite part of the reading experience.

Minor Spoilers Below

There is young Dorina Grey, who is enamored with art and wooing attractive ladies. There is her older and more conservative sister, Evadne, who’s only true passion is fencing. And then there is the fantastic Lady Henry, the head of a demonic art appreciation society. She’s the David Bowie of this novel, and every story is vastly improved by a character who reminds me a little of Bowie. The villain reminded me quite a lot of Professor Rathe from Young Sherlock Holmes. In fact, I found that I was picturing him as the character before he was revealed as the tale’s primary antagonist. And since I love Young Sherlock Holmes, that only added to my enjoyment of this book.

One of the challenges of discussing a novel you really like is not rambling on forever, so I will try to keep my final thoughts brief. I loved Tanzer’s attention to detail. Minor things, like the fact that one character really likes ginger, becomes important later. I should add that the focus on ginger also made me crack open a bottle of Ginger Ale that I’d had in the fridge since February. It was delightful. About halfway through reading this, I started thinking about how fun a role-playing game set in the world of Creatures of Will & Temper would be. You could hunt down other demon worshipers or use your demonic powers for heroics. Finally, the story’s ending includes a thrilling bit of swordplay, but what I really loved about it was the profound cost of triumph for one of the heroes. It should go without saying, but a good ending needs to have characters suffer consequences and change. The Dorina and Evadne who begin their journey in Creatures of Will & Temper, aren’t the same ones who end it.

Lastly, Molly Tanzer just put out the third entry in The Diabolist Library Series, which started with Creatures of Will & Temper. While I usually wouldn’t urge someone to begin with the third tale in a series, you could actually do that with this series. The books are set in the same world but don’t follow the same characters. Think of the Diabolist’s Library series as the Castle Rock or Fargo of novels. So why not pick up the newest installment, Creatures of Charm & Hunger, and support a book baby during this continuing COVID-19 catastrophe? Based on Creatures of Will & Temper, I can assure you of an excellently structured, detail-rich, and fun read.

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