Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
— Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow
For some time now I have been eagerly anticipating Where Black Stars Rise, a new graphic novel written by Nadia Shammas and illustrated by Marie Enger, an artist whose work I’ve been a fan of for a while. Set in Brooklyn in 2022, this book’s story follows two women who have both come to New York from West Asia: therapist-in-training Amal Robardin is Lebanese, while grad student and therapy patient Yasmin is Iranian. Yasmin is Amal’s first patient, though Yasmin received her diagnosis in college ten years ago and has spent many years in therapy; she seeks Amal out due to their similar backgrounds after her previous therapist retires. Amal is very concerned with Being a Good Therapist and Getting It Right, and so she isn’t really able to hear what Yasmin is saying when Yasmin begins having a recurring nightmare featuring a figure in yellow—a nightmare that she insists is real, not a schizophrenia-induced delusion. Not long after, Yasmin disappears; Amal, unable to let it go, sets out to find her. Unwittingly, her path leads her to Carcosa, the realm of the King in Yellow.
This graphic novel really packs a punch. Enger’s art, with a coloring assist from Jordan Alsaqa, is angular, spiky, sometimes disorienting or off-putting, but really manages to capture the characters and their emotions, both those on their faces and those that are reflected in their environments. Enger relies heavily on an inventive artistic device by which characters’ thoughts (or sometimes warnings or commentary from the cosmos) are written out in text in the world around them, which makes for eerie reading and also exposes what they’re saying or not saying to other people. The script by Shammas, who is Palestinian-American, is precisely and thoughtfully written, not shying away from the difficulties of mental illness—not “just” of managing symptoms, but of how people with mental illness too often are reduced to their symptoms and nothing more. “Every time I’ve done this, the focus is always on my symptoms,” Yasmin tells Amal before she quits their sessions. “I’m more than my moods. I have problems like struggling with dating, or being annoyed with family, or falling behind with classes or what the fuck ever bullshit people deal with. Normal people.” As Yasmin realizes, Amal is younger than her, and she still has a lot to learn.
Unable to shake her guilt over Yasmin’s departure and subsequent disappearance, Amal reads Yasmin’s underground theater blog at her girlfriend’s urging and goes to see the Tattered Players’ next performance of the play The King in Yellow—luckily, she only sees act 1 before the doorway to Carcosa cracks and admits the King. But Yasmin’s blog also has some very pointed meta-commentary about horror and mental illness, in the worlds of both the graphic novel and of the play, the latter of which is in turn a metafictional object—it is referenced, but never fully transcribed, throughout Robert W. Chambers’ influential horror collection The King in Yellow (1895). Yasmin, who adapted the play for the Players, writes:
Most of all? I love that in horror, our storytellers are always right. They’re never believed. They’re cast aside and undermined and left to face the cosmic cruelty alone. But they weren’t wrong. And the readers, the audience? We bear witness to them. We listen, and by merit of their narrative or performance, we believe them in that short burst of time. I want to write that feeling into being. I want to be believed.
On one level, Where Black Stars Rise is a performance of—or a metafictional commentary on—The King in Yellow. (The lines about unmasking certainly hit differently in the era of the pandemic than they might have in 2019 or earlier.) Amal’s guilt over how she has failed Yasmin isn’t the only thing goading her on: her parents in Lebanon, particularly her mother, call constantly, but they won’t acknowledge that her girlfriend Nia is her girlfriend, and they aren’t happy with Amal’s turn to therapy rather than to something lucrative and flashy (like her cousin Rema who’s become a nutritionist to celebrities). Yasmin’s family relationships are also reportedly strained, but Amal cuts off a possible moment of connection in this area on the grounds that it would be unprofessional. As Yasmin points out later on, there’s a lot that she, and we the audience, never learn about her former patient, even though they share the experience of being part of a diaspora. Neither of them is the sort of person who is usually the standard protagonist of a horror narrative, particularly not when Chambers and the later writer he most influenced, H. P. Lovecraft, were writing, but Where Black Stars Rise is stronger for anchoring its story in their specific backgrounds.
Luckily it’s not a spoiler to talk about the fact that Amal eventually goes to Carcosa. The performance of the play and the art depicting its eventual eldritch gateway are superb, making just enough sense for the reader to figure out what’s going on (Amal has no idea) but still remaining eerie and strange. Weirdly, this isn’t the only book I’ve read in the last few years in which the characters sojourn in the King’s realm; in Alexis Hall’s Sherlockian/Lovecraftian pastiche The Affair of the Mysterious Letter (2019), the characters are eventually imprisoned in post-revolutionary Carcosa and are interrogated by the new authoritarian regime for nearly a week, an experience that is hallucinogenic and disjointed. Enger’s art feels like that too, as both the landscape and Amal’s sneering guide through it shift around her, exposing the terrors of those who have entered the realm before her as well as her own innermost fears and the self-doubt she can’t silence. And while I won’t say too much about the climax of the plot, I will say that the points Yasmin makes about Carcosa versus “reality” resonate both with the story’s metafictional themes and its unflinching depiction of mental illness from an internal rather than external perspective.
All in all, Shammas and Enger have created a powerful graphic story that overturns some of the tired tropes of mental illness and reinvigorates a classic horror work, snipping away Chambers’s prejudices and emerging with the core appeal of his eldritch narrative intact. It’s a compelling read that demonstrates once more that decolonizing texts can be a portal to unique and moving stories—and it’s one that pushes the boundaries of comic art to boot. I highly recommend taking the trip to Carcosa in Where Black Stars Rise—like act 2 of The King in Yellow, it will stick with you.