The City of Corpses (Book two of the Lost Carcosa Series) by Joseph Sale
Blood Bound Books (January 16th, 2024)
The synopsis: Dark fantasy and horror combine in this epic narrative of war, betrayal, love, and spirituality…Reeling from betrayal, Alan, Cassilda, LeBarron, and Petruccio must go into hiding; the only place that seems safe is Alar, an underwater kingdom lying at the bottom of Lake Hali. But all is not well in Alar. Dangers lurk around every corner. And a sorceress now rules the city, one whose powers challenge even those of Carcosa’s princesses, Cassilda and Cali…Meanwhile, Pe’kar, the great enemy, unleashes his second legion upon Carcosa, intent to finally raze the city to the ground and become undisputed ruler of the black planet. How can Alan and his fellowship save Carcosa when they can hardly save themselves? The answer lies within…
The City of Corpses is the second Book of Lost Carcosa, an epic fantasy-horror that reimagines the astonishing mythos of Robert W. Chambers. Combining Clive Barker’s eroticism and fantasy with Stephen King’s pulse-pounding narrative, The City of Corpses will please fans of Imajica, Weaveworld, The Dark Tower, H. P. Lovecraft, Eric LaRocca, and Alistair Rennie.
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: Joseph, Thanks for agreeing to chat with me about The City of Corpses! To get this out of the way, and with the understanding this is book two in your Lost Carcosa series, how imperative is it that readers should have knowledge of the first book before diving into this one?
JOSEPH SALE: Thank you for inviting me—it truly is a huge honor and pleasure. I’m so grateful to be here.
This is a great and very important question! I usually write in series, because I love that ability to tell an extended story with lots of character development, but even so, I always try to ensure that a reader will get a self-contained journey in any single book I write. I am a firm believer that stories are nothing without structure. Even the most avant garde and art house works of fiction often conform to the familiar patterns of the five act structure, whether intentionally or not, and this is to do with how this narrative structure is deeply rooted in our very psyches. We like the five act structure because it mirrors our own way of processing reality.
Because of my love of structure, I would never cheat readers and write a book that is incomplete. All my books—however large a whole they are a part of—have a beginning, middle, and hopefully a satisfying conclusion. Of course, you get more out of the story with the additional context provided by previous and subsequent books. But, I don’t think it’s essential for comprehension or enjoyment. So, if you’re not a big fan of long series, but you like the look of The City of Corpses, please do pick it up and give it a try—you might be pleasantly surprised!
And for those who’ve enjoyed the first book, The Claw Of Craving, what surprises can they expect from its follow-up in book two?
The Claw of Craving, as with most first books in a series, was very much about setting up the dominos so I could knock them down later! I wanted people to get to know Alan and Cali and Cassilda and Petruccio and LeBarron—so it wasn’t a book heavy on plot, more on character. The other part of setting up the dominos, given that there is a “portal fantasy” element, was smoothing the transition between the familiar world we know and the dark and mysterious world of Carcosa. Asking people to jump from a reality they recognize to a fantasy is no easy feat. We see it all the time in movies, but really making people believe it, bringing them with you on that journey, is quite difficult.
I’m hoping, then, that by book two the reader is fully transitioned to this twisted new reality; as a result, The City of Corpses is really focused on the plot and the fantasy, more closely resembling a dark sword & sorcery epic, with battles, a strange new city, and evil sorcerers—though don’t fear horror fans, it contains some of the most gruesome and disturbing scenes I’ve ever written too.
In terms of surprises, I don’t want to give too much away, as then they won’t be surprises anymore! But suffice to say that a certain “taken for granted” truth of the world may not be true…
I think it goes without saying that Kealan Patrick Burke has established himself as a more than capable, sought-out cover artist. This sentiment is made abundantly clear by the stunning cover he did for your book. Did you have a say or any influence on what he came up with? I’d also love to hear your thoughts on the cover he did and the way it represents the story behind it.
Thank you! The covers he’s done for this series are really astonishing. I am a very lucky man. And, even more fortunately, I did get to have quite a lot of say in them. I spent a week or so for each cover assembling artwork that appealed to me in order to send Kealan’s way so that he had some inspiration as a starting point. It was important both to me and to my publisher, the amazing folks at Blood Bound Books, that the covers reflected the balance of horror and fantasy in the story, so that potential readers know what they’re gin for! It was particularly important that the first cover also made it clear that this was a story set in the mythos of the King in Yellow. Whilst I have totally re-imagined the mythos in my own maniacal way, the series is absolutely a love letter to the work of Robert W. Chambers.
Kealan Patrick Burke has done a phenomenal job balancing all of these elements and producing something that is unique and standout.
I love stories in which the primary character teams up with others to create a sort of band of heroes. What opportunity does having a team of characters lend to your telling of the tale and the dynamics it brings to supporting or challenging the main character, in this case, Alan Chambers?
This is a really great question and very insightful, because having a cast of characters is a massive narrative opportunity but of course also a restriction, because you have to give them all due attention! I am with you in that I love a good Fellowship on a quest (and really, we have to acknowledge, Tolkien provided the ultimate exemplar for this, perhaps even surpassing Jason and the Argonauts!). For me, there is very little more satisfying in a story than a band of heroes and heroines on an adventure. I think there are several reasons for this. Firstly, I have been very blessed with a close-knit group of friends that have been with me for the majority of my life (one of them for twenty-seven years). Hilariously, there are nine of us, though we often joke that we are more like the Nazgul than the Fellowship of the Ring! We have been on many adventures together and hopefully there will be many more. All of them are thanked in the Acknowledgements of The City of Corpses. So, the short answer is that fellowships are where my heart is.
The second reason, from a more “literary” and intellectual perspective, is—as you rightly point out—that groups of characters allow you to explore the protagonist through multiple lenses. To return to the example of Tolkien, one of the criticisms often levelled at him is that his characters are too thin. But I think those levelling these criticisms miss a key factor, which is that Tolkien is really using characters as facets of Self. In this way, groups of characters form a whole. So, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are one whole. Sam is the moral super-ego. Gollum is the id who obeys his impulses. And Frodo is the ego caught in the middle of this struggle. Once you view it through this psychological lens, you realise even more the genius of Tolkien.
So in Lost Carcosa, the people Alan Chambers encounters are characters in their own right, but they are also reflections of Alan’s Self. Cassilda and Cali, for example, these extreme polarities that are yet somehow related, both pull Alan Chambers in different directions and yet both seem part of him. LeBarron and Petruccio also form part of that whole and mirror back to Alan aspects of himself.
But they are also their own people, and in turn Alan is reflecting back to them who they are. Both are true simultaneously, despite how paradoxical that is. One phrase I love is bi-directionality. In the west, we tend to have the notion that x creates y and y creates z and everything flows in a single, linear direction. But this is not how they understand reality in the east. They understand that everything is flowing back and forth. So, human beings shape our planet and then our planet shapes us; it’s a cycle, the energy moving in both directions at the same time. Similarly, in fiction, your characters are shaping their world which is then re-shaping them. Alan is influencing his friends and they are influencing him. A constant bi-directional flow. Exploring this flow is the joy of creating a cast of characters!
I love it when the horror genre fuses with other genres for a unique blend of storytelling. Comparing this book to the likes of Clive Barker’s Weaveworld and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, not to mention H.P. Lovecraft, is a bold statement, but one you have made nonetheless. What does it mean for your creative satisfaction to be able to exercise your muse by stretching it into a variety of sub genres to tell a single story?
I want to say, up front, that in no way do I consider myself as good as Clive Barker or Stephen King! Not even close. It’s true that Clive Barker is the writer with whom I have been compared due to the genres I most frequently work in and the style I write in, but to me, Clive Barker is in another stratosphere alongside the greats of antiquity such as Edmund Spenser and Dante Alighieri, the epic poets.
However, like you, I love work that blends genres and ideas. I often say a truly great book never comes out of one idea. One idea is not enough to sustain a fully fleshed out and thematically rich novel (or film or album or whatever medium you are working in!). Lost Carcosa really epitomizes this because any element on its own would not achieve the effect that the whole has managed to. For example, the world is that of Robert W. Chambers, but if that was the only idea, then I would simply be writing inferior imitations of his work. What would be the point? You could just go and read the original! Similarly, if you took away the Carcosa element, and instead had just an epic fantasy crossed with horror, then it would perhaps begin to look a little bit too much like Weaveworld.
So, The City of Corpses and its predecessor are really alchemical concoctions, delicate potions of balanced ingredients. This is not done consciously or intellectually, at least not in my view, but subconsciously over a long period of time. As an artist or writer, one is constantly receptive to the promptings of the universe. One is drinking in the essence of reality and all its different flavors: bitter and sweet, savory and sour, and then distilling them within the alembic of the Self in order to create something new.
So, there are all these diverse influences on Lost Carcosa that come together, but then you need one additional element which is the surprise element, the almost indescribable and ineffable element, which you have already named: the Muse.
My Muse for this book was the Hindu Goddess of Death, Time, Poetry, and the Void, Kali. She became the inspiration for Cali, and it was this character that brought the whole novel to life. I had pieces of the puzzle: a feeling, a world, some characters, a plot, even the eponymous Claw, but none of it fitted together—until Cali showed up. I didn’t want my character to be a one-for-one stand in in the Indian goddess, as that could be construed as an insult to the profound beauty and wisdom of Hinduism, but I did want her to be drawn from that mythic grandeur, and there are a number of obvious similarities between them.
Even with a multitude of the most fascinating and diverse interests, a writer’s work will still be deadweight if not given life by the blessing of the Muse within, which in this case was the bloody-handed Goddess herself.
Considering Blood Bound Books is typically best known for their brand of extreme horror and splatterpunk titles, was a dark novel with such high fantasy elements a hard sale? How has it been received by your horror-leaning fan base?
This is very observant. On the one hand, the erotic-horror elements of The Claw of Craving (and its sequel) are very typical of Blood Bound Books—just read BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie, The City by S. C. Mendes, 400 Days of Oppression by Wrath James White, or Black Planet by Nikki Noir. But you are right, that they have not published many high or epic fantasy books other than BleakWarrior up until this point. However, my timing was very fortunate, as Blood Bound were looking to release more in this genre! So I struck at the right moment. Fantasy opens up a whole new—virtually infinite—realm of possibilities with storytelling, so it will be very interesting to see where this leads them!
Blood Bound Books have put out some of the best books I have ever read. They were one of my favourite publishers before I ever submitted to or got published by them. BleakWarrior and The City are two of my favourite books of all time. It has been one of the greatest honours and achievements of my life to land a deal with them—and for an entire series no less!
In terms of how the series has been received, I think my fan-base has always been a bit fantasy-leaning, so they have embraced it! My two other series, The Illuminad Trilogy and The Book of Thrice Dead, both have fantasy in their DNA as well as horror. I have received some reviews (across all of my work, to be honest) from people who felt it was too fantasy for their horror tastes, and conversely too horrifying to be read by the average fantasy reader, but to me fantasy and horror have always been intertwined, and exploring the relationship between them has taken me (and my readers) to places that otherwise we could not have gone. And I think most of my readers like and look for that unique experience when they pick up one of my books!
Having grown up in the Lovecraftian seaside town of Bournemouth, England, where Mary Shelley is buried and where J.R.R. Tolkien once lived, it’s no surprise that horror and watery tales of the fantastic run rampant through your veins. What are your earliest memories of being fascinated and invested in the culture of fear and adventure that your hometown imbued you with?
Yes, clearly there’s something in the waters! Haha. I have actually visited both Mary Shelley’s grave and the hotel where Tolkien used to stay. I also studied at university in Birmingham, which is where Tolkien grew up, and visited his school plus the hills and ruins that inspired some of the settings in Middle Earth—so I guess you could say I’m a fan and then some!
Bournemouth is a very strange place, as most seaside towns are. It combines tremendous beauty with tremendous ugliness. I will always have a deep and abiding love for the place even though there is much about it I would love to see changed.
A city like Bournemouth certainly gives one plenty of inspiration for horror. By the age of eleven years old I had been stabbed twice and sexually assaulted. I had witnessed a man having his head cut off with a saw outside of a police station as part of a drug-gang’s power play to demonstrate the inefficacy of the police. I saw heroin addicts ODing in the streets and scenes of total degradation of the human spirit. Next door to where my parents and I lived a young nurse was murdered. The killer buried a five foot long fish in the soil outside his house—which stank out the entire road—as some kind of “offering.” I mean, that’s straight out of Innsmouth isn’t it?
But I also saw the beautiful white sand of the beaches and the sea—like a blanket of emeralds thrown over the world. And the cliffs of Portman Ravine. And the art galleries of the Russell Coates Museum. The cathedral of Christchurch. Such incredible forests and parks. And mysterious and quaint shops like The Crooked Book, filled with second-hand literary gems and gorgeous antique artefacts. I met the best friends I have ever known there. The place is full of hidden wonders. And of course it’s where I met my wife, the most beautiful and compassionate woman in the world.
Sticking to the topic of the sea for another moment, what can you tell us about the mysterious world of Carcosa and the process of how this secret place first manifested in your mind’s eye and the way you see it continuing to evolve as you continue the series?
I was fascinated by Carcosa from a very early age, when I encountered The King In Yellow short story collection in a local bookshop in my hometown. A dear friend of mine and I used to scour the bookshop once a week and sit in the little reading cubby they’d made and devour books for hours there—basically getting a supplementary education for free!
Writing about Carcosa always feels strange because it’s not “mine.” But then again, do any ideas really belong to us, or do they not belong to the universe itself? We get to play with them for a while, and then we have to set them aside and undergo the greater journey.
But of course, Carcosa didn’t really belong to Robert W. Chambers either—he drew the name from the incredible story by Ambrose Bierce, An Inhabitant of Carcosa. In more recent years, the phenomenal first series in True Detective tantalized me with its mentions of Carcosa and a more modern take on the setting. I also loved the American author Brian Barr’s contributions to the mythos.
It was because of this build-up of references that I began to feel like Carcosa was a real place that certain people had visited and returned from to tell the tale. This thought is sort of what catalyzed the initial spark for the series. I knew, however, that unlike most of the previous writers, I didn’t want to focus on Carcosa as a shadowy rumor and whisper. I wanted to go there fully, to turn a cosmic horror tale into something more fantastical that didn’t lose sight of the horror.
In terms of how Carcosa evolved in my mind’s eye (which I love as a phrase by the way, so thank you for using it!), it connects to what I said about Bournemouth, which in turn is sort of a reflection of wider reality. We tend, in the west, to get fixated on life being a certain way: good or bad. We give these labels which reduce reality to a fragment of its whole. In actuality, reality is good and bad, sweet and bitter, hot and cold, pleasurable and painful all at once. These things live side-by-side (sometimes literally only a single street away—one left turn!), and it’s only us humans that have a problem with that. So, for me, I wanted Carcosa to reflect this. The city is hideous and beautiful, joyful and awful. Cannibals and coprophages live alongside refined artists. The darkest desires you can imagine alongside the spiritual transcendence sought by the mystics. Yes, Carcosa is a fantasy world, but it’s a mirror of our own world, which is what all good fantasy should be. Fantasy isn’t escapism, in my book, it’s a way of confronting and processing the Truth via means of distortion.
According to your author bio, you’ve been referred to as a Gothic Master. How do you feel about that moniker, and how close does it come to emulating how you see yourself as a writer?
Ah, the author Ross Jeffery said that! I am very proud of that quote, of course. I don’t regard myself as a master. A true master is constantly open and always learning with a beginner’s mindset, so paradoxically one never becomes a master in the literal sense, because that implies a fixed point. We just continue the journey!
But, I still love the quote particularly because of his use of the word “Gothic.” It’s a beautiful word and it conjures up so many associations, in particular Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I feel a deep personal connection to. Gothic fiction is really at the root of modern horror (and those roots are very intertwined with fantasy, of course). I grew up reading the gothic masters: Stoker, Maturin, Shelley, Walpole, and they left an indelible mark on me. I do think my style is gothic—perhaps more gothic than horrific if we’re going to split those genres.
Another word might be “baroque.” For me, the best horror has a strange beauty about it. Like a David Lynch film, the terror of it is somehow even more terrifying for how it draws you in. On that note, the key thing that modern adaptations of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser miss is that the “sights to show you” are desirable, that we want the cenobites to show us this underworld, this secret knowledge, this ecstatic transcendence of the flesh—because it’s beautiful. Beauty can be found in the most strange places, and it’s the job of a horror writer to find that beauty even in the sickening things. I tried to reflect this with The Claw of Craving and the rest of the series.
Regarding City of Corpses, how much of what occurs in this story was set in motion as you were writing out the first book in the series, The Claw of Craving?
I planned out the entire series before I started writing book one! Though certain points did change along the way, the story was surprisingly complete and realized in that first outpouring and as I wrote remained true to the scaffolding of structure that I laid out at the beginning. So, I did know a lot of what was going to happen in book two, so much so that when I finished book one I went straight into book two without a single day of pause or rest! The two flowed fairly seamlessly into one another, and the inspiration was still propelling me onward. One thing I would say is that every creative endeavor is different for me. The way I wrote Lost Carcosa was completely different from, for example, the way I wrote The Book of Thrice Dead. Every idea requires its own special treatment in order to emerge fully and to be polished to its brightest sheen.
Speaking of The Claw of Craving, that book was a brisk one at just 150 pages, with this not much longer at 200 pages. What are your thoughts on what a shorter novel brings by way of impacting a reader compared to something much longer in length, as is especially typical when it comes to books more firmly anchored in the realm of fantasy?
Yes, fantasy books tend to be very long! And I personally do like reading meaty books as they give that space to slow down and go deeper. I devoured Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. Horror, however, has a pedigree of shorter novels, such as The Haunting of Hill House, and this is reflected in a lot of modern horror books as well. I think perhaps the reason is simply that fear is more difficult to sustain over a long period of time. You reach a certain threshold and you have nothing left to give. In addition, an important aspect of horror—both cinematically and in terms of literature—and one that it shares with poetry is that a lot of emphasis is placed on what happens after you’ve finished reading/watching. Do you think about it at night before you go to bed? Does it creep you out every time you see a clown? In a bizarre way, the longer a horror novel is, the less likely it is to achieve this effect, because the narrative is still flowing on, rather than leaving you on that terrifying note that continues to hum throughout your “real” life.
In terms of the lengths of my books, when I was working on Carcosa, and of course liaising with Blood Bound, we did discuss various other ways of splitting up the series, or even publishing all five books in one colossal volume! The story naturally divided into five parts because of the five act structure (and each overarching act of a single book itself had five acts!), but was this the best way to play it? Would readers be disappointed with a shorter book? Or would a longer book be too much given there is still a heart of horror in this story? In the end, we decided to keep the series in five parts and give people a first book that was short and sweet, a toe-dip into the world, so then they could decide if they wanted to continue; if they do continue, the books get deeper and flesh out the world and characters more and more. The good news is most people who have reviewed the first book have said they can’t wait for book two!
For those who do like lengthy fantasy stories, I hope that in reading the complete Lost Carcosa series, which totals more than three hundred thousand words, they will get the immersive deep-dive they crave!
For readers who love them some good old-fashioned terror, but may be hesitant to try out a book like City of Corpses which might incorporate more of a fantasy spin than they are accustomed to, what to you tell them in order to steer them right so before they miss out on a great experience from you?
Very kind of you to say it’s a great experience! I think it’s really important as a writer to develop a thick skin and to remember that the majority of people read by a combination of genre and interest, and if you don’t fit into that bracket of what they look for, it’s nothing to do with the quality of your work, just simply that it isn’t what they want at this time. So, if you like pure horror, slashers, or haunted house stories, then I fully accept that Lost Carcosa might not be your thing—and that’s totally okay!
However, if you are curious, and you are contemplating branching out, I would say this: fantasy and horror have always been inextricably linked. Stephen King is really a case-in-point with The Dark Tower series and many other works, but the further back in time you go, the more you see the links. I believe this is because fantasy explores realms of desire, whereas horror explores realms of suffering. But desire arguably creates suffering—which then creates more desire! So the two are enmeshed in a ceaseless discourse. And you cannot have one without the other.
Stephen King once said that horror was the only genre defined by an emotion, which is why it is special. I both agree and disagree with him on this. I think that horror does have a special, almost primordial place in the pantheon of genres, because, to quote old H. P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.” However, I think that fantasy is actually an emotion too, as I have said. But though fantasy is rooted in desire, it’s also about the transcendence of that desire, which usually manifests in a moment of total awe—think of Frodo finally looking back at his friends and smiling before going to the Grey Havens. It’s a moment of sublime transcendence when the shackles of evil and addiction are thrown off—but at a price.
When I write fantasy, I am not aiming to show you how clever I am at building cities or magic systems or political landscapes—which is something fantasy writers can get bogged down in (ironically all very left brain). For me, fantasy is about that feeling of awe. Clive Baker evokes it. Tolkien evokes it. All the great writers do. I can’t say whether I am a great writer or not, that is for time and readers to decide, but I can say that my “brand” of fantasy for lack of a better term is more about that emotion than about tropes. And that might mean that even though fantasy is not your usual go-to, you might get something out of it.
The last thing I’ll say is that there is some very, very real horror in this series—bodily, psychological, and even spiritual—the first two books have not begun to scratch the surface of what is in store in the latter three. You have been warned!
What can we expect as more of the series unfolds? How far do you plan to take it, and when can we expect the next installment to unleash?
There are going to be five books in the series—and they’re all already written. In terms of what you can expect, I’d say this: expect the horror to get deeper and the fantasy to get more Lovecraftian and cosmic as we go; expect more occult influences, and for those of you who love symbology and allegory, keep your eyes peeled; and finally: expect calamity and heartbreak but also redemption and triumph.
The City of Corpses [came out] January 16, 2024. I simply can’t wait for it to be unleashed! Book three, The Dreams of Demhe, is going to come very shortly after that. I have not agreed a date with my publisher yet, but we did talk about Spring.
2024 should see the complete series released. So, if anyone is worried about a George R. R. Martin situation, please don’t fear, the story is fully told and ready to be set loose on the world.
I am so, so grateful for this interview opportunity, Rick. Thank you so much for taking the time to ask such thoughtful questions. It’s been a pleasure.