October 8th, 2006


Hast thou seen the Yellow Sign?

I have many vices. Considering that at least three of them are, in the opinion in the Social Security Administration, irreparable at this point and sufficient to render me unpalatable to any plausible or reasonable employer, makes that first statement an obvious truism. But alongside my grand and documented major vices, I have many trivial vices, some of which as incurable as my recurring major depression with incomplete interepisode recovery. One of them is this: if a joke occurs to me that I know with reasonable certainty won't be funny, or even comprehensible, to anybody with me, I usually go ahead and tell the joke. Many of these jokes depend on having read the same thing(s) that I've read, and in a world with a publishing industry as huge as the one we have, and a backlist so much huger, what are the odds of this? Nonetheless, the recurring looks of blank incomprehension and periodic glowers of disapproval for my perceived elitism are insufficient to cure me of this vice, because I receive periodic tiny doses of reward for it: when somebody does get a joke that I'm pretty sure nobody is going to get, I feel a powerful rush of gratitude that I have "smoked out" a kindred soul that I might not otherwise have detected.

In the Archon 30 Grand Masquerade costume competition, Pierre and Sandy Pettinger performed a scene from R.W. Chambers' "The King in Yellow" from The King in Yellow. I love them for it, even though it would appear (from the dead silence and stunned incomprehension all over the room) that I was one of perhaps six people in the entire 1000-person audience for that show who actually "got" what they were doing. I am further in awe over the fact that they managed to work into the design of their costumes every single trivial bit of detail we are given about the King in Yellow himself from the fragments of "The King in Yellow" that are in The King in Yellow. They didn't imagine the character the way I imagined him, and I don't hold this against them in the least. The descriptions are intentionally vague and subject to interpretation; their interpretation is in no way inferior to mine and the execution was a joy to behold. Despite the fact that the presentation was completely lost on the audience, I think they quite deserved the Best in Class award they won at their (Master Costumer) level and the minor workmanship award they also won.

I don't really hold it against the audience that so few of them have read enough of "The King in Yellow," let alone The King in Yellow, to have gotten the joke. I own a copy. And I'm glad I read it. But I won't pretend it was a great read, or a fun read. Because of my peculiar interests, in Lovecraft and in the overall topic of Forbidden Lore, I found it an informative read. But I'm not going to say that you must rush out and read it. I can, however, quickly background you on it, for any of you who were in the audience and didn't get the point of the presentation even with the postscript they gave the Master of Ceremonies to read. You see, H.P. Lovecraft got the idea of people being driven crazy by what they've read, by his own admission, from a small collection of short stories written 30 years earlier by Robert W. Chambers. The framing device, the meta-story, of those six stories is that years before these stories are all set there was a small scandal in Paris. A group of actors had performed a piece of experimental "art" theater, a play called "The King in Yellow." What made that single performance a scandal to be talked about for years was that due to some combination of the script, costuming, performance, sets, and plot every single person who saw the performance went in some way criminally insane: turned into some kind of sexual predator, or degenerate pervert, or serial killer, or a suicide or would-be suicide, or some other affliction for which the whole surviving audience had to be institutionalized. The actors were arrested and all known copies of the script burned ... but a few copies survived. None of this actually transpires in the stories; we piece it together from casual mentions in the stories which are themselves about people who went to a lot of trouble to find and read "The King in Yellow." And that's the real thrust of R.W. Chamber's stories in the book The King in Yellow: what kind of person would go to the trouble of tracking down something that illegal and that obscure and that hard to find even knowing that it would be bad for them? (The short answer: artists, political radicals, but even more so wealthy people with more money than sense and more sense than morals. People that Chambers considered borderline insane to start with.)

The play "The King in Yellow" no more exists than Lovecraft's equally fictitious insanity-inducing grimoirum The Necronomicon. And even more so than Lovecraft's Necronomicon, it suffers from the problem that it really is impossible to imagine what such a play could contain. The fictional device of The King in Yellow truly is an improbable one, one that simply has to be hand-waved or treated as a heavy-handed metaphor or taken with a large grain of "suspension of disbelief" as a science fiction horror element. Nonetheless, in order to convey the impression of plausibility, Chambers had to actually give his various radicals, decadents, and bohemians some lines to quote to recognize each other by, or to refer to in their madness as elements of the play transfer themselves to their individualized psychoses. I haven't counted, but all in all we have maybe a few dozen or nearly a hundred lines of song, poetry, and prose from the play ... none of which make much sense by themselves. We are given a thumbnail sketch of a plot to string them together: on a distant world circling another sun, in the last city of a decadent, dying species, there is a legend that on the last day of survival for the species there will come a mad prophet called The King in Yellow, wearing The Pallid Mask and carrying on his person The Yellow Sign. The rulers of Lost Carcossa schedule a costume party to lift people's spirits (and, secretly, to see if the rumors of The King having been sighted are true), and someone comes costumed as The King in Yellow. At the end, we are given to understand, he turns out to be authentic, he reveals the Yellow Sign, and everyone present (including a good chunk of the audience) perishes in gibbering madness, in a massive and sudden surge of suicide and murder. Yeah, I know: not very convincing. But then, that's not the point. Still, there have been attempts to reconstruct the play from the fragments, most notably James Blish's reconstruction in his story "More Light," which you can find reprinted in R.M. Price's anthology The Hastur Cycle.

The Pettingers performed the scene from the play-within-a-book that may be the scene before the scene with the initial revelation of the Yellow Sign. The MC, reading from their script-card, explained to us that this was the scene from a fictitious play that supposedly drives audiences insane, "but of course, that can't really happen, can it?" Unfortunately, the Master of Ceremonies for Archon's Grand Masquerade is such a genial, friendly guy that he really can't pull off the necessary grimness to deliver that line and make people shiver. That's OK; I know a straight line when I hear one. I "went insane" on cue, pulling out Evil Laugh Number Two at full volume with all the stops pulled out. What can I say?