October 14, 2019 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
Around the same time I was dissecting “The Colour Out of Space”, I decided to expand Mythos readings outside of Lovecraft’s works alone, making use of the fact that I was working in the university library (and had to sit in an office there for about 10 hours a week) to inter-library loan what books they didn’t have on hand (which was a great deal, because a land-grant university in Iowa isn’t the sort of place that tends to collect weird horror authors’ books.
One author I sought out was Robert Chambers as his creation of The King in Yellow had appeared in some classic (and less so) Call of Cthulhu scenarios and I had just read John Tynes chapter on the Hastur Mythos in Delta Green: Countdown. There was a definitely a ground-swell of interest in the Hastur Mythos/King in Yellow and I wanted to understand the source material better.
Unlike readers today who have helpfully annotated versions or omnibus Chaosium versions prefaced by informative essays letting readers know that most of Chamber’s stories were overly melodramatic romances and not eerie tales of madness and horror… needless to say I was somewhat befuddled by the collection.
“The Repairer of Reputations” seemed to be set in a weird alternative 1920 where the deranged narrator plotted in that way that only truly deranged people might. “The Masks” had a magical (alchemical?) method to turn flesh to stone. “In the Court of the Dragon” was a dream-like tale of a man being pursued by an evil church organist. In “The Yellow Sign” an artist and his muse/lover doom themselves by reading the dreaded play The King in Yellow (and are menaced by a different church employee, this time a corpse-worm-like watchman). Then there was “The Demoiselle d’Ys” which is a romantic ghost story set in Brittany… and has nothing to do with the King in Yellow at all… in fact none of the other stories in the book really did. Needless to say, I was a little perplexed. I had expected something a least a little more cohesive. Sure, you could pluck some bits and pieces from the first four stories, including some evocative quotes from the play itself, but it seemed that my best source for the King in Yellow (play or entity or wider Mythos – Hastur was barely mentioned at all!) was actually the role-playing game. I guess Messrs. Petersen, Willis, Herber, Ross, and Tynes (and more) had truly correlated the contents, so to speak.
This wasn’t the first time I had discovered that the interpretation of some element of what I knew as the Cthulhu Mythos – see our previous entry on “The Colour Out of Space” – but this really brought home the rift between the source material and how it was employed in the game itself. This wasn’t a flaw in my opinion, but a sign of the strength of the game. Authors could build upon the works that had come before to create something new. Chambers took some names from Ambrose Bierce and wove them into several classic weird tales. Lovecraft drew out Chamber’s malign King in Yellow and associated elements and linked them to his mythic creations. August Derleth had hopped onto Hastur like Slim Pickens on a hydrogen bomb and rode it way too far. Keith Herber took some of Derleth’s Hastur Mythos and used it in his scenario “The Evil Stars”; Kevin Ross connected that back more closely to Chamber’s King in Yellow. John Tynes then refocused the King and Yellow (and Hastur) in a far more Chambersian direction while also making explicit the limks between Hastur and entropy.
This is all a relatively long preamble to get to today’s official topic (which isn’t my long digression tracing the intellectual history of the King in Yellow), but rather the set of what we might call micro-fiction / prose poems which chambers entitled “The Prophet’s Paradise“. They have no direct link to the Hastur/King in Yellow stories though they somewhat echo the quotes given from The King in Yellow. They are more emotive than narrative, with lines echoing and often the beginnings and endings a reflection of each other. It is not particularly compelling reading – here’s a sample:
The Phantom of the Past would go no further.
“If it is true,” she sighed, “that you find in me a friend, let us turn back together. You will forget, here, under the summer sky.”
I held her close, pleading, caressing; I seized her, white with anger, but she resisted.
“If it is true,” she sighed, “that you find in me a friend, let us turn back together.”
The Phantom of the Past would go no further.
Yeah, they aren’t great but at least one of them stuck with me. More than a decade later, when I was developing the Cult of A for the Unspeakable Oath (my Hastur cult inspired by real-world pro-disordered eating movements) I had a sudden realization that the perfect epigram for the piece was there in “The Prophet’s Paradise”:
The Green Room
The Clown turned his powdered face to the mirror.
“If to be fair is to be beautiful,” he said, “who can compare with me in my white mask?”
“Who can compare with him in his white mask?” I asked of Death beside me.
“Who can compare with me?” said Death, “for I am paler still.”
“You are very beautiful,” sighed the Clown, turning his powdered face from the mirror.
That worked very well and helped me to visualize my whole article. Really, it was just amusing to me that a decade later a couple of lines about the absurdity of external beauty might immediately leap into my mind when I was working on an article. You never can tell when something you have read, even something seemingly slight like this small set of stories, might prove useful.