Alexandria, Virgina: Atomic Overmind Press, 2012; $16.95 tpb; 176 pages
When NYRSF asked me to write a review, we discussed several options. I came to the conclusion that, for quicker results, I should do a simple review of Robin Laws’s New Tales of the Yellow Sign rather than a review of the new edition of the roleplaying supplement Masks of Nyarlathotep, which, to do justice, would have to survey nearly 40 years of gaming history. After all, New Tales of the Yellow Sign doesn’t require much of a backwards look, right? Oh . . . wait. . . .
New Tales of the Yellow Sign is among other things, a response to Robert Chambers’s 1895 collection, The King in Yellow, which, in turn, owes at least a nod to Ambrose Bierce. Bierce coined the names “Hastur,” “Hali,” and “Carcosa” in his stories “Haïta the Shepherd” (1893) and “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1891). In the former, Hastur is a god whom Haïta worships. In the latter, the ghost of Hoseib Alar Robardin walks among the ruins of the city of Carcosa, not realizing he and it are dead. Robardin recalls the philosophical musings of Hali. These two tales of Bierce feel vaguely Dunsanian, before Dunsany.
It was Chambers who made the names of Hastur, Carcosa, and Hali haunt the mind. Chambers created the concept of The King in Yellow, a play which enthralls anyone so foolish as to even glance into its script. In the play, Carcosa remains a city, but Hali becomes a lake. Camilla and Cassilda are characters in the play, along with a Stranger who cannot unmask because he wears no mask, a fact which terrifies the characters. The King in Yellow may or may not be Hastur, a figure of terror, the Living God into whose hands it is terrible to fall. And his emblem is the dreaded Yellow Sign.
Only four of the stories in The King in Yellow deal with or even mention the play. Four out of ten tales in a collection, no more, but they persist in a dreamlike mood with an oddly attractive nihilistic beauty. Chambers’s collection influenced other authors. One was Marion Zimmer Bradley, who took names—Hastur, Camilla, Cassilda, Hali, Carcosa—for her Darkover novels. Another was H. P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft made one reference to Hastur and the Yellow Sign in his fiction, a throwaway line in “Whisperer in Darkness.” There one might have expected it to languish, hardly as important to the Mythos he created as Cthulhu or the mi-go or Yog-Sothoth.
Perhaps they would have been forgotten without August Derleth, who (according to Robert Price’s The Hastur Cycle in 1993) thought that Lovecraft’s Mythos should be called the “Hastur Mythos.” Or perhaps not, for Lovecraft also referred to Hastur, the Yellow Sign, and Carcosa in his influential 1933 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” where fans of his work could learn of those authors who had influenced him.
Lovecraft encouraged authors who wanted to try their own hand at Mythos stories, one such being James Blish. His story “More Light” (1970) tells of Bill Atheling, a man who, as a boy, contacted Lovecraft to ask about the actual Necronomicon. Lovecraft, of course, told him that there was no such book, and that to try to create one would be as much of a mistake as Chambers’s attempt to create an actual King in Yellow play was. Atheling naturally demanded to see the thing, and the almost-complete manuscript for the play appears in the story. Blish’s version is an interesting, if hardly horrifyingly maddening, text. And, it became the more-or-less canonical version of the play.
At this point, a force extends the influence of The King in Yellow: roleplaying games. In 1981, Chaosium published a game called Call of Cthulhu, where players take on the role of investigators into Lovecraftian mysteries. How closely these scenarios stick to Lovecraft’s vision varies, of course. Some focus on parts of the mythos emphasized by other writers, and, inevitably, some focus on Hastur.
The Hastur scenarios include Kevin A. Ross’s “Tell Me Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?” (in The Great Old Ones, 1989), and this is where a version of Ross’s now-canonical design for the Yellow Sign first appeared. John Tynes created both gaming material and short fiction capturing the beauty of Carcosa, including King in Yellow in 1999. Oscar Rios wrote Ripples from Carcosa (2005), three scenarios set in different ages where the same people are reincarnated to fight Hastur again and again. The future scenario even includes the summary of a play that is the sequel to The King in Yellow.
Tim Wiseman’s Tatters of the King (2006) presents a massive campaign focusing on Hastur’s attempt to affect the world in the winters of 1928 and 1929. It captures the feel of surreal beauty and horror of Carcosa, and it creates a range of people with different, but believable, motives for worshipping the nihilistic Hastur. The campaign features an adaption of the play The King in Yellow, this one called The Stranger and the Queen. One scene will be perceived differently by everyone, and the Keeper (gamemaster) is given three different summaries of the scene. When I ran this, one of my players decided that his character would pay for a private performance (as the theater was shut down after the first performance of the play ended in a minor riot) to find out which version of the scene was the real one. After some internet surfing, I discovered that some truly dedicated soul had created a script of The Stranger and the Queen that included not one, not three, but eight different versions of the scene.
While Call of Cthulhu was the first of the roleplaying games created primarily to model Lovecraft’s (and fellow mythos talespinners’) works, it was not to be the last. Kenneth Hite wrote a game called Trail of Cthulhu, published by Pelgrane Press, using their “Gumshoe” rules system, which was created by Robin Laws. Laws in turn wrote a scenario for Trail of Cthulhu, “Repairer of Reputations,” based on the Robert Chambers story that introduced The King in Yellow.
And, several roleplaying publishers have Lovecraftian fiction lines. Chaosium published The Hastur Cycle (1993), collecting thirteen older tales with some connection (sometimes tenuous) to the Hastur/Carcosa mythos. Miskatonic River Press has just released A Season in Carcosa. And, this past August, Atomic Overmind published Robin Laws’s New Tales of the Yellow Sign, with an introduction by Kenneth Hite; Kevin Ross’s version of the Yellow Sign adorns the spine and back cover. It’s a tight-knit world.
This, then, is the context for the collection.
The first story in the collection, “Full Bleed,” is probably my favorite. This is unsurprising, as it is the closest in feel to “Repairer of Reputations,” which is my favorite story in the original King in Yellow. The point of view character in “Repairer” is trying to ensure that he is not denied what he considers his rightful inheritance. The point-of-view character in “Full Bleed” is investigating signs of corruption by the book The King in Yellow. This sets the tone for the collection, as Laws riffs off Chambers, faithful to the spirit of the original collection, but making no attempt to imitate it slavishly.
“Repairer of Reputations,” written in 1895, is set in a future 1920. New York City has opened the first public suicide booth. “Foreign-born Jews” have been excluded from the country “as a matter of self-preservation,” and there is a “new independent Negro state of Suanee.” There was a “Congress of Religion” which apparently ended bigotry and intolerance, at least officially (9).
Chambers gives a few more tantalizing references to the way this future world differs from his own, but he shows very little of how this world works. None of the other stories in The King in Yellow consider this future world, yet it remains vivid in readers’ minds. Laws sets a number of his stories in the world of “Repairer,” or in a world that might be about to become that world, or a world that has been that world, but is now changing. Since he is taking into account modern technology, and since some of his characters question whether their world is the world that was truly meant to be, the exact relationship of the world of “Repairer” and the world—or worlds—in Laws’s tales is as delicately obscured as exactly how the world of “Repairer” functions.
“Gaps,” told in the second person singular, has an unreliable viewpoint character who knows that he (or at least, I assume the character is male) is unreliable. He has gaps in his memory and only a vague idea of what triggers these gaps. The gaps started when he accidentally read the play. Like many others, he was “yellow rolled,” tricked into clicking on a link to the play. He becomes involved in very unsavory deeds, as one might expect from reading That Play—and yet, whatever causes the gaps, whatever personality takes over, seems to be not only protecting him but also trying to do what is right. The shape of the story changes until, in the end, it has become a chilling yet oddly touching ghost story, with the narrator still suffering from gaps, still trying to do the best he can, and making the best peace he can with the situation.
“The Blood on the Wall in the Fortress” is not actually listed in the table of contents. While it would be amusing to theorize about mystical or conspiratorial reasons for this, I am fairly sure it was a simple mistake. This story continues to focus on unreliable viewpoints and alternate timelines. Set in a world where war is raging in 1947, the point of view character’s senses cannot be trusted—or can they? Is he hallucinating the ever increasing amount of blood, or is he causing it? Is he guilty, as his fellow soldiers and commanding officer (who is reading Notes on the Yellow Sign by Albert Camus) claim? If so, of what? Of madness? Of perceiving a reality the others do not want to acknowledge? Of creating reality? Things seem to be spiraling out of his control and into the hands of something worse.
“A Boat Full of Popes” seems to have a sane and competent narrator and to be set after “Gaps.” The narrator is one of the men who service the suicide booths introduced in Chambers’s “Repairer of Reputations,” booths which do not kill cleanly and which sometimes require a lot of cleaning. These are also booths which, since some kind of revolution took place, many hoped would no longer be needed, and yet, despite the new freedom from the old regime—a regime which had something to do with the Yellow Sign, I think (and yet, wasn’t Chambers’s Castaigne insane? Surely there was no truth to any of his delusional ramblings?)—are still used and still carry a fascination for many.
This story ends happily, or so it would seem. The narrator saves his friend and coworker from a group of alien cultists. And yet, while the aliens were a threat that had to be dealt with, the words of their leader are not so easily dismissed. He preyed upon those who were unhappy because they did not fit in, instead making them unhappy by forcing them to conform. Is this really so different from what any society does? And, while the narrator escaped that fate, the alien leader’s description of him seems spot on, a man openly revered but secretly feared for his competence at a distasteful job, a man doomed to loneliness. Kenneth Hite’s mention of the “fantasy of competence” in his introduction to this book echoes uneasily in the mind.
“Distressing Notification” is a nicely creepy tale about the titular smartphone app, made by the company Carcosa LLC. Download it and you’ll get all sorts of distressing messages, telling you what your neighbor really thinks about you, how your coworker is planning to stab you in the back, and so on. Occasionally, the app will inform you that it cannot come up with a topper to its most recent distressing notification for you. People trying to remove it from their phones may discover that it reappears. Just a small bug, no doubt. The narrator reluctantly agrees to try the new app at the urging of her friend, a woman who may or may not have truly broken up with her abusive boyfriend and who may or may not resent our narrator’s meddling. As events run their course and the narrator’s friend meets her fate, the app and the company that makes it vanish without a trace—but not before the app sends one final message to the narrator: “We couldn’t have done it without you.”
This still puzzles me as I am not sure if this means that the narrator’s friend could not have been maneuvered by the app if the narrator had not tried it out. This seems unlikely; the app seems quite capable of maneuvering people all too well on its own. I wonder if the narrator’s job has something to do with this. We know she has some kind of marketing position, but not what is being marketed.
Of all the stories, I find “Pendulous” the most ambiguous. Skygaunts, creatures with skeletal wings, darken the sky at irregular intervals and feast off those unfortunate to be passing by. This is not an occurrence worthy of comment by the protagonist and her boss, both of whom freeze in the boss’s office until the skygaunts are done and then return to their conversation. In his introduction to the collection, Hite describes the protagonist as “maneuvering for the corner office,” yet I fail to see signs of this. The protagonist is told by her boss that she can stay as his assistant if he is offered the promotion they both are sure is coming or he can recommend her for his current position. No maneuvering seems necessary, unless one considers the everyday actions of businesswomen competing with men to be “maneuvers.”
In addition to the decision about her future career path, the protagonist is concerned with an architectural project in the lot next to her workplace and with its advertising sign, which she abhors. She later meets the architect and starts a relationship with him. This relationship is still going on as the story ends, months later. She has chosen to take her boss’s old position and now has an assistant of her own.
Of course, her lover has no idea that she has subtly altered his plans for the building. In the world where the Yellow Sign dominates, I do not know if her changes are an attempt to wreck a good project or to to modify a potentially dangerous one, whether they are attempts of a frustrated architect to improve on someone else’s work or are evidence of the “motiveless malignity” Hite sees in the story.
The protagonist of “The Dog” is a fringe member of a circle of would-be revolutionaries, hoping that the woman in the group will notice him. His father was apparently a revolutionary, for in his basement, the protagonist finds some very interesting books, including The Communist Manifesto, which one revolutionary insists is what should have been influenced the world, rather than The King in Yellow.
A copy of the infamous play is also in the basement, and the protagonist thinks of it as a dog hoping for approval. Soon, there is a strange, four-eyed animal in the basement, an animal that the protagonist forces himself to think of as a dog. After his ailing mother dies, he uses the dog to deal with minor enemies and has one of his fellow revolutionaries dispose of the remaining evidence.
At this point, the cell of revolutionaries is dealt with, for one member turned out to be a collaborator. The collaborator now has a place with the regime, and he also has made a place for the woman, who, the protagonist guesses, is probably only going along with him out of self-preservation. But the protagonist has a “dog,” contacts among the larger revolutionary movement “up north”—which is apparently far more successful than the regime would have its citizens believe—and an opportunity to use these to bring down the regime.
The final story of the collection, “Fuck You You’re Not Getting Out of This Car,” is a perfectly respectable monologue of a tale, but it seems a little obvious and workmanlike compared to the others. Then again, perhaps for just that reason, it makes a good closer.
Throughout the collection, Laws captures the ambiguity at the heart of The King in Yellow mythos. The play is supposedly irresistible and beautiful, yet fatal and nihilistic. Seeking it out, or seeking tales about it, is as strange as collecting Yellow Sign jewelry or Cthulhu plushies (of which we have five). Yet there is a promise of beauty in some of the tales and a promise that evil can be destroyed, as in “Gaps” and “A Boat Full of Popes” or “The Dog.”
Even there, it is not clear how meaningful victory is. I think this is another part of the appeal of the tales. We do not want ultimate bleakness, but neither do we want facile assurances that good will inevitably triumph over evil.
And we do want mystery. Is there a coherent chronology of the world Laws constructs on Chambers’s foundation? We see only glimpses of it, dis-ordered and fragmentary. As with the play The King in Yellow, perhaps these glimpses are more satisfying than any whole could ever be.
Lisa Padol lives in Sunnyside, New York.