An essay by Dr James Roberts

The King in Yellow Mythology - an analysisEdit

Mythology is more than a collection of old stories. The stories are the creative backdrops to many ancient religions, in much the same way as today's religions have their own stories and lessons. Still, if you look closely at any myth, particularly one that has been told many times, by many people, and you'll find inconsistencies amongst the parables and divine dynasties. Often it is the lessons that are important, not the specific relationship between different figures. As trends and beliefs change, and certain figures become more popular than others, myth has a tendency to contradict itself, to evolve into an acceptable form (rather than stagnate and die). History may be written by the victor, with religion and philosophy often written by enduring scholars, adapting the old tales into the new world.

If we were to approach the mythology of 'The King In Yellow' with as much hesitancy and uncertainty as we do classical (and historical) myths, we might accept that certain ideas and beliefs are maleable and defy definition because they mean different things to different people, at different times. It makes it hard for us to pin down exactly what is hinted at and referred to, and maybe that is how the mythology is best presented. Certainly, all the people in the short stories by Chambers who have been influenced by the play seem to have their own spin on how it affects their lives, echoing how religious belief and understanding can be intensely personal and intimate. Likewise, readers of the various stories have different (and often contradictory) ideas about what different reoccurring references and symbols of the mythology mean. This can be said to be true of any religion - in these times we know only too well how the modern face of religion is often fractured into various factions, constantly squabbling and fighting (and killing) over 'the Truth'.

Still, there is a point where the 'King In Yellow' mythology dramatically diverges from traditional myth and religion. We have the benefit of familiarity with the settings and characters of the short stories - through which we, in return, see the play. Furthermore we, the humble reader, know that we are reading fiction, and not some sacred text or legend. Whether it be Robert W. Chambers or the anonymous playwright he quotes, both authors must have had some sort of plan or agenda for the tale, surely? Even if this is not the case, we know that, from what has been put down on paper, details of the mythology can be fleshed out later. As, indeed, other writers have attempted to do (with varying degrees of success).

One of the points in favour of the 'King In Yellow' mythology is that, by it's very nature, it prompts insanity and chaos. It may be that the 'King In Yellow' represents some form of chaos or entropy, either in his own right or as a herald or avatar of 'Hastur' (Hastur is frequently referred to in the mythology of the King, usually as an overshadowing factor in the King's mythology - however, whether the name refers to some sort of deity, force of nature or place is never really made clear). Regardless, this means that the jigsaw puzzle inevitably has pieces that do not fit, or even pieces that might exist one minute and not the next. There is no reason to the rhyme and the patterns seem elusive. This, in effect, means that pattern may, at times, seem contradictory, as it weaves to and fro, attracted towards certain elements and truths whilst repelled by others. Bear in mind that what we see, in the course of what is little more than a handful of stories, are just scratches on the surface of a much larger unknown quantity. When examined in this light it begins to dawn on you how immense a task it is to effectively map the territory and influence covered by the King.

And yet, it is hard to shake off the feeling of the mythology as a simple, rigid religion. In particular the backdrop to the story 'The Court of the Dragon', particularly with the passage quoted from the Bible at the end, being whispered by the King: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!" (Hebrews 10:31). Does this place The King's mythology within the realms of established religion, or does it instead relate a mockery of this religion? Is it simply the exploitation and perversion of the narrator's religious beliefs? Given the subjective and individual attention each protagonist seems to suffer in these stories, it would most likely fall into the realms of a pervertion of established belief.

Still, without any true followers of the faith a religion has the capacity to fall backwards into existing as a simply structure of mythology. Examining the stories, there does seem to be the basis some sort of following. Both Chambers and Lovecraft hints at followers of the King in their stories

Chambers mentions, in the first story of the collection, 'The Repairer of Reputations', the thousand men who "had received the Yellow Sign which no living human being dare disregard", whose names all appear on Mr Wilde's list. Yet the narrator of this story may very well be delusional. If both he and Mr Wilde are acknowledged to be insane, how much can we expect them to be telling the truth? How can we expect them to even recognise it? And yet, maybe through the lens of their insanity they are able to recognise it more clearly than anyone else.

Secondly, the watchman in 'The Yellow Sign'. A figure which appears human but apparently is not, that comes to claim the Yellow Sign from the narrator, possibly assuming the form of the King as he does so. Is 'he' a lone manifestation, or are there others like him? In the play transcribed by Blish in his story 'More Light', we are led to believe that such 'people' are heralds of the King, but is this 'fact' or just artistic licence on behalf of Blish or whoever origanally penned the play? Obviously, in a play written prior to the publication of the Chambers book we'd imagine it a more reliable observation than if it had been penned later, as if based on the watchman in 'The Yellow Sign'.

Lovecraft who takes the idea of an actual following one step further. His addition appears in 'The Whisperer in Darkness', where there is a mention of a secret cult. "A whole secret cult of evil men (a man of your mystical erudition will understand me when I link them with Hastur and the Yellow Sign) devoted to the purpose of tracking them [the 'Mi-go' of the story] down and injuring them on behalf of monstrous powers from other dimensions." Here, strangely, the followers seem to be working against the stories antagonists, though we later find our information may have come from an untrustworthy source.

It's worth pondering this cult and their link to the Sign (other correspondents have referred to this cult as the 'Brothers of the Yellow Sign', but I have been unable to pin down where this title came from). Perhaps their goals coincide with the King's. Perhaps the Brothers and the King have a mutual enemy in the cold and emotionless alien 'Mi-go', with no time for the creativity or decadence that seem to draw the King. Or possibly the Sign heralds from a time, long before the play, and the King is just a new avatar for an older evil. Certainly, 'The Brotherhood' and the Sign appear to be aligned, perhaps predating the nineteenth century publication of the play. But then the King himself may well be independent from the play that bears his name.

There is one more person that bears consideration: the organ player in 'The Court of the Dragon'. Is he genuinely evil, a manifestation of the King's malevolence, or does he appear to be a threat as the result of the narrator's dream? The narrator of 'The Yellow Sign' also considers the organist at his nearby church a "fiend in human shape". Is it the same person? Given the parallels given here and a similar description of the priest and his sermons, we are led to believe they are, but is the organist a true manifestation of evil or does he serve as a focus for the narrator's madness? Admitedly, Mr Scott (from 'The Yellow Sign') has his opinions of the organist before contact with either the play or the Sign, and the church is also the 'haunt' of the watchman. Maybe the organist and watchman are linked somehow, simply through contact with the church. The stories never touches on this, but it's certainly a possibility.

Despite these numerous hints and elusions, we never quite find out about the exact scope of any cult or following of the King. The observations of the narrators are all in a very personal context. Perhaps that is what makes the feeling of dread impossible to escape...