The Yellow Site

Yellow by Design

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The Yellow Sign, if we are to believe Chambers, is a symbol or letter (glyph) associated with The King In Yellow. It is alien to human writing though apparently it possesses sufficient similarity to elicit comparison (to Arabic and Chinese especially, though this might just be the bias of an individual). There is also the suggestion that it can be effectively traced; it can then, presumably, be reproduced as a line drawing (if, indeed, there is anything more to it).
Kevin Ross Yellow Sign

Interpretation of the Yellow Sign created by Kevin Ross for Call of Cthulhu

The most prevalent interpretation of the Sign is that of Kevin Ross. While this interpretation has garnered popularity, and arguably possesses something of the simplicity and curiosity of the symbol that Chambers alluded to, it is solely the product of one artist's imagination. If we are to hold that there is an authentic Sign, regardless of whether we could ever discover or (re)construct it, then Ross' interpretation of the Sign is simply a surrogate for the authentic.

The King in Yellow

Full cover of The King in Yellow (1895, likely 2nd or 3rd edition)

It is quite apparent then that we can do better. An alternative interpretation has drawn on Chambers' own illustrations for The King in Yellow as a path to reconstructing the authentic Sign. At least one early edition of The King in Yellow employs these illustrations on its cover. The front cover depicts a figure in [yellow] robes with a masked face and [red] wings. This figure is commonly interpreted to be the titular King in Yellow and he (presumably) is holding a torch, inverted. The spine depicts the inverted torch with the rising flame and smoke coiling about it. (The rear cover features the monogram of the publisher, F. Tennyson Neely.) This inverted torch design is then also drawn from the imagination of a single artist, however it bears the distinction of being the work of Chambers himself and enjoys that profound connection with the literary source of the Mythos (and any reality beyond).

This winged figure is reminiscent of Thanatos, the personification of Death in Greek mythology, who, in Roman depictions at least, carried an inverted torch. Is then this inverted torch the Sign, or a version of it? Certainly the published illustration tends far too much towards representation to constitute a glyph of the sort described. And that the question of the nature of the Sign should be so readily resolved does not ring true (or 'true'); certainly it does not satisfy (and likely no resolution would but still we might dare to take steps towards some sort of authenticity).

Picking up the thread of Chambers' illustration then, but not stopping at Thanatos, we need to look beyond the inverted torch to its inspiration, to that of which it is just an echo, and take the next step towards authenticity. Finding ourselves as we do, in the Classical Mediterranean, we can find the basic form of the inverted torch, a rod with something coiled along its length, in the thyrsus of Dionysus (of whom note should be taken) as well as in the Rod of Asclepius. Multiple echos of the same basic form could be taken as a clue to the authentic, but where next? Perhaps the thread is at an end and all we can do next is to take a rational approach to reconstruction of the Sign; construction not of the authentic Sign itself but of a better, more authentic, more meaningful and more powerful surrogate.

A glyph is simple and abstract, so our better surrogate would be at some remove from Chambers' highly representational illustration. Abstraction and simplification also grant a more general form that can speak to multiple derivatives and uses. One step in this direction has been taken by the Calla Cthulhu comic, but it is still far from a simple glyph.

To establish a rationale in pursuit of our better surrogate it is appropriate, necessary even, to establish some rules. The glyphs used for writing are, largely, the product of what might be termed the 'natural' evolution of written language. There do though exist glyphs which are the product of a deliberate and 'artificial' process. One such glyph, with a thematic kinship to the Sign, is the biohazard symbol. Developed by the Dow Chemical Company in 1966, the adopted symbol was one of several possibilities that were subjected to a set of criteria:

(i) striking in form in order to draw immediate attention; (ii) unique and unambiguous, in order not to be confused with symbols used for other purposes; (iii) quickly recognizable and easily recalled; (iv) easily stenciled; (v) symmetrical, in order to appear identical from all angles of approach; and (vi) acceptable to groups of varying ethnic backgrounds.

Not possessing practical concerns for safety, criterion (v) can be disregarded from our purposes. Similarly, a lack of concern for industrial marking can lead us to disregard criterion (iv), although a concern for 'traceability' should be perhaps be kept in mind. Criterion (vi) should not be beyond our concern, but this can perhaps be subsumed under the requirement of our glyph to be alien, and hence not carry associations for any human group. This requirement would marry with criterion (ii); unique, unambiguous and alien. Criteria (i) and (iii), while ostensibly appropriate to our project, require some consideration.

The Repairer of Reputations presents three reactions to the Sign, all provided by Hildred, its unreliable narrator. The first reaction, the general reaction, is that "no living human being dared disregard" the Sign. The second reaction, the specific reaction of a presumed beggar, is that of apparent momentary stupefaction but ultimately the revelation of significance and value. The third reaction, the specific reaction of Hildred's cousin Louis, is that "he did not seem to recognize it", and when it was identified to him he seemed neither stirred nor impressed. A further reaction to the Sign is given in The Yellow Sign, in which at first sight the Sign was considered merely "curious" and was only identified through a reading of the Play (which suggests the Play contains a written description, however oblique, of the Sign or whatever entity it is evidently based on, or else simply that the Sign is included as an illustration). At the end of the story however, it is implied that there is some unknown force at work, influencing the possessor of the Sign to retain it.

The first reaction supplied by Hildred implies that the Sign has a power, supernatural or somehow natural, that compels some strong response in all those that come across it, and must do so without knowledge of the Play for it is never evident that the Play had anything more than a niche readership. The second would appear to be a specific example of the first. The third might seem to contradict the first and it is here that the unreliability of Hildred's narration is important. Should Hildred be reliable, Louis is merely feigning a nonchalant reaction (as well as disguising his familiarity), and the power of the Sign stands. Should Hildred be unreliable however, with all the business of the Imperial Dynasty nothing but a nonsense or delusion, then the Sign is quite unremarkable and mundane, if at least a little curious. Even with some reality to the Sign and the Dynasty, a genuinely unaware Louis is still not struck by the Sign in the manner that Hildred maintains that everyone should be.

The other story, with presumably much more reliable narration, would support the notion that the Sign lacks self-evident import and an unavoidable reaction. Ultimately however a significant power associated with the Sign is realised, which might suggest a more subtle visual impact, the Sign's power hidden and latent rather than self-evident and immediate.

On balance, we might consider the Sign, within the universe of the Mythos, to be subtle and obscure, potentially to the point of a mere curiosity. Certainly such a glyph would be easy for us to construct, though not very satisfying. Further, any construction of ours would lack the innate power of the Sign (at least by virtue of being too imperfect an approximation) and hence for our surrogate glyph to embody or manifest any sort of power it would need to be much more than a mere curiosity. A satisfying and potent surrogate would need some impact and, ideally, to somehow tap a great vein of curiosity and unease in the collective human psyche. A tall order indeed.

Given then the goal that we would prize most, a satisfying surrogate, and our inevitable limitations in reaching it, the path forward would appear to lead us to aim high in devising a glyph with a profound visual impact that embodied whatever [appropriate] power or effect we could muster. Any falling short would, or should, at least leave us with a curiosity. Criterion (i) can then be adopted (and, indeed, expanded upon). Criterion (iii), while perhaps of lesser importance, can also be adopted, at the very least, on the grounds of good practise; while we might not be able to engineer the supernatural recognition of Hildred's claims, there are certainly no grounds to act against it.

The intention of the design of the biohazard symbol, above and beyond the six criteria, was to create a symbol that was "memorable but meaningless". How do the requirements of our project compare? We would expect memorability to be inevitable for a simple glyph with the intended profound visual impact; incidental then, not to mention the concern of criterion (iii). Meaninglessness is a different matter however. If we are to discount or, at the very least, not rely on being struck by some profound insight that would permit us to devise a glyph that was at once both alien and possessive of some innate meaning, whether explicit or implicit, then, to be devoid of all earthly associations and so achieve the requisite alien nature, we would require our surrogate to be meaningless. A challenge arises however in delicately balancing this meaninglessness against a resemblance to our basic form together with the grounding for some ineffable curiosity.


In the King in Yellow story The Demoiselle D'Ys, a symbol of fatal portent is referenced; the 'black V-shaped figure' on the neck of the viper is remarked as signifying 'certain death'.

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