Thursday, 1 January 2015

Have you seen the Yellow Sign?

I'm a devotee of early 20th century Weird Fiction. I got there via H.P. Lovecraft and the game Call of Cthulhu, but that was just the beginning, and over the years I've expanded my horizons to the rest of the 'Lovecraft circle' - August Derleth, Robert E Howard, Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith and Frank Bellknap Long, and from there into their antecedents and successors. There are threads that twist in and out of this genre, including a particularly downbeat and British form of paganism, ghost stories and spooky happenings, via Welsh journalist and mystic Arthur Machen (a big influence on Lovecraft) and Liverpudlian horror writer Ramsey Campbell (who in turn started his career writing Lovecraft pastisches), as well as the kind of American Gothic that began with Edgar Allan Poe and ran through Lovecraft to Stephen King, and even the fantastic faerie imaginings of Lord Dunsany, a prototype for everyone from Fritz Lieber to J. R.R. Tolkien. But one of the currents is a peculiar thread of so-called 'yellow' literature from the 'Naughty Nineties' (i.e. 1890s), a queasy blend of fin de siecle decadence; absinthe, ladies of the night, madness, aesthetes, ennui and the limits of human experience. The ur-novel of yellow literature is A Rebours ('Against the Grain') by Joris Karl Huysman, a kind of manual for decadent aristos of the end of the 19th century, while its most famous product is The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde - Gray goes off the rails after having read a 'yellow book' which Wilde later admitted was, as everyone had suspected, A Rebours. But its apotheosis came in a handful of short stories written by Robert W Chambers, an unsuccessful American artist living in Paris and himself a devotee of another 'yellow' author, Ambrose Bierce. In 1895 he took Oscar Wilde's notion of a forbidden book that causes madness to its logical conclusion, via the invented play The King In Yellow, a forerunner of Lovecraft's Necronomicon. The play is only ever sketchily described, and seems to take place in a weird, possibly extraterrestrial city called Carcosa, lit by 'black stars', where bickering nobility attend a Venetian-style masked ball (it's been suggested that Wilde's play Salome provided a lot of the decadent 'window dressing'), and The Stranger in White pronounces a terrible Revelation of some kind, possibly to do with the mysterious King in Yellow, and reveals the Yellow Sign.

If any of these terms sound familiar to you, it may be because the strange unearthly mythology of Chambers has recently found its way into HBO's offbeat police procedural series True Detective. Detectives Hart and Cohle are on the face of it trying to atone for shooting a suspect 20 years earlier who took with him to the grave the identity of a serial killer with a line in bizarre Blair Witch meets voodoo/santeria-style window dressing. But as the series progresses, little hints and mentions of the Yellow King, Carcosa, the Black Stars and so on reveal that there's something bigger and darker out there, via a secretive church that has gone off the rails and descended not into common or garden Satanism but something altogether stranger.

I watched the final episode last night, and there was a resolution of sorts, although as in Chambers' stories, Carcosa and the Yellow King remained tantalisingly just out of reach. The closest we got was the confrontation in the overgrown remains of what looked like an 18th century fort filled with strange wooden constructions and mummified bodies which hillbilly serial killer Errol Childress (himself very much in the tradition of Lovecraft's twisted New England backwoods sorcerors like Joseph Curwen) said was 'Carcosa', or perhaps at least its reflection on Earth. And Cohle, closer to the dark heart of the mystery than his partner, began hearing voices and finally looked up to see a giant spiralling vortex of nothingness. As with Chambers' stories, we are left to ourselves to decide whether these things have an objective existence, or whether they exist only in the mind of the beholder. Nevertheless, I believe that this was the Yellow King, and the spiral tattoos and brands on the backs of the various cultists and victims were the programme's version of the (never described in the books) Yellow Sign, in effect a crude depiction of their extradimensional deity. Winningly, as Childress stabbed Cohle, he shouted at him to "take off your mask!", a line from the climactic scene in the play The King In Yellow (the Stranger subsequently reveals that, in fact, he is not wearing a mask).

Many commentators on the series have mentioned the series' nihilism. That might be a philosophical step too far for godfearing middle America, but it's very much in keeping with the whole Lovecraft circle and its writings. However, such ideas have lost their power to shock us as much as they perhaps did in the 1920s; a time when the carnage of the First World War had led people to question everything; religion, politics, society itself. Out of it came new philosophies, new ways of looking. Indeed, one Lovecraft scholar whom I once heard lecture said that, in a way, post-modernism has been the 'cure' for Lovecraft's idea of 'cosmic horror'. We are no longer shocked as people were in the 1920s by some of the concepts. Tell people today that the universe is a bleak and indifferent place, that that there is no God, no meaning, no objective reality, only shifting perceptions, and they will shrug and say "yes, but so what?" I wonder if this is why Lovecraft, and more particularly his arch-daemon Cthulhu, has become almost a default secular religion of the internet. Cthulhu has become ubiquitous - you can buy t-shirts and cuddly toys. We knowingly wink and say to ourselves; "yes, we know it's all just make believe, but then, isn't everything?"

Lovecraft, and perhaps Chambers before him, fretted that if we looked too hard at reality and saw it for what it was, we would; "either go mad from the revelation, or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age". That was what Chambers and Lovecraft imagined that the true meaning of those terrible books, the King In Yellow and the Necronomicon, were - that they brushed aside our complacent veil of cosy asusmptions and laid The Truth bare for us, truth which they thought could drive us to the very brink of madness; that we are cast adrift in a godless, purposeless universe. But it didn't. The truth is, we have all seen the Yellow Sign, and - for the most part - survived the experience. 

Happy New Year.

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