7 February, LI A.S.
My King in Yellow inspired story
This is a little piece of fiction I wrote recently for reddit’s “nosleep” forum. I’m posting it here a couple minutes prior so I can prove my authorship of it. Enjoy!
I don’t know how long I have to write this. I don’t know if I should write this. I just know I need to get it out, out of my head, where someone else can read it and maybe begin to understand. No one I know in this place we call “real life” would believe me, but maybe the anonymity of information transmitted over electrons and photons will give you the freedom to question and consider, even if in the end you don’t believe.
If you find a 35mm film reel or God forbid even a VHS, laser disk, MP4, whatever format, of a movie entitled Schwertner- “King in Yellow,” 1933, or any linguistic variation, do not watch it. Not even the beginning. Destroy it any way you can. If you value your mental health, your sanity, burn that film. If that sounds paranoid, let me explain.
I’m a film student at a college not far from Boston. I’m hedging my bets with a double major in Business, but movies are my real passion. (My raison d’etre, if I’m feeling pretentious.) When I’m not studying or indulging in the occasional party, one of my biggest hobbies is the collection of rare movies. I’ll find ’em mostly on Ebay or Amazon, sometimes sites specifically for swapping movies and film equipment, and sometimes in the increasingly rare brick-and-mortar video store.
I’ll get ’em in any format, VHS most commonly, though I’ve gotten into reels more lately. The movies I find are usually “shit that’s so shitty it’s good:” forgotten, “B” sci-fi, horror, and comedy flicks of the 1970’s and 1980’s. I’ll get my hands on older and better stuff sometimes, too; cult classics of the ’40’s and ’50’s that would be full-fledged classics had they gotten a wider distribution.
I’d thought I’d fulfilled one of my film geek bucket list items when I got my hands on a lost film last Friday. A “lost” film is just that: people know it exists because there’s some record of it in letters and studio documents, often a poster or two. But these are usually movies so old that no one alive remembers seeing them, and so they are truly lost to time. That concept has always fascinated me.
The particular lost film I picked up is a 1933 movie version of Robert W. Chamber’s proto-Lovecraftian story The King in Yellow. H.P. Lovecraft’s been in vogue lately on much of the Internet, and he drew inspiration from Chambers’ work, so I got especially curious. The gist is that there’s a creepy play, sharing its title with Chamber’s book, which, if read, will drive the reader mad. The title comes from a character/monster who factors heavily in the play: the King, under the guise of a mysterious Stranger, dressed in a ragged yet regal set of yellow robes, face hidden beneath a placid mask.
All great and creepy Lovecraftian fun, I’d always thought. The fictional play remains mysterious, so writers and directors have a lot of creative freedom on how to portray it. This movie is an adaptation of the play itself. I was hyped to find this lost film, (of which I’ve only seen a couple sparse listings on movie database websites,) and snatch it up for an apparent bargain on Ebay. The seller clearly didn’t know what he had on his hands. At least, that’s my guess.
Fuck my curiosity. How was I supposed to know what I’d found…but still, fuck it!
Anyway. The reel arrived on Friday morning, carefully packaged. Packing peanuts, tape, real normal-like. The 35mm reel was in good shape too; you could tell it was 70+ years old but was looking fine except for a couple tiny dents. The title was written on with tape and a blue sharpie, in precise handwriting. All I knew about this movie was that it was an unlicensed adaptation, directed in German by a Jewish filmmaker known as Germund Schwertner. It’s the only movie to Schwertner’s credit, and there’s almost nothing known about the guy, apart from that he was a decorated soldier on the Eastern Front of WWI. Maybe he emigrated to Britain or the US and disappeared from the historical record, or got sent to a concentration camp when the Nazis took over. Either way, this damned film is his only legacy.
I felt like an archaeologist as I sat in my apartment alone with a cup of tea and a notebook that night, my restored 1966 projector spinning to life. I focused the fuzzy title images, as the soundtrack popped and blared through my speakers. The quality wasn’t bad, and the opening credits sequence brought a smile to my face. The haunting shadows, surreal images, and foreboding sense of the existential macabre were right in line with earlier German horror films such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferuteau. The music matched the images: deep, thrumming base lurking beneath the increasingly shrill staccato of wild flutes and clarinets. Finally, with a final blast from the brass section, the main title appeared, in that glorious, stereotypically German Gothic font:
Der Konig in Gelb
…and underneath, in smaller, plainer font, the English title: The King in Yellow. I was literally rubbing my hands together in excitement.
Since the lore surrounding the play was invented by Americans, Schwertner must have figured an Anglophone audience would watch his little movie at some point. I was surprised, however, when the credits faded into the opening scene, which featured a dialogue between two stately, Renaissance-era dressed women: all the speech was in English! English with a soft German accent, but perfect English nonetheless.
Things initially looked like a normal First Act set up: an old dynasty has been restored in the fictional city-state of Carcosa, so the common folk and nobles alike are anxious about the potential for bloodshed between the factions of the old and new regimes as the King makes his return from exile. Meanwhile, one of the female characters is looking to be married off to a prince of the ancient but newly restored House of Hastur. This royal family is wealthy and mighty beyond ordinary human standards, and rumors abound that they got that way through sinful and supernatural ends.
The first scene, which dragged a bit after the initial novelty, transitioned to a soulful song by one of the two women, Cassilda. This was a haunting yet oddly beautiful overture for Carcosa, with the instruments echoing phrases and sounds from the title music. I recognized the song at once as one of the few brief excerpts that Lovecraft offered from his fictional play.
My excited recognition quickly turned to confusion, and then on-my-feet shock. While Cassilda sang, the video changed to show us startlingly realistic shots of the city: wide avenues filled with ornately-costumed extras, multi-tiered and strangely leaning buildings, narrow and twisting garden paths flanked with willows and tropical trees, the twisting spires of a palace backlit by three full moons, the black waters of a lake with tall and ancient ships floating swan-like across its surface.
While the opening credits’ static images had clearly been a combination of paintings and shots of indoor studio sets, these scenes of Carcosa, played over with that haunting voice, utterly blew me away. What kind of budget did Schwertner have?! I knew at once that none of the images he showed could have been shot on location, whether in the 1930’s or today. Everything about the sheer scale of those royal spires, the architecture, the many moons in the sky, the unbelievably…authentic faces and walks and costumes of those hundreds of extras. Impossible!
Heart beating with anticipation, I kept watching through an unexpected series of rather ordinary scenes filled with semi-Shakespearean dialogue and soliloquy, which included characters not known from the supposed lost excerpts of the play. It all held my interest but wasn’t anything amazing.
Finally, we got to the scene I’d anticipated, which I knew signaled the conclusion of the play’s First Act. The scene took place in a celebratory masked ball, the many noble gentlemen, and ladies dressed in exotic clothing and grotesque masks. Again, I marveled at the movie’s quality. After about a minute of establishment, the dreaded character, known at this point in the play as “The Stranger,” made his grand entrance. This sparked a flurry of hushed whispers among the party-goers, who turned to the new arrival.
A couple minutes later, it happened:
Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: [Terrified, aside to Cassilda] No mask? No mask!
As I watched transfixed, the music swelled, and my eyes were greeted with one of the most impressive movie… “monsters,” to use a feeble word, I’d ever seen. I knew instantly that it wasn’t CGI, and that even the best computer effects of movie-makers fifty years from now couldn’t produce a creature that moved and looked and existed like that. I also knew that it wasn’t practical special effects, as much as my rational mind screamed and thrashed against the implications of that conclusion.
The music blared horribly loudly, interlaced with the tortured wailing of much of the movie’s cast, who ran screaming to the street. Men were drawing their swords, gutting and dismembering each other, the women, and themselves, in a display of realistic bloodshed that would make Tarantino jealous. I’d seen plenty of graphic movie violence, and the worst real violence I’d witnessed in my life prior to this, which admittedly did screw me up for a couple years, was a dog getting squashed by a semi when I was six. The movie scene made me nauseous, but I kept watching, needing to know how it ended.
In the street, Carcosa’s people were panicking, the wailing rising and growing louder by the second until it felt more like a force of nature than any human vocalization. There were shots of the sky, showing the moons glowing red.
“NOT UPON US, OH KING, NOT UPON US!” screamed Cassilda, delivering another of the play’s few surviving quotes. I wasn’t even thinking of it as a movie anymore. Looking back, it was like I was hypnotized, sucked in, seeing and hearing and smelling the rest of the increasingly bizarre story as if I were a live witness rather than sitting in my apartment in Massachusetts, watching lights shine through a piece of film and flash against a wall.
You wanna know what’s even more messed up? I know you’re not believing any of this anyway, and I don’t know how to prove it to you without pulling you into the same shit as me. But, the Second Act and the Final are both in color. High definition color. High-quality sound. A subtle feel of the film, a certain graininess, lets me know that it wasn’t shot yesterday. But other than that, the transition from the First to Second Act was like leapfrogging over 80 years of movie-making technology.
I’m not going to describe what happens in the Second and Third Acts. I don’t know if what I’m experiencing will spread over text, but I’m not gonna risk it. The First Act is safe. But the rest of Der Konig in Gelb is every bit as horrible as the play is described. I still see it when I close my eyes and hear it when I’m somewhere too quiet.
The nightmares started that first night. The third consecutive night, I realized they weren’t nightmares in any conventional sense, when I woke up with that Sign on my hand, burned into the skin as if with an iron. No one else sees it, but I know it’s real. I can trace and feel the scars with my finger right now.
FUCK! I’m writing this in the busiest cafe within walking distance, but it’s quieting down now. I don’t want to sit alone, in the quiet. I’ll have to move to a bar.
I don’t want to tell you this, any of this, but I have to, He keeps telling me I have to, He says it without words. The King in Yellow is coming. Hastur is returning. That’s not even a warning, in the sense of preparing you or me for danger. It’s Doom. Think Genghis Khan launching the severed heads from the last city he destroyed over your city walls. Think the radar blips of ten thousand ICBM’s launching and climbing to sub-orbital altitude.
He sees the madness in us, the madness that we desperately paper over with Ideals, Laws, Philosophy. Science. Like kids standing anxiously to block a view of the mess we made on Mommy and Daddy’s clean white wallpaper when we went thought ourselves little gods and went crazy with the crayons.
Six thousand years of madness, tortures, Great Wars, and Holocausts. Fireballs and mushrooms in the sky. We think we’re different now. We’re angry monkeys who split the atom and called ourselves Enlightened. Hastur does nothing but hold up a mirror.
The Truths of that film are Truths as certain as anything I’ve ever known. I have all the proof I need after watching it. Breathing it. Dreaming it. I feel like a religious fanatic writing that, but it’s all I can say. Watch for the Yellow Sign. Hold your loved one’s close. I hope whatever God you pray to can save you from what’s coming, because I know mine can’t.
I still have the reel. I couldn’t destroy it. I buried it in a box in my closet under a mountain of books and clothes and other movies. Maybe I’ll need to watch it again, I think, find some new and useful insight, a way out? He probably just wants me to keep it intact, and alive …
I haven’t been to work or class this week. I’m talking to a psychiatrist tomorrow. I still have some tiny hope that this is all just a big delusion egged on by something fixable in my brain chemistry. And that hope’s all I got.
Thank you for listening. It’s like a toothpick’s weight lifted from my shoulders.