Gender: Male Age: 29 Location: San Francisco.
|Introduction: With regards to Robert W Chambers.|
And to think it all started with a play.
If I had never heard of the play then none of this would have happened, and no one would have been hurt, and I wouldn't be writing this now knowing that it's probably the last thing I'll ever do. But now it's too late.
In the beginning it wasn't even about the play at all. Really it was just about the girl, and it was for the sake of meeting her that I had been willing to do anything. Her name was Melissa Folger, and I can honestly say I loved her from the first moment I saw her, all blue eyes and full smile, and hair so pale blond that it was almost white. Hair like asphodels, that's what it was.
Other guys on campus, the frat crowd and the club hoppers, they never looked twice at Melissa, but to me she couldn't have been more perfect. Except, of course, for the fact that she had no idea who I was. And since I didn’t have the first idea how to approach her, I spent months waiting for a chance, any chance, to get closer.
The opportunity came in Professor Chambers' seminar on literary censorship, one of the two classes I shared with Melissa. Chambers was giving a particularly dull lecture about an old play, the most widely censored play in any language. It was called "The King in Yellow", and after it was published in the late 19th century the governments of Europe outlawed it across the board, and now there was probably not a single copy left in the entire world.
"The government of the Third Republic was not prepared for what a play like 'The King in Yellow' had to say about the human condition," Chambers lectured, his voice sounding like an old saw working its way through a branch. "The complex relationship between sex, power, and violence in its text offended the moral guardians of the age. The exploration of the main character's career as a courtesan-"
A hand raised in the back: "What's a courtesan?"
Chambers fumbled a bit with his answer, finally coming up with: "Well, a lot of things really, but I suppose you would have to call them females for hire. If you know what I mean." Snickering through the ranks. "But ones who catered specifically to the wealthy and influential, which is why the powers that be did not appreciate the play's author drawing attention to their profession."
Another hand: "So the play was banned just because it was about rich prostitutes?"
Chambers stroked his beard. "There's more to it than that. Of course, I've never read it myself, no one today has, I know it only by reputation and by what critics of the age said. But from what we understand, to read 'The King in Yellow' is to understand the true nature of human desire, all desire, and it seems that to some people's minds that was a very dangerous thing."
I admit I zoned out for the rest of class, and I probably would have kept on caring less about "The King in Yellow" if I hadn't overheard Melissa tell a friend after that she had heard of the play before, and that she agreed with Chambers about how tragic it was that great art had been ruined by narrow-minded censors, and how much she wanted to study the fragments of it that were left.
She spoke with so much passion and enthusiasm that I made up my mind then and there: if Melissa was interested in "The King in Yellow", then it was a subject worth studying. If I could learn anything interesting about the play, anything at all, it might give me the chance to make an impression on her that would really last.
Which, all things considered, I have to acknowledge that it certainly did.
So I began my research. "The King in Yellow" was first published in Paris in 1890, and all copies of it were immediately seized and its author jailed (he killed himself two weeks later, and the effort to suppress his work was so efficient that no one today even knows his name). No one is sure who translated it, but in 1895 the play somehow surfaced in England, and that country eventually outlawed it too. Even in America the government would not allow it to be publicly circulated.
As it turns out though, there was more to the story than just a naughty play about high-society girls for hire. It wasn’t just sex that shocked the authorities, it was something reputedly sinister about the play’s message:
"'The King in Yellow' is a book of great truths," wrote one of the judges who issued the original warrant for the author's arrest, "but they are truths which send men frantic and blast their lives. I don't care if the thing is, as they say, the very supreme essence of art. It is a crime to have written it."*
People didn't just think that the play was offensive, they thought that it was dangerous. Perfectly sane men had gone mad reading it (or so the stories said), and it was connected to outbursts of mania, mass hysteria, and violence everywhere that it was published. Whatever “The King in Yellow” said about people's desires, it was not something they were prepared to hear.
Almost nothing of the original text survives to the present day. Men like Professor Chambers had chronicled all of the scraps that remained and produced a catalogue of names and phrases related to it: a city called Carcosa, a courtesan named Camilla, and another named Cassilda, her sister. And there were strange, opaque phrases like "The Phantom of Truth" and "The Pallid Mask" which no one really understood. But of the story itself there was nothing at all, which meant I had nothing to show for all of my work.
Of course, a play like that, with a reputation like that, gave birth to plenty of pretenders. Pulp magazines, basement publishing houses, and of course the internet had spawned dozens of scripts claiming to be the one true version of "The King in Yellow", all of them obvious frauds from amateur playwrights desperate for any kind of exposure. Most were almost unreadable. But poor imitators though they were, I thought that these fakes might give me something to work with.
A sufficiently well-written fraud, I reasoned, could contain "insights" into the real thing. It was thin, but it was enough to possibly interest Melissa. So one day I summoned up all of my courage and, catching up to her after class, I introduced myself, told her about my research, and asked if she would be interested in looking at something, the first Act of a play that was, I claimed, probably the closest thing to the original that still existed.
To my surprise, she was very interested. I remember the look on her face when I showed her the manuscript; like a kid on Christmas morning. She took it, and smiled, and thanked me, and told me how much she admired my fastidiousness. I was putty in her hands. Only later did I realize that this was where it all started. As soon as the pages passed from my hands to hers, there was no going back.
At ten o’clock that night I was lying in bed in my one-room dorm, staring at the ceiling and thinking about Melissa. I wondered what she thought of the play. It was such a strange story, surreal and macabre and terrible. I was glad it was unfinished. If there was a second Act, I didn't want to read it.
I thought about the Phantom of Truth, the ghostly figure that haunted the play’s heroine, about its frayed robe and pale white mask, and how it pointed its accusing finger at everyone who passed, though only she could see it. I shivered.
I jumped when someone knocked on my door. When I answered, Melissa walked right past me without saying a word. I was so surprised that I almost fell over. She didn't even look at me, instead just dropping a stack of loose pages onto my bed and then staring at them like she had never seen them before.
She was pale and shaking, and although we had spoken only six hours ago she had bags under her eyes like she hadn't slept in days. She had the look of a person who had just come from her own funeral.
Before I could ask what was wrong or what she was doing here, she began reciting words that I recognized, but saying them in a way that obliterated recognition:
“Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies.
But stranger still is
It was Cassilda's song from Act 1, Scene 2. Except it wasn't. It was the same lines, certainly, but when I had read them on the page they had not filled me with the kind of dread that I felt now. It was like falling down a very dark hole and being absolutely certain there was no bottom. Even worse was the dull, flat look in her eyes, and the droning monotone of her voice.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" she asked.
I tried to talk but my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. After a few seconds I managed a noise that sounded somewhat affirmative, although I'm not sure that agreeing was what I really wanted to do.
"It's just like I thought it would be," she continued, "only better. And worse. It's like one of those dreams that you forget as soon as you wake up. I can't believe you found it."
"Found what?" I said.
She looked at me like I was an idiot. "The play. You found 'The King in Yellow.'"
I shook my head. "No, Melissa, that play I gave you, it's a fake. There's no way-"
"No," she said. "It's real. Oh, but of course, you won't realize it until the end. It's fine. It's the way things have to be. You just haven't decided your price yet."
"Everyone is for hire. That's what the play says."
"Well, it says that, but-"
"Tell me, what do you think it was about?" Her eyes looked like two bright blue chips of ice as she waited for my answer.
I hesitated, then said: "Um, the true nature of human desire?"
She nodded. "Of course. But do you know what that is?"
I had to admit that no, I didn't.
"That's fine," she said, "I'll show you." And then she began to undress.
I would like to be able to say that at this point I stopped her, pointing out that she was obviously not in her right mind and that she was maybe under the influence of something and in any case that this is not the way I wanted this to happen.
But no matter how strange she was acting, this was the girl of my dreams, alone in my room in the middle of the night, and apparently quite intent on being naked in front of me, and if I was slightly less honorable with my handling of the situation than I should have been, well, really, can you blame me?
In seconds she stripped down to her bra and panties, and she stood less than a foot away. She put her hand on my chest and closed her eyes, and I watched her sway in time to the erratic beating of my heart. I was frozen in place, afraid that if I moved or said anything that the moment would somehow shatter like brittle glass.
"Do you want me?" she said.
I swallowed. "Yes."
"What will you give me?"
I bit my tongue. "What?"
"You read the first Act. You know what it says. Nothing is ever given without payment. Everyone is for hire, even if they don't know it. So what will you give me? What should be my price?"
I was now almost completely certain that I was having a nightmare.
When she saw that I wasn't going to answer, she said: "Don't worry, I don't want any money. Why don't you do something for me instead. Why don't you find the Yellow Sign?"
She obviously thought I would know what that meant, but I didn't have the first idea, any more than I expect you do now. Even so, I was happy to have been rescued (or so I thought), and I nodded, and then she kissed me and all of my worries disappeared for a while.
I guess everyone probably has one great romantic memory that they're sure is more perfect and more beautiful than anyone else's. But I also know that someone somewhere really must have the single most romantic memory of all time, and there's no way of knowing that I'm not that person, and that that kiss isn't the one.
There was something about the way that she took my clothes off that made me feel studied. She ran her hands over my bare limbs and naked chest in a probing manner, as though she were exploring some alien terrain. She kept her eyes on what she was doing, only looking me in the face when she had finished her strange examination, apparently satisfied with whatever she had found.
She pushed me down onto the bed and climbed on top, catching me between her thighs. She rubbed against my naked, swollen cock once and I gasped. Her expression was placid, almost quiescent, and I sensed that she regarded me not as a whole being but as a communion of parts.
Already panting, I had trouble speaking. "Melissa, wait. Before we go any further, you should know, I mean, I've never, I've never actually-"
"That's alright," she said, face softening just the tiniest degree. "I'll help." Then she slid down, taking me in her hand and guiding me into her mouth, and I felt such a thrill that I thought I might pass out. It wasn't just the feel of her supple pink lips gliding down over me or her soft tongue teasing the underside of my shaft that nearly pushed me over the edge (although, that too...), it was the sudden and unexpected reality of what was happening.
Understand, before that night I had only ever kissed a girl once. Physical intimacy was altogether foreign to me, and sex seemed like a distant shore on the other side of an enormous ocean. Even as I ran my fingers through her pale blonde hair (hair like asphodels), it was impossible to believe that this was real, and the contrast between what was happening now and what I could ever have hoped would happen when I approached her that afternoon was nearly impossible to reconcile.
She took me all the way to the opening of her throat, pursing her lips around the base of my cock and then sucking wetly while her tongue swirled around. My fingers knotted so tightly in her hair that I worried I might hurt her, but she never objected. She was making a gulping noise that seemed particularly obscene, but in a way that made me quietly ecstatic.
Even now though, the strangeness in her demeanor never changed. She didn’t appear to treat or regard me as a complete person, but more as an object on which she was practicing. I can’t account for where this impression came from, but maybe it was the coldness of her eyes. They were closed most of the time, but she would occasionally open them to gauge my reaction, and I could not shake the feeling that there was no difference in the way she regarded me with eyes closed or open.
Of course, I was young and it was my first time, and although she was only a year older than me it was very clearly not her first time, and before long she had pushed me much further than I was able to go. I gasped out a warning as I felt it roil up inside of me, but either she didn’t hear or didn’t care because her only response was to slide my cock halfway out of her mouth and lick the head vigorously, which of course was all it took. I cried out as I came, squirting onto her tongue, body shuddering. Rather than turn away, she swallowed eagerly, only drawing me out when I was spent, her strawberry lips painted with the aftermath.
I grunted an apology, embarrassed by my lack of stamina and sure that she would be disappointed. Instead she climbed on top of me again, kissing the side of my neck and telling me not to worry, that was just what she had wanted. She reached behind her back and unhooked her bra, tossing it away, and then pressed my face to her breasts, where my lips found their way to her pink nipples. She whispered to me as my tongue flicked over them, and although her voice was still vacant there was a restrained undertone of real affection under the iciness that had come over her.
She was patient with me while we waited for it to come back, and sure enough after a time I was ready again. She lay on the bed, pulling me down with her, holding me in place between her splayed legs. I muttered something about protection, but she said not to worry (which I guess is exactly the kind of thing that should have made me worry more, but somehow when she said it it seemed okay). Then she put her arms around my neck and, coaxing with little twitches of her hips, let me in. I felt the warm, wet, tight embrace of her body, and to be honest, from that point on, there’s not much in the way of linear, coherent memory.
I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted or what we said or what I was thinking. All I remember is a long, slow, hot embrace that somehow felt deeper than the individual minutes of it. Imagine walking along and seeing what you thought was a tiny puddle, but then sticking your leg in and finding that it’s hundreds of feet deep. Time with Melissa was like that; a second was a second and a minute was a minute, but every second and every minute somehow held more than any other one before it.
I tried to pull out at the end, but she held me in, and I felt something pass between us when I came (and went), and the moment was suddenly broken, and I was back to myself, sweating, panting, naked, sore. And Melissa opened her eyes and looked at me with that icy flatness, and I felt chilled all over, and I knew that whatever affection she felt for me just seconds ago was gone now.
And then she left.
She dressed and went without saying a word, and as soon as she was gone I started to wonder if anything that had just happened had been real. But then I saw the pages of the play scattered on the floor and I realized that yes, it must have been. And it was when I began gathering the pages up that I noticed something else strange.
Although I had given Melissa only the first Act of an unfinished play, somehow she had returned a manuscript complete with a second Act. Where had it come from? I was too tired and too confused to consider an answer, so I stuck the whole thing in a drawer and hoped that when I woke up in the morning it would all make sense. Of course, it didn't.
I was awakened by my phone ringing. I didn't recognize the number, but I did recognize Melissa's voice when I answered.
"Have you found the Yellow Sign?"*
I hung up.
I was relieved when she was absent from class the next day. I stared at her empty chair, remembering the warmth of her naked body but unable to enjoy it because the competing memory of her blank, emotionless glare kept crowding it out. I might have sat there all day thinking about it if I hadn’t been startled by what at first sounded like the shriek of an escaped hyena but instead turned out to be:
"Let the red dawn surmise
What we shall do,
When this blue starlight dies
And all is through."*
Cassilda’s song again, I realized, snapping my head up. Professor Chambers stood at the lectern, pale, eyes wild, hair tangled, mouth open. His clothes were torn and disheveled, and from where I sat I thought I could see spots of blood in his beard. He looked like he had just been in a car accident, and when he opened his mouth to speak the next verses he drew handfuls of papers out of his briefcase and flung them into the front row of desks.
I didn’t even need to look at them to know what they were. Of course Melissa would have shown the play to Chambers, probably before she came to see me. Maybe before she even finished it herself. I guess he must have liked it, because he tried to quote the whole thing.
I looked around the room; a few of the other students were laughing and one or two seemed to think this was some sort of particularly unorthodox lecture, but most appeared uncomfortable. Chambers' voice grated and howled like a buzz saw while his recitations became less and less coherent. After twenty minutes, campus security escorted him out of the room and off to an ignominious early retirement.
Within an hour everyone had heard about it. Most of the student body found the incident hilarious. General speculation held that he must have been drunk, or maybe this is just what happens when you give one too many lectures on Wilde’s “Salome.”
Although a few people had saved the pages he threw around, no one recognized them, and no one made any connection between the professor’s sideshow and “The King in Yellow.” No one but me, of course. The combination of Melissa's spectral visit to my room and the professor’s performance in class set an unnamable terror in my heart.
But it couldn't be that the play was to blame. I didn't believe those ridiculous old ghost stories about a cursed play that drove people insane, and besides, the play I had shown Melissa was a fraud, of that I was certain. Even so, when I got back to my dorm I hid the pages in my mattress, and I told no one about it. I was sure that if I just kept my head down that this would all blow over, and things would be back to normal in no time at all.
Three days later Chambers was dead. So was Melissa.
They hung themselves side by side from the statue of the Fates in front of the arts building. An 80 page suicide note in both of their handwriting was found, scribbled on the back of Act 1 of “The King in Yellow.” Police found over a hundred photocopied manuscripts of both Acts in the trunk of Chambers' car, held together with rubber bands, and they seized the whole lot of them as evidence.
Classes were cancelled for the remainder of the week. The rumor mill was spinning from the moment the bodies were found, and everyone was out at the bars that night dissecting this newest twist in the drama. A nervous breakdown in class was one thing, but now suicide too? Double suicide with a student? And what about this mysterious play the cops had found? All the week long they talked, and speculated, and gossiped, and wondered.
I was in mortal terror of the police, or anyone else, connecting the dots between Chambers, Melissa, the play, and me. I considered throwing out the pages I had hidden, but something wouldn't let me. I suppose it was the belief that I would never understand what had happened unless I read it. When I heard the news that Melissa was dead, I went numb inside, and I thought that the only thing that would shake the feeling away was might be in that strange second Act she had brought me. Really, it was all I had left of her now.
But I didn't read it. I was scared to even touch it.
It was about then that the dreams started. In my sleep I floated over a diseased landscape, coming to ground in a walled courtyard where the ground was stained and gargoyles leered from their perches overhead. All around me were beautiful women, each offering to do unbelievable things with (and to) me, but always for a price:
"Steal for me."
"Kill for me."
And although I knew I could not afford the price they asked, I was afraid to say no, so each time I agreed, and my debts piled higher and higher, and in the end the courtyard was empty of everyone except the Phantom of Truth, who pointed an accusing finger at me. Before I woke, I heard Melissa's voice, and she asked:
"Have you found the Yellow Sign?"
But I still did not know what that meant.
When classes finally started again, I thought I could put the whole thing behind me. But as I walked to the humanities building I heard something that made me wonder if I was dreaming still:
“You, sir, should unmask.”*
It was Camilla’s line from the end of the masquerade, Act 1, Scene 2. I saw a knot of people clustered at the foot of the hill, and on top a makeshift stage with two people on it. Elbowing my way through the crowd, I saw someone dressed in an elaborate yellow gown and a gold Mardi Gras mask. It was Tessa Solomon, a girl I had known and briefly flirted with in my civics class, before I met Melissa.
Opposite her, playing the Stranger (revealed at the end of Act 1 to be the Phantom of Truth), was a tall man costumed in a faded bathrobe (his version of the Tattered Raiment) and a fencer’s hood (standing in for the Pallid Mask). I later learned that he was her boyfriend, Louis Castaigne, a theater major. Around the base of the stage were a few more girls from the drama department, dressed as Carcosan courtesans and acting as a chorus.
The troupe had marched unannounced across the green to the top of the hill ten minutes earlier, laid some boards to be their stage, and begun their performance. No one there but me could possibly have known what play this was, but a clamor of excitement went through the audience as the first people made the connection between their lines and the phrases referenced in Professor Chambers' last lecture.
Dazed, I watched the scene unfold.
Camilla: I said, you should unmask.
Camilla: It’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: But I wear no mask.
Camilla: No mask? No Mask!*
Tessa threw down her Mardi Gras mask so that the audience could appreciate her horrified expression. It was a good performance, but something about it felt off to me. It was her eyes; they looked like Melissa's that night I found her at my door. The courtesans around the stage all smiled and preened and winked at the audience, the picture of liveliness, but there was something muted about Tessa, something missing.
Louis pointed an accusing finger at the crowd, and although I knew it was all part of the show it was too much like my dreams. As I turned away, I saw Tessa bring out the sword. When I heard Louis scream, I turned back, but it was already too late. In the play, of course, the Stranger isn’t hurt by Camilla’s sword. I guess Louis’ performance wasn’t quite as authentic as he had hoped.
Early speculation was that Tessa had somehow mistaken a real sword for a prop, but as the police report later revealed, the weapon she killed Louis with WAS a prop. The blunt wooden stave had gone through his ribs with so much force that it broke in half, and broke her wrist along with it.
Even as Louis lay there, bleeding and screaming, and the audience and chorus members scattered in a panic, Tessa never stopped reciting her lines. When Louis wasn't there to say his line in response, she just repeated the cue line over and over again until the police took her away.
As far as I know she's still institutionalized.
After that the campus was closed again, until further notice. The students lived in a strange no-man's land. Some left. Others stayed. They wandered between bars and parties, and they talked about what had happened, and increasingly they talked about "The King in Yellow." Was the play real? Had Chambers read it? Had Tessa? Could it really drive a person insane? Where had it come from?
Speculation and gossip gave way to myth. Soon everyone knew someone who knew someone who had read it. It became a fad. Glib references to Carcosa and the Pallid Mask became fashionable. The question was on everyone's lips: "Have you read it?" and “Do you know anyone who read it?” and “Where can I read it?”
Where indeed? Where, I wondered, had Tessa and Louis gotten the script for the scene they performed that day? Melissa must have given it to them. I remembered the hundred copies found in Chambers' car. I wondered how many others the police hadn't found because they had been given away first, and who might be reading them now, and what would happen.
Two weeks after Louis’ death I attended a frat/sorority mixer billed as a "Carcosan Ball", where the Theta Phi girls dressed in corsets and masks and long gowns like Carcosan courtesans, peeking out from over the top of decorative fans at the guys from Alpha Chi Omega, and every third person quoted “The King in Yellow” in conversation, or pretended to.
I hadn't known the theme when I agreed to come, and the friend who invited me neglected to mention it. I wanted to leave right away, but stayed for the sake of politeness. Watching the partygoers, I thought of them all as silly, thoughtless children. The motif was just a way of capitalizing on an emerging fad, and an excuse for a second Halloween or Mardi Gras, but I wondered if any of them were thinking about the three people who had died, or ever had.
By midnight I was ready to leave, but then a group of Thetas climbed onto the dining room table and shouted for everyone's attention. My heart jumped when I saw them passing printed pages around. A tall blonde, laughing and clearly many drinks for the worse, read in a wavering voice from the sheet in front of her:
"Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
She laughed again, and passed the page to one of her friends, who continued the verse:
"Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
The effect that these words had on the crowd was astonishing. They surged forward to hear more, and when each girl finished reading a page she would fling it into the mass of them, where it would sometimes be torn to shreds by too many hands groping for it. At first the girls had apparently been acting on a lark, their drunken recital full of giggles and winks. As they went on though, their voices became steady, and their demeanor sobered, and each of them got a faraway look. When one of them lifted up her voice and shrieked-
"The scalloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhtill forever!"*
-it elicited such a horrible cry of elation from the audience that I felt I had to leave. I pushed my way through the dumbstruck Alphas who stood shoulder to shoulder in the doorway, hurrying upstairs to find my coat and get out of that place before I had to hear anymore of those horrible words.
I only made it as far as the first open door in the hall before I stopped. I stood staring into the dimly-lit room, just as dumbfounded as those downstairs who were transfixed by the recitation. Scattered over the floor were the various pieces of girls' costumes, and lolling on the bed, half-naked in each other's arms, were two Thetas, busily kissing, groping, and fondling each other.
A girl with dark curls piled up on her head struggled with the laces of her corset, finally loosening them enough to allow her breasts out so that her partner could lick at her erect nipples. She lounged against a pile of pillows, fingers stroking the other's hair, eyes half-open and tongue set between her teeth, inhaling with little hissing noises and then exhaling with lazy sighs.
The other girl closed her eyes, strawberry lips and cherry-red tongue licking and lapping in a picture of contentment. She shifted her gaze to me, and I was afraid she might scream, but instead she regarded me with cool indifference, or perhaps a complete lack of acknowledgment that I was there at all.
It may occur to you at this point that this sort of thing generally doesn't happen. It certainly never did to me. Someone somewhere has stories about their college days in which they stumbled onto coed lesbianism every night of the week, but I’m not that person. This didn't seem real. In fact, I was sure that it wasn't.
Because it was not the sight of female bodies entwined that fixed my attention, it was that one of them, the girl with the dark curls, looked exactly as I imagined Camilla, the heroine of "The King in Yellow", to look. It's a strange thing, a resemblance to the fancied image of a fictional person, but when I first read the play a picture of Camilla’s face emerged very prominently in my mind, to the point that I felt I could pick her out of a crowd.
And now here she was, or at least, someone who looked so much like her that I could only assume I was once again dreaming, or that the difference between dreams and waking was no longer as pronounced as it should be.
I might have stood rooted to that spot all night, hypnotized, if "Camilla" had not pushed the other girl away, stood, and walked across the hall, stopping to stroke the side of my face and trail her hand over my shoulders. She was stark naked except for fishnets, long black opera gloves, and costume jewelry, but she walked right up to me, touched me, and then retreated into the darkened doorway of the room across the hall. A pair of long white arms with lacquered nails emerged from the shadows of that room and lead "Camilla" in.
The other Theta, a short, petite Vietnamese girl, followed, stopping along the way to kiss my cheek, touch my wrist, stroke my thigh, and trail her fingers along my arm. Her movements were lazy and languid, like a passing mirage. I was still not sure if any of this was real, but her touch felt solid enough. She looked over her shoulder as she disappeared into the impenetrable blackness of the other bedroom and gestured, once, for me to follow.
"Hello?" I said, approaching the open door and peering in. I could see nothing, but the same arms with the same lacquered nails, belonging to the unseen third personage in this rendezvous, slipped out of the shadows and, taking me by the wrists, drew me in. The door closed behind us.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I allowed myself to be drawn through the dark to the bed. My unseen partners made no noise at all, and when I lay down it seemed that the weight of only one caused any depression on the mattress. But then I felt their hands on me, one's touch gentle and reassuring, one's fast and insistent, the last a measured compromise between the extremes of the others. They never said a word, to me or each other, but they worked in perfect tandem, stripping me down, laying me back, and ministering their affections to me one at a time.
Certain things about that night will always stand out to me. In the dark, each of my senses ranged far afield. I remember hearing the bedsprings creak, and the sound of fabric rustling, and of zippers and buttons and catches being undone as the last vestiges of their party costumes were dismissed. I remember hearing long hair sweeping over bare shoulders, and the sound of lips brushing together. I remember sighs, and moans, and little laughs, so soft they almost weren't there.
And from below I could still hear the awful grind of words from many mouths. The impromptu chorus had reached the masquerade scene, and again I heard Camilla’s fateful line:
“You, sir, should unmask.”
I remember smelling perfume, and chapstick, and clean sheets, and the scent of wildflowers blowing in through the open window. I smelled musk, hot flesh, and sweat. I smelled lust, want, need, indulgence, and desire.
I remember the taste of lips, and tongues, and soft necks, and bare shoulders, and exposed breasts. Each kiss left a sweet taste behind that never quite went away. Later, I tasted the wetness of their bodies, my lips dancing across the smooth plane of each of their thighs and then between them.
“You, sir, should unmask.”
And of course, I felt. I felt everything. I felt one set of lips against mine, long hair hanging around her face and tickling my cheek while our tongues met. Another mouth ran down my bare chest, over my ribs, and back up again. Further down, a pair of hands wrapped around my cock, holding me steady while she sat above me, and then down on me. The kissing girl bit my lip hard at the same moment I entered, and then she pushed my face to her breasts as her friend began to ride me.
“You, sir, should unmask.”
I felt the pain and the grief and the coldness of the last weeks drop away. I felt myself forget everything, down to even who I was. We stayed in that room like that, each one satisfying herself on me while the other two distracted me with kisses, caresses, and fondling while they waited their turns.
“You, sir, should unmask.”
Never once did any of them speak a real word. Each time I came they waited patiently for me to recover, trysting with each other in the dark and teasing me with light kisses and touches until I was ready again, and then it was time for another round, a sea of hot bodies, thrusting hips, and quivering thighs, all while many hands clutched at me and many voices moaned and sighed.
"But I wear no mask..."
After, I lay in the dark, shivering, somehow feeling alone. The girls said nothing, and when I reached out I found the bed unexpectedly empty. Then I felt my clothes drop onto my chest, and I took the hint. After dressing in a hurry I reached for the light, but someone beat me to it, closing her hand over mine and pushing it away.
The door opened, and with the same gentle force that I had been drawn in I was now expelled. I stumbled to the stairs, allowing myself to look back only once. When I did, I saw the open, lightless doorway, and from inside I heard a voice, and it whispered:
"Have you found the Yellow Sign?"
And then I ran.
I ran down the steps and out of the house. As I passed the living room, I had the impression of some great turmoil there, a riot of shouting and colliding bodies and a horrible noise that may have been a voice still reading "The King in Yellow", although nothing about the voice was recognizably human anymore.
But I ignored all of that, and everyone and everything else I encountered on the way home. It wasn't until I was in my one-room dorm with the door securely locked that I allowed myself to stop running, and then I fell onto my bed and cried, and screamed, and tore at the sheets until my fingers bled. I did all of this because I knew, with horrible certainty, that I had recognized that voice in the dark. And that it had been Melissa.
After that things started to get really bad. The nightmares came every night. When I was awake I thought about Melissa, and when I didn't think about Melissa I thought about the play. I talked to no one if I could help it. I rarely left my room.
On the outside, things were happening. The Thetas and Alphas and assorted hangers-on from the Carcosan Ball were busy at work. The manuscript from the party was reassembled, then copied, and then they began to pass the copies around. Demand was high, especially since the party itself had assumed something like legendary status among those who hadn't been there.
Hand to hand, person to person, it spread and spread. Copies of the play in book form, printed and bound in someone's basement, were pushed onto stores by mysterious, anonymous salesmen. Desperate for a hot seller, the shops bought up all they could. It flew off of the shelves. Soon everyone who was anyone was reading "The King in Yellow."
It was just a trickle of stories at first; suicides, murders, nervous breakdowns, nothing unusual in themselves. If they were happening a little more often lately, well, maybe it was something in the air.
When Louis Castaigne’s cousin, Henry, threw himself in front of a bus (which flipped swerving to avoid him, killing two other people), it was chalked up to grief. When an assistant district attorney set fire to himself on the courthouse steps, it was blamed on depression and being overworked. A woman drowning her husband at their oldest daughter's swim meet? Postpartum depression. Nothing unusual. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to see here.
As the incidents became more frequent and more graphic, authorities and media analysts noticed that many of those involved had read "The King in Yellow." A few publications ran sidebars highlighting the play's sordid past, but no one made any open allegations that it had anything to do with the up-tick in violence. Besides, "The King in Yellow" was in demand all over town, of course people involved in the incidents had read it. Practically everyone was either reading it or about to read it. No one worried yet.
Then a week went by, then two, and more stories came in:
A cab driver who held his fare at gunpoint and forced them to read the play.
A man who changed the name of his club to "Carcosa" only to have it burnt down by rioters two days later.
A parish priest who gave a sermon about "The King in Yellow" rather than the Bible, and an hour later when his horrified parishioners couldn't take it anymore they found they had been locked in, and eventually they tore the priest limb from limb with their bare hands, telling police after that it was the only way to keep him from driving them all mad.
The last straw came when a group of Alphas and Thetas set fire to the local library while chanting "Carcosa now!" and then threw themselves off of a freeway overpass. When the police questioned the survivors, they all said the same thing:
"Everyone is for hire. There's a price for everything in Carcosa. Leaving is the price of arriving. Forgetting is the price of knowing. Dying is the price of living. We all have to pay."
People became scared, and serious questions about play were asked for the first time. Was it mass hysteria? The power of suggestion? Were already psychologically-fragile people drawn to the text because of its reputation and then acting out on it? Or could it be that the governments of 19th century Europe hadn't suppressed the play because it offended them, but because they knew what it could do?
No sane person was willingly reading or distributing it at all now, but those who had read it would not stop trying to spread the gospel. They copied the prologue into the body of emails and sent it to their entire contact list hoping that trusting recipients would open it and read without knowing what it was. Copies with fake covers and titles were smuggled onto store and library shelves, hapless browsers opening them up and finding horror within. In at least half of all cases, we were told, those who had read even a few lines couldn't resist reading the entire thing. Once its hooks were in you, they never came out.
The police tried to step in, even going so far as to close some of the bookstores for the sake of public safety. But of course, the police had seized Chambers' copies of the play after he died, and the suicide note was written on a copy of the play. At least one of the detectives must have read it during the investigation. And then he would have passed it on to a colleague...
It had been months now and there was no telling how many in the department had read it. So when people noticed that the stores being raided were almost always the ones not actually selling the book, and that a person arrested for distributing had usually never done so but very often started to after being released, well, it was best not to draw attention to oneself by saying anything.
Personal protection guidelines were issued to help us keep ourselves safe. We were encouraged to leave the house as little as possible, to minimize use of all communication devices, and not to read anything that was put in front of us. Be suspicious of anyone you haven't been in constant contact with, we were told. Report anyone exhibiting unusual behavior. Assume that anyone you meet may be a threat. People stopped going to work. Cars were abandoned all over town. People stopped living and started hiding.
From my window each night I could see the fires burning and the crowd of frenzied madmen running through the streets, destroying whatever they wished as part of the price of existing. "To live is to desire," they chanted, "to desire is to destroy." During the day normal people left their homes, scavenging what they could before returning to their hiding places. The Tattered Raiment was spread over all of us, and we were afraid.
I stayed in my dorm, leaving only twice a day to use the bathroom down the hall. My door was locked at all other times, and I had covered the windows with duct tape. I never saw anyone else, and no one came looking for me. The more time went by, the less and less I heard from the outside, and the fewer unaffected people seemed to be on the streets.
Occasionally I wondered if I was the last man in the world. Other times I was sure of it.
I remember spending all of one night crouched by my door, my eye pressed to the crack, watching the hall outside for any hint of movement. I was not sure if movement would be a good or bad thing, but I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
Hours passed and I never moved, faithfully keeping my vigil. It was almost sunrise (I slept during the day, as it seemed safer) when something passed by. Not only did it pass, but it stopped, and, to my surprise, dropped down to my level, stuck its eye up to the same crack I was peering through, and looked in.
I saw a jaundiced yellow eye cracked with red veins, and it rolled in its socket as a voice that was something between a whisper and a grunt said:
“Little pig, little pig, let me in.”
I froze. There was a pause. Then:
“You're supposed to say: ‘Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.’”
“Is that from ‘The King in Yellow’?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” was the answer, and then a laugh. “Do you know it?”
I considered this question for some time, as the answer was surprisingly complicated. But eventually I said:
“Yes. In fact, I was the first. And now I might be the last. And everything that’s happened is my fault. But it doesn’t matter because there’s probably not anyone left to blame me, and no one ever knew anyway, and it was nothing I did on purpose, and as embarrassing as it is to admit now, this is all just because I wanted to impress a girl but didn’t know how, and I think that’s a hell of a fucking thing to end the world over.”
Another long pause on the other side. Then:
“When do I get to say ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in?’”
“I don’t know,” I said, voice trembling because I had started to cry. “The second Act?”
The Big Bad Wolf skittered off down the hall to whisper at another door, and I never saw (or heard) him again.
After that I stayed away from the doors and windows entirely.
I counted the minutes as they passed one by one. I did not read the play. I ran out food before I ran out of water. I considered leaving to look for more, but the thought of what might be waiting out there stopped me. Starvation didn't seem so bad, in a certain light.
If the tape hadn't worn away from the windows, I might be in there still. But through a rip I saw the orange light flickering one night, and curiosity got the better of me. I stripped the tape away, and below, in the center of the campus, I saw the great fire being stoked, and around it I saw a mass of people, hundreds of them.
At first I thought it was another group of madmen, preparing to destroy more things as part of the play's edict that they should indulge all of their desires. But then I looked more closely and saw the grim, determined looks on the mob's faces, the faces of people who had been in hiding for weeks and were now ready to burn the cancer of "The King in Yellow" out of their community forever. I wouldn’t have thought there were this many normal people left, but here they were.
I watched as they fed a seemingly endless stream of pages into the fire, emptying box after box full of books and loose manuscripts until the air was black with ash. And then I heard it; a hooting, screaming, cackling noise, and I saw the crowd carrying in something that might have been a person or might have been a scarecrow, but which in either case foamed and gibbered and struggled as six people bore it along.
I imagined what it must have been like for this creature who, after weeks of crawling in the gutter and running across rooftops and reciting "The King in Yellow" until it forgot how to feed itself, was now too tired and too sick and too hungry and too insane to resist the hands that held it up and pushed it forward. I knew what was going to happen before it did, so when they threw the struggling stick figure into the fire, and when the madman laughed and leaped and cavorted in the flames, I only nodded, and wondered if he was the Big Bad Wolf.
And then they brought in the next one.
Near dawn it finally stopped, and when the flames began to die someone threw gas onto the fire, and the crowd cheered. A blazing plume shot into the sky, dazzling me, and the center of that burning mass glowed bright yellow, and in the swirling dance of the flames I thought I saw, and could still see imprinted on my vision even after the explosion faded away, a shape with three points, a symbol entirely alien to any known language but which nevertheless communicated to me thoughts and words and ideas so beautiful that I wept.
And I knew that it was the Yellow Sign, and that I had found it at last.
And I also knew that despite the mob's efforts, the play would not be destroyed now, that I would not run down to them and throw the last (and first) copy of it into that fire, and that even if I did it wouldn't matter, because the essence of it had spread through those flames, and shown itself to me. The Yellow Sign told me that it was more than just paper, more than just words. It had been destroyed before. It would live again.
I realized that I was no longer alone. My door was still locked, barricaded in fact, but even so a figure in a tattered robe and a white mask stood in the center of the room, pointing an accusing finger. I reached out and touched it. It was real. The Phantom of Truth had come for me. And that meant that I should unmask.
The truth is, I didn't discover "The King in Yellow."
I wrote it.
All of my research had turned up nothing interesting enough to approach Melissa with, so I took matters into my own hands. Lots of people over the years had tried recreating the lost play, so I thought, why couldn't I do the same?
But not all of it, you see. I only wrote the first Act, just enough to have something to show her. The second Act that Melissa brought to my room that night, and that Chambers and Tessa and the Thetas and all the others had read? Well, at first I assumed that she had written it herself, but now, as a I looked into the Pallid Mask for myself, I realized that wasn't true.
Perhaps the second Act was written through her, just as the first had been written through me, but the words belonged to neither of us. They were the words that had been whispered into our ears by the invisible messengers; Camilla, Cassilda, Thale, Aldones, the Stranger, and even the King in Yellow himself. The play was their doorway into the world, and we were their key, just as others had been in past generations.
The Truth hounded me still. It pointed to the place where the manuscript was hidden. Without a word, I obeyed its command. I took out the play, arranged it into the proper order, and read it. I read it from beginning to end, and when I came to the revelation of the Yellow Sign, I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed until I was sick, and for all I know I'm laughing still.
All the while the Phantom of Truth stood by and watched. When I was finished, I looked up and said: "Shouldn't you unmask too?" So it did. And I saw blue eyes, and a full smile, and hair the color of asphodels. And when I kissed her, I thought how lucky we were, that on our one night together we had compounded such a child as this, we each contributing one half that somehow joined into a whole. And I felt very proud.
When the mob found my room they saw what they thought was me hanging from the curtain rod, and they clucked their tongues and said what a shame it was. If any of them had read the play, they would know that I am not dead, any more than Melissa is, and that by leaving our bodies behind we've freed ourselves from that prison, the flesh.
They did not find the play either. We took it with us, and although this one town has evicted us, we have a whole wide world to find a new home in. "The King in Yellow" will live again, and you, who have read this confession, will be one of the first to seek it out. Because no one, man or woman, can resist learning the true nature of desire. Everything has a price, and when that offer comes you will sell your mind, body, and soul for it, just as we have.
But tell me friend, have you found the Yellow Sign?
(*Passages marked with an asterisk are from "The King in Yellow" by Robert W Chambers.)
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