Cthulhu Mythos: Hastur, the King in Yellow

Aurélien Buchatz

It is time. After reading most of Lovecraft’s work, I now choose to expand my understanding of his oeuvre by uncovering his influences, correspondences, in order to better appreciate the works of those he himself greatly influenced.

Where better to start than with the King in Yellow?

Before discussing Robert W. Chambers’ work, the one that seemingly enthralled HPL, it is important to contextualize this practice of interconnected vague entities and deities in the late 19th century. Hastur the Unspeakable, of the Cthulhu Mythos, is no direct transposition of other beings in other works of fiction. The original Hastur is probably the god of shepherds in the short story ‘Haïta the Shepherd’ written by Ambrose Bierce published in 1891. No one has been able to trace the name to a previous work, that I know of, and as such, let us assume this entity is the one that caught Chambers’ attention and inspired him to use the name in his 1895 stories, which is not as big a leap as it may sound, given the two author’s proximity in that end-of-the-century literary world.

‘Haïta the Shepherd’ is a classical fable. Elements of dread are scant, and the connection to Lovecraft and Chambers seemingly tenuous. It is, however, a short read (ten minutes would be my approximation), and I’d advise you to make up your own mind about it.

For those lazy few, Haita is a middle-aged shepherd, blissfully self-contained within his herd and profession, joyful and grateful to Hastur, his god, to whom he piously prays daily. Hastur never manifests in the story, we only know Him to be benevolent, favourable to Haita, listening to his prayers, obeying his selfless requests, unflinching to his blasphemous ponderings in the later part of the story.

For Haita ponders indeed, begins to crave knowledge, and resent the gods for depriving him of it. Hastur, in his presumed omniscience, indulges Haita and lets him be in his heretic ways, knowing he would come back to Him.

I will stop here to avoid spoilers, but this is about the extent of Hastur, the shepherd god. His powers reach beyond herds and pastures, as he redirects torrents into the sea, to spare the city below the mountainous hills at Haita’s bequest.

No trace of cosmic horror here. Darker fantasy elements in the story are not linked to Hastur, who appears as a more understanding version of the Old Testament God, accepting his creation to yearn for knowledge and not banishing him from his proverbial Eden on a petulant, vengeful whim.

Had it ended there, reasons to suspect Robert W. Chambers to have been inspired by Bierce might have been insufficient, but we know that aside from Hastur, Chambers also borrows four more names from that same collection of stories, that he will associate with the King in Yellow: in the short story ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’, we have mentions of Carcosa, the fabled ancient city, of Hali the prophet, and of Aldebaran and the Hyades.

‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’ is another quick read, and to be frank, I expected it to be just as irrelevant, as remote to Lovecraft as Haita, and once again, lowering my expectations led to a delightful experience. ‘Carcosa’ seeps Lovecraft from every pore. Please skip ‘Haita’ and read this one, dear reader, for you will get the sense of confusion, altered state of mind, blurred line between reality, hallucination, and dreams, the dread and gloom, the arcane mystery, the faint echoes of horrors past, of antique, vanished civilizations and the esoteric knowledge that was lost, all staples of Lovecraftian writing, elements of his disquieting universe and stories.

Only at the very end of that short story do we learn that it all was ‘imparted to the medium Bayrolles by the spirit Hoseib Alar Robardin.’, further removing the story from fact, imparting it a mystical, archeological air of rusty time and dusty decay.

Finally, we reach the doorsteps of Lord Hastur, the Unspeakable One, the Feaster from Afar, all sobriquets the deity earned in later stories, for now let us delve deeper into Chamber’s stories.

The name ‘Hastur’ appears in three of ‘The King in Yellow’ short story collection, all three attributed to different things. It is only mentioned once in ‘The Yellow Sign’ as presumably a name for a location, maybe a city, but that Hastur is open to interpretations. In that same paragraph, the name Hali is attached to a body of water, and not to the character of Bierce’s story. ‘Lake Hali near the city of Hastur.’

Oddly enough, ‘Hastur’ is a secondary character in ‘The Demoiselle d’Ys’, a silent falconer in the Demoiselle’s entourage, hardly a fleshed-out character, nothing even remotely disturbing or engaging in his known behavior or history.

The King in Yellow, as feared deity, only appears in the closing lines to ‘The Court of the Dragon’, when the narrator is transported to Carcosa by the organ player at a church and the King utters his only canonical words, whispered into the soul of our presumably doomed narrator: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!“. 

Finally, ‘Hastur’ is mentioned five times by the main character and narrator Mr. Castaigne in ‘The Repairer of Reputations’, and this ‘Hastur’ is most likely the one that caught Lovecraft’s attention (and that of many other authors at the time).

‘The Repairer of Reputations’ is the first degree account of a man’s descent into madness, as he seeks to seize back the rights to the crown and hereditary title of ‘King in Yellow’. It is the best short story in the collection, the closest to Lovecraft and if you’ve made it this far without having previously read it, I’d strongly enjoin you to right that wrong. I will do my best not to spoil future readers too much, but I am human therefore I err, or so the saying goes.

I have to admit a deep personal fondness for unreliable, nefarious, mad or misleading narrators, and in that respect my appreciation for the story is biased. Should you enjoy that stylistic device, dear reader, I heartily recommend two of my absolute favourite novels: Pale Fire by Nabokov, a convoluted puzzle following a deranged narrator in his delusions (or are they?) of grandeur as he investigates the murder of a colleague. A gem of a book, those pesky critics who derided the masterful 999-stanza poem deserve nothing short of a swift and just comeuppance.

Another treat that might land closer to our horror-disquieting theme is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, where several sources and narrators contribute to a gripping mise-en-abyme that questions and make us reevaluate notions of time but especially space. May these two recommendations, and the last one later to come in the article, resound with you at least half as much as they did with me, and they will leave you content and far richer than you were before reading them. Anyhow, back to Chambers and ‘RoR’.

Seemingly sane and sound, Castaigne, our narrator, recollects a horse-riding accident that left him with pains at the back of his head and nape, and apparently affected his brain enough to  warrant a stay at Dr. Archer’s private asylum to be treated against insanity. Already cracks appear in his narration and objectivity, as Castaigne insists, unprompted, that ‘The fall from my horse had fortunately left no evil results’, before confession to having read ‘The King in Yellow’ in its entirety, conferring it preternatural powers as merely catching a glimpse of chapter 2 compelled him to read further, right after he flung the book away after finishing chapter 1, in a desperate attempt to evade the book’s nefarious grasp. In the rest of the paragraph, Castaigne rants somewhat incoherently about the play, and how it spread its influence to the whole world, before attempting to resume a more conventional narration.

This is where it dawns on us readers: the King in Yellow play has turned our narrator mad, is the source of his apparent lunacy. This trope of art that, once experienced, turns you mad, or dead, is a common one by now, and my favourite iteration, besides The Ring (2002, by director Gore Verbinski) that terrified the hell out of me as a kid, is Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, my third and final recommendation of the day, I promise. It’s great, complex, and revolves around a movie, ‘Infinite Jest,’ so compelling that once someone starts watching it they lose all interest in doing anything else, and eventually die. Very little is revealed about the content of the movie, much like the slow, limited unveiling of the King in Yellow play throughout the short story collection. We can only surmise what Castaigne and the others turned to dread and madness by the play, could have read to upend their reality to such an extent, and not knowing is a crucial part of the suspense of this trope, and of Lovecraft’s writing, for no horror put to the pen holds a candle to those vague intimations of dread conjured up by the mind caged in shadows.

Here I resolve to end this foray into the Repairer of Reputations and its plot, better left to your surprise.

The elusive character of Hastur as the King in Yellow, as well as the veiled, vague horror it inflicts upon those who seek and read the play in His name, contribute to a sense of curious, fearful wonder, of danger in wanting more. For the information about the King is sparse, as if designed to whet the reader’s appetite, to enjoin them to learn, to seek, evermore hooked into that perilous world.

A lure to drag unsuspecting souls to the twin towers of Carcosa, reflected by two moons upon lake Hali, to find ourselves suddenly being whispered dreadful things by Hastur, whose shape, tentacular, draped, masked, or not, is certain to instill in whomever gazes upon it, a horror beyond description, beyond words.

In this I understand H.P. Lovecraft’s fascination, and the inspiration he drew from it throughout his works. Especially in his pantheon of Evil Gods (and ‘evil’ seems to sell them short, for there are far worse entities than that naïve duality might contain), whose names and vague, ever-shifting, nebulous characteristics, follow Chamber’s lead of unnerving horror that only deepens the more one gleans subtle signs of the ‘true’ nature of those unfathomable entities.