“Have you found the Yellow Sign?”
“In dreams I walk with you
In dreams I talk to you
In dreams you’re mine all of the time
We’re together in dreams, in dreams”
“In Dreams”, Roy Orbison
I hadn’t taken much notice of the man until he spoke to me, because he was rather repulsive. I should feel some sense of shame in stating that so openly, but the immediate gut reaction to the figure who would sit on the seat opposite me on the bus each evening was extremely hard to shake.
The man’s physical scars were bright and could certainly not be missed. His skin was pale, sickly and sallow, with a grotesque yellow-white shade to it, and flaked excessively around the man’s forehead and shoulders, peeling to hang like tattered newspaper from his head. Around his neck hung many tumorous lesions, bulbous outgrowing sacks of flesh which oozed vile orange pus. I wanted, more than anything else, to feel sorry for the man. I lived in Portsmouth, once proclaimed as the greatest naval city on England’s south coast, but in the recent decades certain natural erosion had taken place. With budget cuts after budget cuts, health care had stumbled, struggling to keep up with an aging population and many in the city’s health had started to suffer from poor health treatment. If anything, the man’s obvious condition should have elicited sympathy from me, or perhaps concern for him as a victim of a non-compassionate society.
Instead, it did not. To quote my beloved Edgar Allen Poe, I think perhaps it was his eye. A single one, his right, and the one nearest to the side of the bus which I sat on as I rode back from work every day. It was clear, with a dull shade of mottled blue, and resolutely refused to dignify me with a blink. Lacking a pupil, I could never be certain if this eye was staring directly at me, or if its gaze was turned away at the near-distance, but whenever I would take my seat on the bus I would always feel the man’s eye upon me. The sensation would not, I think, have ever been enough to drive me to the extremes of Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, which I studied extensively as part of my bachelorhood in literature, but I would certainly be left with a deep chill any time I would encounter the man – and those encounters occurred daily, on the bus home from work, without the slightest hesitation or fail.
I was content for the most part to ignore the man entirely. As I had mentioned, I assumed that he simply suffered from medical neglect and poor care, and despite my gut instinct of revulsion, I thought that perhaps he could be best supported by medical care and attention. For each time I boarded the bus to arrive at the quay station, I satisfied myself to bury my nose in a book and know in confidence that I would not be disturbed so long as I did not draw the man’s attention.
So it was that I did not give the man any reason to speak to me, and I did my best to avoid any such indication that I wished to engage him in conversation. This lasted for the better part of three months, until one April evening. It was raining heavily, and I had stayed within the shelter of the bus station, waiting for my coach to arrive. The man had stayed not too far from where I stood, and when the bus did indeed arrive, I hurried quickly aboard and took my seat. I read quickly from my well-thumbed book, a small paperback copy of one of Lee Child’s many numerous action adventures, when the man with the weeping sours leaned over from his seat and mumbled something to me.
I genuinely wasn’t sure how to reply. His words had been slurred and garbled, as if he was struggling to push them past his malformed lips, and I sincerely didn’t wish to speak with him in either case. At that very moment I wasn’t even sure of what the man had asked me, so instead I quickly replied with a brief “I don’t, I’m sorry”, in case he had asked me for anything – spare change, a cigarette, that type of thing. It was less than a minute later that the bus arrived at my stop, so I hurried from it into the shelter. There I thought back over what the man had asked me, and it was then that his words started to take some kind of form in my mind and I understood what he had asked me – “Have you found the yellow sign?”
I had no idea what the man was referring to, and didn’t give the question much in the way of thought. I put it out of my mind almost immediately, and didn’t think about it again until the next day, when I saw the man once again on the bus. He had, I think, some kind of meaning in choosing me out of all the people on the bus that he could have asked the question to. Each time I would board the bus, I would be reminded of his question – and each time I would disembark, I would leave the question behind, unanswered.
This continued for about a week before the nightmare began. Where my conscious mind was content to leave the question of the yellow sign behind, it had instead clawed its way into my subconscious mind, ready to be played out nightly. The situation would play out much as it would in my waking life, as I would board the bus and take my seat, the man with the sagging flesh and weeping sores sitting opposite. There he would sit, indifferent to me, until in time he would turn his gaze directly towards me and speak the question – this time with great care and delicacy to its words, “have you found the yellow sign?” I would stumble over my words in an attempt to answer, but the man would grow angered, insistent that I answer him. He would lean closer, and as he would do so, small pustules would form on his face, as if little needles were pressing outwards from within the sagging tinted flesh. Then, slowly and with great ease, they would rupture and escape – knives, or at very least their blades. Shining and metallic, the sharp blades of many assorted knives would ease their way from within the man’s face, distorting his features – his eyeball would dislodge in its socket, his lips would split as they were cut aside. The blades appeared at impossible angles – never drawing even a speck of blood, instead and only leaving a thick trail of hot yellowed pus. I would be so repelled at the sight that for a few moments I would not be able to hear the words from the man’s torn lips, but then his screams would snap me back to my attention as I would realise that the man was screaming his words at me – no longer simply asking me if I had found the yellow sign, but demanding; condemning me for not having done so. When he spat his words, the same words that he had said to me on the bus, this time it was as though he was instead insulting me for my lack of attention to his charge. Why had I not found it? The man was screaming into my face, a mass of rage and ferocity, and his words as sharp and as pointed as the blades erupting from his face, and I could only pull back in fear as he spat the words at me, damning me with every one – “Have you found the yellow sign?”
When I began to experience the nightmares, I changed the bus that I would get. The change in my journey added a half hour to my return home in the evenings, but I felt compelled to take the change to make sure I would not encounter the strange figure further. Sure enough, I never again saw the man in the flesh, but the dreams persisted. They became a regular feature, experiencing them perhaps three times per week. When I began to start to lose sleep on a regular basis, I made the decision to do what I could to locate the source of this supposed Yellow Sign.
The search to discover exactly what the yellow sign was did not take too long. Thanks to the internet, I quickly traced the question that my nightmare screamed at me to a short story in Robert Chambers’ collected works, a book titled “The King in Yellow”.
I ordered a copy of the book from a website, surprised to find that it was still in print. In truth it appeared that Robert Chandler’s work had fallen into the public domain due to the century that had passed since its initial publication. The website offered me the option to simply download the book but, stickler for the physicality of a print publication as I was, I was compelled to order a hard copy of the tome, which I was informed would arrive within the next few days.
The book did indeed arrive on time, although I passed that time with substantial research into the myths surrounding the work. The title of the book, “The King in Yellow”, was a reference to a play that Chambers wrote about within his collected stories – a play that, his stories supposed, possessed the capacity to drive the audience of the play’s second act into a fit of frothing madness. I found the idea quite entertaining on its own, but I struggled to find any true means in which the fictional play was connected to the often-mentioned yellow sign. If indeed there was a direct connection, it was one that Chambers didn’t care to elucidate on.
Instead, most of my research fell onto works that was attributed to Howard Phillips Lovecraft; an entirely different author who was born five years after “The King in Yellow” was published by Chambers. I was quite aware of Lovecraft’s collection of work – one can barely study the works of Poe without hearing comparisons with those whose works he had clearly influenced. It was Lovecraft who, I learned, made reference to Chambers’ work and drew it to popular attention again, by referencing elements of Chambers’ stories – specifically, a being (or perhaps a place – Chambers was unclear on this point) by the name of Hastur. This name, in turn, was one that Chambers had procured from an earlier work by Ambrose Bierce, who references a god of shepherds by the same name. Bierce also referenced a fictional city by the name of Carcosa, which I would grow to understand was an important location within the apocryphal play.
It was around this point that my study became confused and frantic. I struggled to bring much of the myths and legends together, and I began to feel a sense of hopelessness in the entire endeavour. For all the fictional cities and deities, I was no closer to discovering the source of this supposed yellow sign, nor what it truly meant. This continued even when Chambers’ book did indeed arrive. I read each of the stories with rapt attention, noting as each word that I had uncovered would be mentioned and given context, but still the vital clue that seemed to connect the entire mystery together eluded me. In one of the stories, “The Repairer of Reputations”, we are left with the idea that the sign will in some manner grant its possessor into the control of the King in Yellow, but the narrative feels so fragmented and the narrator is so unreliable that it renders this meaning dubious at best. From what I could determine from both this and Lovecraft’s work, I realised that the King in question was the shepherd deity Hastur that Bierce had mentioned, and the sign in some manner a sigil or badge of heraldry.
As my work progressed, I became convinced that my copy of Chambers’ work was insufficient. He had drawn influence from Bierce in creating (or recreating) both Hastur and this city of Carcosa, so I theorised that he may have drawn reference in creating his titular play “The King in Yellow” as well. An author by the name of Blish had, I discovered, created a short story by the name of “More Light”, which documented (albeit in an abridged and fractured manner) the play itself, and it was there that I found my biggest clue to date that would lead to my locating the yellow sign.
By this stage, I had all but forgotten the disfigured man who had haunted my bus journeys. I did not travel much on the bus any more – I had spoken to my manager at work and taken my annual allotment of holidays in one series of consecutive weeks. This was mainly due to the fact that I was struggling to sleep. My days felt muggy and discordant, and I spent most of my time by lamplight sitting at my computer or pouring over books, noting down as much information as I could find. My eagerness was focused solely and without distraction on the yellow sign. I had reached the point where, in the few peaceful hours of fitful slumber that I could grasp, I could swear to myself that I could almost catch sight of the symbol – almost, but never quite.
I thought for a moment, one evening, that I had experienced a breakthrough. A man by the name of Kevin Ross had created, during the 1980s, a facsimile of the sign, for use in a game based on Lovecraft’s work. It was a notable attempt, but I knew immediately upon seeing it that it was not quite correct. The dimensions of it, the curve of the lines, none of them quite matched the symbol that danced so frantically at the boundaries of my mind’s eye. No, I had to search elsewhere – but by now, I knew exactly where I had to look. Blish had given me that clue in his short story, “More Light”. In his recreation, a character described only as the Stranger is present. The Stranger wears a pallid mask, white and without features, and the Stranger’s true identity is unknown to any other within the play. Could he be Hastur (or could that be, in fact, the entire land that the play takes place upon?), or perhaps the King in Yellow? I am unsure – all I know for sure is that when he is asked to remove his mask, he responds by stating that he wears no mask at all! That is curious enough, and was certainly the climactic announcement within Chambers’ rendition of the play, but Chambers may have neglected to mention one very important element to my quest – that the Strangers robes themselves bare the mark of the yellow sign! My work was set out before me – I had to locate and procure a copy of the original text of the play that Chambers had so clearly based his stories upon.
Locating a copy of the play was to prove to be an arduous task. Chambers was phenomenally tight-lipped on the name of the play’s original author. Through extensive research, I learned that the play had been translated into French in a time recent to Chambers, by a gentleman named Thomas de Castaigne, and I believe that it is this French translation that Chambers based his stories upon. The copies were, I understand, seized and destroyed by the French government, amidst rumours of both the play’s madness-inducing qualities and the grotesque nature of its second act. I theorise that it is this translation and its forbidden nature that caused Chambers to cloak the play in the pretence of being fiction. I was wise to these games, and I couldn’t be dissuaded easily – I knew that the play was real, and that I had to find it if I wanted answers.
I put in a few phone calls to some antiquarian bookshops in London in the hopes that they may yield some results, and although a few of the more obscure and esoteric ones promised that they would set their minds to the task, I didn’t hold out much hope. Instead I turned my attention for the next twelve or so days to tracking down as many books as I could on the King in Yellow. I read anthologies, I read short stories and Lovecraft pastiches, I read fan-made recreations of the play, I read gaming material, and I read wiki pages and all I read I found no true luck. I was growing into despair. Everything I uncovered was new tales, stories built on the shoulders of other stories, but nothing that could shed some light far enough backwards into the darkness of history. When at last I heard back from one of the London booksellers, I did not stop to question the authenticity of their claim of what he offered me – a first edition of the play itself!
I should have been dubious, naturally enough. But having endured for so long without any progress in my research, I was almost fanatical in my urge to obtain this. The offered price, almost six hundred pounds, was a considerable amount of my monthly wage, but I informed the antiquarian that I would make the deal without any hesitation and booked a train ticket for London the very next day.
I barely slept that night, my excitement keeping my perpetually on edge. During the train ride, my weariness caught up with me, and I only awoke when the carriage ground to its final stop in London. I dreamt during the journey, my mind floating back to the face of the wretched creature that had begun this obsession of mine, the weeping sores on his flesh, the bleakness in his dead eye. In my fevered dreams I heard his words, garbled and rasping, “Have you found the yellow sign?” As his voice grew louder and angrier, I knew the answer that I was about to present – not yet, but soon!
I worked my way through the city’s heaving streets until I had managed to cross to the bookshop in question, situated not too far from the British Museum. When I arrived at the shop, my suspicions began to rise. The décor was entirely lavish, resplendent with all manner of conventional pieces of esoteric artworks. The heavy odour of incense bloated the air, and I soon navigated through the maze of displays offering tarot cards and tomes on Wicca until I located the shop’s assistant, who greeted me with beaded hair and a warm smile. I explained who I was and the nature of my business, insisting that I inspect the book as soon as possible. I did not care for the store, did not care for the light and free-hearted way it foisted its theatricals upon the focus of my attentions. I wanted to leave, to collect the play and take it home and never have to worry again. She fetched the book, and my heart sank. I read the cover, and just to be certain, I read it again. It was “The King in Yellow”, by Robert Chambers.
It was not the play. It was the novel. A crisp, delicately-wrapped copy, over a hundred years of age, but it was still the novel nonetheless. I thanked the girl, and left the shop, leaving her sputtering her questions of whether I wished the book at all. I let the door swing shut behind me as I stepped into the street, and all I could feel was hopelessness. The object of my quest eluded me, would continue to elude me, as if it was content simply to watch me stumble blindly after it; all the whilst the damnable play simply sat back and mocked my every move.
Pacing through the streets, my shoulders bumping against the others in the crowd, I felt bitterly angry at myself. Had I wasted the entire day, the cost of the train fare? My mind was still on the book, its cover faded and musty but nonetheless a pristine copy. Perhaps, I thought, it would be worth a purchase after all, if for nothing more than a curiosity. I decided that I would find a cup of coffee to settle my nerves, and make my decision over that. By the time I stopped walking, I found myself near a small coffee shop located opposite the British Museum. I took a seat inside and, over a tall mug of hot mocha, considered what my next course of action should be.
My eye kept wandering towards the window of the coffee shop, gazing out towards the British Museum. It occurred to me that it had been some years since I had visited, and so when I finished my mocha I decided to take a stroll through its vast Egyptian wing. Being in the presence of such aged and revered artefacts had always inspired me in the past, and had the unique ability to leave me feeling significantly more at peace with myself. When I climbed the stone steps of the museum, I was surprised at how quiet it was on that very day, whereas the museum is usually entirely packed with students and tourists eager to see the sights. Unique objects, such as the statue of Amenhotep, Ramesses, or the Rosetta stone, drew vast crowds on the better days, but on this day I found the crowds to be relatively at ease. Entering the central hallway of the museum, I looked up at its vast domed ceiling when the idea – no, more of a compulsion – grasped me. The museum’s reading room, legendary in its own right, stood before me at the centre of the great court. I knew some of the reading room; its vast collection included works by history’s greatest authors, my own beloved Edgar Allen Poe amongst them. In its heyday, access to the books was restricted to ticket holders and registered researchers, who could make use of the time to peruse the works of Wilde, Kipling, Browning, Dickens, Marx or Conan Doyle as they so desired. But in the last decade, access to the reading room had been sporadic at best – its space lent heavily to use as an exhibition area. On my first visit to the British Museum, it was the reading room that had played host to China’s Terracotta Army – on my most recent; it had hosted artefacts of the reign of Montezuma.
I entered the reading room and, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, the swing doors swung open, and there I stood under the vast dome, as if I were a thought in the huge bald head which was so splendidly encircled by a band of famous names. I knew that I was at a significant disadvantage – my quest didn’t even have an author’s name, and I had so recently come close to abandoning my quest altogether. I thought for certain that the document, pursued by the French government upon its release in that country, would have certainly been consigned to the fires here as well.
I found it tucked in a small shelf, wedged between two large tomes of contemporary fiction. It was a thin book, so thin, it seemed so delicate; I couldn’t bring myself to believe it when I found it. The cover read simply “Le Roi en Jaune”, and I knew it for what it was at the first moment my eyes encountered it – The King in Yellow.
I found my way to one of the empty reading desks. My legs were shaking, and I was clutching the slim volume tighter than I should have done. Nothing – nothing – had prepared me for this, for the casual innocence in which the document had simply sat there, on the shelf. That I had longed for it so deeply, that I had dreamed for it, and found it with such luck. I held it in my hands – not a fan-produced replica, not a recreation, not anything other than what I knew it to truly be; the real, the legitimate, the honest and the true document. My breathing was staggered, I knew, and I could hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears. Had people noticed my excitement? Would they think me strange? I didn’t care – how could I? I sat. I placed the book in front of me. I inhaled. I opened the first page. I met my fate.
The yellow sign was printed on the first page.
I knew immediately that it was the real one. Not a recreation, not an indistinct artistic rendering or a prop for a game, not a stylised representation for use in the play. No, this was the true yellow sign. I knew it immediately, I knew it without any doubt, and because it was unlike any image I had seen before. The ink with which it was placed on the page did not remain still, and I could not see the full shape before me with my eyes – it felt as though I was looking directly at only a part of the sign, much like when you see only part of a sentence when you stare at a single letter. It did not obey the laws of structure of any sign rendered on a flat sheet of paper, it drew me towards it. It was not, I think, even accurate to describe it as yellow in colour – it had a colour, but none that exist natively on this planet. It drew me forward, pulling me closer, inwards, into the sign.
I fell closer. I fell upwards. I fell.
The sign clutched my mind as I tumbled down (or was it upwards? Yes, upwards!) into it. The sign enveloped me, pervading my senses. It grew thick, tar-like in its viscosity. It permeated my mind, choking it. I drowned in it. I opened my mouth to scream, but could only gasp for air. My eyes stung in the darkness; I wept, but the tears vanished into the inky eternity around me. I floated, clutching for breath, for life, for sanity.
And then a hand latched around my wrist.
In that moment I felt myself being pulled upwards, roughly hewn out from the void. I broke the surface, and realised that I had been under water. The cold and black waters had blinded me, and my initial breaths burned my throat as if I were a newborn baby. I couldn’t even see, not yet, images only returned to me fleetingly as I blinked down hard, pushing the lake’s water from my eyes. It was, I realised, indeed a lake – one as alien and unknowable as any world I had only dreamed of before. My eyes turned to look around, and I recognised the location around me – the stars above were black, the twin suns hung eternally setting in twilight behind the dim towards of the city. Oh, the city!
I looked up to the figure that had rescued me – my mind refusing to accept where I was now located – and recognised that my wrist burned. The figure’s grip on it was tight, I realised, because his fingers seared into my skin. The tips of those fingers were little more than claws, long and terrible needles, and when the figure had pulled me free of the lake, he had severed the skin and cut right to my bone. I tried to pull my arm free, but the figure’s clasp on me was resolute, unshakable. My wrist bled, but not as much as I had thought that it would. I didn’t want to look at the figure, even as the tatters of his yellow robes invaded the periphery of my vision.
The King held a pallid mask in his other hand. I tried to cry out as he pressed it to my face, but the mask had no hole for a mouth, and so my cries grew dim, and then silenced.
When light returned to my senses, it was hazy and painful – my eyes felt heavy and dull, as if they hadn’t been used in months.
An older man was leaning over me, asking if I was alright. He told me that I had hit my head when I had collapsed. With dim recognition, the focus of the British Museum’s reading room swam back to me. The older man asked if I was epileptic, maybe, and if I needed a doctor or something.
I stumbled to my feet, leaning heavily on the table. I didn’t want to answer the old man, my tongue felt swollen and unfamiliar to me. I struggled to recall where I was, what I had been doing here. I thought of the play – it wasn’t on the reading desk. Somehow, that didn’t feel important to me anymore. The old man stepped back, recognising that I was well enough to stand under my own power. I rubbed my fingers against my forehead, finding readily a heavy throbbing ache on the left side.
As I tried to leave the museum, I found that the back of my neck ached. I rubbed it. The skin felt uncomfortable, itchy and unfamiliar to me. It took me a few moments to realise that my strides had become laboured, as if I wasn’t at full ease with them. I scratched at my neck, determined that the sensation would pass. I didn’t want to think about what I had seen – the lost city of Carcosa, perhaps? The King in his yellow tatters? I couldn’t linger for too long on those thoughts. I stumbled down the museum’s steps and across the courtyard, into the street outside.
The sun was starting to crawl its way downwards towards the horizon, I noticed. I knew that I would need to get back to the train station, or at least I was dimly aware of this requirement, but the action of doing so simply did not feel entirely important to me. My feet shuffled ahead of me, taking one loping step before another. Before long, I had crossed into the narrow streets of Soho, and made my way through the evening crowds.
A man, with a well-cut business suit, accidentally bumped into me as he hurried from the door of a shop. Like a typical Londoner, he did not stop to offer an apology. But I’m not a Londoner, and so I quickly mumbled one to him, acting on instinct as I tried to say “excuse me, I’m sorry.” But those weren’t the words that escaped my lips. They were the words I had intended to say, but not what I actually said aloud. Instead, without even being aware of having done so, and to the man’s look of confusion and bewilderment, I said “Have you found the yellow sign?”