I'm not insane.
I am not insane. I am not. I don't care what my sister says when her voice gets all thin and reedy and she tells me she thinks I've been working too hard. True, I have been working too hard: they make you work too hard in grad school. There's nothing new or mysterious about it. And yes, I am tired. Damnably tired, you could even say, if you were a Victorian-era author writing another tedious fucking story about a selfish, emotionally closed-off person who learns to reform and become a better person, perhaps due to a little girl's influence or what have you.
No little girls here, though, and I'm bucking thirty, though thinning out on top. I wouldn't even be writing this shit down except that I'm going to have to mail it to myself registered anyway, just in case, because I know how that prick Lerossi thinks, and if he's found out even half of what I saw is real, he's going to use it in his thesis defense, and then I'll be fucked.
Okay. Here's hoping I never have to read this again.
I'm a Cultural Anthropology student at Miskatonic University, a small shithole of a liberal arts college with pretensions upstate in Mass. For the most part, it's pretty standard: some Massholes from Boston come up to go here, plus a bunch of the local townies from Dunwich and Innsmouth – and then people like me, who fucked around a lot in high school and have no chance of getting into the good schools, but who did well enough on the SATs and can afford to pay overpriced tuition to get into a school that likes to pretend that the ivy covering a few walls here and there means something. It doesn't.
But it's not a bad school; just not a good one, and I got through my four years in the lit program pretty easily. I know enough about myself to know that I'm lazy, I can talk a good line of bullshit, and I like to make sweeping generalizations about really complicated things. So when it came time to defer my entry into the real world and my inevitable job working behind the counter with Susan at the store back in Bellingham, I figured the Anthro Department here at Misk was my best bet. I already knew half of the teachers, I could get good letters of recommendation from the English faculty, and I wouldn't even have to move out of my apartment.
It seemed like an excellent idea at the time. Huge mistakes usually do.
Old Misk has always been a weird place. My apartment building, for instance, seems to have missing space on the inside, with walls at weird angles and some of the stairways twisted around so badly that navigating them sober is harder than doing it drunk. The place had been rebuilt back in '31 when a gale tore the roof off (I can't tell that story without thinking tear the roof off this sucker, tear the roof off and yeah, that makes me an asshole, you don't have to tell me), and when they rebuilt it, they added new rooms and enlarged the place outward, converting the old garrets into real living spaces, but my room's one of the original ones. Walls are thin. I can hear stuff moving around occasionally, but you can't argue with the rent, even if St. Stanislaus' bells wake me up all the damn time. The whole town's like that – like a chunk of some old colonial town preserved in amber, frozen in place while modern Massachusetts crawls all around it and tries to get in, but can't quite do it. You can be walking down a normal street, going between puddles of light cast down from the telephone poles, and then take a turn and suddenly the buildings are all looming, packed tight together like teeth going bad.
Some parts of town don't even have indoor plumbing. Can you believe that shit? You can be in town and see people going outside to get water from a pump well. Not that I exactly blame them, because the tap water here? Not the best I ever had. But still, they sell electric pump wells; my grandfather had one when I was a kid visiting him out in Kent. It's not that hard.
I'd see a lot of that kind of thing walking to my job at the Miskatonic University library; it was a good work study gig, I figured, and it gave me time to read whatever struck me as useful for my thesis, whenever I eventually figured out what it was going to be about. Professor Mazurewicz liked a lot of my ideas, but she wasn't really much help in figuring out what to focus on, so I was reading McKenna and Wilson a lot trying to come up with an idea about modern societies and their doomsday myths, and ol' Rod McKuen's ideas about how the constant threat of the a-bomb over our heads had warped us as a culture. It was around this time that I stumbled upon the gold mine.
The Rare Books Collection.
They are not fucking around at Misk when it comes to rare books. I'd never even heard of half of this shit. Friedrich Von Juntz? On the Sending of the Soul? Seriously weird stuff, some of it written by people who worked here at Miskatonic and some of it collected from God knows where. Liber Ivonis and Von Juntz' Unaussprelichen Kulten were the ones that most interested me, probably because they reminded me most of the trippy, pseudo-mystical style of the books I was already reading.
Of course, like with most rare book collections, you couldn't check any of it out. From the few conversations I could stand having with old man Whipple, the damp-looking, vaguely reptilian character who curated the Special Collection, I learned that Miskatonic possessed the only extant copies of a lot of these books, and in the case of multiple copies, the other ones belonged to people who were likely to ask for a lot more than just your driver's license in exchange for a loan-out. The upshot of which is that I was starting to spend an awful lot of time, both on the clock and off, in that cramped room in the cellar of the library annex that housed the Rare Books section.
I didn't like it there. It was dark – something about the delicate condition of the books or light damage to the paper on older materials made them keep it low-lit, and yet it was also moist and murky, like there was a plumbing leak somewhere. Worst of all, it always smelled a bit like fish, especially when Whipple had been in there. But there wasn't much I could do: like a fish, I was hooked. Every book I read made me want to read more, and I don't mean just out of curiosity or scholarly interest; I mean that I was developing an almost tangible physical need to move on to the next item on my reading list as soon as I'd finish whatever I was working on at the time.
On the one hand, it made a lot of sense; I was well on my way to becoming a career student, and the co-eds kept getting younger while I kept getting older. It was beyond time to get going on my fucking career, and than meant finishing my thesis double-quick. Besides, I was single, with no family for 2000 miles and a crap work-study job at an obscure university; it's not like I had a lot of pressing demands on my time. On the other, though, it was totally ridiculous. I was starting to spend upwards of fifteen hours a day in this dank shithole reading about insane cultists who sacrificed children to unheard-of water gods to bring about the end of the world. Someday, Mom was going to call me and ask me what I was doing with my life, and this is what I was gonna tell her?
At any rate, I had too much invested in it at this point to quit. I spent more and more time in that dreary salt-smelling hole, paging through books that were probably wrapped in somebody's skin at some point and listening to whatever the weird chirping was that came through the storm drain in the floor. (I tried bringing in a radio a couple of times, but Rare Books was in the basement, and the only station I could pick up seemed to exclusively broadcast some deranged Cape Cod fire-and-brimstone evangelist whose sermons all appeared to revolve around the notion that the insects were coming.) To be honest, I still didn't have any idea what my thesis was going to be about; the title "Waiting for the End of the World: Concepts of Eschaton in Primitive Cultures" was scribbled in the margins of one of my notebooks, but the more of this material I read, the more I realized that an awful lot of the primitive cultures weren't so much waiting for the end of the world as they were actively attempting to bring it about. The only thing I knew for sure was that I had to keep reading.
Since I had been a lit major in a previous life (a life that involved a lot more hanging out in coffee shops with highly desirable poetesses and a lot less sitting in wet basements reading books with the word 'unspeakable' in the title), I gravitated towards a lot of the fiction, poetry and drama housed in the Old Misk rarities collection. Old man Whipple kept goading me to read the Necronomicon, but it was housed in the stacks (under Law and Legal Theory, for some reason), so how good could it have been? Besides, I don't speak Latin, there were twenty-six other people on the wait list for it ahead of me, and if I'd wanted it that bad, I was pretty sure I'd seen a copy at the Barnes & Noble in Innsmouth, in the New Age section, next to a JZ Knight book on trance channeling. No, what I really wanted to get hold of was an ultra-rare play that was supposed to be in the permanent collection: The King in Yellow.
Unfortunately, the copy that was supposed to be in the Rare Books collection was missing.
Oh, don't get me wrong – they still had it. As old man Whipple repeatedly assured me, books simply do not disappear from the Special Collection. (Apparently, they sometimes appear – there were a number of editions that showed no records of ever having been purchased or otherwise acquired by the university, but were there just the same – but they don't just disappear.) Needless to say, the spiny old fuck was completely uninterested in informing me where The King in Yellow might be, but every time I'd ask, he'd burble out that it had to be there somewhere, maybe wedged in between the archive editions of obscene pagan poetry and the collection of maps of countries that don't seem ever to have existed. The possibility that it had been lost or stolen was simply not one that he was willing to consider.
As for me, I wasn't willing to take no for an answer. After cashing in some favors and wining and dining the unpleasant creature who maintained the employment records, I learned that the last person who'd been responsible for inventorying the Rare Books collection was a kid named August. I remembered her: she was an IS major who had that look of funky detachment that you sometimes see in people who spend too much time inside their own heads. Cute, though. A little more asking around, and I found out more: she was MR.
For those who don't know, Miskatonic University is one of the few institutes of higher learning that has its own nuthouse. They don't call it that, of course; its official title is the Mental Recuperation Clinic, and the psych department, who runs it (as rumor has it, because the head has some incriminating photos of the Mass Surgeon General), trumpets it as a point of pride. Of course, they frame it as a cutting-edge way of addressing the ever-growing emotional health issues of today's student rather than an on-campus bughouse built to keep the crazy students – of which Old Misk had a higher percentage than any accredited institution in New England – out of the way.
Whatever the reason that so many students here flipped out, August was one of them. She was on Mental Recuperation. That meant she was not to be disturbed, at least any more than she already was; but I was convinced she was the only one who knew where a vital component of my ticket out of here might be located, and I was going to ask her about it. It was, I reasoned, publish or perish time.
I didn't know how right I was.
You'd be amazed how easy it is to get into that place. Sure, it's cutting edge, in its way: lots of cameras, lots of guards. But it's run by a college psych department, and that means it's run by grad students who do the real work while the doctors on staff do as little as possible. It's the same in any department: TAs run the Lit Department, I had my little kingdom in the Library Rare Books Collection, and a couple of hours in a bar drinking with an obnoxious prick named Chad whose teeth were too straight, skin was too tan and hair was too blond (perfect bullethead mofo) got me my access. A nice, shiny badge with a magnetic strip. Leaving Chad puking his guts out in the horrid little bathroom of Ward's, I walked my way to the MR building forcing myself out of that boozy bleariness by focusing on the play. Some said Marlowe wrote the damn thing, or at least arranged a version of it, before he got snuffed in Deptford. Others argued that Guy Fawkes attended a performance of it to get his stomach up before trying to blow Parliament up. People have blamed the Gordon Riots, the San Francisco Earthquake, the decline of the Romanov family and the whole Age of Aquarius on the play, but so far, I've never heard a description of what the actual play is about, much less ever met someone who's seen it performed or even read it.
Now I was going to play Q&A with a girl who had, and ended up nuts. There was no denying it, as I sucked in cold lungful after cold lungful of air to steady myself, I was hooked by the mystique of it. The stars looked closer to me, the wind through my hair felt like it was hissing especially at me: I felt like I was stepping on the center of a spinning stage, watched by the world.
I'd definitely had too much to drink.
The front door opened with a swipe of the card, and the security door just required me to wave the card at a disk on the wall. There were cameras with green sensors around every corner, but I didn't make much effort to hide from them: I didn't intend to do anything particularly notable and even if I had, it was worth it to me to get in. Finding out where August was being held (where she was resting, in the bullshit parlance of the MR department) took a little more doing, as I didn't want to draw too much attention to myself from someone who would have enough on the ball to wonder why he or she didn't recognize me, but I eventually managed to get a few minutes at a hall station and found her room. They used the same database as the bursar's office. It made me smirk.
The halls were that odd color that you get when you let white paint get old and then illuminate it with harsh blue flourescents: that eye-chewing color that makes the skin look sallow on your hands when you look down to run your finger along a room number. 317 was her room, and it was lit at 9PM, which I took as a good sign. Besides, even if it wasn't a good sign, I'd gone a bit far by that point to back out. Well, I suppose all I'd done was get a psych student drunk and snuck into a school hospital… but it seemed bigger in my head. Things do, you think you're so fucking clever and that you've got to see things through to the end, it's almost funny.
I went in. I didn't even knock, I just walked in.
She was dressed in a plain white hooded sweatshirt: it made her blue eyes look enormous, like a parody of a Jhonen Vasquez picture (and that's plenty parodic by itself, I'd say) and she leaned against the wall next to a metal radiator, the old steam kind, that gurgled and hissed in the room. She didn't look up at me, and I stopped, just totally aware of how hard it was to think of a way to bring it up, looking for a way in to what I wanted to ask her about. A complete stranger barging into her hospital room to ask about an old play?
"'By the Lake of Hali they dance in ancient Caracosa, their skirts twirling in the breath of humid air/ Never can they cease writhing with their spines delicate and their limbs turn for the King's fare/ and in crystalline tones the royal voice forever rends tatterdemalion patterns out of truth's hide.'" She smiled, and it looked like the smile on a fossil cat skull Eislen Lorley, the oldest crank in Anthro, kept on his desk. "I can smell it on you. You reek of the library. Been in the basement long?"
I admit it, I actually sniffed myself at that.
"I did shower this morning."
"Maybe that's why he doesn't have castles in your head. You're an idiot: it would be like conquering Afghanistan." She laughed at her own joke just a little too long. I'll admit I was pretty freaked out. Still, when she finally looked up at me I remember thinking, noticing how very luminous her eyes looked. "Do you know anything about Aldebaran, paper-wasp?"
"I'm looking for a play…"
"I know. What you should be looking for is The Imperial History of America." I must have had a really good slack stare of confusion going, because she leaned back her head and really looked at me there, a few tufts of hair sticking out from under the hood of her sweatshirt. "I know what this place is. I know I'm not… well, whatever I was. I don't remember what it felt like to be a student, a girl, with a life anymore. You want to find the King, but the King finds you, chooses you. Makes it so you can't care about stupid bullshit like dating or busting your hump to get a slightly better GPA than that mouthbreathing fucker who smells of three days unwashed laundry and stale pizza down three seats from you. You want the book. No reason for anyone I don't know to come here, except that they want the book. Go look for The Imperial History and you'll find the play. Now leave me the fuck alone."
"What the hell is in that thing to screw you up this bad?" I didn't mean to ask it, of course, but I was just drunk enough to have that editor in my head fall asleep at the switch. If it had been an old movie I'd have covered my hand with my mouth.
"Nothing. A story about a girl, a lover, and a pallid mask, and the approach of the King. Lost Caracosa, where all is limpid, all is autumn falling all over itself, Hastur rising… nothing. It's not what it says, and it's not how it says it, it's all in what it doesn't bother to tell you. It hold no hope. It doesn't bother to lie to you, to coddle your illusions, to let you hold onto them. It's just a play. We're the source of all that's wrong, not it. Now go away." She closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall. "You smell of the books, and I don't want any more books."
I got the fuck out of there. As buzzed as I was, I knew that she wasn't just crazy. I mean, shit, she knew enough to know why I was there without me saying anything, and even if it was just a good leap of deductive reasoning on the part of a smart girl who'd lost her shit, I wanted the hell away from her. But what was worse was that I left because I wanted to get back to the library.
I let myself in using the huge keyring Whipple had trusted me with a while before, using the flashlight on the chain to see my way down the stairs to that dank cement hole. When I got down there I slapped the feeble, dim bulb overhead to life with an absent swat to the switch and got to work. I dug through piles of yellowing old notebooks, newspaper clippings dating back to when the Arkham Reservoir first filled up and drowned all the old farmhouses on the Nahum property (I don't know why someone had a hard-on for that in the Rare Books collection… I stopped trying to understand why collections of old poetry and newspaper clippings were doing in there alongside 11th-century translations of old Latin books a long time before) and finally found the damn thing hiding in a pile of old novels.
It was a leather bound book, of the type that could well have lived in the private library of a moderately well off shipping magnate jackass who wanted to look smart about a hundred years ago. I'd seen it once, saw the title, and figured it for some weird treatise on manifest destiny or some such shit.
I popped it open and started reading with that weird feeling of anticipation you get when you expect something to be horrendous, God-awful, just revolting… and you kind of want it to be, you want it to blow up in your face and justify that thrill of panic up the ladder of your back, each bone a stone stepping up the expectation. And of course I was disappointed: it was dry. It was dull. It was almost just a prosaic genealogy until you realized it was a genealogy of a made-up family, a 'Royal Line of America' that had been deposed but who waited to return to their proper glory, the whole thing read like historical fiction if you let Lyndon LaRouche write it. There were a few references to Aldebaran sprinkled in it, or the Lake of Hali, but it didn't seem to have jack to do with the play.
I'd have thrown it away in disgust if not for a combination of exhaustion and the booze in my blood slowing me down, making me stop and think. The book was full of bullshit about a naval war in the Samoan Islands , talked about Germany invading the US in 1920… 1920 for Christ's sake… and there was talk of national death chambers and coastal fortifications and all sorts of other shit I couldn't get my head around. But then I found it, buried in the back of the book: "The scalloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhill forever."
And it hit me: whatever crazy hack had written this thing had read the play. It was a book full of fantastic, futuristic predictions about the far-flung misty happenings of 1920 as well as a mystical past that tied into Hastur and Aldebaran and lost Caracosa, just like The King In Yellow did. Where had I seen that shit before? Then it hit me. I was a book geek before I started all this, it was why I was digging in this diry, and so like every book geek who's ever fancied himself a rebel I'd read Ambrose Bierce. And Bierce had written a story that mentioned the lake of Hali!
I sat there clutching that fucker to my chest feeling my head spin. Bierce had read the play, I was sure of it now. Read the play and went wandering down in Mexico cause he couldn't take it, just like August in MR except bigger cause he was fucking Ambrose Bierce… Bierce, the San Francisco newspaper hack, but a talented writer, too talented to have written The Imperial History of America, which managed to be boring and crazy at the same time. So Bierce had read the play, but how and what did it…
I just about broke my neck standing up from my hunch, jumped over several old file boxes and ran over to the personal papers collected in boxes near the big desk Whipple used to make microfilm of the old books…if the old parasite had managed to upload any of that shit to a computer somewhere, this would have been a lot easier… and started carefully sifting through the boxes, terrified some old book would crumble to dust in my hands or the yellowing notebooks of some minor figure like this Gordon Pym nutcase and his hollow earth bullshit would be lost forever. Eventually I found the stuff I was looking for, the thick folder in a box labled Joshua Norton, a lunatic who'd thought he was the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He'd lived in San Francisco, like Bierce (Bierce came back from England the year Norton died, even) and they'd treated him like the emperor he believed he was, especially after a weird deal where he'd gotten arrested for being crazy and the citizenry got so worked up in his favor that they'd had to let him go, apologize to him for arresting him, and even salute his ass on the road when they saw him next.
I'd dated a girl who read the whole run of Sandman once. That's how I knew any of this shit. I just about got ready to pucker up and kiss Neil Gaiman's sweaty ass when I found a folio in there with a weird curling, twisting, branching symbol in black and yellow on the cover, embossed right into what felt like hard, cracking leather. It was like those Celtic things that loop back into each other, but not -- branching and twisting. Made my eyes hurt to look at it, honestly, but I didn't look too much because I had to flip it open.
The King in Yellow - A Tatterdemalian in Three Acts.
There was no author listed. Some of the pages were moldy and looked fragile. Even so, I felt like I'd just gotten a blowjob from God or something: one of the rarest plays in the English language was in my hands. There was only one thing to do, and I did it: got my ass over to the desk I used, dug out my shitty Dell laptop and propped the folio up on a reading stand. There was no way I was going to risk this thing getting lost again.
Sad thing is, it's kind of a shitty play. Bad poetry and confusing plot. A queen named Cassilida waits around and complains to a bunch of people that a King in Yellow is coming, and they complain about his Pallid Mask, and then he shows up and the mask is his face and everyone dies and the city of Caracosa is abandoned and lost. The lines are so flat and stale that the whole thing just slides out of your head as you read it… "Dim Caracosa where your streets loom wide/ Lost forever, broken, wracked on time's tide/ Victims of the dreamer's dismay when the dream has died/ From his inexorable tread you buried yourselves but you cannot hide", that kind of shit. Occasionally I'd look at that weird symbol on the cover, the black and yellow lines almost crawling over each other like snakes… it had a role in the play kind of like an anti-cross, drawing bad shit to people instead of keeping it away, so it sort of fascinated me.
I didn't smell old Whipple coming for once. Hell, I hadn't even noticed that it was well into the morning when he showed up, bent over. I have no goddamn idea how old that man is, but he reminds me of fucking Tiresias turning into a cricket… looking at the disreputable state of the room with his insanely rheumy eyes, bulging out of his head.
"Had a breakthrough, have we?"
"I found the play." I know I busted out a bigass smile on him, which seemed to take him aback somehow.
"Ah… you mean The King In Yellow? Have you… have you read it yet?"
"Sure have." I pointed to my laptop. "Even made a transcription of it to make sure the text didn't get lost again, mailed a copy to my gMail account and stored one in the 'Library' text folder online… you know, it wouldn't be a bad idea to start transcribing some other stuff, I could work on it when I get some time…" I trailed off, unnerved by the sheer intensity of his stare. I fought the urge to look behind myself to see what the hell he was looking at. He muttered something under his breath, I caught the words 'cruel and intrepid' but the rest was unintelligible. He finally waved a hand at me and turned to walk away.
"Congratulations, then," he said, flapping and waddling away. "I'll be in my office." He walked out of the room without saying anything else, either. I'll admit I was a little pissed, and I might have been a little more pissed if I wasn't so relieved he was done glaring at me. Holy shit, that old man made me want to piss my pants that morning with that stare.
So, that's pretty much it. Lerossi can go fuck himself: not only have I seen the play, I've touched it, and when it comes time to publish my thesis (I'm going with "The Breakdown of Boundaries - Madness and the Culture of Incubation", and using the Norton case and this play to build up what will essentially be a mountain of bullshit about people being so afraid of crazy people that they make them into saints or shamans or whatever) I'm not only going to have the play itself, I'm even going to be able to take my advisor to a production of the damn thing. That was my idea: I looked up Bridget, one of my biggest crushes from back in the day (combination Theatre and Lit student, wanted to be a playwright and a director, hair like Columbian coffee and a pair of glasses that always got me all nervous and panting) and told her about the play, got her interested in it, gave her a copy of the transcription. She's been working on it non-stop for the past two months, which I'll admit in a way depresses me… I was kind of hoping it would grease the wheels a little, but hey, can't get everything. But at the same time, the old Barn out on Wagner Way has been lit up every night I've walked past it, so they're clearly working hard on it. I even saw them painting huge backdrops one night when I walked past, that twisting black and yellow mass on each one, dozens of the things. I'm looking forward to it.
I just wish August hadn't gotten worse. I'm human, I feel bad, I wonder if my visit made shit worse for her, but she was bent and if people like that get it into their heads to hurt themselves, there's not much you can do. I never found out how she managed to cut herself up like that without breaking a window or what have you, but she's been in ICU ever since, something like 70 to 80 percent of her skin torn off. It's too bad: I would have liked to find out if she had any other notes about the play.
Time to stop and get this into an envelope: thesis defense starts up next week, and the play debut is a few days after. Man, I hope I can get Mazurewicz to come to see it. I've been so busy here in the Library since Whipple took that academic leave that I forgot to ask her to come out. Wonder where the old toad went?