The King in YellowbyTamLin01©
"Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No force can abolish memory."
It 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 knowing that it's probably the last thing I'll ever do. But now it's much too late.
And, 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 was 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 such a pale blond that it was almost white. Hair like asphodels, that's what it was.
But she had no idea who I was and at first I didn't know how to approach her. Then an opportunity came, in Professor Chambers' seminar on literary censorship, one of the two classes I shared with Melissa. Chambers was lecturing about an old play: It was called "The King in Yellow."
"It's perhaps the most widely censored work ever written, in any language," Chambers said. "When its author put it forth 1895 the governments of Europe fell over each other to ban it. The first copies printed in Paris were immediately seized and the writer jailed. He killed himself two weeks later and the efforts to suppress his work were so ruthless that no one today even knows his name.
"But the play didn't die with its creator," Chambers went on. "No one is sure who translated it, but in 1896 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."
A hand went up: "What was so bad about it?" a student asked.
"Well, the complex relationship between sex, power, and violence in the play offended the moral guardians of the age. In fact, the play's content, whatever it was—because today we have only fragments from which we can formulate guesses about the material—was so shocking that it was considered downright evil. The play, it's said, was cursed."
The class murmured a little, and Chambers grinned.
"'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.' Perfectly sane men have gone mad reading it—or so the rumors say. And it was connected to outbursts of mania, mass hysteria, and violence everywhere that it went."
Another hand: "Are any of the stories true?"
Chambers shrugged. "No one knows," he said. "But one way or the other, we may have finally disproved that old idiom about there being no such thing as bad publicity."
He went on like that for a while but I honestly didn't pay much attention. And I probably would have kept on caring less about "The King in Yellow" if I hadn't overheard Melissa telling a friend that she had heard of the play before, and that she thought it was tragic that great art had been ruined by narrow-minded censors, and how much she wanted to study the fragments that were left. She spoke with so much enthusiasm for the subject that I made up my mind that 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, it might give me the chance to make an impression on her that would really last.
Which, all things considered, it certainly did.
So I did some reading. Almost nothing of the original play survived the 19th century. Men like Professor Chambers have chronicled all of the scraps that remain and produced a catalog of names and phrases related to it: a city called Carcosa, a woman named Camilla and another named Cassilda, and some 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.
Of course, a play with a reputation like that gave birth to plenty of pretenders. Pulp magazines, basement publishing houses, and of course the Internet teemed with dozens of scripts claiming to be the one true version of "The King in Yellow," all of them obvious frauds from amateur playwrights trying to trade on its reputation. 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, might 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, when class was over, 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 text of "The King in Yellow" 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 and instead just dropped a stack of loose pages onto my bed and then stared 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 looked like she had just come from her own funeral.
Before I could ask what was wrong or what she was doing here she began reciting words, words that I recognized, though she said them in a way that almost obliterated that 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 then. 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 really what I 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 is a fake. There's no way—"
"It's real," she said. "Oh, but of course, you won't realize it until the end. It's fine. It's the way things have to be. 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...it's hard to say."
"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. 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?"
"If you want me you'll have to give up something. What should it be?"
I was now almost completely certain that I was having a nightmare.
When she saw that I wasn't going to answer, she said: "Why don't you do something for me? Why don't you find the Yellow Sign?"
She obviously thought I should know what that meant, but I didn't have the first idea, any more than I expect you do now. Even so I nodded, and then she kissed me and all of my worries disappeared for a while.
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 like she was mapping it all out. She kept her eyes on what she was doing, only looking me in the face when she had finished the examination, apparently satisfied with whatever she had found. Then she pushed me onto the bed and climbed on top, catching me between her thighs. She rubbed against my naked, swollen cock once and I gasped. She looked placid.
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 okay," 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 for a second I thought I might pass out. It wasn't just the feel of her lips gliding down over me or her soft tongue teasing the underside of my cock that nearly pushed me over the edge (although, that too...), it was the sudden and unexpected reality of what was happening.
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 hair 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 still made me quietly ecstatic.
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, which of course was all it took. I cried out as I came, squirting onto her tongue, body shuddering. She only 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 again, kissing the side of my neck and telling me not to worry and that it was just what she had wanted.
She reached behind her back and unhooked her bra, tossed it away, then pressed my face to her breasts, where my lips found their way to her soft 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 affection under her iciness. 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.
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 hour alone (together) in the dark. I tried to pull out at the end but she held me in, and I felt something pass between us, and the moment was suddenly broken, and I was back to myself, sweating, panting, naked, and 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 any of it had really happened. But then I saw the pages 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 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 call of a deranged 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 looking pale, his eyes wild, hair tangled, and mouth hanging open. His clothes were 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 spoke 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 showed the play to Chambers. Probably even before she came to see me. Maybe before she finished reading 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 like a saw while his recitations became less and less coherent. After ten minutes campus security escorted him out of the room and off to an ignominious early retirement and within an hour everyone had heard what happened. Most of the student body found the incident hilarious: Had he been drunk, or is this just what happens after too many tenured years without a vacation?
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. 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 them. 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. A 30 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 in the trunk of Chambers' car, held together with rubber bands, and they seized the whole lot of them as evidence.
Classes were cancelled. The rumor mill was spinning from the moment the bodies were found: 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 found? What did it all mean? All the week long the people talked, and speculated, and gossiped, and wondered while 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 got 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. And it was about then that the bad dreams started. In my sleep I saw the Phantom of Truth, who pointed an accusing finger at me, and I heard a voice—often Melissa's, but just as often not—and it said:
"Have you found the Yellow Sign?"
But when I awoke I still did not know what it 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. 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.
They had marched unannounced across the green to the top of the hill ten minutes earlier and begun their performance. No one there but me could possibly have known what play it 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.
"I said, you should unmask," said Tessa-as-Camilla.