Hastur, the Unspeakable

King in Yellow

This is Balioc, of The Baliocene Doctrine and The Baliocene Apocrypha. I’d like to extend my gratitude to Flock of Lambs for letting me write a guest essay about this particular god, who is very near and dear to my heart.

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So. What do we actually know about Hastur the Unspeakable?

Not bloody much, as it turns out. Which is surprising, because He is so very very popular. Despite not being a Lovecraft original, despite not showing up in Lovecraft’s actual corpus at all except for one throwaway list-of-spooky-Mythos-entities mention — and despite Robert W. Chambers being a pretty obscure writer, all told — Hastur shows up everywhere. He is probably the most famous Mythos god with the exception of Big C, and I’d wager that within the greater Mythos He actually gets more screen time than any of His competitors. There are tons of short story anthologies devoted specifically to Him and His stuff; He shows up in everything from ancient webcomics to 4chan-style CYOAs; He got to be a season villain on True Detective. And yet most of that stuff somehow manages not to be very…informative. He is very scary and apocalyptically destructive, just like every other Mythos deity. He drives people to madness, just like every other Mythos deity, only somehow even more so. His activity is focused around the star Aldebaran. He’s likely to notice if you call His name. And that’s most of what we get from most of our sources.

The stories, unsurprisingly, strongly favor terror and confusion over any kind of explanation or exploration. Even the RPG sourcebooks, which usually spell out all their worldbuilding in tedious detail, tend to throw up their hands and say, “Hastur is a weird alien god and no one understands what’s up with Him!”

(Here the cultic priest nods sagely and notes, It’s almost as though all these cosmic-horror nerds are shying away from something that might truly scare them.)

But if we go back to the older texts, especially the Chambers stories, there’s something deeper and more profound to be learned. All we have to do is put together the puzzle pieces…

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We know that Hastur’s cult is a “decadent” faith, and that many of its practitioners are artists and art connoisseurs. So far, so simple, but this fact casts its shadow over everything to follow.

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We know that Hastur is strongly associated with the figure of the “King in Yellow” — usually taken to be His avatar — and with a French play called The King in Yellow (or Le Roi en Jaune), which is famous for driving people mad. Hastur cultists, and those who have been touched by Him in some way, often find themselves weirdly obsessed with The King in Yellow.

We learn some things about this play from Chambers, and some more things from Mythos heavyweights like James Blish and Lin Carter. Based on everything we see, it is…a pretty goddamn normal kind of play, a drama of family and politics with some ponderous allegorical philosophy thrown in.

(Yes, yes, it takes place on an alien planet; this doesn’t actually matter very much, the principals are entirely recognizable as old-timey European theatrical archetypes. Yes, the play is sometimes alleged to be some kind of magic ceremony-in-dramatic-form that summons the King for real if you perform it all the way through; yes, certain Mythos authors claim that all the drama and poetry that we see is representative of “only the first half,” and that a never-seen second half contains all the Actual Horror; but all of this feels like pointless handwaving, an attempt to inject The Scary into something whose true nature the author otherwise doesn’t really understand.)

It’s basically a mid-grade Shakespeare knockoff with some cosmic fantasy elements. But, according to the rules of Hastur’s portion of the Mythos, it is nonetheless imbued with divine power.

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We know that those who fall into Hastur’s orbit are driven mad, yes, but most often they are driven mad in a particular way: they become consumed with grandiose delusions, and insert themselves into grandiose personal narratives. Most archetypically, of course, they start identifying with the characters of The King in Yellow, and become embedded in those royal struggles and betrayals. Hildred Castaigne of “The Repairer of Reputations” believes himself to be a scion of the “Imperial Dynasty of America.” It is very common for them to become convinced that they are making Artistic Masterpieces for the Ages, or living out Emotional Dramas for the Ages, etc.

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We know that, for a Mythos god focused on sanity-shriveling horror, Hastur operates on a human-accessible level to a surprising and substantial degree. His famous King in Yellow avatar is more-or-less person-like, and it’s not uncommon for Him actually to talk to people. His alien city-realm, Carcosa, isn’t described in terms of its impossible angles or its monstrous alien denizens or anything; it’s depicted basically as a luxurious old-timey gothic (human-style) metropolis, like a slightly creepier Vienna or something. Hastur is known for having His would-be servitors take an “Unspeakable Oath,” promising themselves to Him (and letting Him do horrific things to them in the long term) in exchange for power — and this is, well, weirdly anthropomorphic behavior. You wouldn’t catch Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth or one of that crowd paying attention to your consent. “You have to sign off on your damnation consciously” is a very…human…way to construct things.

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We know that Hastur has a thing about masks, and that they play a central role in His mythology.

This shows up most clearly in one of the few Chambers-provided snippets from the actual text of The King in Yellow:

 

From Act I, Scene 2d

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.

Stranger: Indeed?

Cassilda: Indeed, it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.

Stranger: I wear no mask.

Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

 

Which is to say, someone who is obviously wearing a mask claims that in fact he isn’t wearing a mask, and some other people react to that claim with horror. We can presume that the Stranger is not lying here, since he is the being also known as (ahem) the Phantom of Truth.

This is a slightly-obscured version of a trope that we’ve all seen before.

The Stranger’s mask is not the Phantom of the Opera mask, a disguise to shroud the hidden horror underneath. Nor is it a mask like Nyarlathotep’s many masks, a disposable face, symbolizing the ability to adopt and discard identities casually. It is the exact opposite of those things: it is a mask-that-is-truly-not-a-mask, a mask that does not conceal reality, a mask that is in fact more real than the thing underneath. It is a mask like Batman’s mask, worn for the purpose of displaying the fundamental truth. This is the secret that the Stranger is using to terrify Camilla — the strange, fake-looking guise that he wears is not a fake at all.

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So put it all together. We have a cult centered on art and artists. We have the god’s might inhering in the not-that-weird-seeming narrative of a period play. We have a form of god-touched madness that turns people into larger-than-life characters. We have supernal alien forces that operate in ways that are more-or-less comprehensible to the human consciousness. We have symbolism focusing on masks, artificial faces, being truer and more important than natural faces.

Oh. That does all add up, doesn’t it.

Hastur is the god of stories.

Hastur is the god of stories that are more important than reality.

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This is something about which I’ve already written quite a lot.

It’s not hard, these days, to find people for whom “real life” is at least sometimes dominated by fiction. You can see it most easily in the obsessive excesses of fandom — and, more prestigiously, in the obsessive excesses of artists and creators themselves — but the thing is there in a lot of places where it doesn’t come with a tidy identifying label. It’s there in everyone who slips into wistful daydreams of his favorite media. It’s there in everyone who finishes his book or his TV show or his video game, and takes a look at the reality of his world, and sighs.

In some ways, it’s the dominant psychological development of our time, and it’s getting stronger and more widespread every day. “Entertainment” — which is to say, narrative — is taking up more and more of our brainspace. It is an enchantment whose siren song is hard to resist, for many, and resistance gets ever harder as the quality of the entertainment continually improves.

Fools, at least the fools who are into escapist stuff, think that this has to do with the content of their escapism. They read about grand adventure or grand romance or whatever, and they think “oh, if only I were there, if only I had that stuff for real, everything would be great and I would be happy.” (If they’re especially foolish, they think this even about grim gritty dark escapist stuff, like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead or suchlike.) But the foolishness here is obvious if you bother to look at the actual world, and at the actual power that fiction wields. There are people who have actual “thrilling” adventures filled with violence and peril and High Stakes, for example. You yourself can probably become one of them if you really want to — buy a plane ticket to a war-torn part of the Third World, set yourself some kind of difficult goal involving extralegal violence, and have at it. But the people who live like that generally aren’t filled with the kind of transcendent satisfied joy that we’re hunting for; mostly they’re pretty desperate and miserable, which is why rich folks in the First World generally aren’t eager to go join them, even rich folks who are really into Game of Thrones. And at the same time, fiction can exert its powers of enchantment even when the substrate of the narrative is Totally Boring Normal Reality. This can be learned by reading some middlebrow litfic, or if that isn’t your thing, by reading a coffeeshop AU in your favorite fandom.

The thing that we want isn’t there to be found in “the sort of stuff that stories talk about.” It’s there to be found in stories. It is an aspect of narrative itself, and it cannot easily be separated from its fictional framework.

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How does this work?

It works, in part, because stories cheat. They use artificial techniques to manipulate our minds and our feelings directly, in ways that real reality doesn’t. They use resonant words, and music cues, and camera angles, that serve as superstimuli for our emotional reflexes. They employ smoke and mirrors to pound hard on psychological buttons that actual life will maybe press lightly once in a great while.

But mostly it works because stories have inherent meaning in exactly the way that real reality doesn’t.

It is the nature of a narrative that the narrator tells you what things are important, and so those things are important. They have weight, they have substance, the universe notices them — if it didn’t, they wouldn’t appear in the story! Whatever the story is about, whether it’s “a hero saving the world” or “awkward sitcom shenanigans at NBC,” we know that we are supposed to care. The traits of the main characters are relevant, because they shape the story, and we are paying attention to the story.

And, for some of us, that is the thing we most desperately want. We want to matter. We want there to be meaning in our lives, not some kind of jury-rigged existentialist “I’ve decided that it’s meaningful to me” meaning, but real meaning that is endorsed by metaphysical powers as exalted as Author and Audience. We want reality to sit up and pay attention to the fact that we are A and not B, that we have chosen X and not Y.

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The promise of the King is that reality can be made to have the properties of stories. That you can look at your own life and feel the same magical sense of yes-this-has-meaning that you feel when you consume your favorite media. That you can make a mask of The Person You Want To Be, and put it on, and it will be the truth, and the inconvenient bits of reality that are hidden underneath — the inconsistencies, the lapses, the moments you have to go to the bathroom — won’t matter, because they won’t be part of the Story of You, and the Story of You has existence and power beyond the mere strung-together facts.

(The King is a cruel King. He likes melancholy, tragedy, irony. He’s not necessarily going to make you happy. But if the thing you really want is meaning, well, it may be worth sacrificing some happiness on that altar.)

It’s damn hard to get that, in a universe that seems steadfastly devoted to treating us with a perfect callous indifference.

So what do we do?

Some of us lie to ourselves, and insist on believing or claiming-to-believe in an omnipotent personal God who judges our virtues and our vices, who shepherds us to salvation and damnation, who built the universe for our sake, who constantly tells us that our lives are meaningful.

Some of us drink in a constant stream of fiction where there’s meaning to be found, and try to live in that vicarious headspace as much as possible, and sigh wistfully whenever we’re pulled back to the world of uncaring brute matter.

Some of us roleplay, wrapping ourselves in fictions, playing around in stories where our choices are meaningful because that’s how stories work. It’s the same as the above, really, with more sophisticated technology.

…some of us plot and scheme to make a world where we learn to see patterns of meaning in each other, and in ourselves, and to live in such a way that we can live up to those patterns. Where fictional concept-construction and real action are so tightly interwoven that there can be no distinction between them.

Or, as the more traditional cultists call it, bridging the Earth and Carcosa.

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Thanks very much for reading.

I do feel the need to say: I’m a Mythos writer and a Mythos scholar in my own right, and I think a lot about these gods and their stories, and my interpretations are often very much not the same as those you’ll read in Flock of Lambs’ essays. He doesn’t speak for me, any more than I speak for him. But his project is a really cool one, and I’m very glad to be a part of it.

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4 thoughts on “Hastur, the Unspeakable

  1. Putting additional commentary here, because I do not want to confuse my words with Balioc’s excellent summary.

    You might ask “but why does Hastur’s gift of meaning have to be cruel? Why couldn’t He celebrate beauty and the triumph of good, why must it be pain and sorrow?”

    The glib response is Tolstoy’s line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Happiness is boring and everyone’s the same when they are happy. If that’s what you want, go see Cthugha or Shub Niggurath.

    But deeper than that, remember that tragedy requires significance. Tragedy is not the art form of “it doesn’t matter what you do, more powerful forces than you had already consigned you to death (or to wild success) anyway.” But it was the specific mistakes you made, the unyieldable aspects of your personality, that guaranteed your torment. What other way to make every detail of your life meaningful?

    Like

  2. This is so, so interesting. I always found Hastur the most intriguing because well, not much is known about the bloke. I had no idea “The King in Yellow” was a play, and the analogies you make are fascinating.
    You did not disappoint me. Just out of curioisty, because you know so much, do you do work for the HP Lovecraft Historical Society?

    Liked by 1 person

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