The Carcosa Cycle (aka The Hastur Cycle) is a series of stories that range from the sublime (The Yellow Sign, by Robert W. Chambers) to the unspeakably absurd (The River of Night's Dreaming, by Karl Edward Wagner). The stories, as is befitting myth, are inconsistent and contradictory. However, the cycle appeals to me to the point I have written one Lovecraftian pastiche (The Mirror From Carcosa) and in the story co-written with Ken Pick and published in Twilight Times Press' anthology, Infinite Space, Infinite God, I have Father Eric Heidler scouring the universe for the Carcosa Artifacts.
What follows is my interpretation of the Carcosa Cycle and, rest assured, there is many an author who will rabidly disagree with my interpretation. I borrow heavily from Chambers, James Blish, and (I say with deep shame) Lin Carter. Feel free to mock, laugh, point fingers, and disagree.
Our setting takes place on an anonymous planet (sometimes erroneously called Carcosa) circling around an anonymous star in the Hyades Cluster. In the geographical area where my stories take place, a large lake (the lake of Hali) about as large as Lake Superior has served as a prison for one of the beings known as The Great Old Ones, ancient evil beings of immense power. This demon-god's true name is not known and later inhabitants of the lake shore will refer to it as The Unspeakable or He Who is Not to be Named. Eventually, this being will take on the name of the city that arises on the lake shore: Hastur. I will refer to this being as Hastur for the rest of this essay.
The lake appears to be more of a crater and as far as the eye can see the lake is bordered by high basalt cliffs. Every night, after the setting of the twin suns, the crater is filled with a large fog that undulates like the waves beneath it. Illuminated by the over-sized moon, the site of the cloud waves breaking upon the basalt cliffs is a memorable one.
Hastur the Unspeakable
Hastur the Unspeakable has slept under the waters for countless kalpas of time and the legends say it will arise "when the stars are right." As to why it is there, there are two conflicting stories. The first is that it is imprisoned because of its rebellion against the Outer Gods and along with the rest of the Great Old Ones is sealed in a prison in a state of stasis, unable to directly interact with the universe except through the dreams of humanity. Other Great Old Ones are Cthulhu who sleeps on Earth in the sunken city of R'lyeh, Ithaqua the Windwalker, confined to earth's polar regions (but, oddly enough, very much awake, Chaugnar Faugn (location unknown), and many, many others.
The second theory is that there is no captivity, no greater Outer Gods, but simply that the Great Old Ones have gone into willful somnolence to wait for the time they will arise and rule the cosmos as they did in eons long ago.
I opt for the former explanation in a nod to the cosmology of mythos writer, August Derleth.
The Coming of Humans
At some time in the distant past, humans from Earth found themselves on the shore of the lake where Hastur lies imprisoned, How they got there is a complete mystery, but it is evident that they are human and in their transition from Earth they were thrown far back in time, probably by one or two billion years. Snatched from all over Earth from its various epochs, the majority of humans originally came from North Africa. The result after millennia is a genetic mixture of predominantly Egyptian, Libyan, Tunisian, and Moroccan races with a fair smattering of other genetic stocks from around the world.
Somehow, either because they were physically changed in the transition or because the planet had a dramatic impact on their biology, humans here live to be at least seventy million years old and the birth of children is a very, very rare event.
The Building of the Cities
Eventually, the humans built a city on the lake that came to be known as The Lake of Hali, named after a prophet that rose from their ranks. Through his dreams, Hali the Prophet was able to tell them about the horror that dwelt at the bottom of the lake. This city was named Hastur for unknown reasons. After the appearance of the daemon-haunted city of Carcosa that appears nightly either on the waters of the lake of Hali or on the far shore, a king arose named King Aldones. With his queen, Cassilda, Aldones sired two sons and a daughter, respectively Uoht, Thale, and Camilla.
Eventually, a rift occurred between the king and queen and Aldones went into exile taking many of the residents of Hastur with him. Aldones settled many miles away along the shore of a much smaller lake named Dehme and built a new city, Alar.
The cities grudgingly became involved in a type of Cold War, conflict without open war, but lots of threats and saber-rattling.
The Appearance of Carcosa
During the time of the Prophet Hali and just before the coronation of Aldones, a marvel appeared on the lake. A bright and shining city with soaring towers appeared with four singularities:
- that it appeared overnight,
- that no one could tell whether it sat upon the waters of Lake Hali or beyond them on the unseen farther shore,
- that the rising moon appeared to be in front of the city's towers rather than behind them,
- and that one knew immediately the city's name to be Carcosa the moment one looked upon it.
Along the shore the cloud waves break,There is a fifth singularity, but it concerns the city's sole inhabitant and not Carcosa itself.
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.—"Cassilda's Song" in The King in Yellow Act 1, Scene 2
The King in Yellow and the Yellow Sign
It is said Carcosa's king is known only as The King in Yellow and is a fantastic, demonic creature: "He is described as a hunched figure clad in tattered, yellow rags, who wears a smooth and featureless 'Pallid Mask.' Removing the mask is a sanity-shattering experience ..."
During Aldones' reign, before his rift with Cassilda, Aldones bragged that one day his city of Hastur would be as famous as Carcosa. That night, the King in Yellow sent the upstart Aldones the Yellow Sign.
The Yellow Sign is described as a glyph in no known human tongue, a brilliant yellow against a backdrop of black onyx. It is suggested that "anyone who possesses, even by accident, a copy of the sign is susceptible to some form of insidious mind control, or possession, by the King in Yellow or one of his heirs."
Also, to be sent the Yellow Sign means that the King in Yellow sends his messenger to retrieve it, a rotting corpse referred to as the Phantom of Truth (though the Phantom of Truth may be the King in Yellow himself). Most times the encounter is fatal.
The Identity of the King in Yellow
The bottom line is that the King in Yellow is actually the dream avatar of the demiurge, Hastur and here we mention the fifth singularity: that Carcosa is a place of exile for the King in Yellow as he used to reign in Aldeberan.
So Hastur's body sleeps imprisoned under the lake of Hali unable to interact except through his dreams which consist of the ethereal city, Carcosa, and his avatar, the King in Yellow.
Thank heaven, Hastur sleeps. His dreams are deadly enough. Let's not think of what our life would be like if he wandered loose and awake.
The King in Yellow: The Play
In the United States in the 1890's, an unknown playwright wrote and published a two-act play entitled, The King in Yellow which told the story of Aldones, his queen, their respective cities, and their ultimate downfall at the hands (or claws) of The King in Yellow (see James Blish's short story More Light for a wonderful recreation of the play.
"Those who read the play The King in Yellow go mad and/or meet horrible ends." It is a terrible gift given to humanity and transmitted through Hastur's dreams.
As Chamber's describes it in his story:
We had been speaking for some time in a dull monotonous strain before I realized that we were discussing The King in Yellow. Oh the sin of writing such words,−−words which are clear as crystal, limpid and musical as bubbling springs, words which sparkle and glow like the poisoned diamonds of the Medicis! Oh the wickedness, the hopeless damnation of a soul who could fascinate and paralyze human creatures with such words,−−words understood by the ignorant and wise alike, words which are more precious than jewels, more soothing than music, more awful than death!Now there's a play for Broadway!
And it is from this compilation of facts, my Carcosa stories arise.