After playing the D20 adventure, "Death in Freeport," my interest was piqued in the Unspeakable One and the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign. As it turns out, both were inspired by Hastur and the Yellow Sign. So I decided to go to the source and read the original stories that helped craft the mythology of the Great Old One known as Hastur and his crazy book, "The King in Yellow."
Briefly, Hastur is both a place and a being. He/it is loosely connected to the cities of Carcosa, Yhtill, and Alar. Hastur and Alar are divided in a battle of succession. Yhtill is a city of the past, while Carcosa is a haunted city of the future. All of the cities are near Lake Hali. The cities are on a planet near the star Aldebaran in the Hyades, a planet with two moons and two suns. The inhabitants may be black or white (sources disagree).
What they all agree on is that the Phantom of Truth appears during the siege between the two cities. The Phantom wears a mask and tells everyone else to wear a mask to avoid the appearance of the King in Yellow, who will ultimately usurp all royal successors thereafter.
So everyone wears a mask, including the jaded and bitter Queen Camilla, her clueless daughter Cassilda, and her two sons Thale and Uoht. The plan is that by wearing masks, everyone will be saved from the King in Yellow's inevitable appearance. But the King in Yellow easily thwarts the Phantom of Truth, and he thereafter declares that everyone must wear a mask as well as the yellow sign, a squiggly three-armed symbol.
Sometimes Hastur is described as the King in Yellow, sometimes he's described as the Phantom of Truth, and sometimes he looks an awful lot like Cthulhu.
Oh yeah, someone transcribed all of this down into a play. If you read it or watch it, you go mad. Or you slowly get drawn into the play. Or the characters from the play come after you. It's complicated.
The Second Edition of the Hastur Cycle contains 14 different stories, all of them collected by Robert M. Price into one volume. They are loosely connected by the mythology of Hastur. I'll try to elaborate on each story and make sense of it all…without going mad.
"Haita the Shepherd" and "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" are both by Ambrose Bierce, he of the "Devil's Dictionary." In "Haita the Shepherd", a shepherd struggles in a relentless pursuit of a beautiful woman, who turns out to be an ideal. It's a bittersweet commentary on life. In "Inhabitant," we discover that Bierce invented the Sixth Sense plot twist before M. Night Shyamalan. They're both short and neither are particularly riveting to a modern audience.
HASTUR: In "Haita," Hastur is a benevolent deity of shepherds that Haita prays to. Occasionally, Hastur does nice things for Haita. But he doesn't have much of a role. In "Inhabitant," we have…well, an inhabitant of the city of Carcosa. He refers to Hali as a person, not a lake.
Robert W. Chambers wrote the next two stories, "The Repairer of Reputations" and "The Yellow Sign." In "Repairer," the play known as The King in Yellow appears for the first time. It establishes the subsequent madness that ensues by any who read The King in Yellow, as evidenced by the narrator of "The Repairer of Reputations." What's not immediately clear is that this story takes place in the future, where suicide chambers are government sanctioned. The future twist muddles the story a bit, as the setting isn't relevant to the plot. But it keeps you guessing. "Yellow," on the other hand, is just an out-and-out creep fest, with a zombie who keeps muttering, "Have you found the Yellow Sign?" Good stuff, dramatic endings, and in both cases the characters aren't yammering about the horrors they witnessed from the safety of the afterword, a trait all too often found in Lovecraft and his imitators.
HASTUR: These two stories lay the foundation that reading the King in Yellow drives you bonkers. They both hint at what happens in the first act of the play, which involves the Phantom of Truth. And this, unfortunately, is where we learn about the hearse-driver zombie. He will be rammed into just about every story afterwards, even where he doesn't belong. But that's not Chambers' fault.
"The River of Night's Dreaming," by Karl Edward Wagner, is a decidedly modern take on the King in Yellow mythos. It's scarier than the others, but a little less creative in forcing the main character (a young woman who has escaped prison) into the story itself, in a sort of Gothica/Misery movie scenario. One character refers to "The King in Yellow" as "vintage porno," and that's an adequate description of this story. I felt a little dirty after reading it.
HASTUR: Unlike the other stories in this volume, "River" makes no attempt to expand or include the King in Yellow. Instead, it focuses on repressed Victorian desires. Which is a bit of an assumption in the first place that anything in the King in Yellow has to do with the Victorian-era.
That brings us to "More Light" by James Blish, the crown jewel of the collection. As a story, it's not very entertaining. It's basically a guy reading "The King in Yellow" on a dare. It also establishes a trope that gets old fast: the narrator refers to Lovecraft's writings as if they were real. Oh, the irony!
HASTUR: This is the mother of all Hastur resources. It gives us almost the entire play of The King in Yellow. The story itself is bland, but the narrative of the play is fantastic and incorporates all the elements from the other stories. One thing that does get a bit silly is the insistence by authors of including EVERY bit of trivia about the Hastur mythos. The undead hearse driver from "The Yellow Sign" isn't just in the story, he's the Phantom of Truth. In "The Yellow Sign" someone remarks that the hearse driver's finger broke off (a consequence of being a zombie) and sure enough, it's mentioned in the play. If anything, the play is almost too thorough. But we'll take it, as Blish manages to put the various quotes together into a cohesive whole that is rather freaky.
The Hastur Cycle begins to stray with "The Novel of the Black Seal" by Arthur Machen. It's nearly unreadable, because of the stilted Victorian prose. Suffice it to say that the story involves the "little people" and their worship of the Yellow Sign, but takes such a long time to get there that you no longer care about the ending.
HASTUR: None. Price posits that this story served as the inspiration for "The Whisperer in the Darkness" by H.P. Lovecraft. Which is a bit of a tangent, as "Whisperer" has almost nothing to do with Hastur.
"Whisperer in the Darkness" is one of those stories that would actually be more entertaining if it were updated. Most of it takes place between two characters exchanging letters, with one of the authors continually updating his pen pal. It would play much better as an email exchange. It's even a little creepy, given that it deals with intelligent lobster fungi called Mi-Go.
HASTUR: Lovecraft's sole contribution mentions the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign and Hastur in passing. Supposedly, "there is a whole secret cult of evil men…devoted to the purpose of tracking [the Mi-Go] down and injuring them on behalf of monstrous powers from other dimensions." Presumably those monstrous powers are Hastur.
Unfortunately, Price now takes the connection of Mi-Go and goes crazy with it, spiraling off into a series of short stories that are focused on them instead of Hastur. So we have "Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley," by Richard A. Lupoff, which is essentially a sequel to "Whisperer." It's followed by two short stories about humans visiting the home planet of the Mi-Go, called Yuggoth (or, as we call it, "Pluto"). They're fast reads but are wasted space for anyone who wants to learn more about Hastur.
We finally get back to Hastur with "The Return of Hastur" by August Derleth. Reading this, I discovered a few things: 1) Derleth's narrative leaves much to be desired, and 2) he apparently thinks a Godzilla vs. King Kong type fight between Hastur and Cthulhu makes for scary stuff. It really, really doesn't.
HASTUR: Derleth helps lay the groundwork for the Unspeakable Oath, gives Hastur the title "He Who is Not to be Named," demonstrates what happens to the Chosen of Hastur, and (sadly) tries to make Hastur the half-brother of Cthulhu; like we need some big family tree of ancient horrors to make it all make sense. Bless Derleth's heart, he does try hard.
"The Feaster from Afar" turns Hastur into a flying boogeyman. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it contains the noteworthy death of a character. As opposed to a character safely talking about how he narrowly escaped mind-rending horror (but is all too eager to tell us about it).
HASTUR: Hastur sounds a lot like Cthulhu: all tentacles with a taste for brains.
"Tatters of the King" by Lin Carter contains all kinds of interesting tidbits about Hastur. It's actually three fragments, including a poem titled "Litany to Hastur," a "Carcosa Story about Hali" and "The King in Yellow" in verse.
HASTUR: Carter connects Byakhee to Hastur in "Tatters." Then we follow Hali (the guy, not the lake, harkening back to Bierce) as a necromancer trying to undo the curse of the undead in Carcosa. Hastur is the Thing in the Lake (he apparently sleeps in it), and the citizens practice human sacrifice to him. The verse is noteworthy for Price's intrusion as editor…he actually ADDS verse to the parts that are missing from Carter, who in turn took it from Blish. I thought editors were supposed to edit, not write…and certainly not provide completely new verse into someone else's work. But I digress.
Ultimately, The Hastur Cycle is an important but flawed survey of Hastur mythology. It's much less about Hastur than it is about Price's personal tastes on what stories influenced Lovecraft…as if the entire mythology's importance hinges upon Lovecraft's slim contribution. What's missing are other stories by Chambers, such as "The Mask" and the "The Court of the Dragon." Also missing are John Tynes' contributions, which have become part of the Hastur mythology mostly through Chaosium's support.
Did I mention it contains the majority of "The King in Yellow?" Read it, if you dare…