This Week’s Prompt: 69. Man with unnatural face—oddity of speaking—found to be a mask—Revelation.
The Resulting Story: And Off Fell His Mask
This prompt is a fascinating one. Partially because, again, it calls to mind a specific pulp story that inspired it. Partly because masks are such a fascinating thing to me—masks and personages and disguises are so strange. This corpse has a good deal of promise, I think, especially in my reading between the lines that our man with a strange face is a stranger arriving—a form that has some folkloric resonance with revelations.
The first unwelcome and amazing guest I can think of in the realm of Folklore is the Green Knight. The Green Knight is a variant of the Wild Men we discussed long ago—however, he is a more civilized sort. He dresses in knightly attire—all green, with a great green axe, a green shield, and a green horse. His most famous incident is the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight. Arriving on Christmas, he offers to play a game in King Arthur’s court. The game is simple: someone strikes him with the ax, and he returns the blow in a years time.
King Arthur initially rises to take the challenge, but Gawain steps in. Gawain reminds the king that without him, the kingdom is naught, where as without Gawain it is…well, probably going to last longer, but that’s another story. Gawain steps up and takes the ax, and lopes the Green Knights head off, presuming that the lethal blow will end the game there.
The Green Knight, a poor sport, takes his head, wishes everyone farewell, and rides off. The rest of the story, including the final confrontation between the Green Knight and Gawain can be found here, and is an interesting read if you are interested in English Poetry.
Moving our folklore away from the British Isles, let’s consider the Popul Vuh. Here, the Hero Twins are our guests of honor. After their first death at the hands of the lords of Xibalba—they got better, don’t worry—the hero twins became traveling magicians. They burned down buildings, and then used magic to restore them. They slew animals, and used magic to resurrect them. And then at the end, one twin slays the other, and restores him to life.
It was this last trick that drew the attention of the thirteen Lords of Death. Intrigued, they invite the two magicians to preform. At the end, the Hero Twins invite One Death and Thirteen Death to partake in their greatest feat of slaying and raising the dead. Of course, on this occasion, the Twins do not raise either of the Lords, and force concessions from the other eleven to restore them.
We can also consider, with the element of a mask that resembles a face, the story recorded as from the Pima Indians, regarding the masked man and the turtle. The masked man, Nahvahchoo, travels the world unearthing treasures and dangers in every direction, learning the might of the winds in each of the four directions, and meeting a powerful bow at each part of the sky.
Then there are more absurd or strange instances. The Ball of the Burning Men—Bal des Ardents—was a masquerade ball held by Charles the VI that ended in rumor, fear, and death. The masquerade included a performance of various members of the court, including Charles, dressed in wild men outfits and, according to contemporary chroniclers, baying like wolves and shouting obscenities at the audience. A celebration of a lady-in-waiting’s marriage, the ball became gruesome when Charles’s brother brought a torch to close to the five dancers. All but two dancers died in the ensuing fire, as the costumes took light. The dance’s wild nature, and the gruesome result, lead to public outrage and rumors of sorcery in a decadent court. Fear of revolt drove the king and his brother to offer penance at Notre Dame Cathedral shortly after.
The king’s brother Orleans is of interest here, to me anyway. He was accused of sorcery at this event and later ones, and was considered to have made an attempt on the kings life. The event itself is fascinating in consideration of our prompt, as the wild man costume resembles a man with a deformed or strange face. Here, however, it was a guest without a mask that started the terror, instead of one of the masked men.
It may have, however, inspired a famed horror story that keeps to the idea of mask and revelation: The Masque of the Red Death. This classic tale of horror sees the nobility sequester themselves off from the rest of the populace as a plague—the titular Red Death—sweeps the land. As the prince Prospero celebrates in his castle, decorated with seven rooms for the seven sins, an uninvited guest arrives. Dressed in all red and with a strange mask, the strange guest worries the party, until at last he is chased through the halls by the Prince Prospero. After his arrival, the plague strikes all the members within dead.
And then there is the play that is both before and of the mythos: The King In Yellow. A short story collection that predates Mr. Lovecrafts own work, the King In Yellow is a collection of horror stories that feature the recurrent element of a play. The play is normal, until the second act. The second act is maddening and terrible to read or witness, driving others out of their wits.
The play is, for a feature of the mythos, suprisingly detailed. We know, for instnace, it features a kingdom called Carcosa, features at least 3 characters (Cassilda, Camilla, and the Stranger). It deals in one way or another with a place or thing called Hastur, and the arrival of a guest who’s mask it is revelead to be his face. The play is given vague description in Repairer of Reputations:
He mentioned the establishment of the Dynasty in Carcosa, the lakes which connected Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades. He spoke of Cassilda and Camilla, and sounded the cloudy depths of Demhe, and the Lake of Hali. “The scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhtill forever,” he muttered, but I do not believe Vance heard him. Then by degrees he led Vance along the ramifications of the Imperial family, to Uoht and Thale, from Naotalba and Phantom of Truth, to Aldones, and then tossing aside his manuscript and notes, he began the wonderful story of the Last King.
The end of the first act, in the same tale, ends with the terrified Camilla’s line “Not upon us, oh king! Not upon us!”
The King in Yellow is a reccuring symbol in the Mythos for one of it’s most peculair entities: Hastur. Hastur to me is of especial intreast for a few reasons. One, Hastur proceeds the mythos as a body of literature—he appears first in an Ambrose Bierce tale as a god of shepherds and is rather benign. When he appears in the King In Yellow, Hastur is again strange and an entity of uncertain providence. Mr. Lovecraft and Derelth later rendered him more malicous in later works, a sort of rival of Cthulhu. Later still, AD&D’s Manual of Divinity gave him another strange aspect—Hastur’s capacity to be summoned by reciting his name three times in a row.
Now, what’s interesting to me in all this—and a portion of Hastur and the King In Yellow that is not often discussed in my opinion—is an odd parallel. We have here a deity, ancient and vast beyond compare, who is fond of shepherds, passes judgement–”not upon us oh king!”–and is served by strange servants. The usage of this being’s name infuriates it, it detests and wars with another old being in the sea, and its judgment leads to the end of the world. Why, I have heard of such a god before.
Well, I’ve heard of two. One that I will mention here, returning again to Greece, is the tale of the Bacchae. Here, Dionysus returns to his home to conquer it. He is seized by his brother, Pentheus, and not recognized—Dionysus has disguised himself as his own priest—and then imprisoned. After breaking free, as gods are want to do, Dionysus unleashes fire and earthquakes before confronting Penetheus. At this confrontation, shepherds come and tell of strange madness afflicting women in the hills. Some are tearing animals to shreds, or braiding their hair with serpents, or suckling on wild animals. Included among these revelers is Penetheus’s mother. The farmers tried to seize them, but were in turn torn to shreds by the women’s bare hands.
Penetheus, alarmed at the madness, plans first a massacre. Dionysus, however, persuades him to instead spy on them to learn their secrets. As he dons his disguise, Penetheus begins to see strange visions—two suns overhead, and horns emerging from Dionysus skull. Convinced of his limitless strength, he goes out to spy on the cult. He is found and murdered by his own mother, convinced he is a mountain lion. Cradling her trophy, Penetheus’s mother comes to her sense at the words of Cadmus. She and her followers are driven into exile for their crimes, and Dionysus turns Cadmus into a serpent before leading a barbarian horde to conquer the city.
This has the elements that clearly resemble the King in Yellow—there is madness, royalty, fear, and the end of a dynasty. As Hastur evolved, he too acquired a reputation for debauchery, although more of an upper crust decadence then the more barbaric and countryside madness that Dionysus seems to specialize in.
I think a retelling of the Bacchae is the most interesting route to take. It deals in many ways with the themes that are common in Lovecraftian horror—the arrival of an other, the terror of madness and affliction, the decay of societal norms (perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse), and with the victory of the unknowable over the known. We also have a handful of roles or characters at the center of the drama—Penetheus, Dionysus, and the Maenads, with a few nominal characters. Of course, there should be some alterations. As is, it might read that the Other, the outsider, the non-authoritative is the dangerous and thing to be feared. And while that might be the intent of Mr. Lovecraft at times, such phobia of the powerless is hardly the work of fiction.
What about you? What masks do you fear? What revelations to they hide? What horrible things wait?
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