In 1895, Robert W. Chambers wrote a horror collection called The King in Yellow. Each entry was about a person who had the misfortune of reading a play called The King in Yellow, a play that had the power to drive each of them insane.
H.P. Lovecraft was so inspired by The King in Yellow that he fabricated his own tome of forbidden knowledge called the Necronomicon. The King in Yellow went on to inspire John Carpenter’s films In the Mouth of Madness and Cigarette Burns. Its influence can be felt in The Ring and most recently True Detective, which references the king, the yellow sign, and Carcosa by name.
While True Detective referenced Chambers’s symbolism, the show left his premise alone. I wanted to tell a detective story where the cursed text took center stage. Enjoy.
Wind rattled the trees, clogging the gutters entire branches at a time. Rain spilled down the roof. The mansion’s features were blurred beneath a cascade of water. All I saw from the lot were pillars and lights.
Past the waterfall was a set of chrome-plated doors. Closed, they looked like an art deco rendition of the Empire State Building. There were two knockers. The one on the left was shaped like a comedy mask with a ring in its smile. The one on the right was shaped like a tragedy mask with a ring in its frown. I chose tragedy, or maybe the atmosphere chose for me.
A well-dressed man opened the door with hair like eagle feathers and a smile that buried his eyes in crow’s feet.
He offered a manicured hand. “Mr. Advena? I’m Edgar Staples, assistant to Mr. Freeman.”
Edgar regarded my yellow trench coat. “Please tell me there’s a zoot suit under that.”
“There’s a zoot suit under this.” I unbuttoned my coat to reveal a dress shirt, thin black tie, and pleated pants.
Edgar shook his head. “That’s no zoot suit.”
I pointed to the ceiling. “You said ‘tell’ not ‘show.’”
He smirked. “I take it you were a screenwriter in a past life?”
I nodded. “And you?”
Edgar took my coat without answering.
I stepped out of the rain and onto a red carpet. The entryway was framed in footlights that lead to a box office window with an empty marquee.
Pulling a curtain back, Edgar led me through a leather door where I discovered, not the entrance hall of a grand manor, but the lobby of a movie theater. The bar was made up like a concession stand. There was a big neon sign where the Let’s All go to the Lobby singers were joined by a smiling beer mug and martini shaker.
“Right this way.” Edgar directed me to a flight of stairs with a golden railing up the middle.
“Aren’t you going to ask me to shut off my cellphone first?”
Edgar gripped the railing. “Right after I show you the fire exits.”
Ramsey Freeman was a short stout man, bald with a tuft of bangs, like Friar Tuck. He wasn’t much to look at but he was a giant in the film community. His eyes were on the notecards on that famous corkboard, where he conceived The Straw Husband, Mutiny on the River Styx, and We the Damned.
The screenwriting professor at Columbia told us that Freeman plotted every scene on a notecard. The board fit seventy, no more no less. If Freeman had extra scenes it would force him to decide what to cut. Except today those cards spilled onto the wall. Was this his Gone with the Wind?
“You have a lovely theater Mr. Freeman.” I announced myself.
He kept his eyes on the cards.
When I stepped into the room, I realized he’d filled every wall. Mixed into the cards were parking stubs, G.P.S. print outs, photos of his late son Michael taking selfies at sunset, raising a glass with friends, and rocking the Wolverine claws with the hair and biker jacket that went with them.
I spotted a print of a cute Goth chick in a tank top with a sleeve of tattoos. She was checking her phone, oblivious to the photographer. I plucked it off the wall. The edge of the picture was blurred, the telltale sign of a telephoto lens.
“What is all this?”
Ramsey spun around. “The last month of my son’s life.” Charging toward the entrance, he tapped the wall. “From when he started his internship at Screen Constellations,” he knocked on the opposite side of the door frame “to the day they found his body in the lobby.”
“I take it you don’t believe the reports?” I examined the final photograph, the blackened body with the texture of bark, arms spread out like a scarecrow.
Freeman scoffed. “That my son burnt himself alive protesting the studio system? No, I don’t.” He flattened a satellite image. “No one at the construction site saw who took the gas, no one saw who poured it, and no one saw who ignited it.”
Ramsey jabbed a black and white photo: a silhouette made of light with a Roman candle for a head.
“He was engulfed by the time the camera spotted him.” Freeman traced a construction blueprint. “The arson unit combed the stairwells, the back halls, the bathrooms and they couldn’t find the source of the ignition.”
I shrugged. “Matches burn. Even lighters melt.”
“Plastic melts at several hundred degrees higher than flesh.”
Of course Ramsey knew that, the man was notorious for over-researching.
He unspooled a receipt. “Someone planning to kill themselves doesn’t order a boom mic, a 750 watt lamp, and a green screen.” He tapped a printout full of word balloons. “They don’t text friends pitches for web series, hours before their deaths.”
In my experience, suicidal people did all of this. They ordered stuff, made plans, giving themselves something to look forward to, like sharks in constant motion for fear of dying.
I nodded anyways. “So where do I come in?”
Ramsey tapped his thumbnail to his teeth. “A colleague told me you had a talent for finding information that wasn’t…” he searched his cards for the words, “in the public domain. Berkley’s been forthcoming, but the studio’s been stonewalling. I need to know Michael’s relationship with everyone he worked with.”
“Where should I start?”
“There.” Ramsey nodded to the picture of the girl in my hand.
Of all the exhibits on the wall, what made me reach for that one? Later I’d recognize the decision for what it was, the type of convenient coincidence writers can only get away with in act one.
Ramsey had the parking manifest for Screen Constellations. He knew who every vehicle was registered to. The mystery woman wasn’t among them. Edgar snapped the candid on her way out of the building. Uploading it into a Google image search came up with nothing, until I ran it against the headshots on IMDB.
Her name was Cassie, a screenwriter with three short films to her credit. Screen Constellations didn’t have her on any staff listings.
She’d just dropped out of Berkley’s film program, a degree so prestigious that that almost never happened. She was 22, which would’ve put her in Michael’s class. A few calls under the guise of Academic Services revealed they’d been interns at Screen Constellations at the same time.
Tenants in apartment buildings ought to get to know their neighbors. I could’ve been anyone ringing the buzzer at nine in the evening.
“Sorry, I locked myself out again.”
Once a stranger buzzed me in, I found Cassie’s apartment, pulled out my wallet and started knocking. The door swung open before my knuckles hit wood. Cassie stood on the other side, jet black hair frizzy, eyes squinting, a lioness primed to pounce.
I jumped, almost unfurling my wallet to reveal the bus pass.
Cassie gave a coy smile. “I saw your feet.”
There was only one vantage point that low and Cassie looked like she’d been there for a while. There was a carpet pattern on her cheek. She wore a long shirt and pajama bottoms, but it was clear she hadn’t slept in days. Her red eyes were framed with the bags beneath them.
I waved my wallet. “I’m here to ask some questions about Michael Freeman.”
Cassie held the door open. Real detectives have partners, they’re supposed to give their names and use permission statements, but sometimes when you speak with authority, people assume you have it.
Cassie’s unit was a fire hazard. The hall, the shelves, and the kitchen counters were filled with stacks of paper. There were pages on the welcome mat, red with edits. I could tell they were screenplays from where I was standing.
The carpet was littered with bleeding ink cartridges. There was a printer and a laptop on the coffee table, where fresh reams waited beneath.
“It took them long enough to send someone.” Cassie scooped pages off the love seat so I could sit.
I flipped my notepad open. “No one questioned you at the scene?”
She rolled her eyes. “I might have wandered away from that tired old scene.”
“Do you mind if I ask what your relationship was with Michael Freeman?”
Cassie fell across the couch cushions. “Relationship? We were interns. We read screenplays so the producers didn’t have to.”
I wrote “SCRIPT READER” on my notepad. “Tell me about Michael’s last day on the job.”
Cassie opened her fingers wide, pantomiming an explosion.
I kept my poker face.
She sat up with a smirk. “We’d finished grading the solicited scripts, so we decided to dive into the Blacklist.”
“The Blacklist is a collection of screenplays that have high marks from readers, but will never get turned into features.”
Cassie shot up to sift through her papers for a needle in a haystack. “They’re fresh ideas in an industry churning out sequels, prequels, betweequels, remakes, reboots, and reimaginings. Why risk money on something new when you can resurrect the same ancient brands? Hollywood doesn’t care about art. They’re more interested in selling grown men their action figures back to them.”
From where I sat, I saw stacks all the way down the hall, through the bathroom and into the tub. None were bound. There was no clear filing system. I had a hard time picturing Cassie lugging a dolly full of reams up the steps.
Glancing back at my notes, I found I’d drawn a spiral on the pad. The decor was derailing my train of thought.
Cassie surgically removed a handful of pages from a stack. “If you’re looking for a suspect. I’d start with The King in Yellow.”
“The King of who?”
Cassie patted her pages. “Not who, what. The King in Yellow was the screenplay Michael was reading when the spark of inspiration hit.”
Gripping the edges, Cassie wielded her bundle like a weapon.
“It was the only script he’d given a 5 out of 5. When he wandered off in a euphoric stupor, I knew I had to sink my teeth into it.”
Cassie stared at her title page.
“Right out of the gate, the story was too outlandish. It was about a masquerade ball, in an otherworldly place called Carcosa, where the stars were black and twin suns shined underwater. There was no clear protagonist. No one’s mask slipped long enough to reveal their motivation, just a graphic orgy of decadence.”
Cassie giggled, a joke teller eager to get to her punchline.
“My notes were littered with potential breaks in the routine, when guests arrived, when they began the offering of skin, when the guards went missing, but I couldn’t decide on one. Turns out the break was a character, an uninvited guest who’d infiltrated the plot.”
She licked her cheshire cat smile. “That bland first act is what makes the story so brilliant. It lulls you into a false sense of security before charging through the fourth wall.”
I flipped my pad shut. “What do you mean?”
Cassie knocked a stack over, revealing a full length mirror. She spoke through her reflection. “A good movie draws out your empathy. It tricks you into projecting yourself onto the hero, until their goals are your goals, their losses are your losses and their changes are yours. This script did the opposite. It imprinted itself onto the reader. When the fire alarms went off, I was evacuated before I could finish. My copy was gone when I came back.” She waved her arms over the mess she’d made. “Now my story is incomplete.”
Cassie set her script in my lap. The title page read:
THE KING IN YELLOW: ACT 3
The draft number was in the triple digits.
She got down on all fours to dig out something from under the couch. “I tried to find the script online. All I found was a collection of shorts by Robert W. Chambers, published in 1895. His book mentions the play, but contains fleeting excerpts. Chambers focused on the people who’d gone mad just from reading it.”
While I debated flipping through Cassie’s offering, my fingers decided for me. Skimming the text, I saw she’d written herself into the story. It read:
I still can’t get the ending right.
A hammer COCKS. Cassie slides the 22 under her chin, the pistol barely peaks out of the shadow of her jawline.
THE KING IN YELLOW
Cassie said, “I still can’t get the ending right.”
A hammer cocked. I looked up to find the situation playing out just as Cassie had written.
“Wait!” Tossing the pages, I went off script. “If you’re trying to kill yourself, a 22 caliber is the wrong way to go. The bullet might not even breach the roof of your mouth.”
Playing into someone’s delusion is a long forgotten art form.
Cassie repositioned the gun to her temple.
I frowned. “25 percent of people who shoot themselves in the head survive.”
Pressing the muzzle to her heart, Cassie waited for my approval.
I stepped through the pages, careful not to seem too alarmed. “You spent weeks writing and that’s the best you can come up with?”
Tears welled up in Cassie’s eyes. “I don’t know how else to end it.”
I cracked my neck. “Then we’ll need to find the original for reference.”
“Talk to the sand!”
The script didn’t matter much to me. I wanted a closer look at the things Edgar couldn’t capture with his telephoto lens, and an excuse to keep the gun out of Cassie’s hands.
“Name please.” The greeter was all silk scarves and shoulder pads, presiding over a table full of tags. Beyond her was the last Screen Constellations event in Cassie’s phone.
I could’ve chosen to be anyone, but my hand reached for a blank tag. “I’m a stranger.”
The greeter pulled it out of reach. “This is a staff event.”
“He’s my plus one.” Cassie came in a formfitting pinstripe pantsuit. Her hair was slicked back, the bags under her eyes were hidden by mascara. She’d cleaned up nicely.
The greeter lit part way up with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Cassie’s name was no where near the tip of her tongue.
“Katie.” Cassie chose a tag at random and we were in.
I’d taken snapshots of Ramsey’s blueprints, I knew which stairwell would take us where.
When we got into the office, the script was where Cassie left it, wanting to be read. She hugged the pages, while I took pictures of a pack of cigarettes. The studio hadn’t touched the desk since the incident. Turns out, Michael had an ignition on him the entire time. He just never bought smokes on any of the cards his father checked. The only mystery was his motivation.
Cassie cackled. Her madness trigger by the mere sight of the title page:
THE KING IN YELLOW
“What’s so funny?”
Cassie traced the name. “Alan Smithee is the alias directors give when they disown a project. I can’t believe I didn’t spot it.”
“Who’d use a pen name for an unsolicited script?”
Cassie sniffed the paper as if to open her pallet. She offered it to me. “Don’t you want to know what it says about you?”
I couldn’t help but wonder if I had the mental resilience to handle what Michael could not. After all, his silver spoon had weakened his stomach, mine was hardened by the streets. What did I have to fear?
We stayed up there, a pair of moths circling a flame, reading, sharing skin, until we came to the realization that the story wasn’t done.
Most screenplays are journeys to other worlds, this one was on its way to ours. We were the airport limo, the pages were our sign, and the Yellow King was our passenger. We had a responsibility to get him where he needed to go.
Buttoning her shirt up, Cassie studied photos of the construction site before going off to borrow some things. I gave her time to chain the doors, before I came down the elevator.
I don’t care what my lawyer said, there’s no such thing as temporary insanity, only clarity.
The executives outside the elevator had it easy. Even with a 22, I’m an excellent marksman. Those other charlatan storytellers weren’t so lucky. When I emptied the clip I was forced to improvise. The stanchion holding the velvet ropes proved too inviting. Sure, it had a heavy base, but I didn’t have to carry it alone. The Yellow King was wearing me like a mask.
Together, we left an impression on everyone.
The screenplay was a metaphor about everyone that would ever touch it, a paper reflection. In 120 pages, it had something on everyone. I saw myself staring back. I saw Cassie. I saw Michael. I saw a decadent industry brought to its knees. When you have a clear vision of Carcosa it looks into you.
Once the stars turned black and the lights rose from Lake Hali, my role was defined.
Somehow I knew the moment I touched that knocker on Ramsey’s door, I’d been cast in a tragedy. I’d been grieving my passing sanity ever since. The script knew how I’d try to deny it, like a set of finger-cuffs for the intellect, the more I resisted the more it tightened. Then Cassie sweetened the pot.
She made an airtight argument that freewill was an illusion, showing her work, bringing me to a conclusion.
Mine is not a cautionary tale, it’s an endorsement, a blurb on the back. Mark my words, The King in Yellow will come into your possession, that much is inevitable. You can put it through the shredder or take it to your armchair. The choice is up to you, but let’s not kid ourselves, we both know that decision was already made for you.