A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Belle Époque Paris boasted more occultists than you can shake a stick at. Or, in my case, more than I could fit into The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.
Here’s one who, due to his association with other, more renowned figures, warranted a mention but not a full write-up. Yet he might lead the group into interesting trouble, as he represents that most heedless and danger-seeking breed of creatures—the publisher!
Alchemical Supply Vendor and Occult Publisher
Lucien Chamuel, or Mauchel, if you want to go by his mere birth certificate, runs the Librairie du Merveilleux in the 9th arrondissement. Despite its name, the Libraire is more an alchemical equipment shop, meeting space and publishing office than a bookstore. For a fuller selection of texts, the art student heroes of your game should seek Edmond Bailly’s Librairie de L’Art Indépendant, in the same occult-ridden neighborhood.
Already a seasoned publisher in his late twenties, Chamuel acts as a sidekick to the better known Papus. Like his mentor, Chamuel practices Martinist mysticism, which reconciles arch-Catholicism and the working of esoteric magic.
With Papus, he founds the journal L’Initiation. It contains not only mystical, quasi-scholarly articles on the occult, but for those who read between the lines, the latest gossip on city’s ever-feuding questers. In 1895 it has already been running for eight years; it will eventually rack up a total of twenty-five.
When the art students need Chamuel to plant a story immediately, he might include it in L’Initiation’s weekly sister publication, Le Voile d’Isis.
Effusive and friendly, Chamuel welcomes new visitors to his shop. Art students shaking his hand may notice the dampness of his palm. He answers the investigators’ questions without their having to resort to anything so gauche as the use of an interpersonal ability. He shows reluctance only when their inquiries portend trouble for him or his esoteric allies. In that case he may quote the title of a famous essay he published: “the supernatural does not exist!” Of course the real point of the article is that it does exist, but is science, not superstition. Arch-Catholic, ritual science, that is.
Two years ago, Papus declared his friend Chamuel the Gnostic Bishop of La Rochelle and Saintes. Like all church leaders the regular bishop of that diocese, once a fortress of the Huguenots, neither knows about nor would approve of this distinction. Papus hands out imaginary distinctions like this on a regular basis. Chamuel accepts them as flattery but would never himself announce them to customers or acquaintances.
Chamuel may take a particular shine to the belle-lettrist in the group. His offerings extend beyond the occult, and he’s always looking for an interesting publication to add to his catalogue. Among his offerings includes a book on the Paris catacombs. In your version of history, it might be the belle-lettrist character who writes it for him, perhaps under a pseudonym.
When they meet him, he might be poring over the texts of a book he is about to publish, by another occult stalwart, Joséphin Péladan. The uninitiated might assume that The Complete Theater of Wagner simply surveys the controversial German composer’s opera works. It does this only to advance a much more important revelation. Parsifal, the book contends, fosters mystical enlightenment in favored listeners, as it did to Péladan during an 1888 performance at Bayreuth. This thread might provide color to an unrelated scenario. Alternately, it brings the art students into contact with Carcosan forces plotting to cloak their activities in the guise of Norse mythology and/or thundering timpanis.
Chamuel’s best seller, one he asks prospective authors to emulate, is Péladan’s How to Become a Magus, part one in a projected seven-volume series, The Amphitheater of Dead Sciences.
In 1895, the shop has only just moved to a new spot, 79 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière. A mere year later it moves again, to 5 rue du Savoie in the 6th. Do the art students trigger a weird event requiring its relocation?
No occultist chooses an anagram for only one reason. Chamuel is not only a reordered version of Mauchel, but one of many spellings for an archangel, Camael. Naming himself for an angel of strength and courage constitutes a Martinist act of sympathetic magic, meant to bind those qualities into himself. His angelic predilections might get him in trouble if a winged, masked Carcosan comes calling, professing to be a projection of his esoteric desires.
Every fashionable man in 1895 Paris looks somewhat like a wizard, due to the current vogue for lavishly full beards. The occultists must therefore work harder to achieve grandiloquent facial hair. Chamuel’s prodigious beard differs from that of his colleagues by billowing out on each side, with his chin more closely trimmed. Unfortunately for our purposes, the one blurry surviving photograph of Chamuel depicts him in late middle age.
As a patron: Sinister forces might have presented Chamuel with the opportunity to publish The King in Yellow. Surely he rejected the text as insufficiently Christian, Wagnerian, or both. Perhaps he recommended the author to Bailly, whose interest in the Symbolist and Decadent movements exceeds his own. Luckily he gave up reading the play long before reaching its mind-shattering second act. Already the details of those who brought it to him have grown jumbled in his mind, like a dream. Realizing in retrospect that the flavor of occultism unleashed by the book contradicts every holy instinct of a good Martinist, he seizes on the art students’ interest in the mystery, urging them to track down the unknown rival publisher who committed it to print.
Amateur investigators of This Is Normal Now visiting contemporary Paris may have reason to discover that the 1895 location of the Library of Marvels has become a Franpix, an upscale groceteria. Occultism suggests that its logo, an apple, means something fraught in this context. Who placed the forbidden fruit at this location, and does it seal something in, or summon it? Likewise, a trip to the shop’s prior location finds the sleek offices of a renovation firm, with a similarly numinous logo of a pyramid folding in on itself.
The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game at the Pelgrane Shop.