See P. XX: Strindberg in Occult Paris


A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Most writers, whatever form they favor, fade into obscurity after their deaths. That goes triple for playwrights. The number of stage writers whose works are still produced in the English-speaking world is very spare. And only a handful of those wrote originally in other languages: chiefly Chekov and Ibsen, and also the Swedish realist turned Symbolist August Strindberg (1849-1912.)

Unsurprisingly, Strindberg looms even larger in his home country, where his novels, plays, essays, and paintings are also considered important. The Red Room is considered the start of the modern Swedish novel.

In translation, he is chiefly known for plays, most notably the hard-hitting family dramas Miss Julie (1888) and The Father (1887.) Known, but less often produced, are his later occult-influenced Symbolist works: A Dream Play (1907) and The Ghost Sonata (1908.) In the first, a daughter of the Vedic god Indra descends to Earth to engage in various allegorical encounters. The second includes, in addition to the titular ghosts, a woman who slowly transforms into a mummy.

What happens during the break between his early realism and his later proto-surrealism that might be of interest to GMs and players of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game? Funny you should ask. He moves to Paris, where he drinks a lot of absinthe and gets mixed up with the occult—right when your art student player characters are getting into trouble there.

In 1895, Strindberg is 46 years old and once again without a wife. His earlier stage works are known and respected in Paris, though they lack the bravura spectacle of the sorts of plays Sarah Bernhardt (YKRPG: Paris p. 115) chooses. Speaking of Bernhardt, Strindberg has become fast friends with the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (YKRPG: Paris p. 115), whose Art Nouveau poster designs for Bernhardt productions such as Gismonda have become the hit of the town and will forever define the graphic look of the period.

Strindberg and Mucha share an interest in the occult and mystical. The artist refers to his studio as a profane chapel, using it as a salon to chat about the esoteric with such fellow enthusiasts as the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (YKRPG: Paris p. 120) and novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (YKRPG: Paris p. 119.) Huysmans, you’ll recall, writes decadent novels later name-checked by Lovecraft, and remains under the thrall of a recently deceased Rasputin figure, the ex-priest and accused Satanist Joseph-Antoine Boullan.

As a result of his paranormal inquiries in mid-1890s Paris, Strindberg experiences a shattering psychic break, entering what is known as his “Inferno period.” In his 1897 novel Inferno, written in French, he fictionalizes his experiments with drugs, optics, alchemy and paranormal botany. While in the throes of his personal inferno he succumbs to pronounced paranoia. Entities he calls “The Powers” subject him to psychic attack, as punishment for the crimes of mankind. He owes this martyrdom, he says, to his past misdeeds.

Self-induced hallucinations described in Inferno include an incident where his fictional counterpart walks through Paris in the aimless flaneur style that will later be used by the surrealist Dreamhounds of the 20s and 30s to evoke magical connections. At Montparnasse station he randomly chooses a train to get on. He disembarks at the village of Meudon, where he encounters a “Roman knight in gray iron armor.” Yes, he realizes it’s a pile of melted blacksmith’s slag, but never mind that. An alchemical vision appears before his eyes, leaving behind leaden seals giving him a choice between his wife’s initials, or a king’s crown. In the novel, he selects neither.

But in reality? A psychic break among a traveler in occult literary circles around 1895? Surely Strindberg has either read that consciousness-shattering play, The King in Yellow, or heard enough about it to have its contents sink into his absorptive, sensitive artistic awareness.

That so-called Roman knight, who left him a choice between earthly ties and the crown of the king, sounds a lot like a Carcosan. So do “The Powers,” whose punitive aspect fits the pallid-faced nobles from the shores of Hali.

Another scene from Inferno features the narrator’s visit to a resort, where he hopes to rediscover his peace of mind. Instead he realizes that his rival in alchemy, Dr. Popoffsky, has followed him there. Having mastered the secrets of poison gas by murdering his own wife and child, Popoffsky now menaces the Strindberg figure. Terrified and weeping, the narrator retreats to his room, where a vaguely human shadow appears on the wall. Paralyzed, he stares at this being, which he dubs the Unknown, as it passes an electrical current through him over a three hour period. When he finally regains the power of movement he rushes into the corridor, only to find the floor attendant missing. He asks for another room, but the only one available is directly under the one he is sure contains his enemy’s electrical machine. Is it Popoffsky, or is that merely a guise of a Carcosan menace?

Your player characters can investigate the sinister truths Strindberg later transforms into the material of this hallucinatory, paranoid novel. You can find a plot hook like the above on nearly any page.

A PC victory against Carcosa might account for the subsequent transformation that lifts Strindberg out of this period and back into productivity. He embraces Swedenborgianism, the safest and most benevolently boring of the period’s mystical movements. At the end of 1896 he returns to Sweden and finds a circle of new literary friends in the university town of Lund.

In later sequences you might echo the characters’ brush with Strindberg by having their successors attend a production of one of his works. Frequently censored in his lifetime, Strindberg’s plays may only now be permitted in Aftermath’s post-authoritarian America. This Is Normal Now characters might catch a production that casts one of his earlier, more popular works in the weird expressionist style of his later plays. I once saw a brilliant version of The Father done this way. The one you describe might have a few more yellow signs in the corner.

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 in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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