The Pallid Mask: unpacking the symbolism of masks in cosmic horror

The English occultist Andrew D. Chumbley once wrote, “mistake not the mask for the face, nor the symbol for the symbolised” and yet in this wisdom we see one of the central paradoxes of the human condition exposed: our fascination with idols and representations juxtaposed with a desire to lift the mask, pierce the illusion, and find the truth.

The human desire to fashion false images has been with us since the earliest beginnings, from the golden calf forged by the Jewish exiles in the Book of Exodus to modern day celebrity worship; virtually every history, mythology, and oral tradition tells us that human beings have always worshipped false idols. We have always, in other words, mistaken “the symbol for the symbolised”.

Nicolas Poussin: Adoration of the Golden Calf

But along with this has also been a quest to probe reality, whether through spiritual or scientific means. Both have merits and drawbacks, of course. But it is this enquiry into the true nature of things that drives us to constantly interrogate both symbol and symbolised, both mask and face, and ask the question of how we differentiate the two.

It is this vice, or perhaps a better word would be ignorance, that separates us from the animal kingdom, for animals do not inhabit the realm of symbols, and therefore only know of direct interactions with reality. Animals can, of course, perform deceptions: cloaking themselves, even disguising themselves as other animals, but these parlour tricks are mere sleights of perception, not of intellect. There is a world of difference between mistaking one animal for another, for example, and mistaking an image of God for God Himself.

And God—or one other phrase to use might be “true reality”—is really what we’re looking for in life, whether we consciously know it or not. All of us are born with a sense of profound connection to the universe. This is personified in the childish belief that if we point our finger at a plane and say “Crash” the plane will actually crash. We believe so strongly we are part of a whole system that our mere thought can influence another part of that whole, even condemn hundreds of lives to death. Of course, this influence can work positively as well, but most of us first encounter the potency of our own minds in a negative context as we test the limits of our own power (something children are hardwired to do). Unfortunately, adulthood—with all its pressures—often breaks our sense of connection and instils in us a belief that all things are separated. This leads to a yearning to know the true nature of reality—something we already knew, but have become ignorant of.

In The Matrix, we see the urgent desire brilliantly expressed by the character Morpheus:

What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

Morpheus in The Matrix (1999)

This desire is a longing to lift the mask and see the true face of the world.

Masks are in many ways the “other side” of symbols. A symbol is a sign that conveys meaning. Words are symbols, a mechanism to deliver meaning to another person. Masks, on the other hand, are often used to conceal a reality. However, in order to conceal something, we have to create a new reality—an illusion—to take its place. Thus, the theatrical masks of the commedia dell’arte, Japanese Noh masks, and the props of Venetian masquerade are all stylised to either resemble archetypal emotions or else fabulous monsters and beasts. Masks are lies that paint over the truth in order to forge a new one. Symbols, on the other hand, are an attempt to describe the truth. The problem is that symbols often obscure true reality just as much as the mask. The word “fire” is not fire. A map is not the territory. If you look at Everest on a map and place your finger upon it, you have not touched Everest. The map is useful, of course, in order to help us navigate the territories of life. But it is not life itself.

We need symbols, but we must also be wary of them. We need masks to function in society, but we must also be careful lest we begin to think of the masks around us as faces, mistake our own mask as our true nature, or even begin to think that insubstantial constructs are actual reality.

A great example of this is to be found in money. Money is not real. This is no new philosophical statement, it’s fairly broadly understood at this point. Money is a concept that is collectively agreed upon by the human race in order to help society function. It has no true meaning. It is not “real”. If all the banks in the world crash tomorrow, in reality, nothing with have changed, and there is no reason for any bloodshed or harm. But we all know, deep in our hearts, people will go out and kill one another if such an event occurs, all because of a symbol, all because of an illusory mask.

This is a form of madness our species is subject to. We have not evolved much from worshipping the golden calf. And the Pallid Mask created by Robert W. Chambers, author of The King In Yellow, is a perfect embodiment of this. For the mask brings madness to those who wear it. And soon, one cannot tell the difference between a mask and a face.

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.

Stranger: Indeed?

Cassilda: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.

Stranger: I wear no mask.

Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

But there is a flip side to this. Just as we must not mistake the mask for the face, we must also recognise that perhaps we are wrong to assume that face and mask are separate. In our quest to surgically divorce mask from face, symbol from symbolised, we violate the original unity of the universe. Intriguingly, in Carcosa, the dark fantastical landscape over which the King in Yellow reigns in Chambers’ mythos, masks and faces are often synthesised, made One in the all-powerful realisation of truth:

The mask of self deception was no longer a mask for me, it was a part of me. Night lifted it, laying bare the stifled truth below, but there was no one to see except myself, and when day broke the mask fell back again of its own accord.”

Man in the Pallid Mask by Adam Lane.

Perhaps then, this is the greatest wisdom? That there is neither mask nor face either, only the ceaselessness of here and now, the interplay of symbol and symbolised in the endless dance of the King in Yellow’s eternal court… When such a dance becomes ubiquitous, when all know its steps, a new era shall begin, perhaps not dissimilar from that described in “The Greater Festival of Masks” by Thomas Ligotti:

"For the old festival has ended so that a greater festival may begin. And of the old time nothing will be said, because nothing will be known. But the masks of that departed era, forgotten in a world that has no tolerance for monotony, will find something to remember. And perhaps they will speak of those days as they loiter on the threshold of doors that do not open, or in the darkness at the summit of stairways leading nowhere."


I hope you enjoyed this article on the nature of reality. If you want to read more about Carcosa and the Pallid mask, then you might be interested in my upcoming book inspired by Chambers, The Claw of Craving; you can listen to an extract from the first chapter, here. I’d like to take a moment to thank the incredible folk at Blood Bound Books, Joe Spagnola and S. C. Mendes, for being brave—or perhaps mad—enough to publish my take on the mythos.