This particular book of the week is brought to you as a direct result of the existence of Miss Natalie Fisher; those of you who know her will understand why, those of you who don’t…that’s just hard luck because she’s great and we’re not sharing.
The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers.
Published in 1895 by F. Tennyson Neely of Chicago in their fabulously named “Prismatic Library” series.
A collection of 10 short stories of a lush, decadent tendency, the several linked contextually with a mysterious and sinister two act play entitled “The King in Yellow” the full reading and understanding of which drives the reader mad.
Although the nature of the supernatural influences are somewhat changeable; in addition to the play, there is the terrifying entity of the King in Yellow himself, and the the occasional appearance of a sigil known as the Yellow Sign which may or may not allow the sinister King to possess your mind, and may or may not have come from a terrifying alternate dimension.
So, pretty straightforward really.
Just to recap: evil play, you read it (or to be exact, you read the 2nd Act), and it drives you mad with “irresistable truths”. Additional supernatural evil entity called The King in Yellow who may or may not turn up and suck your brains out when you are exposed to The Yellow Sign, secret symbol from a dimension of darkness.
Add to this hushed mentions of the city of Carcosa (possibly where the Yellow Sign originated), Pallid Mask (a sinister character who turns up at the masked ball which is the presumed centrepiece of the play) and Camilla and Cassilda, (guests at the ball and as far as we can tell major characters in the play) and you have the makings of a lovely bit of gothic Poe-esque horror.
“Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed, it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!”
Not so fast.
The references to the play and its terrifying characters, not to mention its disturbing truths are all minor asides from the “main” stories, hinting at possible explanations or motivations without ever actually illuminating anything concrete. All the quotations from the play are from the ostensibly rather banal Act I rather from the sanity bending, head exploding Act II.
After reading “The Repairer of Reputations”, the first story in the collection, the reader (or possibly just me, let’s face it there actually aren’t any qualifications for this job…and I lied about having those) is left with absolutely no idea whether what happened is real, a carefully constructed fantasy of delusion on the part of the protagonist (the thrillingly named Hildred Castaigne), or a subtle combination of both.
Further complicated by the fact that the story is set in 1920 (a quarter of a century after the story was written) in a strangely militaristic and dystopian version of America (after a war with Germany, a spot of ethnic cleansing and the legalisation of government aided suicide), and by the fact that Castaigne has recently been hospitalised for mental illness sustained after falling off a horse and has just read the whole of The King in Yellow and all bets are off.
The “Repairer” of the title is the repellent Mr. Wilde, vast and mutilated lurking in his office, constantly threatened by the appetites and hatreds of his horrendous feral cat. He may or may not be a repository of vast knowledge and power, wielding influence over powerful men whilst his shabby environment is nothing but a careful disguise. Or, he might be a grubby lunatic with a horrid pet, or he may not exist at all.
Everything fades to black with shocking speed.
The same futuristic city appears in later stories, although with subtly differences in architecture, statuary etc.
Several of the other tales take place in Parisian artistic communities (Chambers attended art school in Paris and it had its customary heady effect). The influence of writers of horror and speculative fiction would appear secondary to the influence imposed by European fin-de-siecle symbolists like Oscar Wilde (there’s a lot of Dorian Grey and Salome in some tales, and a lot of Basil Hallward in Chambers),
Huysmans or even Schob, a friend of Wilde’s who translated Salome and wrote a story of his own entitled “The King in the Gold Mask”. Specific influences aside, the stories lack that ‘irresistable tide of death’ feeling evoked by Poe and lean much more towards the orchid-scented heady romanticism of Wilde, Beardsley and the latter aesthetes.
My apologies for that sentence sounding as if I actually am a grown up with some knowledge of literature.
Chambers’s fiction is visual rather than terribly technical, written from the heart rather than the head and frequently descends into the mawkish or the purple, notably without actually becoming unattractive.
As a narrative painting of lost places, only accessible through a damned text at risk of your own soul however, it is a marvellous item to obtain.
All in all, The King in Yellow is a much ignored masterpiece of hints, suggestions, oblique, opaque internal references and in jokes that certainly influenced H.P. Lovecraft and his successors, and in all probability affected the techniques of Lovecraft’s predecessors; the mighty William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, and a number of others (there’s even a Doctor Who story based loosely on it).
Hodgson in particular shares (or possibly emulates) Chambers delight in referencing imaginary events and texts as a means of providing reinforcment to a “current” narrative event. More on him later.