Like many people, I hadn’t really heard of The King in Yellow before the first season of True Detective which originally aired back in 2014. I was intrigued enough to add the Robert W. Chambers to my TBR list, but not enough to actually read the collection until six years later… Since The King in Yellow is considered a foundational text of genre literature, I included it on my Classics Club list, but was finally spurred to read it by the lectures of Michael Moir, whose Weird Lit class is available through YouTube.
Funnily enough, Chambers’ stories only have peripheral connection to True Detectives‘ narrative, and the King in Yellow, the play and personality, only have peripheral connection to the stories in this anthology.
The King in Yellow refers to a fictional play referenced in the first four stories of this collection. Reading the play is said to drive individual mad. The King in Yellow was published in 1895. Artifacts of forbidden knowledge were not unknown at this time to readers of M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, and other authors of weird tales who preceded and inspired Chambers. The brain-break of insight will later become the bread and butter of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft.
As I mentioned, the first four stories of this collection directly mention the the King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign, the Masked Stranger, and the strange other world of Carcosa; all things from the fictional play which we are never given to read. The first story “The Repairer of Reputations” is possibly science fiction. Its setting is New York City in 1920. The United States has been at war with Germany and emerged from the conflict as a world power. Hildred, the narrator of our tale, assures us that he is totally, utterly fine, despite the head injury he recently sustained. His stay in an asylum was instead due to reading “The King in Yellow.” Because of his now keen insights, Hildred becomes a believer in the conspiracy theories of Mr. Wilde (whose death is cause by Wilde’s unhinged pet cat). Considering the unreliability of Hildred, the futuristic setting is probably just a delusion of the narrator. None of the other stories seem to involve the future.
I enjoyed the second story most of all. Many of the stories in this collection involve artists, but “The Mask” contains one of my personal favorite sub-genres of horror, though I’m not sure if I have a succinct name for it. It’s the type of horror in which the creation of art is the byproduct of something horrorible. Something like Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood in which a struggling artist stumbles upon a method of creating great sculptures…by covering the subject in plaster. Or the (possible) use of human intestines for violin strings in “The Ensouled Violin” by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. In “The Mask,” weird science innovated by reading the “The King in Yellow,” of course, inspires a sculptor to use a liquid-nitrogen-like substance to preserve living things. The effects are not permanent which leads to a strangely not unhappy ending for such a tale.
“In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign” have more connection to the forbidden manuscript and are more straight forward horror stories, but are maybe less interesting for it. In both, the narrators are harried by uncanny physical supernatural forces after reading “The King in Yellow.” Unfortunately, much of what these narrators experience is beyond description.
The lecture on these four stories mentioned two Ambrose Bierce tales that served as some direct inspiration to Chambers. In “Haïta the Shepherd,” Bierce names the god of shepherds Hastur. Hastur becomes a mentioned character in the forbidden play. Bierce’s story is pretty much a fable. Haïta is visited by a beautiful maiden, who leaves him when he tries to question or possess her. The maiden is, of course, named Happiness.
Carcosa plays a bigger part in Chamber’s works and is fairly close in nature to Ambrose Bierce vision in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” Carcosa is a limbo of sorts, or maybe the world as a spirit experiences it. The last line of Bierce’s story implies that the preceding was told by a spirit through a medium. Carcosa isn’t the comfortable Summerland that most spiritualist of the time touted.
Actually, the allusions to The King in Yellow don’t end after “The Yellow Sign.” Hastur is mentioned in “The Demoiselle d’Ys” and Chamber’s story actually bears a resemblance to “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” as the narrator travels through a strange dream-like landscape. The Wikipedia entry states that “The Demoiselle d’Ys” anticipates H. G. Wells’ “The Door in the Wall.” While I can see some similarities, it really very different. (I’ll be reading the entire The Door in the Wall collection in the near future and provide more thoughts on it then.)
I don’t believe “The Prophets’ Paradise” mentions “The King in Yellow,” but it’s not the most comprehensible work for a Chambers neophyte to read. It is a few pages of prose/poem fragments. “The Street of the Four Winds” was much more engaging and creepy; the best of these stories to read on a stormy Halloween night.
After this, according to Wikipedia, the stories shift to a more romantic philosophy. There are many bohemian artists, living in Paris. I skimmed my way through most of “The Street of the First Shell,” but then really lost interest in the anthology. Chambers is not an elegant or straight-forward writer. I think it’s in the ambiguities and gaps that his weird stories are interesting to most readers. Like many of that genre, I have a hard time investing in horrors that are too terrible to be named.