Reader, have you ever wondered who struck fear into the heart of H. P. Lovecraft? It was Robert Chambers. Now, the terror visits you.
A wicked link in a terrifying lineage, the tales contained in The King in Yellow have inspired generations of American horroir writers. Look toward unspeakable Hastur and tell yourself these are only tales. Behold the Yellow Sign and convinve yourself that, after all—it’s only a book.
Welcome, dear reader, to Carcosa.
Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers is a collection of short stories beginning with the four centering around characters coming in contact with the notorious play by the same name. The stories then gradually move from uncanny speculative to capturing the atmosphere of Paris during the war and then finishes with two romance stories set in Paris as well. Each story is well written with beautiful, simple prose and a keen grasp of the human mind and subsequent behaviours.
The first four stories: ‘The Repairer of Reputations’, ‘The Mask’, ‘In the Court of the Dragon’ and ‘The Yellow Sign’ were always going to be my favourites and they certainly did not disappoint. I can see why they had such an impact on H. P. Lovecraft and where he drew his inspiration in creating the Cthulhu Mythos. Chambers manages to maintain an atmosphere of unease and impending unravelling in each story through his characters’ reactions and gradual breakdowns.
I want to focus mainly on these four short stories and will give a warning that there are some spoilers ahead. I highly recommend reading these without spoilers and I would even suggest reading them over a second time to pick up on details you may have missed the first time that make it all the more tragic.
‘The Repairer of Reputations’ follows a man who, a former asylum patient was ‘cured’ until recently his mental state begins steadily declining again, we learn at the end of the story that he was likely never ‘cured’ at all. Our mc has read The King in Yellow play at some point and tells us that he believes it is a book of many truths, which we later realise he also believes he is Hastur’s son and the rightful King. He goes as far as to organise the death of his cousin’s fiance and her family to ensure his cousin, who he thinks is the usurper king, abdicates in his favour. “At last I was King, King by my right in Hastur, King because I knew the mystery of the Hyades, and my mind had sounded the depths of the Lake of Hali. I was King!” This version of the US also has suicide booths which just made me think of Futurama and we see them used a couple times. The mc eventually takes his own life, though we don’t actually know if it is because he feels guilty, or if it’s something that the play made him do or whatever the case. It’s all a little unclear, but very intense as the final words he says are “Woe to you who are crowned with the crown of the King in Yellow!”
‘The Mask’ is almost like a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ retelling set in the United States with science in place of magic. I quite enjoyed this one with the main character coming across The King in Yellow in his friend’s library and only reading it for a few moments, which he says felt like ages had passed, before “putting it away with a nervous shudder”. He then cannot help but reflect on the part he had read throughout the rest of the story, such as when he falls sick shortly after reading the book his friend asks “for heaven’s sake, doctor, what ails him, to wear a face like that?” and our mc tells us he thinks of The Yellow Mask and the Pallid Mask to which he compares to his own face. It is in this illness that the mc acknowledges his mind is insane as it takes him to places within the play. Yet the one sane thought that persists through his illness is his existence is purely to meet some requirement of his friend and his friend’s wife. This seems to stave off his absolute decline into insanity, though his life is forever changed after it.
‘In the Court of the Dragon’ follows a man who goes to a church sermon having read The King in Yellow and needed “healing” afterwards. However, as the sermon progresses our mc notices something odd with the organist and realises the man posing as the organist is really something of intense evil. So the man flees but is hunted and eventually cornered by him. Then our mc wakes up and finds himself back in the church as the sermon comes to an end and realises he must have fallen asleep. It’s only when he goes outside that he realises something is different. The streets and people fade away and he finds himself looking at the black stars with wet winds from the Lake of Hali chilling his face the towers of Carcosa rising behind the moon and his voice. “I heard the King in Yellow whispering to my soul: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!’”
‘The Yellow Sign’ follows a painter who after seeing a strange man in the street below finds that all of his paintings somehow become sallow and unhealthy with sickly colours than what he had been working with before. After this both he and his model, Tessie, begin to notice other strange things, the man is in the model’s dreams and the painter becomes more troubled as the story goes on. Tessie gives the painter a trinket she found one day that has strange symbols carved onto it and admits she found it the day she began having nightmares. The mc realises this must be the yellow sign. Eventually, they find a copy of The King in Yellow has somehow found its way into his home and Tessie ignores his warning not to touch it and reads it. Despite his precautions to avoid anything to do with the play, he finds himself sitting with Tessie and discussing the book together. As they sit together the strange man from the very first day enters the home and tears the onyx clasp from them. “I heard Tessie’s soft cry, and her spirit fled; and even while falling I longed to follow her, for I knew that the King in Yellow had opened his tattered mantle and there was only God to cry to now”.
The first two stories suggest that reading the play will cause the reader to go mad, or that the play will attempt to invade the mind in some way to corrupt the person into doing horrible deeds. The last two stories, however, suggest that the contents and characters within the play can enter our world in one way or another and possibly bring us into it. Or another theory is the book acts as a kind of bridge between our world and the world of Carcosa where the King in Yellow rules. The number of unanswered questions and the limited information we actually receive about the King in Yellow and his realm makes the concept of this mysterious and dangerous figure all the more terrifying.
The unknown elements add to the unease and I thoroughly appreciate how Chambers shows the different reactions and results of reading the notorious play. I think there’s a lot to play with as a writer wanting to build on this world and that’s likely one of the reasons H. P. Lovecraft includes Hastur as one of his cosmic deities. Though interestingly, Hastur was not originally Chambers’s creation, Ambrose Bierce was the first to mention him in the short story ‘Haïta the Shepherd’ as a benign god of shepherds. I wish Robert W. Chambers had continued writing these kinds of speculative psychological stories rather than moving into the romance genre because if he had, I daresay he might have ended up being dubbed the father of cosmic horror rather than Lovecraft.
While I still enjoyed the other short stories that don’t connect to the King in Yellow play, I found the two romance stories at the end particularly jarring as they seemed to be the only ones without any kind of mystery or uncomfortable/speculative themes. One way of looking at this collection may be that the last two stories are there to end the reading experience on a lighter note, kind of like watching a Disney film after seeing a scary movie before bed. Overall, I think these stories are some that I will revisit in future—unless I lose my mind to the King in Yellow…
Rating – 4/5 stars
Author – Robert W. Chambers
Edited by – John Edgar Browning
Pages – 305 pages
Publisher – Lanternfish Press
ISBN – 978-1-941360-39-2
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