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The King in Yellow




David Stuart Davies looks at a book once described as ‘the most important volume in American supernatural fiction between Poe and the moderns.’

‘Achieves notable heights of cosmic fear.’ H. P. Lovecraft.

The King in Yellow is a mysterious book, but perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding it is why it is so little-known today. American literary scholar E.F. Bleiler called it, ‘the most important volume in American supernatural fiction between Poe and the moderns.’ There can be no doubt that the book is a classic of the fantasy/supernatural genre and yet in recent years it has been neglected by publishers and readers alike, but now there is a smart edition published by Wordsworth ready to be devoured.

The premise behind this fascinating collection of stories is that the title tale ‘The King in Yellow’ is in fact a printed play script, which takes a hypnotic malevolent hold on all of those who read it. To explain further would not be fair for it will rob you of the surprises and the creeping horror found in these unusual stories.

The King in Yellow was penned by Robert William Chambers (1865 – 1933), an American author and artist whose life was as fascinating as his work. He was born in Brooklyn, but he studied art in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts from 1886 to 1893 and his work was displayed there as early as 1889. His visual brilliance is mirrored in his fiction where scenes are evocatively and colourfully created as though they were works of art.

On returning to the United States Chambers decided to channel his artistic energies into writing. Initially, he composed a series of short pieces on bohemian life in Paris for a collection entitled In the Quarter (1894). It was in 1895 that Chambers published one of his earliest forays into fiction and perhaps his greatest, The King in Yellow. The book is written in an elegant, witty and often disturbing style. Nearly all the narratives are set in either Paris or New York, cities which meant a great deal to the author. The book has been categorised as early horror fiction or Victorian Gothic fiction, but these terms are too narrow in their definition of the work. The stories reflect Chambers’ wide-ranging influences and interests and contain elements of mythology, fantasy, science fiction and romance.  The first four stories are loosely connected, dealing with unfortunate souls who have dared to glance into the text of an infamous play entitled ‘The King in Yellow’, from which tantalising brief extracts are offered. Their encounter with the play brings dark havoc to the lives of these luckless individuals.

We are told that the author of this dangerous drama has been denounced ‘from pulpit and press’. He is rumoured to have shot himself, but probably still lives, because as one character observes mysteriously, ‘bullets couldn’t kill a fiend like that.’

Chambers’ evil text ‘The King in Yellow’ features most prominently in the first story ‘The Repairer of Reputations’, which sets the mood for the rest of the book. It lures the reader into the narrative initially by novelty – the presentation of the future as seen by Chambers writing at the end of the nineteenth century. We are in the New York of 1920 where a fascistic government has built ‘Lethal Chambers’ for those who wish to escape life by committing suicide.

This tone of dark satire tinged with elements of science fiction soon shifts and the focus turns to the narrator who, chancing to read Act I of ‘The King in Yellow’, in which ‘the essence of purest poison worked’, is compelled to fling the book into the fireplace. However, as fate has it, it falls open and he catches a glimpse of the opening words of the second act. Instantly, he snatches it up, rescuing the book from the coals to devour the rest. This is his mental undoing. But take care, dear reader, it could be yours also. Indeed, I would offer a warning: Beware reading this book. You do so at your own peril. To allow your eyes to wander freely over the text could bring disastrous results. Your mind, your personality and your life will be affected in a most dramatic fashion.

As we move further into the book and the section that features the stories set in France, the supernatural elements fade away. However, we still have the themes of the danger of too much knowledge, and of innocence threatened and protected. It is as though the author is not tethered to any genre conventions and allows his rich imagination to have a free reign.

Strangely Chambers never achieved such high critical acclaim with his other writings as he did with The King in Yellow. Although he went on to write other books in a similar dark and imaginative style, such as The Maker of Moons (1896), In Search of the Unknown (1904) and  The Tree of Heaven (1907), he became better known for his popular romances both contemporary and historical, which he appeared to turn out in great numbers with ease. Such an output provided him with a healthy income, enabling him to live in his opulently furnished mansion in upstate New York. This concentration on romantic literature earned him the scorn of many critics. H. P.Lovecraft, who had been such a champion of The King in Yellow, called him a ‘fallen Titan – equipped with the right brains and education, but wholly out of the habit of using them.’

It may have been that Chambers realised he could never replicate the unique qualities of The King in Yellow and so resignedly took the easier option. Whatever we feel about the bulk of his output, Chambers’ remarkable book remains as powerful as it did when first published, a work that caused August Derleth to state that ‘The King is Yellow remains… a masterpiece of its kind, and with the work of Poe and Bierce, shares the distinction of having contributed to the famed Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft.’

It is interesting to note that elements of the book were introduced into the Home Box Office’s dark crime series True Detective starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.   The series opens with the investigation of a ritual murder of a young woman who is mysteriously linked to ‘The Yellow King’ The series prompted much speculation regarding the links with Chambers’ book. TV reviewer Kyle Anderson observed: ‘There’s a lot of cosmic horror in everything having to do with the Yellow King in the series, and they all point back to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.’ It may be you’ll have missed the series, but you can certainly get hold of a copy of the book to carry out your own investigations.

Image: Cover of Robert W. Chambers 'The King in Yellow' with illustration by the author. The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Robert W. Chambers, American Artist and Author Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

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