The King in Yellow

Since I’m off preparing new stuff, you get this retro review, from November 10, 2012, of an obscure tome.

Review: The King in Yellow, Robert W. Chambers, 1895.The King in Yellow

The sole title he’s is now recognized for is The King in Yellow. Like most literary works, it was drifting into the dark and cold zone of cultural oblivion. Then he was caught in the gravity well of that coalescing star of weird fiction, H. P. Lovecraft. And, once illuminated by Lovecraft’s in his Supernatural Horror in Literature, this work became sort of a bright satellite beckoning Lovecraft fans to explore it.

But Chambers’ book is one of those moons with only one face of any interest.

To be sure, there is the appearance, in several connected stories, of the sinister effects and reputation of the titular volume and its enigmatic references to the Pallid Mask and Carcosa and Hastur and the lake of Hali. And the notion of such a book definitely inspired Lovecraft to create his more famous book of blasphemy, the Necronomicon.

But that’s only half the book, five weird stories. This group of stories is just connected enough to justify reading in order.

The Repairer of Reputations” first seems to be an unexpected piece of science fiction, the future world of 1920 as imagined in 1895 with attendant projections of Progressive-era politics, turn of the century American imperialism, and contemporary anti-Semitism. Taken on those terms alone, it’s interesting, but we also get a plot about a mysterious Mr. Wilde who has allegedly built up, via social coercion and blackmail, a vast network of political control. Such a powerful network, in fact, that the artist protagonist of the story dreams of using it to usurp his cousin’s place as heir to the Imperial Dynasty of America. Or maybe not. Not everything is as it seems and some of the clues to that are in later stories.

The Mask“‘s plot – hinging on an artist who has discovered a way of petrifying living matter while preserving its most delicate structures – has little interest and kind of a sappy ending. However, the bits expanding Chambers’ mythology and the mystery of the King in Yellow make it worth reading.

In the Court of the Dragon” is another slight story. After reading The King in Yellow, its hero encounters a menacing organist at a church service and begins to see the threatening man everywhere. As with “The Mask”, the real interest is the tantalizing bits we get about “the towers of Carcosa”.

The Yellow Sign” is justifiably the most anthologized of the stories here and the high point of the book. Like most of the stories in the book, it involves an artist. Outside his studio, he sees a young man who reminds him of a “coffin-worm”. His favorite model, for whom he has great affection, tells him of a dream she had with the same man driving a hearse with the artist as its dead cargo. Chambers not only packs plenty of weirdness in, gives us the largest description of the contents of The King in Yellow of any story here, but also gives us an ending which I suspect influenced Lovecraft’s work.

The Demoiselle D’Ys” eschews the usual Paris or New York City settings of the other stories, but it’s a standard and predictable time-slip romance.

And that’s it for the book’s interest as weird fiction. We then get a bunch of enigmatic vignettes and poems and then a batch of uninteresting and forgettable romantic stories of American artists in Paris. To be fair, though, there is one interesting part in “The Street of the First Shell” set, it seems, during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. There is an extended passage in part three when the hero joins a French army attempting a breakout. It is an eerie account with a supernatural quality in its descriptions of the fog-shrouded battle, the confusion, and vivid bits of description.

So, for those who are interested in Carcosa and the related bits of Chambers’ mythology (actually some of it comes from Ambrose Bierce), the first half of this book is a must read. For those just looking for good quality weird fiction, just read “The Repairer of Reputations” and “The Yellow Sign”.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

6 thoughts on “The King in Yellow

  1. admiral.ironbombs March 18, 2016 / 7:49 am

    Cool review… I have this on my to-read pile and was hoping to read it later this year.

    • marzaat March 18, 2016 / 10:16 am

      After doing the review, I read an article in NYRSF about “The Repairer of Reputations” which convincingly argues there’s a lot going on in that story.

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