by Robert W Chambers
193 pages, Gollancz/SF Gateway
Review by Pat Black
Robert W Chambers’ The King In Yellow has had a rub of the green in its eerie afterlife.
Referenced throughout HBO’s serial killer drama True Detective, the US author’s 1895 short story collection has enjoyed renewed interest from readers curious to know more about the chap in the title and his dreaded city of Carcosa. I’m one of them.
Chambers, who was a popular writer of… oh, just about anything, it seemed, begins his fin de siècle collection in startling fashion. The first four tales, all linked in oblique ways by the text referenced in the title, are uncanny literature of the first rank.
The rest of the stories are not.
The King in Yellow is a fictional play which supposedly sends its readers mad. The characters in Chambers’ first four stories live in fear of this accused book and the half-glimpsed figure of the King. Epigrams hint at the play’s macabre content, but Chambers cleverly keeps the phantom book, its author and even its contents as a mystery, something which adds texture to the tales rather than defining them.
Opener “The Repairer of Reputations” was riven with a sense of madness and embitterment. It is set in an imagined future New York where suicide is legalised and even encouraged in special chambers set up in public squares – a mordant equivalent of wi-fi hotspots. Its wildly unreliable narrator plots to stymie his cousin, a romantic rival. Lurking in the background is the grim old man in the title, an odd sort who lives in a tower and provides services as an agent who makes reputational stains disappear. It was an odd, unsettling story with a jarring conclusion – inspired stuff.
“The Mask,” “The Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign” all follow similar paths. There’s a lot going on under the surface of these stories; they writhe with sexual jealousy, tinged with references to that cursed play, its strange central figure and the motif of the Yellow Sign. It recalls The Masque of the Red Death; wherever our jaundiced monarch calls, decay, madness and murder follows. “The Mask” looks at artists creating something which flirts with death, and ultimately transcends it, while “The Court of the Dragon” and the “Yellow Sign” see their main characters being pursued and tormented by sinister grotesques.
By the time you’ve finished these four stories you’ll be hooked. The references linking all the tales are subtle, but significant – a statue here, a line of text there, a few recurring names. The references work retroactively at times: consider the four weird sculptures in “The Repairer of Reputations”, and then pay close attention to “The Mask”.
I believed the hype. Here is a forgotten voice of the Victorian era enjoying a repaired reputation, long after his death, I thought.
And then it happens: Chambers kills the groove. The King In Yellow is dead; long live The King in Brown.
Next there’s a romance set during the 1870 siege of Paris. The battle scenes were tense, and again, its main characters are prey to suppressed lusts and jealousies, but there’s a happy ending in the offing (much like in “The Mask”, to be fair). There’s also a time-travelling ghostie story, “The Demoiselle d’Ys”, which aims for a weird atmosphere but just comes across as hackneyed, like a mid-season Twilight Zone episode. “Oh, it turned out she was a ghost!” Strewth.
And then, unforgivably, the book is topped out by three stories about young American art students in Paris, getting pissed dans la rue and chasing jeune filles rather than roi jaune. This isn’t a complete waste of your time – they have some charm, as probably everyone has dreamed at some point of being a boho artist, all scarves, open collars and silly hats, getting bladdered on absinthe and drawing boobs at a fabulous academy. But this is not quite what you expected from The King in Yellow. Where did his majesty go? You’re poised for the chills to start again, but they never do. Imagine Quint, Hooper and Brody setting out to sea… and never finding the shark.
When I finished the book, I wondered if the second half was a practical joke. Some of the creepiest macabre fiction of its time is followed by some of its lamest romances. It’s like a punchline I failed to get. I wondered if I’d missed something in the later stories, some connection to the jaundiced figure in the tattered robe that proved too subtle for my palate. I was so affected by the good stuff that I entertained doubts to this end, even paranoia. The play of The King In Yellow apparently has a first act so anodyne as to lull the reader into boredom, which serves to intensify its horrors from Act ii onwards. Perhaps there’s a similar effect in reverse with The King In Yellow… Maybe I should read it again… But that way madness lies.
It looks like Chambers ran out of stuffing, and upholstered the rest of the volume with stories from the trunk.
The book’s enduring influence is worth examining. In his Carcosa mythos, Chambers nakedly references that sardonic black magician of American letters, Ambrose Bierce. The cursed, ruined city and other names and concepts were first coined by Bierce in his short story, “A Season in Carcosa” (appended at the end of this SF Gateway edition for comparison). But, as the afterword to this collection points out, there seems to be no link between the two authors’ work other than a thematic one, with Carcosa referenced as a bad place where bad things have happened.
Not so much “it’s Chinatown, Jake”, as “it’s Carcosa, Pat”.
The afterword’s writer concludes that Chambers simply liked the names, and pinched them.
The notion of a forbidden, cursed text causing problems for people was purloined in turn by HP Lovecraft for his Necronomicon, which was then nicked by just about everybody. This nasty book causing people to do nasty things, with its contents hinted at but never made explicit, is an irresistible part of that author’s milieu. Lovecraft drank deep from Chambers’ well, with Hastur the Unspeakable’s name also taken from Bierce/Chambers’ Carcosa fever dreams.
Just as Lovecraft spawned countless admirers, imitators and even disciples with his Great Old Ones, we seem to have a whole literary movement under way nowadays taking The King In Yellow as inspiration, led by True Detective. All well and good – but the buyer of the source material must beware.
I had enjoyed the first four stories so much I was starting to get all gushy about them on Twitter. The quality was breathtaking and I couldn’t wait to read more. What a sorry disappointment the rest of the collection was. It’s not that the four “Streets” stories at the end are all bad; it’s just that you’d ordered something completely different off the menu.
It may be better to keep an eye out for the four “Yellow” stories appearing in anthologies on their own, or to source the book from public domain sites. Certainly you won’t be missing anything by ditching the second half.
The biography in this edition concludes that Chambers “tends to infuriate readers” - not by being bad, but because he “utterly repudiated his talents” despite clear signs of brilliance. This was strong wording. I can only conclude that the author had the same experience with The King In Yellow as I did.