The King in Yellow: Weird stories that inspired H.P. Lovecraft

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Reposting to include Jason’s new review.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers horror book reviewsThe King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

… It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured by even the most advanced of literary anarchists… It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on the words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.

Robert W. Chambers was an American writer who was born in 1865. He studied art in Paris for a time, returning to the U.S. to be an artist and illustrator. He sold some drawings, then switched tracks and began writing. His first novel was called In the Quarter and was a partially biographical story set in Paris’s Latin Quarter, following a group of artists and art students. In 1895, he published a collection of stories called The King in Yellow. In the first four stories, some character has an encounter with a mysterious play also called The King in Yellow. People who read The King in Yellow either go mad or experience some dire, supernatural misfortune.

These four stories and the idea of a book/play that infects its readers with madness later inspired writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Lin Carter, and contemporary writers like Karl Edward Wagner. Chambers could write, and his strength was description, probably because he was bringing a painter’s eye to the scenes he imagined. He also had an ear for dialogue. The “yellow king” stories are good examples for their time. Lovecraft, in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, compared Chambers to “fallen Titans,” saying, “He has the right brain and education but is wholly out of the habit of using them.” I think I detect a bit of envy in that sentence, though.

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The four “yellow king” stories take place in either Paris or New York. In “The Repairer of Reputations,” Hildred Castaigne, our narrator, describes a futuristic 1920s New York (remember that the story was published in 1895). The Imperial Dynasty of America is isolationist and gloriously martial, with cantering companies of cavalry and beautiful white warships at anchor in the harbor. Hildred is a friend of a strange man named Mr. Wilde; Wilde and Castaigne are both servants of the King in Yellow. That king has promised Hildred that once he and his minions enter this plane, Hildred will be crowned king, subject only to the yellow king himself. One thing stands in Hildred’s way: Louis, his cousin and rightful heir to the crown. Chambers does a great job of introducing menace into this story from early on, when Hildred ruminates on what he will do to the doctor who had him shut up in an institution for a time following Hildred’s fall from a horse. The descriptions and imagination here are astounding; Wilde, with his cropped ears and his devil-cat; Hildred’s elaborate time-locked safe that holds his gold and diamond crown, a token from the yellow king, are beautiful strange images that stay with you. When Chambers begins to shred the illusion, he does it very well, especially from a first-person perspective. It’s a good use of an unreliable narrator.

The disfigured “repairer of reputations” can’t be named Wilde by coincidence. The idea of a “yellow” book that drives people mad may not be coincidental either. In 1894, the literary quarterly The Yellow Book was published for the first time. The color of the cover reflected infamous “French novels.” Audrey Beardsley was one of the illustrators for the periodical, which was abused by critics and seen as decadent and deviant by large swathes of the public (“from the Press to the pulpit?”). When, in April, 1894, Oscar Wilde was arrested, reporters said he was carrying a “yellow book.” Soon, this translated into “the Yellow Book” even though Wilde had said publicly that he hated the journal. Wilde also has a character in The Portrait of Dorian Grey read a “yellow book” as an escape after a loved one has committed suicide. It’s hard to believe these correspondences are all coincidental.

“The Repairer of Reputations” is the one story that details the most about The King in Yellow and his city, Carcosa, but we will hear about Carcosa again.

“The Mask” opens with a scene from the play The King in Yellow, introducing the characters of Camilla, Cassilda and The Stranger. This snippet of dialogue seems to echo Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” The story moves in another direction, though, following a tragic love triangle that includes our narrator, Alec, his sculptor friend Boris, and Boris’s beautiful wife Genevieve. This story was not Chambers’s strongest, although once again he delivers some lush, gorgeous descriptions. Boris has discovered or invented a clear liquid that will petrify anything organic that it touches, creating a beautiful, perfect sculpture that looks like a cross between opal and the finest marble. For reasons that aren’t clear, Boris puts a pool of this deadly stuff in the middle of a room in his house he is refurbishing. (Can you say, “An accident waiting to happen?”) The story then spends time showing us that Alec once read part of The King in Yellow. He put it aside, but it was too late. Of course, Alec is hopelessly in love with Genevieve, and Genevieve loves both men, and several people get sick and babble inappropriate things while running high fevers. Chambers has to go way out on a limb to get a happy ending, and a fairy tale one at that. The tone of the story is tragic all the way through and the last paragraph really reads like a sudden change in direction, and a bad one.

“The Court of the Dragon” was my favorite of this set. A nameless first-person narrator relates his experience at church, where the organ music, for the first time ever, is disturbing him. He sees the organist, and that person flashes him a look of intense hatred. Our character is startled and frightened, and flees the church, intending to return home to his apartment in the Court of the Dragon. To his horror he is followed by the organist, trapped in the court, and then — wakes up to discover he has dozed off during the services. Again, the descriptions Chambers uses, from a mass of flowers in the market (the first flowers spotted are yellow jonquils) to the description of the court, are glorious. And of course, the story relies on a twist ending. In this story, for the first time, we catch of glimpse of “the towers of Carcosa.”

Carcosa was not original to Chambers; he seems to have used the magpie-factor all good writers employ and stolen from the best, borrowing the name Carcosa and the idea of a city from a short story by Ambrose Pierce, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” published in 1891. (The site is free but donations are appreciated.) Pierce is less interested in the city than in the main character’s journey, and an “Ozymandias”-like exploration of the power of time, but Chambers makes the city of Carcosa his own. “The Court of the Dragon” also reveals some less-than-enlightened attitudes of the author, as he describes the street level of the court is the home of second hand dealers and iron workers, then says, “All day long the place rings with the clank of hammers and the clang of metal bars. Unsavoury as it is below, there is cheerfulness, and comfort, and honest, hard work above.” Presumably anyone who works with their hands (unless he’s an artist) is dishonest by definition.

“The Yellow Sign” is a conventional horror story that shares its roots with dozens of scary-campfire-tales. Scott is a painter in New York. He sees a disgusting-looking man, who reminds him of a “coffin worm” on the stoop of his building. Distracted by this man, Scott ruins the portrait he is working on, and his model, Tessie, scolds him. When Tessie looks out the window and sees the worm-like man, she reacts with horror and tells Scott about a dream she had of a hearse and a coffin. Scott laughs it off, but has a similar dream the next night. The story shifts its focus to the growing relationship between Tessie and Scott. Scott buys her a small cross, and she gives him a pendant she found, with a yellow sign on it. The origins of the worm-like man, who has not left, become more frightening, as Scott gathers information from his concierge and others in the building. When an accident leaves him unable to paint, Tessie finds a book to read to him, and somehow, it is The King in Yellow.

I was dumfounded. Who had placed it here? How came it in my rooms? I had long ago decided that I should never open that book, and nothing on earth could have persuaded me to buy it… If I ever had had any curiosity to read it, the awful tragedy of young Castaigne, whom I knew, prevented me from exploring its wicked pages…

Several of the remaining stories in the book have supernatural elements. In “The Demoiselle D’ys” an American on a walking tour in Breton gets lost, encounters an unusual young woman, and accompanies her to her castle. Anyone who has ever read a “fairy” story knows where this one is going, but again, lovely descriptions and Chambers’s use of 15th century language make it a treat to read.

I consider “The Prophet’s Paradise,” a series of linked vignettes connected by ending lines, to be almost experimental. It was an interesting read.

In “The Street of the Four Winds” a lonely artist, Severn, adopts a cat he finds on his threshold. The white cat is not beautiful; it is starving and has lost some hair but we see the beauty in it as it begins to trust Severn. Severn pines for his lost love, Sylvia. Because he is an honorable man, he asks around about the cat, and soon finds that a woman who lives in the same building once had a white cat. Then he discovers that the cat has a jeweled garter buckled around its neck. The story progresses to a haunting ending, but it is more sad than macabre. I loved the writing here and the evocation of the once-glorious, now shabby building, but it is Severn’s loneliness and his friendship with the cat that makes this story still work today.

“The Street of the First Shell” once again visits a group of male art students and the women in their lives, but it is instructive because it takes place during the 1870 siege of Paris. This is something I knew about only in the abstract. Chambers creates a sense of dread as shells whistle down around the Latin Quarter, and the characters try to maintain their lives. This story and two others, “Our Lady of the Fields” and “Rue Barree,” made me roll my eyes at the chivalrous, innocent American male heroes, the pure or not-so-pure maidens, and the eternal moment of doomed love — but that eye-rolling is a direct result in the difference in values and mores between 1895 and 2015. I can see in all three of these forbidden-love tales just why Chambers would make most of his writing money from “shopgirl romances;” his honeyed prose, his sentimentality and his eagerness to dodge subtlety at any cost (the protagonist and the kept-woman he is infatuated with in “Our Lady of the Fields” meet on a bench underneath a statue of Eros) must lend themselves perfectly to star-crossed lovers, stolen kisses, secrets revealed and happy endings.

If you like weird horror, you’re a Lovecraft fan, or you have an interest in tales where the terror is internal and the characters can’t quite trust their own senses, then Chambers is worth reading for his own sake. Those interested in the history and influence of horror and supernatural fiction definitely owe it to themselves to put The King in Yellow on their bookshelves.

~Marion Deeds


Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers horror book reviewsRobert W. ChambersThe King in Yellow is a collection of short stories by one of the earliest contributors to the ever-evolving genre of “Weird Fiction”. Whereas H.P. Lovecraft developed themes that broke all boundaries of conclusive narrative fiction, Chambers helped bring supernatural “twist” endings mainstream.

Stephen King has embedded the genetics of Weird Fiction in some of his most famous work. One need look no further than It, From a Buick 8, and the recent King bestseller Revival to find the massive, vague, ill defined, but horror-imbued Lovecraftian “otherness.” Williams precedes Lovecraft and helped the genre gain a foothold of acceptance.

As Marion highlights, only four of Williams’ 10 stories (though it’s really 9 stories and one meandering poem) incorporate the myth of the “The King in Yellow,” a fictional play that turns every reader or viewer mad. “The Repairer of Reputations” is probably the strongest work, in part because it’s the first introduction to “The King in Yellow.” On page two:

I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth – a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow. 

“The Mask,” “In the Court of the Dragon,” and “The Yellow Sign” all incorporate elements of the core Yellow mythology. Following “Repairer” and “The Demoiselle D’ys,” which is a touching time-travel romance, the stories grow progressively more confusing, and sometimes incomprehensible.

The language was as one might expect from literature of 1895. I was prepared for the convoluted sentence structure but there were instances where I had to read Williams’ dialogue multiple times in the hopes of deciphering where he was trying to lead me with his plot. In most cases I realized I didn’t care.

If you’re a fan of weird fiction, I’d absolutely recommend reading the stories tied to The King in Yellow. I’d equally and more sternly recommend that you not bother with the rest.

~Jason Golomb

Published in 1895. The King in Yellow is a collection of tales of the supernatural by Robert W. Chambers, named after a fictional play with the same title that recurs as a leitmotif through some of its stories. The book contains 10 stories, the first four of which, “The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, “In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign”, mention The King in Yellow, a forbidden play which induces despair or madness in those who read it.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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JASON GOLOMB, who joined us in September 2015, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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7 comments

  1. I’ve always wondered about this book, esp. since I found out that it was the inspiration for the first season of True Detective.

  2. I haven’t watched it but a friend of mine who has said the references to this book are well done.

  3. After reading your review, I went and found a copy of The King in Yellow via Amazon and immediately downloaded it. Thanks for helping me find another addition to my October creepy reading list, Marion!

  4. Terrific review. I love the whole Lovecraftian-style mythos. And also find the play-makes-you-crazy fascinating. The whole movie-subgenre of tv/videos turning people mad like “The Ring” is terrific but would’ve had no idea it actually goes back to the 1800s.

    • I thought of The Ring, too. I think it’s a nice way of making literal the power of story-telling. A book (or a play, or a movie) really can change how you see the world. And maybe sometimes that change isn’t good.

  5. Chambers The King in Yellow is indeed a little gem and, as noted,has become something of a cult classic. Just as Chambers influenced Lovecraft, so too was he influenced by the weird fiction of Ambrose Bierce, as demonstrated by his referencing the mythical city of Carcossa, mentioned in one of Bierce's classic short stories.

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