The King in Yellow – Robert W. Chambers

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Wordsworth Editions – 2010 (Originally published in 1895)

This is the first time that I’ve reviewed a single book of short stories. Usually I wait until I’ve read everything (or at least all of the good stuff) by an author of short fiction, but this is a little different. (I do own a copy of the Complete Weird Tales of Chambers, but I haven’t got around to it yet.) The King in Yellow was one of Chamber’s earliest works, and it remains his best known; he spent most of the rest of his career writing popular romance novels, but nobody remembers them. Some of the tales in this book managed to induce a lingering discomfort (I read most of them just before going to bed and afterwards lay awake, thinking of the sinister King, sitting on his throne in his tattered yellow rags.), and overall, this book is pretty neat. If you haven’t read it and you’re wondering why it sounds familiar, it might be because elements of it were borrowed for the first season of True Detective.

So this is a collection of 10 short stories, only the first 4 of which really refer to the Yellow King. I’ll get to that later though, for now I’ll just explain the  others:

5. The Demoiselle d’Ys is a ghost story. It’s not scary, but it’s enjoyable (and not dissimilar to the stories of M.R. James).
6. The Prophet’s Paradise is really just a short series of of prose-poems. It was a bit arty for my liking.
7. The Street of the Four Winds doesn’t deal with the supernatural, but it is quite creepy.

After the above, all elements of the horrific, weird or creepy completely disappear.

8. The Street of the First Shell is confusing, dull, and not worth the effort that it requires.
9. The Street of Our Lady of the Fields is the romantic tale of an innocent young man who moves from one continent to another and falls madly in love with a rambunctious young woman. Needless to say, I was almost in tears by the end. This was beautiful.
10. Rue Barrée is a less interesting and ultimately less satisfying version of the previous tale.

Ok, let’s rewind to the best bit. The first 4 tales all revolve around an obscure book of horror and despair. (You might already see why I enjoyed this.) The King in Yellow is a two act play that drives its readers insane. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, it’s a very difficult book to avoid, and if you do start reading it, it seems impossible to put down. (It’s a bit like those modern horror movies where the people who watch the video get killed.) Just to clarify here; it’s the characters in Chambers’ stories that get to read the play, not his readers. He never gives an outline of the plot of the play, but each story begins with a short quote from it. The lack of details make it all the more intriguing, and although I am aware that it does not actually exist, I have spent a more than reasonable amount of time in the last week trying to figure out ways to get my hands on a copy. How fucking cool is the idea of a book that either possesses you or drives you mad? 10/10, would read. The snippets that Chambers does include drive me wild too. Check out the poem that introduces the first story:

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Absolutely deadly. Does Carcosa sound familiar? That might have something to do with the fact that it was first mentioned in An Inhabitant of Carcosa by Ambrose Bierce. Chambers borrowed other elements Bierce’s fiction, and elements of his own fiction were in turn borrowed by Lovecraft.

I really liked 7 out of the 10 stories in here, but it would really make more sense if the book was called ‘The King in Yellow and some other stuff”. The stories at the beginning are totally different to the ones near the end, and if you like weird tales exclusively, you won’t be missing out if you don’t bother with the last few. I would advise anyone who is going to read this to save the best for last; read the last 3 stories first, then move on to the 5th, 6th and 7th, and finish with the first 4.

As a final suggestion:
If you have read this book and haven’t seen the first season of True Detective, watch it now. If you’ve seen True Detective but haven’t read this, read it now.  If you haven’t read this nor seen True Detective, get your act together.

The King in Yellow – Robert W. Chambers

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