Revisiting the King in Yellow

I find writing about short story collections a bit intimidating. I’ll usually write a post here saying that the collection is ok and then quickly forget the stories until I read something else that reminds me of one of them. In some recent posts about short story collections, I have been including a table on the stories with a summary and/or my thoughts. I’m not sure if people are interested in these, but they help me remember.

I recently read Brian McNaughton’s Satan’s Surrogate. It’s not a particularly good book, but it’s full of allusions to other works of weird fiction, including Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow. I read and reviewed that collection a few years ago, and although I knew I had enjoyed it, I couldn’t remember much about it other than the fact that it featured The King in Yellow, a non-existent book that was supposed to drive people mad. I also recalled that it had distinct sections and that only the first section dealt with the really weird stuff. I went back to read my post on it and discovered that I had included summaries on all of the stories in the book except the first four, the really interesting ones. (I also discovered that I had reviewed a second book by Robert W. Chambers that I had entirely forgotten about. I don’t know if I’m going senile or if I’ve just read too many books.)

A few weeks ago, I got sick. I actually vomited for the first time in maybe 20 years. I get a few colds every year, but I honestly cannot remember the last time I had a tummy bug. I didn’t realise that vomiting actually hurts and that I’m not capable of doing it quietly. Luckily enough, I vomited in the morning, before I had actually eaten anything, so it was just my cup of tea (and a single green bean from the night before) that came back up. Anyways, I was bedbound for a couple of days, and reading Satan’s Surrogate seemed like too much work. I wanted an audiobook, and I realised that I’d easily be able to find an audiobook copy of The King in Yellow. I only bothered with the first four stories, but I really enjoyed revisiting them.

The Repairer of Reputations

This is quite a complicated tale. It’s set in 1925 which was 25 years in the future at the time that it was written. It’s a little dystopian and involves the unveiling of government funded suicide booths, but it’s a horror story at its core. The narrator reads The King in Yellow while recovering from a head injury and ends up involving himself in a murderous conspiracy. His best friend is basically a professional blackmailer, and together they plan to seize control of the world. The plan doesn’t work out.

I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask. 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 narrator did suffer a brain injury, but his madness was certainly exacerbated by reading The King in Yellow. Vance, their hitman, also went insane after reading the book. It is not explicitly stated, but it seems to me that Chambers wanted his readers to believe that the legalisation of suicide was somehow influenced by the popularity of the awful tome.

The Mask

Two artists love the same girl. One of the guys reads The King in Yellow and then discovers a way to turn living creatures into statues. It is not explictly stated that his discovery was inspired by his reading. He starts off putting little creatures into his magic potion, but things get messy and the girl that everyone loves ends up in the puddle. I had completely forgotten the previous story, but I remembered what was going to happen at the end of this one quite soon after beginning it. It’s quite good, but The King in Yellow plays a fairly minor role. Characters from the play show up in the narrator’s fever dreams, but he has only ever flipped through its pages, so he ultimately retains his sanity.

 I thought, too, of The King in Yellow wrapt in the fantastic colors of his tattered mantle, and that bitter cry of Cassilda, “Not upon us, oh King, not upon us!” Feverishly I struggled to put it from me, but I saw the lake of Hali, thin and blank, without a ripple or wind to stir it, and I saw the towers of Carcosa behind the moon. Aldebaran, The Hyades, Alar, Hastur, glided through the cloud rifts which fluttered and flapped as they passed like the scolloped tatters of The King in Yellow.

In the Court of the Dragon

A lad gets bored during a church service, and he starts daydreaming about getting chased around town by the grumpy looking church organist. Part of the reason he is attending church is that he recently read The King in Yellow, and he finds the peaceful atmosphere in the church relieving. When he awakes from his daydream, he is transported to Carcosa and confronted by the Yellow King himself.

And now, far away, over leagues of tossing cloud-waves, I saw the moon dripping with spray; and beyond, the towers of Carcosa rose behind the moon.

Death and the awful abode of lost souls, whither my weakness long ago had sent him, had changed him for every other eye but mine. And now I heard his voice, rising, swelling, thundering through the flaring light, and as I fell, the radiance increasing, increasing, poured over me in waves of flame. Then I sank into the depths, and I heard the King in Yellow whispering to my soul: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!”

The Yellow Sign

A painter is disturbed by a new watchman that has started working at the church opposite his house. This watchman’s face is so disgustingly ugly that it causes the painter to ruin the picture he is painting. The model who is posing for him falls in love with him, but she is haunted by strange dreams of the painter in a glass coffin. She gives him a strange piece of black jewelry as a gift. When the painter hurts his hands and can’t paint, the model hangs around his house. She finds a copy of The King in Yellow even though the painter did not own a copy because his friend, the narrator of The Repairer of Reputations, had gone mad after reading it. It is never explained how the book got into his house. Maybe the creepy watchman put it there.

I had always refused to listen to any description of it, and indeed, nobody ever ventured to discuss the second part aloud, so I had absolutely no knowledge of what those leaves might reveal. I stared at the poisonous mottled binding as I would at a snake.

Both the painter and his model end up reading the book. Soon thereafter, their dreams come true. The disgusting watchman breaks into their home and tries to steal the onyx clasp. Nobody survives. When the narrator realises what is happening he says,”I knew that the King in Yellow had opened his tattered mantle and there was only God to cry to now.”, but apparently the original text read,

I knew that the King in Yellow had opened his tattered mantle and there was only Christ to cry to now.

Apparently the publisher changed this so it wouldn’t offend Christian readers.

There are other stories in the collection, but none of them deal with The King in Yellow or Carcosa, and I’ve discussed them already. I think The Yellow Sign is probably my favourite out of these 4 stories. All four contain small references to other stories in this collection, but each tale works by itself. The references to The King in Yellow are maddeningly sparse, and you’ll want to read all four of these stories to get all the details. I reckon it’s what Chambers doesn’t say about this strange text that makes it so appealing. From what little he reveals, I have deduced that the play is about a shabbily dressed King who creeps out two Carcosian ladies called Cassilda and Camila.

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.

Stranger: Indeed?

Cassilda: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.

Stranger: I wear no mask.

Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene 2.

 I thought, too, of the King in Yellow wrapped in the fantastic colours of his tattered mantle, and that bitter cry of Cassilda, “Not upon us, oh King, not upon us!”

I remembered Camilla’s agonized scream and the awful words echoing through the dim streets of Carcosa. They were the last lines in the first act,

What the Hell is that creep up to?

I know I mentioned it before, but there is something embarrassingly exciting about a creepy book that doesn’t exist. One of the characters in Satan’s Surrogate actually attempts to write a play with a similar title, but he isn’t successful. I quite enjoyed rereading these 4 stories by Chambers. Nothing else I’ve read by him comes close to them, but their atmosphere and allusions to the maddening and mysterious Yellow King are enough to ensure that Chambers is remembered as a master of weird fiction.

The Maker of Moons – Robert W. Chambers and Librivox Editions (Both from original 1896 text)

This is the collection of short stories that Robert W. Chambers put out after The King in Yellow. There are a other collections of Chamber’s short stories that use the Maker of Moons title that contain a variety of tales, but this is a review of the original 1896 collection. I started it a few weeks ago because I was in need of an audiobook to listen to while doing housework. I didn’t have very high hopes, as it seems to be common knowledge that Chambers wrote far more bad than good, but anything beats making dinner in silence. I really liked most of the King In Yellow, even some of the more romantic tales, but this collection is of a generally lower quality. Including a few soppy stories in a collection otherwise brimming with ghouls and horror is acceptable, but forcing a few quirky tales into a collection of stories about loverboys going fishing makes for a fairly shit book in my opinion.

Here’s my rundown of the stories:

The Maker of Moons
The ‘weirdest’ and most entertaining tale in this collection, The Maker of Moons features weird creatures and strange dimensions. It’s the only story in here that comes remotely close to horror, but in comparison to Chamber’s earlier stories, this remains very much on the fantasy side of weird. I’d save this one for last if I were you.

The Silent Land
A lad with a pet bird goes fishing and falls in love with a strange woman. This is a bit like a really boring version of the title story of the collection.

The Black Water
A lad is in love with a girl. He has a sore eye. This story is shit.

In the Name of the Most High
Chambers was obviously a fan of Ambrose Bierce, and this story could have been taken right out of the Tales of Soldiers section from Bierce’s In the Midst of Life. Unfortunately, Tales of Soliders was my least favourite of all Bierce’s collections, and this reads as a shit version of a shit story. Awful.

The Boy’s Sister
A lad falls in love with a boy’s sister. Lame.

The Crime
A lad goes fishing and falls in love. The only crime here is the inclusion of this hogwash.

A Pleasant Evening
This is a ghost story about a guy closely resembling the author. It’s not the worst thing in the collection; it starts off promising, but it falls apart towards the end. This is the only other tale that Chaosium deemed worthy to include in their Complete Weird Tales of Robert W. Chambers collection

robertwProbably all you need when it comes to Chambers.

The Man at the Next Table
Weird, yes, but not very good. Although it doesn’t appear in Chaosium’s selections from this collection, it is incorporated into Chamber’s novel, In Search of the Unknown, as the Pythagoreans chapter. In Search of the Unknown is included, in full, in the Chaosium collection, but judging by the original version of the story, I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to it. This is a story about a lad who meets a pair of metaphysical losers, and a cat.

If you have the Chaosium collection, I would recommend sticking to the stories included in there. The other tales in the original collection aren’t horrendously painful to read/listen to, but they are all rather similar and forgettable. I’m not going to rule out reading more Chambers in the future, but I’ll probably wait for a recommendation on which of his texts are actually worth reading.

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.