Review: The King in Yellow

‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living god.’

The King in Yellow is a book containing ten short stories, four of which are interrelated (and the subject of this review); they are, ‘The Repairer of Reputations,’ ‘The Mask,’ ‘In the Court of the Dragon,’ and ‘The Yellow Sign.’ The remaining five tales range from a set of hallucinatory prose poems ('The Prophet's Paradise') to a predictably supernatural love story ('The Demoiselle d'Ys') to a series of wooden, Francophile romances that have absolutely nothing to do with the first half of the book, save perhaps their loosely thematic consideration of the hazards of knowledge; and while the variable—and often dreadfully stale—latter half of the book contains very little of interest, the four interrelated narratives that comprise its opening half (the King in Yellow cycle, proper) are some of the more astoundingly original pieces of short fiction in all of American literature.

Within this quartet, Robert W. Chambers—a man of remarkable, if briefly employed, vision—sustains a sense of dread only occasionally matched by the great talents he would inspire several decades later. Written in the fin de siècle period and gently touched by the influences of Bierce, Wilde, and Poe, Chambers’ near-revolutionary breed of cosmic terror is so bleak, atmospheric, and saturated with the cloak of doom that to dip into The King in Yellow is almost to taste the madness described therein: for this profound influence on the work of Lovecraft and what would come to be known as Weird Fiction begins with one of the more elemental of Gothic premises: a book that poisons. The King in Yellow, you see, is actually not a collection of stories at all; it is a play within a collection of stories—a play suppressed by governments and denounced entirely by both 'pulpit and press', a play capable of opening the mind to truths of such wicked import that to look upon them once is to look upon the face of madness. This play trickles through the skeleton of each narrative in the King in Yellow cycle: a constant and sweetly sinister miasma that corrupts body, mind, and the very ethers of soul and sanity; and while we are offered occasional glimpses at its pages—a line here or a line there—it is a particularly effective hand that shies away from giving us much more than a taste of what exactly is contained within the cursed pages of The King in Yellow.

The fevered descent that Chambers has titled ‘The Repairer of Reputations’ is the most successful story in the cycle and opens it, establishing its necessary mythology and tone; in many ways it simultaneously foreshadows not only the horror work of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, but also the dystopian nightmares of Orwell and Huxley, which is indicative of a general trend: the vision that reverberates throughout the entire King in Yellow cycle is startlingly prophetic, in both content and style, lending a strange timelessness to its pages that approximates, in its impressions, the same insidious hypnosis the play described therein is reputed to induce. The opening story is a brilliant piece of fiction in and of itself, with subtle hints throughout the tale suggesting its jarring and brutally ambiguous ending early on, but it is the echo of its varied motifs, and the way they interweave with the remainder of the collection, that elevates 'The Repairer of Reputations' to a higher plane of literature than many similar fictions can claim.

The remainder of the cycle picks up where ‘The Repairer of Reputations’ leaves off, examining situations that occasionally make subtle reference to each other without ever explicitly crossing-over: ‘The Mask,’ which is the most accessible of the quartet, echoes Wilde with more insistence; ‘In the Court of the Dragon’ is dream-like and terrifyingly sinister, dealing with mysteries that are perhaps unfathomable; the closing story of the cycle, ‘The Yellow Sign,’ is the most popular with anthologists and was the most influential on later authors; it is the grimmest, most thoroughly desolate piece in the volume.

Chambers’ prolific literary output has largely been forgotten (excepting this, his masterpiece): and perhaps this is rightly so, given most of his work’s insipid, if highly-profitable, triviality. The menace he nourishes to such success in The King in Yellow is entirely absent in his other fictions—including, even, several of the stories that comprise the latter pages of the The King in Yellow itself. But the quartet of stories that outline the mythology of The King in Yellow is enough to ensure Chambers' durability: there are so few works of entirely visionary genius in the canon of spectral literature that to identify truly pioneering work is really quite simple—and Chambers’ genius ranks alongside Walpole, Poe, and Maturin for sheer mettle and originality: despite the stodgy ineffectuality of the second half of the book, ultimately, the King in Yellow cycle itself is intelligent, haunting, and exquisitely unnerving in ways few ‘story cycles’ are able to maintain.

A product of the same decade that spawned Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Turn of the Screw, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Salome, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Sorrows of Satan, Torture Garden, Bruges-La-Morte, and À Rebours, The King in Yellow is one of the few works of the 1890s to remain entirely unclassifiable: it is at once decadent and austere, anarchic and conventional, sagacious and utterly indolent: a kind of saturnine mirror of its own content. And it will haunt you, certainly—but that breath of contagion is sweet; the empyrean heights to which it aspires—the heights that Lovecraft would shatter some time later—are as full of humbling gloom as that later luminary’s work, and just as insistent in the totality of their vision. Unlike Lovecraft, however, Chambers’ opus marvels in the sheer ambiguity of cosmic terror, never shedding an appreciable light upon its subjects or delving too deeply into the complexity of mythology that the Lovecraftian throng would explore several decades later. But this is not a weakness—if anything, the curt laconicism of the King in Yellow quartet is an important part of its beauty and overall success: it is the blueprint of an entire movement—a real-life parallel of the terrors posited within its pages.


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