Book review: The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers  is in the public domain and can be downloaded here.
The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories and considered classic weird fiction. Lovecraft was inspired by this collection and wrote about it extensively in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature.

Lovecraft states in Supernatural Horror in Literature, “The King in Yellow, a series of vaguely connected short stories having as a background a monstrous and suppressed book whose perusal brings fright, madness, and spectral tragedy, really achieves notable heights in cosmic fear in spite of uneven interest and a somewhat trivial and affected cultivation of the Gallic studio atmosphere made popular by Du Maurier’s Trilby.”
The King in Yellow gained popularity last year when the HBO series True Detective referenced it. Some common Lovecraftian tropes are found in this collection:

king in yellow cat
a mysterious book with the power to cause insanity: The play The King in Yellow
• an occult symbol with unknown power: the yellow sign
• An otherworldly figure: the mysterious King in Yellow
• a lost place, Carcosa, whose twin suns and strange moons mean that is it not of this earth.
There are 9 stories in this collection, 4 of which reference the King in Yellow, a play that makes people who read it go insane. It’s honestly rather baffling why these stories are all together in one volume, the last two having no supernatural elements at all. Chambers spent most of his career churning out popular romance novels, and the last two tales in this collection lean more towards romance than horror. Chambers attended art school in France, and artists and Paris are featured in this collection.

Lovecraft  states in Supernatural Horror in Literature, “One cannot help regretting that he did not further develop a vein in which he could easily have become a recognized master.”

It is perhaps this difference that makes Chambers work unique as the romantic element gives the tales a haunted feel.
A nice biography of Chambers and his effect on Lovecraft can be found at the Miskatonic University Department of Literature here.

I have read so much about the King in Yellow that finally reading the original tales was a bit of a let down. They are interesting to be sure, but I was still left thinking, “that it?” The KIY mythos has been expanded on so much that I just thought there would be more Don’t get me wrong, the tales are very creepy and well written. I think part of the let down is that because the original King is Yellow is old and obscure it gets wrapped into the mystique of the actual King in Yellow mythology. I had the dreamy thought that some great and horrifying knowledge would be revealed to me once I read this collection, and that didn’t happen. The first four stories are excellent weird fiction.

yellow sign
The stories in order:
The Repairer of Reputations: a must read. This tale is an excellent example of first person storytelling. It’s not until later in the story that I began questioning the mental stability of the narrator, even though there were clues early on that  this man did not have all of his marbles.
The Mask: A sculptor discovers a substance that turns living things into marble. Someone reads The King in Yellow. Horror ensues.
In the Court of the Dragon: A churchgoers is disturbed by a creepy organist. “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: This is what Lovecraft feels is Chambers most powerful tale. An artist and his model read the King in Yellow and are accosted by a wormy graveyard watchman.
The Desmoiselle D’Ys: This is a cute supernatural romance tale. The only reference to the King in Yellow is a hunter named Hastur.
The Prophet’s Paradise: Weird: not even really a story but a series of short scenes.
The Street of the Four Winds: A short tale that involves cat and a dead person.
The Street of Our Lady of the Fields: eh I couldn’t read it.
Rue Baree: Some rich art school boys like a mysterious pretty poor girl they see walking around. It turns awkward when one boy gets drunk and climbs into the window of the girl’s room, gets embarrassed, and leaves.

After reading KIY, I  researched the Ambrose Bierce stories that first name Hastur and Carcosa. Both stories can be found in his short story collection, Can Such Things be?  The last two stories in the book: Haita the Shephard and An Inhabitant of Carcosa are the inspirations for Hastur and Carcosa.I think that besides the name, Inhabitant of Carcosa was more of an inspiration for The Desmoiselle D’Ys plot-wise.

Bottom Line: The first 4 tales should be read if you want to be a weird fiction completest, or if you are planning on writing in this Mythos. The King in Yellow mythos is very sparse, raises more questions than it answers, and has lots of room for expansion.
cassildas song

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