Thursday, March 1, 2012

Premature Book Review: The King in Yellow (Chambers, 1895)

Possibly the earliest instance of the Cthulhu Mythos authors published his fabled work a mere five years after HP Lovecraft was born. 1895 saw the release of a collection of short stories that may have influenced Lovecraft a great deal, it was The King in Yellow.

According to HPPodcraft.com's discussion of the history of the Necronomicon, Lovecraft was rather shocked by the book, as Chambers was apparently known primarily for writing romance pulp. My experience with Chambers is limited, but there are certainly romantic elements to some of the stories in The King in Yellow. My only other attempt at Chambers' work was The Slayer of Souls, which is a supernatural horror, but smacked a great deal of jingoism, which also occurs in "The Street of the First Shell" — though it is not of the jingoism typical of the United States of today.

The most important stories are the first four which involve a mysterious, fictional play; The King in Yellow. The initial story, "The Repairer of Reputations" takes us into 1920's Manhattan, introducing us to the play and the madness it causes. It begins with a delightful creepiness, and then descends into a madness that makes you question much of what you have already read. The main character is Hildred Castaigne, who believes himself to be the heir to the American imperial crown. There are other oddities as well, and knowing what is supposed to be the "real" future may just be the ravings of a madman. The second story, "The Mask" goes backward in time a bit, to the Paris of an indeterminate year. In it an artist has created a solution that will turn any living object into marble. Again, the narrator is driven mad by the play, "postshadowing" events in the first story. Third, "In the Court of the Dragon" is the shortest and perhaps eeriest of the four. It also takes place in Paris. Its temporal relationship to the first two is undetermined, though is obviously before "The Repairer of Reputations" as that story mentions the play being banned in Paris. Last is "The Yellow Sign" which is last in the timeline, as the narrator mentions having known Castaigne.

These four stories are incredibly creepy, and in a similar fashion to Lovecraft's style the play is only hinted at. The realness of the horrors it brings are open for debate. Certainly, if we suspend disbelief, there is something going on as mere writing can rarely cause such utter insanity.

The rest of the stories get to be a little more pedestrian in their horrific aspects, though like the first four there seems to be a relationship. "The Demoiselle d'Ys" is a traditional New England fairyland story reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Washington Irving. The three stories that begin with "The Street of" all seem to be interrelated as well, and presented out of temporal order. They are less impressive than the first four, but do a great deal to create unease as the story progresses, often going from seemingly non-horror fiction into a creepier place.

If you are a fan of Lovecraft, you should at the very least read the first four stories. It is odd that Lovecraft was apparently unaware of the book prior to being an established author since the two have so many similarities in style. Lovecraft even borrows mention of the fictional play, notably in "The Whisperer in Darkness" where the play is mentioned. To his credit, and despite his jingoism, Chambers appears to have none of the racial biases Lovecraft is rather notorious for, or at least does not express them in his writing.

Available for free at Project Gutenberg in numerous formats. It is also available as a free audiobook from Librivox, though I only recommend the their "part i" as the reader of "part ii" is a bit annoying for my taste.

3 comments:

Al Bruno III said...

Good article, makes me want to read his work again. If you have the chance check out the collection of his works that came out from Chaoisum. It has all his weird tales in one place including some very funny stories about a cryptozoologist.

Consider your article linked!

mkhall said...

Perhaps The King in Yellow echoed through time, finding a similar resonance in our friend Lovecraft to that it had found in Chambers some decades earlier? The will of the King must be obeyed.

Darius Whiteplume said...

@AB3 - I may check out the Chaosium, but since his stuff is in the public domain I may see what else I can find for free :-) Sounds like cool stuff, and thanks for the link!

@mkhall - it is possible. Do you have to see the Yellow Sign to be compelled by it? I think not ;-)

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