The King in Yellow

The King in Yellow (first published in 1895) is a collection of short stories written by author Robert W. Chambers. Most of the tales in the collection are supernatural, and the first four ­­— “The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, “In the Court of the Dragon”, and “The Yellow Sign” — all deal with the King In Yellow and his Yellow Sign.

Who (or what) is the King in Yellow? In some tales, The King in Yellow is the book of a popular play spreading like a virus through the cities. It destroys the sanity of all who read it:

“Have you never read it?” I asked.

“I? No, thank God! I don’t want to be driven crazy.”

I saw he regretted his speech as soon as he had uttered it. There is only one word which I loathe more than I do lunatic and that word is crazy. …

“It is a book of great truths,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied, “of ‘truths’ which send men frantic and blast their lives. I don’t care if the thing is, as they say, the very supreme essence of art. It’s a crime to have written it, and I for one shall never open its pages.”

The concept of a madness-inducing book is familiar to anyone who has read much H.P. Lovecraft. Chambers’ The King in Yellow was a clear and considerable influence on Lovecraft’s work, particularly his fictional, forbidden Necronomicon, which was first seen in his 1924 short story “The Hound” and which has been used as a horror trope in countless works by different authors and filmmakers since then. Lovecraft has been such an influential and popular author that the King in Yellow mythos is retroactively considered to be part of the Lovecraftian mythos.

The stories in The King in Yellow never fully reveal the contents of the play, but the reader discovers it contains at least two acts and three characters: Camilla, Cassilda, and the Stranger, who might be the King in disguise. The second story, “The Mask”, opens with an excerpt of the play:

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!

In other tales, the King is a strange, malevolent being who rules a planet called Carcosa, who uses a weird symbol called the Yellow Sign to signal his minions on Earth. The primary description of the world (and one of the main sources of the book’s mythos) comes from “Cassilda’s Song”, the first excerpt of the fictional play at the very beginning of the collection:

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.

Chambers’ book experienced a recent resurgence in popularity because the first season of True Detective used a number of elements from Chambers’ mythos. Consequently, a whole new generation became interested in tales that tie in with the universe of the sinister King in Yellow.

The King in Yellow was on my to-read list for at least a decade. But once I started receiving invitations to write for KiY-themed anthologies, I took that as a clear sign that I needed to buckle down and read the book. I found that the first five stories in the collection are by far the most compelling in terms of story and imagery. The remaining non-supernatural tales about bohemian artists in Paris haven’t aged well and tend to drag by modern standards; any reader who’s sought out the collection because of his or her interest in True Detective or Lovecraftian fiction can safely read the first half of the collection and skip the rest.

The first story, “The Repairer of Reputations”, was most impressive to me because it’s a truly excellent example of a story with an unreliable narrator. The story could be taking place in a 1920 America filled with suicide chambers and dragoons of soldiers in bright uniforms, as the narrator presents it … or it could all be the delusions of a lunatic. The story works either way. The second story, “The Mask”, is a science fantasy with some excellent, nightmarish imagery:

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!” 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,” the third story, is loaded with creepy atmosphere, and the fourth story “The Yellow Sign”, is an equally evocative tale of madness and the undead.

So what is it about these 120-year-old stories that remain compelling to modern readers and writers? Chambers gives the reader brief, vivid glimpses of the dark fantastic … and nothing more. When you finish the book, you have an image in your head of the King, but no idea who or what he actually is or wants. Was he human? Is he an alien? An ancient, diabolic god? What happens in the play? What happens to the characters taken by the King? Their ultimate fates are no clearer than the mists of Carcosa.

Chambers left us a puzzle in the form of a book, and we who follow his literary path cannot help but try to solve it with our own stories.

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