Monday, April 23, 2018

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Only the macabre first half is worthwhile
The King in Yellow, a book of short stories by American author Robert W. Chambers, was first published in 1895. The collection is an oddly inconsistent mix, divided roughly in half between weird horror stories and more traditional romantic tales of American artists living in Europe. The book is largely remembered today for those stories in the former category. If Chambers had maintained the macabre atmosphere and style of the first five stories throughout the book, The King in Yellow would have been a much more cohesive and successful collection of fiction.

The first four stories are all linked by references to “The King in Yellow,” which is a play, also printed in book form, set in the mystical realm of Carcosa. From its description, which includes a sky full of black stars, this Carcosa would appear to be some sort of parallel universe. We are given very little information about this mysterious land, other than the names of people or places within it, like the oft-mentioned Lake of Hali. It seems that anyone who reads this strange book suffers from insanity or visions of death. “The King in Yellow” may also refer to an actual being, likely a supernatural one, who seems to be ushering in a Carcosan takeover of our world.

The first story, “The Repairer of Reputations,” is a mindblower. Set in the 1920s, it presents a dark, dystopian view of a future America. Chambers nonchalantly mentions the most bizarre imagery as if it were commonplace, like a man with artificial ears, a murderous cat, or a publicly funded system of suicide centers. Along with the bizarre title character, the narrator seems to be planning a coup to install the Yellow King, or a puppet ruler in his service, on an imperial throne. It eventually becomes apparent that the narrator is mad, as his tale blurs the line between reality and insanity. Years ahead of its time, this story reads like some weird movie by David Lynch. The next two entries, “The Mask” and “In the Court of the Dragon” follow along the same lines, but to lesser effect. However the fourth story, “The Yellow Sign,” is a masterpiece of creepiness in which an artist and his model are being stalked by a man who may be a corpse.

The next entry, “The Demoiselle d’Ys,” is a more predictably gothic horror tale, like one of Poe or Conan Doyle’s lesser efforts. After “The Prophet’s Paradise,” an assortment of brief, forgettable prose poems, the last four stories are all tales of American artists living in France. “The Street of the Four Winds,” about one such artist’s relationship with a stray cat, is quite similar to “The Woman and the Cat” by French author Marcel Prévost, but I couldn’t tell you which came first. “The Street of the First Shell” is a meandering drama set in Paris during the siege of the Franco-Prussian War. Some of the blunt and gritty wartime scenes presage A Farewell to Arms, but it’s mostly a soap opera. “The Street of Our Lady of the Fields” is a terribly slow, pointless, and mean story about an American artist, newly arrived in Paris, who falls in love with a loose woman but is too naive to realize it. The following story, “Rue Barrée,” though somewhat more interesting, is essentially the same subject matter, though the woman in question’s only sin is her status as a working girl. Despite Chambers’s pretensions toward the bohemian lifestyle, these artist stories are really hopelessly preoccupied with classism and aristocratic condescension (on the part of the Americans, oddly). The last few stories are also plagued by dumb, inconclusive endings.

If you like horror stories, the first four or five pieces in The King in Yellow are certainly worth a read, but there’s little to recommend in the book’s dull latter half.

Stories in this collection
The Repairer of Reputations 
The Mask 
In the Court of the Dragon
The Yellow Sign 
The Demoiselle d’Ys 
The Prophet’s Paradise 
The Street of the Four Winds 
The Street of the First Shell 
The Street of Our Lady of the Fields 
Rue Barrée

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