Forbidden Tomes: THE KING IN YELLOW by ROBERT W. CHAMBERS

This collection of stories has gained much-deserved attention after its cited influence on the first season of “True Detective” – the source, along with stories by Ambrose Bierce, of the nightmare that is Carcosa and the Yellow King. A work that precedes Lovecraft and even Machen, delving into the madness that is cosmic horror, there is little that surpasses the power of THE KING IN YELLOW.

The_King_in_Yellow

Most of the stories in the collection have nothing to do with the title – referring to a centuries-old play written by an unknown author destroys anyone who reads the second act. In the four stories that apply, the play acts as either a threat or as a catalyst, lurking both corporeally and spiritually as a terrible evil. Its words – detailing the nightmarish realm of Carcosa, where the Yellow King presides – bring paranoia, insanity and death to those who encounter them. Chambers’ four works pay witness to the horrors that rise from the play, horrors that predict awful fates for the human race.

3027126-inline-kinginyellow

Chambers plays brilliantly at perceptions of reality. The first story, “The Repairer of Reputations,” gives us one of the best unreliable narrators in horror fiction – a man who believes he is going to be crowned king after he murders his brother. The final two, “In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign” (the most famous of all), characters are haunted by grotesque figures that watch them from afar – by all accounts human aside for their evil expressions. Similar to Lovecraft, but perhaps even more powerfully, Chambers creates a universe in which nothing is stable, and anything can succumb to the powers of madness.

1393479533169

The style and aesthetic of these stories is distinctly decadent, a fascinating contrast to the terror that occurs within them. Chambers pays homage to Wilde’s school of poets with sensuous images of flowers, golden crowns, and ivory sculptures (see “The Mask,” the second story) – lush imagery and youthful, vigorous characters, until they come into contact with the dreaded play. His Bacchanal settings and delicate environments become subject to decay and destruction as the madness takes root.

14910866

He is most notable, of course, for his ingenious creation of the titular play and mythos. I have always been fascinated by the idea of pieces of art – books, film, paintings, et cetera – that can affect people solely by coming into contact with them. “The King in Yellow” is the most formidable example of this. Its presumably fictional terrors root in the mind, making them real, with agents of the madness lurking around every corner to torment the narrator until death. The evil has a more profound mental effect because of its interiority, compared to the devils of Lovecraft that exist so distantly from our physical world. The Yellow King makes his home close to us, inside of us. It is harder to escape a horror like that.

While it is regrettable that Chambers did not write more about the world of Carcosa, the four stories that he did present are powerful enough to create a lasting impression on horror fiction. His luxurious writing style infuses the reader with a sense of paranoia and insanity that is dreadfully tangible. The King in Yellow has cast his shadow over a century of fiction, and lasts just as long in the reader’s mind.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: