The King in Yellow

Robert W. Chambers
The King in Yellow Cover

The King in Yellow


Like most people, my interest in this book went up after watching the first season of True Detective. Unlike most people, I took my time in getting to it, as I downloaded this book two years ago. So (as usual), I'm a little late to this party.

What's already known about this book is that it's a collection of ten stories, some of which center around a novelized play titled "The King in Yellow", which has a reputation for driving its readers insane. It's also known that Chambers influenced a lot of future Weird fiction writers, including H.P. Lovecraft. With that kind of reputation, it's hard not to go into this book expecting a lot out of it.

"The Repairer of Reputations" is set in the author's future (1920), where many advances have been made to improve society. Chambers peppers the story with these advances in a glib, horrifying manner, similar to the way Jonathan Swift did in "A Modest Proposal". The story introduces us to the play, and the suggestion that it has undue effects on its readers. It also introduces us to Hildred Castaigne, a socialite who has suffered a head injury and is now an eccentric. His situation, along with how his brother responds to him, suggests that his version of events may not be accurate, though it takes a while to catch on to this fact, forcing the reader to question all of what Hildred has told us in this story. It's an effective piece, even if I was confused in parts of it.

"The Mask" is set in the same world as "The Repairer of Reputations", and the play makes another appearance in the story. Here, we meet a group of friends, one of whom is a sculptor who has discovered a solution that will turn organic objects into marble, instantly. He demonstrates this with a rose, two goldfish, and a rabbit before it becomes more sinister. The motivations of one of the characters wasn't that clear to me, though this story's narrator was more reliable than Hildred, so I don't think I was being played. Unless the play was part of what made the characters sick, I feel like I missed something.

The next story, "In the Court of the Dragon", is less clear than the first two stories. The play features again, as the narrator had read it before attending a church service that goes awry. Whether or not what actually transpires is real or just imagined is questionable, and the ending is too vague for me to get a real sense of what was supposed to have happened.

"The Yellow Sign" is the fourth of the interconnected stories, giving us a little more detail about the play. The story is about a young artist and his model, both of whom stumble across the book after they have confessed their attraction to each other. It reminded me a little bit of Thinner, in that once of them has read the book, the other feels obligated to read it, too, so that she won't suffer her fate alone.

"The Demoiselle d'Ys" isn't about the play, and doesn't even seem to be set in the same world as the first four stories. It's about an American hunter lost in the French woods, and how he stumbles across a family who offers to help him. Like the preceding stories, this one is more than it seems, and Chambers does a great job of building up the atmosphere around the story, giving us small, unsettling details that prevent the reader from relaxing, even if he'll likely figure out what's going before the story ends.

"The Prophets' Paradise" follows, and is less a story than a collection of prose poems. There are eight vignettes that make up this story, and all told the entire piece is about nine pages long.

The following story, "Street of the Four Winds", is another shorter story, this time about an artist who befriends a stray cat. He discovers the cat's owner, and returns the cat to her, but what he finds there is, of course, a little unusual. It had an appropriately chilling ending. This marks the first of the last four stories set in France and featuring artists.

"Street of the First Shell" takes us back to the longer stories, as the last three stories in the book make up over half of the book's length. It doesn't have anything to do with the nameless horrors of the preceding stories; instead, it's about the horrors of war. It had an emotional ending, since Chambers focused on the characters surrounding the war, but the descriptions of war felt rather clinical. I wasn't expecting splatterpunk, but it felt more like a summary of events than anything else.

The next story is "Street of Our Lady of the Fields", and is about a naive American in Paris who falls for (I believe) a prostitute. It's a gentle story, out of place against the preceding stories, but it highlights Chambers' skills at characterization and setting. I wasn't expecting a story from the 19th Century to feel modern in those aspects, but parts of it felt like it could have come from a story written just this year.

The final story, "Rue Barée", is another story about artists in Paris, and also about love. It came as no surprise to me as I was doing research to find that Chambers himself studied art in Paris before writing this collection. What did surprise me was the subtle nod to the first story in the collection.

I raced through the first few stories, and then stalled out during the last four. Finally, I made myself finish the collection so I could move on to something else. Chambers definitely had the skills for telling a good story and engaging the reader, and I have an appreciation for him as a writer. I was also surprised at the wit he displayed, as evidenced here:

"...but now let me present you to two of the sights of Paris, Mr. Richard Elliot and Mr. Stanley Rowden."

The "sights" looked amiable, and took vermouth.

Still, folks coming across this collection based on the otherworldly flavor of True Detectives would be better off skipping the last three stories. They're good, but they're lengthy, and have no hint of the weird that readers would be looking for.