This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Rarely has a writer written so much and had so little of their work celebrated as Robert W. Chambers. Despite churning out a rather mighty bibliography, to my knowledge there isn’t any serious discussion of more than a fraction of his material, and that discussion is almost all focused on a single book.
But to be fair, it’s a hell of a book. The King In Yellow was a collection of short stories, issued towards the very start of Chambers’ career. It had been preceded by In the Quarter, a novel about life among struggling artists in Paris which ended up marred by a detour into antisemitism. The King In Yellow mingled stories about American art students in Paris – presumably drawing on Chambers’ own experiences, and including cameos from characters from In the Quarter – with a much stranger set of stories, representing some of the finest supernatural horror to come out of the late 19th Century.
These stories seem to be thematically linked by a shared mythology, of the sort which H.P. Lovecraft would also utilise in his own work, built up more through allusion than through direct exposition. At the centre of this is a suppressed play, The King In Yellow, which alludes to such places, people and concepts as Hastur, Carcosa, the Hyades, Aldebaran, Cassilda, Camilla and the Lake of Hali. (Some of these names are borrowed from Ambrose Bierce). The exact relevance to all of this to the action is often obscure, but seems indicative of a supernatural, and possibly even alien or cosmic force at work behind the scenes – a technique repeated to an extent in True Detective’s use of these concepts.
The first story in the collection, The Repairer of Reputations, begins with an enormous slab of expositionary worldbuilding – for it takes place in an imagined version of the 1920s and thus would, at least initially, have been received as its original 1890s audience as science fiction. This description of the future is uncharacteristically clumsy for Chambers, and this is perhaps deliberate, partly as a parody of the futurists of Chambers’ day and partly because it presents an early hint that all is not well with our narrator, Hildred Castaigne.
You see, though Hildred expresses a great admiration for the direction the future has taken, that very enthusiasm suggests that he is not a narrator to be taken at face value. As he explains it, the USA has become isolationist and militarised, with Prussian-style military patrols in the great cities (largely rebuilt to a new futurist aesthetic), suicide booths promoted by the government to encourage people to remove themselves from society without bothering others, the Jews expelled from the nation and an independent state set aside for black people to be dispatched to.
Here, Chambers is in luck: the events of the coming century give a dreadful added weight to this depiction of a future that never was, and it is hard not to interpret this as a depiction of a fascist USA undergoing an increasing centralisation of power. Readers at the time of publication could not have noted fascist aspects, of course, but even then I think they would have probably been alarmed by the depicted rise in domestic militarism and by the government’s acceptance and gentle encouragement of suicide. For them it may have seemed fantastic, however, it represents for us a chillingly plausible alternate history.
Part of what makes me think the description of this future is a parody is that the prose quality improves abruptly and magnificently once Hildred starts talking about his own affairs. Hildred himself intends to become precisely the sort of dictator this newly authoritarian USA is ripe to receive; his ambitions seem all the more threatening to modern readers precisely because we recognise the signs of rising fascism in the setting, making Hildred’s aim of becoming Emperor a bit more plausible than it would otherwise have been.
At the same time, whilst Hildred’s ambitions are troubling, as a figure he is more pitiful. He sees conspiracy all around him, and the story he has to tell us is rather fantastic, wavering between paranoia and megalomania. At some point a while ago he fell from horse, and has apparently spent time since in an asylum. The basis of his claim to rule America is his belief that he is second in line to its Imperial dynasty and is well-placed with his fellow conspirators to oust the current heir, his cousin Louis. However, at one point when he the Imperial crown out of his safe to admire it, Louis comes by to visit, and perceives the safe as a biscuit tin and the crown as a cheap theatrical prop.
Could it be, then, that the future 1920s world is, like the myth of an Imperial throne of America, all a delusion of Hildred’s? As others have pointed out, the exposition paragraph at the start of the story makes no sense as an account offered to others who live in the same world, but is very plausible as the act of a narrator who wants to convince himself of the reality of his dream world.
And yet, Hildred is not quite alone in his strangeness. The titular Repairer is a very strange man called Mr. Wilde. He lives in a flat above the shop of Mr. Hawberk, a seller of antique armour, and where he keeps a murderously angry cat and the dossier The Imperial Dynasty of America, the definitive text on Hildred’s royal claim, which Mr. Wilde may be the author of. The Imperial Dynasty implies that the royal line does not even originate on Earth, but comes from some alien world (indeed, Mr. Wilde’s strange appearance and stranger behaviour implies that he himself may be some sort of alien or otherworldly entity).
Mr. Wilde is no mere chronicler; he is Hildred’s advisor, a sort of grand vizier in his scheme to take the throne, and purports to be a key part of a vast conspiracy, accomplished thanks to his “Repairer of Reputations” role which means he is perfectly placed to save or ruin the standing of those who come into his gravity well. And beyond Hildred and Mr. Wilde is their otherworldly patron, the King In Yellow himself. Hildred read The King In Yellow during his convalescence, raising the question of whether it was truly the riding accident to blame for this change in him, and the King in turn seems to be backing the coup. When Mr. Wilde mutters that, due to a lack of support there, he will not send the Yellow Sign to California and the Pacific Northwest – and implies that, as a result, they will suffer a fate worse than if they had never been populated at all – the scale of the conspiracy seems to transcend the national and political to encompass a cosmic, apocalyptic vision.
Nor does their conspiracy seem to be entirely imaginary. Hildred’s crown may be a cheap prop kept in a biscuit tin, but people certainly seem to react to Mr. Wilde as though he holds some sinister power over them; he is even able to tell not just that “Hawberk” is not the armourer’s true name (though, you know, “hauberk” – if you know your clank it isn’t that subtle), but makes an astonishing guess as to his true identity, and is also able to pinpoint for him the precise location of a fabulously rare set of armour.
What, then are we meant to make of this story in which everything that seems to be true is a phantom, but then there also seems to be something of truth in the shadows? How much should we look into the fact that the play The King In Yellow seems to have hailed from Paris, and in conjunction with the name “Mr. Wilde” an 1890s audience – especially one familiar with the artistic circle around the Yellow Book – could not help but think of Salome and poor Oscar, who wrote an entire novel based entirely around matters of reputation and whose own reputation was, the same year this book came out, the matter of his furious struggles in the court that led to his downfall? Had Oscar survived longer in exile in Paris – especially had he taken the advice of friends to flee to France rather than remain in England to face criminal charges – could he have heard the faint strains of Cassilda’s song, and introduced into the world of Repairer that set of motifs, ideas, characters, the very regalia of the King, as it were, which Chambers has introduced into ours?
We press on to yet more mysteries. The next story, The Mask, is on the face of it a romantic story of a love triangle among Parisian artists – the narrator Jack Scott, his best friend Boris, and Genevieve, who they both love. However, the story is rendered strange by two discordant twists, the first of which is that a major role is played in the plot by a chemical discovered by one of the characters which can transform living things to stone near-instantly. The other weird note, and somehow it manages to be the stranger one, is that the narrator reads The King In Yellow at a crucial point in the story, and in a feverish delirium begins to think of the Pallid Mask it alludes to as the mask of self-deception he himself has worn to conceal his love for Genevieve and maintain his good relations with Boris. The events of the story could almost be seen as a the King In Yellow inflicting a supernatural punishment for self-deception and a subsequent reward for self-acknowledgement, but this would require you to see the King as having some capacity to be benign, and the allusions to the play here are (as in the other stories) unambiguously nightmarish. What is going on?
We see another riddle but also what I consider to be the first shadow of an answer in the next story, In the Court of the Dragon. This is a brief sketch depicting in increasingly poetic terms a confrontation between narrator and a sinister church organist. It hints towards the end that the narrator has done the organist a great wrong, but does not acknowledge this for most of the story. In its final slide into illucidity, it reminds me of the more terrible moments of Dick’s Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, since in both stories it appears that the very perceptions, and maybe even the very reality resided in by the narrator, are entirely in the control of an external character – here, the organist, who seems to have been invested with the power to take a terrible revenge.
This makes me think back to the first story, and how Hildred’s strange, dark change in his worldview comes hot on the heels of him reading The King In Yellow, and how Louis perceives the crown of America as a stage prop. These theatrical parallels seem to me to suggest the same thing that Thomas Ligotti tends to suggest when he reduces people to puppets and dolls, as the facade masking the nonsense of the world crumbles: that the characters in these stories occupy worlds which are somehow fabrications, mere stage contrivances for them to enact their dramas before, and that King himself resides not onstage, as another actor, but offstage as a director. By exposing himself to the play, Hildred has become caught between one scene change and another; he sees the scenery of the alternate 1920s, and the reality of his crown, but Louis sees the scenery of a more prosaic world, and sees the crown as being fake because in his context it is fake.
We come now to the devastatingly dark heart of the book. The Yellow Sign was H.P. Lovecraft’s favourite story in the collection, and nicely demonstrates a technique that Lovecraft himself considered important – that of keeping the order of narration and the internal chronological order of events within the story distinct, so that the pieces of the puzzle slot in bit by bit in the correct order to accomplish the aesthetic effect aimed for.
Once again we have a narrator we cannot entirely trust, not this time because he seems to be outright delusional but because, again, he is keeping something from us. He has occasional recollections of his former love Sylvia, of a Breton forest precious to both of them, of something buried there of which he will not speak.
On the subject of unreliable narrators, there is a reference in this story to Castaigne which harks back to The Repairer of Reputations, and yet there is not one single, solitary mention of any of the science fictional elements of that story – this despite the apparent all-pervading pomp and ceremony of the militarism involved there – suggesting once again that the alternate 1920s may have been a delusion of Castaigne’s, or may have a peek behind the scenery of the cosmos, but near-certainly wasn’t the prosaic sci-fi setting it first appeared to be.
There is also a certain emotional realism to the story that only a few of the stories in this collection share, and which Chambers would more or less abandon for the rest of his career as his romantic plots and subplots became more formulaic. Here, the romance element comes between the narrator, a painter, and his model Tessie, and it is handled with depth and a certain lack of comforting illusions that is unique in Chambers. Though the story does not contain any explicit sex scenes, some allusions suggest that both the narrator and Tessie have an active sex life involving multiple partners. The narrator’s doubts about his self-worth – tied, perhaps, to guilty memories of Sylvia – lead into some somewhat patriarchal (though appropriate for the era) contemplations on his part about what to do about the intimacy that has blossomed between him and Tessie.
This sense of guilt plays into a Catholic element of the work; the narrator’s studio is in fact next door to a church, and his sense of guilt seems to extend to a sense of personal spiritual impurity. But as in the previous story, the church issues forth only corruption, with the lurking figure of its watchman an even more sinister element here than the organist of In the Court of the Dragon. The church also offers a hint at wider conspiracies happening in the background – apparently, it’s been bought out by someone, and though we aren’t directly told who has purchased it and what their intention is, the idea of a former property of the church being taken over by another force has certain unwholesome parallels with what happens to the watchman.
The story is replete with these sorts of details, little incidents here and there that the main characters have hitherto overlooked and whose relevance only comes together in the final phases of the story. This is heralded by the most sinister appearance of the play The King In Yellow in the collection: the narrator had specifically gone out of his way to avoid reading or owning the thing, but somehow Tessie finds it in his bookshelves without any sign evident of where it came from, and they stumble across it well after their doom is sealed, so that it can contextualise their damnation but not avert it. The culmination of the story, despite its lack of explicit, gorey details, is one of the most terrifying sequences in horror fiction, Chambers’ flair for the poetic drawing out the true nightmare. I can’t read the simple line “Now he was at the door, and the bolts rotted at his touch” without shuddering.
After such nastiness, The Demoiselle d’Ys offers a sudden tonal shift into something less horrifying and more melancholy. Though still in the realm of the supernatural, it’s basically a love story in which the supernatural element allows for a modern American to go back in time and romance a medieval noblewoman, only to discover once he returns to the present day that she spent her entire life pining away after him. On the face of it, this is a much less realistic consideration of people’s emotions and motives and is far more formulaic than the preceding stories, but there are odd wrinkles here and there. For instance, the Demoiselle has a retainer named “Hastur”, and she seems to be a bit more aware of the magical nature of the marsh in her first encounter with the narrator. Did she shanghai Philip into repeating events of 300 years previous? Or was the story originally going to go elsewhere before Chambers went the romance route? It’s hard to say, especially when the story feels like the least developed of the supernatural stories in the colleciton.
An interval of sorts is offered by The Prophet’s Paradise, a clutch of rather pretty prose-poems that involve an effective use of repetition, so that similar phrases are uttered at different points in the prose-poems in such a way that they have extremely different connotations each time they are said. After this come the four “Street”-themed stories in the collection, which for the most part are non-supernatural stories set in the Paris that Chambers had known so well as an art student.
I say that they are non-supernatural, but whilst The Street of the Four Winds contains no overt supernaturalism there is an eerie coincidence at the heart of the tale. It shows us a struggling artist in Paris who finds that an emaciated cat has wandered into his fifth floor studio, and through his interactions with the cat discovers the fate of a lost love of his. Strikingly, this individual is also called Sylvia, which makes me wonder whether we should assume this is the same Sylvia as in The Yellow Sign. In fact, in this story the narrator thinks that the “Sylvia” who owns the cat cannot possibly be the same “Sylvia” that he previously knew, only to reveal otherwise. You could definitely read this as a suggestion that as far as these stories go there is no such thing as coincidence, and that if we see two people with the same name we should consider a possible connection. Then again, the narrator of The Mask is one Jack Scott and the narrator of The Yellow Sign is one Mr. Scott, so what are we to make of this partial parallel? Are they relatives, or alternate versions of each other?
And what are we to make of the fact that the next story, The Street of the First Shell, features either yet another Sylvia or a substantially younger one? This one is set during the 1870-1871 siege of Paris by the Prussians – it’s probably set in early 1871 because shelling didn’t commence until then and it is clear from the extreme deprivation and hunger suffered by the besieged citizens that the siege has been grinding on for a good while when we pick up the story. Although Chambers was not in Paris during the siege (he studied there from 1886 to 1893, doing well enough to get his work displayed at the Salon), he must have had plenty of opportunity to speak to people who had lived through it, and the picture he draws of the stark wartime conditions has a certain ring of authenticity to it.
The story revolves around a coterie of American art students who are trapped in the city during the siege. The main protagonist, Trent, is persuaded by American diplomatic staff to help out when one of the Americans is accused of conducting espionage for the Prussians; in the process of doing this, he is shocked and ashamed to discover that Sylvia, his 19 year old wife, had a past relationship with the accused which yielded a child. This prompts a serious emotional crisis, including a silly bit of risk-taking in which he nearly gets killed in the front-line fighting, only for Trent to eventually accept Sylvia’s past and her child and to resolve to live happily ever after with her. The fact that Trent would even contemplate casting off Sylvia for the crime of having a sexual history prior to her relationship with him is, of course, problematic, but it’s both a reaction you would expect someone of his class to have at that point in time and is also arguably something Chambers is criticising here, since the ending does involve him getting over that.
The next story, The Street of Our Lady of the Fields, is by contrast extremely romanticised, to the point where it is arguably the most romanticised story in the collection. We are back once again with the American art students and the prostitutes they hang out with (with references dropped to Severn of Four Winds and Colette of First Shell), and are told the story of Hastings, a brand new little art student who is taken under the wing of Clifford, a wise senpai who acts as a guardian angel for Hastings in matters of love by ensuring that he never learns certain uncomfortable truths about Valentine, the apple of his eye. In time, the purity of Hastings’ love redeems Valentine in some fashion despite her not entirely believing she is worthy of it. It’s a kind of vapid piece which is lent some hidden depths by a couple of strange shadows.
The first is that a lot of attention is given to the fact that a Jesuit house watches over Hastings’ lodgings in Paris, which feels both like another flicker of Catholicism in the book but also can’t help but remind me of the cathedral neighbouring Mr. Scott’s studio in The Yellow Sign. The second is that the next and final story in the collection, Rue Barrée, offers a very similar story but seems to be a more drab, murky take on the subject – like Our Lady of the Fields offers an idealised take on these matters whilst Rue Barrée offers something closer to reality.
Rue Barrée is another Clifford tale, but it’s filled with these strange, pessimistic notes. This time our lovestruck protagonist is Selby, who has fallen for the mysterious pianist known only as Rue Barrée (her nickname among the art students having been derived from the sign that perpetually sits at the end of her street). Clifford is a much more ambiguous figure here, though; he has an initial pass at being a guardian angel again, but it quickly becomes clear that Selby doesn’t need this anywhere near as much as Hastings did; Clifford then makes his own play for Rue’s affections, only to be rebuffed like everyone else. The story culminates in Selby clambering into Rue’s apartment in a home invasion which I think Selby is supposed to have thought was a grand gesture, even though the narration makes it clear that this is a moment of drunken folly. And then there is this weird, awkward, stilted moment between them, in which little to nothing is said but it seems evident, at least to my reading, that Selby has failed to emotionally connect with Rue, and she isn’t interested in being reached by him, and he is left shamefacedly skulking out of the room under the weight of this failure.
The stories in the collection, then, are all in some respect about secrets, often of a corrosive nature. Burroughs explained the title of Naked Lunch as being about a moment of clarity where you can see what is at the end of everyone’s fork, and it seems to me that The King In Yellow is all about what happens when an opportunity for that clarity comes into view. And sometimes honesty saves and sometimes it destroys, and sometimes concealment destroys and sometimes it seems to have been the right thing to do all along. And finally, in Rue Barrée, a moment of clarity and honesty between two people results in anticlimax, and the truth is of no matter, for whatever the secret of Rue Barrée is, and whatever it is that passes unspoken between her and Selby, it is not actually enough to give him a foothold in her world or draw her into his. At last, the Phantom of Truth that is the King’s herald turns out to be a true phantom and an empty promise, and the fate of the unmasked dancers comes down to the arbitrary whims of the King.
This, to me, seems to be the secret of the sequencing of the stories in the collection. Yes, the overt horror disappears halfway through, but I think this is all part of the grand design. If the stories in the latter half of the book were read out of context, or read before the supernatural tales, then the temptation to take them at face value would be overwhelming. At it is, though, the supernatural tales cast a long shadow over the subsequent tales, prompting us to look twice at them. Just as Rue Barrée would not seem quite so off-kilter and downbeat were the more conventional story of Our Lady of the Fields not placed immediately before it, at the same time the lessons of the supernatural tales in the collection encourage us to interrogate the Phantom of Truth and look behind the masks of the characters.
As far as Chambers’ subsequent fiction goes; there’s a fair bit in terms of quantity, but not much to shout about in terms of quality. Chaosium put out The Yellow Sign, a collection of Chambers’ supernatural writing edited by S.T. Joshi, but Joshi himself admits that Chambers’ later career only offers flickers of the heights reached in The King In Yellow.
Take, for instance, The Maker of Moons, a collection from 1896 – only a year after The King In Yellow emerged. The title story, later used as the basis for the 1920 novel The Slayer of Souls, is an odd tale that takes as its nucleus the SFnal conceit that gold is not an element but a compound that can be manufactured – an idea which dooms the story to feel horribly dated to any scientific reader. But even if you were to suspend your disbelief, there’s a lot to dislike here. We are treated to the spectacle of toffs on a jolly hunting trip, bantering interminably; one of them turns out to be a secret service agent going after a gold-manufacturing operation, run by a secret society of super-evil Chinese sorcerers. It’s all rather silly and over the top, and contains in it a kernel of “yellow peril” racism that would later flower fully in The Slayer of Souls. (Joshi does not compile that novel in the collection, partly due to page count, partly due to the fact that it’s awful.)
Another story, A Pleasant Evening, is a rather conventional ghost story whose only points of interests involve some apparent inspiration from the Dreyfus affair and the grumpy narrator, an illustrator for the newspapers. It’s fairly lukewarm stuff, and between that and Maker itself it’s enough to prompt you to give up before you even get to the hackneyed, formulaic approach of the episodic novels In Search of the Unknown and Police!!!.
One quote that Joshi digs up in his introduction to the compilation, from Chambers’ contemporary F.T. Cooper, addresses how Chambers’ depiction of women was considered two-dimensional and cliched even in his own time: “They are all of them what men like to think women to be, rather than the actual women themselves”. This is true to a varying extent in The King In Yellow (though some characters offer notable exceptions), but is really quite markedly true for his subsequent work, and this oversimplification and reduction to formula applies across the board.
It’s truly alarming, the way Chambers just phoned it in for the rest of his career, abandoning the careful construction of narrative and atmosphere of The King In Yellow in favour of cheap pandering to the tastes and prejudices of his time. So high does The King In Yellow tower over the rest of his supernatural writing it’s almost as though it were not so much written by him, but merely discovered and republished under his own name. It would be tempting to go to that apartment above Hawberk’s and consult with Mr. Wilde to discover the truth of this.