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the king in yellow

18 july 2021

I found Robert Chambers' 1895 story collection The King in Yellow while going methodically through every "Amazon Classic" available free on Kindle – I guess I got tired of buying books, after a year and more of compulsive pandemic purchases. I had never heard of The King in Yellow, so it jumped the queue ahead of Middlemarch and Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Come to find that The King in Yellow is a well-regarded fiction in the lineage that runs from Edgar Allan Poe to H.P. Lovecraft. It even provided some of the mythos for the first season of the TV series True Detective, which I watched spellbound, years ago, completely missing every King in Yellow reference. Now it's so long since I've seen True Detective that I don't recognize anything True Detective-y in The King in Yellow. It would help if my memory weren't modeled on Swiss cheese.

The King in Yellow is (in part) a book about a book called The King in Yellow. This book-within is a fantastic, powerful text akin to Lovecraft's Necronomicon and Umberto Eco's second volume of Aristotle's Poetics. Such books are not light beach reading. They drive readers to murder and madness. Fortunately the outer King in Yellow by Chambers doesn't do that … though maybe I shouldn't speak too soon: it may be slow-acting and could yet send me to some asylum for the criminally insane.

The first few stories range from exploring this unsettling reading experience to alluding to it more briefly. "The Repairer of Reputations" is narrated by a fellow whose reading of The King in Yellow (supposedly a play, quoted only sparingly in Chambers' text) has alerted him to the fact that he is the uncrowned king of America. There are just a few pesky alternate claimants to deal with before he can be revealed to his subjects … In "The Mask," the narrator is also a KIY reader. His friend Boris, a sculptor, invents a technique that will do for his art what photography did for painting: reducing the process of recording a three-dimensional object to an instant, automatic chemical effect. Dunk something in a bath of this secret solution and it turns into a sculpture. You don't want to leave such baths unattended. Naturally, Boris does.

"In the Court of the Dragon" features another King in Yellow fan whose reading has taught him that an implacable sinister enemy stalks him everywhere. Actually, the more you read into these stories, the more The King in Yellow comes to seem like some sort of social-media influencer, frantically deranging all his followers. The narrator of "The Yellow Sign" knows the dangers, and for a while it seems like he'll do OK: he is a painter with a sketchy past who seems, despite some troubling dreams and premonitions, at last to have found true love with his favorite model – till she finds and opens The King in Yellow and then all bets are off.

"The Demoiselle d'Ys" belongs tangentially to the same mythical world. An American, on a tour of Brittany, wanders into a lonely moor that you can't get out of. He's also wandered, it seems, into the 16th Century. He and a mysterious girl who trains falcons fall in love with each other, but it can't last; he's just a regular guy and she is an enchanted apparition. As I said, Jeanne, the Demoiselle d'Ys, seems to inhabit the world of The King in Yellow, given some of the other character names, but the connection is oblique.

Unfortunately, just as he gets going, Chambers jettisons the King in Yellow motif. The remaining five stories in the volume – most named after streets – are Americans-in-Paris stories about doomed decadent artists. (Chambers himself, an American, was an art student in Paris.) Without the Yellow framework, these stories lack the energy of the first five in the volume.

But "The Repairer of Reputations" is a fine story about conspiracy theories; "The Mask," "In the Court of the Dragon," and "The Yellow Sign" are nicely eerie; and "The Demoiselle d'Ys" is an acceptable bit of faux-Breton-lay literary fairy tale. It's not much to base an entire cult mythology on, but The King in Yellow is all the better for its thinness. So many weird worlds lose their magic via over-explanation; Chambers, in this debut volume, realized that less was more.

Chambers, Robert W. The King in Yellow. 1895. Kindle Edition.