Review--The King in Yellow
Can art, or writing, or a stage play drive a person insane? It would seem so, for if one were to stumble upon this play known as “The King in Yellow,” that one would forever be changed. Maddened.
When I was about sixteen, I started playing the Call of Cthulhu tabletop role-playing game with a group of friends. Immediately, I began reading the works of Lovecraft, Derleth, Clark Aston Smith and the like. Weird fiction became my go to. I began writing stories of weird fiction. And I began to notice something, a common theme emerging in my work that saturates the works of all these others as well. There are books of forbidden lore, many quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. Among these lost tomes and dread scrolls exists a strange play titled “The King in Yellow.”
The King in Yellow showed in our role-playing sessions, in stories we wrote and tales we read, and at some point, it became part of our conversations, as did the Yellow Sign, the Elder Sign, and the various monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos.
It was not until recently, however, that I got around to reading the volume of short stories by Robert W. Chambers that gave rise to the myth of The King in Yellow. I was not disappointed.
Being a collection of stories, allow me to say a few words about each.
These first four stories form a sort of quartet.
The Repairer of Reputations
Here we meet a Mr. Hildred Castaigne, who is convalescing from a concussion. Castaigne suffers a head wound when he falls from his horse. While recuperating in an asylum, he comes across a censored play: “The King in Yellow.” He becomes a recluse and studies many archaic texts while going mad. Eventually, Castaigne meets The Repairer of Reputations who helps Castaigne realize his destiny. Or does he? Interestingly, this story, written around 1885, is set in a fiction totalitarian America of the 1920s.
The second story stars a character mentioned briefly in the first story, Boris Yvain, and narrator Alec. The third character, Genevieve, is the one who reads “The King in Yellow.” What follows is bit mad-scientist sci-fi mixed with Lovecraftian horror with a tinge of twisted love story tossed in.
In the Court of the Dragon
This one stars an unnamed narrator and only names a Monseigneur C____. This one begins in a church and has an appearance by the King in Yellow himself who, astonishingly quotes scripture to our narrator.
The Yellow Sign
I was especially excited to read this one, for of course the Yellow Sign showed a lot in my teenaged role-playing session. This is a story of an artist and his muse. It stars Jack Scott (from the second story), an organist who may or may not be from the third story and references the events of the first story. This is the most horrific story of the quartet.
The Demoiselle D’ys
I’m a fan of loop stories and ghost stories, so I liked this one. The players are Philip and Jean D’ys. No links to other stories, but a surprisingly good tragedy tale.
The Prophets’ Paradise
This prose poetry reads like experimental fiction. It is a collection of poems that come together to form a story within the story of the collected stories of this collection.
The Street of the Four Winds
The last four stories also form a quartet. This first of the final quartet brings us back to Paris, where we meet a man named Severn who has a strange encounter with and his neighbor, Sylvia. Also a bit of a tragedy.
The Street of the First Shell
This one also has a Sylvia. A different Sylvia. It’s a war story and seems to be unrelated to the others. Also, a bit of a romance. No horror. No King in Yellow. Not the best story in this collection, in my opinion.
The Street of Our Lady of the Fields
More Americans in Paris. Bohemian lifestyle. A hint of romance. Not much of the King in Yellow in this one either.
I’m not sure what was happening with all these Americans-in-Paris stories and the weird romance theme at the end of this collection, but at least this tale tried to tie in to the beginning.
All in all, a strong start with some really cool stories mingled throughout. For me, however, the ending (last 3 or 4 stories) fell a little short of the expectations created by the opening quartet.