The King in Yellow

Robert W. Chambers
The King in Yellow Cover

The King in Yellow


Robert W. Chambers was a successful magazine illustrator who turned to fiction writing. There is no clear reason known for the switch, other than writing came easily for him and paid better than illustration. H.P Lovecraft, although an admirer of Chambers' fiction, grouped him among those who are "...equipped with the right brains and education, but wholly out of the habit of using them." He wrote around eighty now forgotten romantic novels, interspersed with exercises in short supernatural fiction that continue to find an audience. (His one fantastic novel was a racist, fascistic rant.)

The King in Yellow, his best work, has recently found a new audience by the opaque references made to it in the TV seriesTrue Detectives. People turning to the fiction to find hidden meanings in the series are going to be disappointed. In the stories, The King in Yellow is a play, published but seldom performed and now banned in most countries. Anyone who witnesses or even reads its second act goes insane. Copies of the play or evidence of its influence figure into six otherwise unrelated stories in the original collection. References to The King in True Detectives are not red herrings, but nor do they establish a meaningful relation to Chamber's fiction.

Chambers deploys an ornate, fin de siècle style that becomes cloying when not describing horrible, grotesque events. (Lovecraft had a valid point.) Along with a "tale told by a madman," there is a gentle fantasy staged on the English moors and two stories of terror and tragedy set in the bohemian world of artists and models. Chambers, like so many late nineteenth and early twentieth century writers of weird fiction, also fancied himself a poet. He writes verse epigrams for his stories and one story, "The Prophet's Paradise," is a kind of prose poem so dreadful I can imagine just how forgettable most of his fiction must be.

I read The King in Yellow stories in a 600-page anthology of the Chamber's weird fiction. As much fun as these stories are I am not inclined to delve deeper into the Chamber's cosmos.