Tuesday, 14 May 2019

The King in Yellow - Robert W Chambers

The King in Yellow is in every sense a strange book. It's a collection of stories but not one of them is called The King in Yellow. In fact The King in Yellow is a printed playscript of material so mind-blowing that anyone who reads it risks insanity. The fictional text pops up in the first four stories but only in the first (and best) 'The Repairer of Reputations' does it fully do its damnedest. The story is truly macabre. To start with, it is set in 1920, a quarter of a century after it was written. New York has become very much as it is today, cracking down on immigrants, isolationist, and populist. In a move that is almost inevitable for Trump's second term, New York now boasts a Lethal Chamber in Washington Park. Sitting in the park and watching the euthanists run up the steps to the Chamber is the epitome of popular pastimes. Castaigne, our narrator, has just been released from psychiatric care. He is not mad, he tells us, and never was. He told his psychiatrist he wasn't mad and has offered to prove it by killing him. In the meantime he has cured himself by reading The King in Yellow. Now all manner of things are clear to him. First and foremost he must prevent his cousin from marrying the daughter of Hawberk, the artisan restorer of ancient armour. Castaigne has an ally in Mr Wilde, the repairer of reputations, who happens to live upstairs from Hawberk. Wilde is a midget with a fingerless hand who engages in perpetual strife with an extraordinarily vicious cat. Wilde has a book called The Imperial Dynasty of America, which is naturally of great interest to Castaigne, given that he and his cousin both feature towards the end.

This sounds bizarre, and it really is, startlingly so for 1895. The writing is simply dazzling. Chambers was an art student in Paris and has a tremendous gift for description. My favourite line comes from a story at the other end of the collection, but is typical of the whole book: "when again he raised his eyes, the vast Boulevard was twinkling with gas-jets through which the electric lights stared like moons." This comes from a second cluster of loosely linked stories featuring several re-occurring art students. These are not horror stories or even weird fiction, but they are very good. My second favourite, "The Street of the First Shell' is also set in the Latin Quarter but a generation earlier, in 1870, when Paris was besieged by the Prussians. This prefigures the historical fiction with which Chambers made his fortune.

The King in Yellow is and always was a curiosity. Apparently Chambers never wrote anything else quite as weird. Its influence was certainly telling; the links with Lovecraft are clear. I recommend it to all students of the genre.

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