Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Review - Robert W. Chambers's The King in Yellow

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers
Publication Date: 1895
Format: Kindle, 203 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Never read "The King in Yellow." Your life will be forfeit, insanity will come to you and you will welcome it gladly. Ah, but to resist such a temptation, how is one to do that so easily?  The play will haunt you and the world will change. It doesn't seem possible in a world where war has raged for so many years that a man or a woman could fall not because of a bullet but because of the written word. But Carcosa will haunt you.

"Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.
Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa."

Back in January and February there was only one show that everyone was talking about and that was True Detective. I was quite literally indifferent to it. A cop show staring two actors I've never liked, one of which is woefully miscast in a certain movie franchise I quite like, I had better uses of my time, thank you very much. That was until I heard that it was not a run-of-the-mill procedural because of it's incorporation of elements from the supernatural horror genre and it's references to the works of Robert W. Chambers.

This intrigued me because it wasn't something I would expect to be mainstream and the literary tie-in, well, I couldn't pass that up now could I? While the show fell completely apart in the final two episodes to create one of the most forgettable series in recent memory, not to mention my ire because The Yellow King and Carcosa were nothing more then red herrings, my compulsive need to read anything related to adaptations made me pick up Chambers book, and that is where the real payoff lays.

Chambers doesn't squander his setups with a bad denouement worthy of a schlocky B-Movie, oh no. He is able to create this world of paranoia and unease that slowly infiltrates your subconscious and unsettles you in a way the best horror writing will. While I'm not a fan of short stories, because I feel they sometimes limit your ability as a storyteller to go for the bigger picture, the way in which Chambers has his stories obviously set in the same world and has the through line of the destructive play "The King in Yellow" and the symbol of "The Yellow Sign" he is able to create a cohesive whole while still creating these little jewel-like stories. Though the book falls prey then to inconsistency, because in a collection of short stories there will always be one or two that just don't quite work. It's like a literary law of nature.

The way in which Chambers uses elements of Poe and writers of the Victorian Gothic genre yet is able to presage the world to come that is at once eerily accurate yet also just unnervingly different enough makes me wonder why he isn't lauded more for his visionary writing. Lovecraft was strongly influenced by Chambers, even writing about Carcosa himself, as did August Derleth. So why hadn't I heard of Chambers before True Detective? He should be up there with Poe and Jackson and King!

Chambers taps into something that we search for whenever we read a ghost story or watch a horror movie, that "what if" that creates chills up our spines. The most unnerving aspect of The King in Yellow isn't the titular play but the world under siege that Chambers creates. While some of the stories take place during the Siege of Paris that happened some twenty years prior to this book's publication, it's how he extrapolates these events into the future and in his story set in 1920 the world's recovery from a World War is so spookily precise I feel that he knew The Great War was coming and he was some kind of prophet.

While "The Street of the Four Winds" tickled me in how he referred to a cat's fur as plumage, something I thought only I ever did, it was the story "The Mask" that I most connected to. Perhaps this is because, while many of his stories deal with art, here the artist has found a way to alchemically change anything into marble, and what artist wouldn't be intrigued by an amazing new ability as well as a way to cut corners? The fact that this ability then leads to success but also madness and destruction makes it not only a fable, but a supernatural story of the highest order, because did reading the book do this?

The idea underlying all the stories, but in particular this one, is can someone be driven mad by a piece of writing? Can something be so amazing and so horrifying that it literally drives you round the bend? The fact that most of the stories center on artists or those with artistic leanings, the "sensitive souls," makes Chambers's conceit more layered then most arguments for persuasion. Personally I don't believe that video games can make someone commit a crime or murder, that it's always there, deep down in them, but it's an interesting thought to muse on in the dead of night, to wonder, but what if?


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