The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers

A review of the literary short story collection The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers.

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The King in Yellow is a collection of ten short stories by Robert W Chambers that are very loosely connected by recurring themes and concepts, though not always directly. Published in 1895, the title comes from a play that is mentioned in a few of the stories.

The opening story, and arguably the most successful in the book, is ‘The Repairer of Reputations.’ Set in New York in 1920, it imagines a future mixing science-fiction technology and traditional, late 19th century traditions. The first suicide booth has just been unveiled and the narrator, Hildred Castaigne, has just observed the ceremony. He has experienced a head injury and, during his recovery, had read ‘The King in Yellow,’ a forbidden play that supposedly sends those who read it insane, though he claims it had no effect on him. As the story unfolds, so does Castaigne’s sanity, leading the reader to question the veracity of the narrator’s claims.

Whilst this first tale is well-written, engaging, and notably something of an anti-story – in that it breaks various rules of storytelling and would be regarded as experimental – it unfortunately feels tainted by the almost matter-of-fact way the Jewish race is blamed for many of the world’s tragedies. Whilst this could be interpreted as the first-person narrator’s own attitudes, as it is included in the initial exposition (as was the style at the time) instead of the story proper, it also reflects poorly on Chambers himself. These anti-Semitic undertones set the tone of the entire book for me, and made it an uncomfortable read.

Continuing through, the first half of the stories in the collection feature unsettling horror, strange goings-on, and the grotesque and the macabre. Along with the opening story, ‘The Yellow Sign’ is also worthy of a mention as featuring an artist being troubled by a church watchman who, disturbingly, resembles a coffin worm, and centres around the recurring motif of the King in Yellow.

At the mid-point of the book is a selection of prose poems under the title ‘The Prophet’s Paradise’ which include a direct quote from the titular play. Following these, the stories become more romantic in nature, suggesting this collection is a direct summary of Chambers’ own transition in novel writing from the supernatural to the more dramatic. All these final stories are set in Paris, linking them to the second and third stories in the first half.

Whilst the collection is well-written and imaginative, it is also of its time. The mysteries of the King in Yellow are suggested and probed but never explained, yet a little more consistency might have been beneficial. That said, having contradictory tales and disparities between various narrators does in fact make the King in Yellow more enigmatic, thus fuelling the legend that has kept this book in the public eye for over a hundred years. Perhaps then it was before its time in many ways, yet is undoubtedly very out-of-date in others. Either way, it is worth exploring, as the true nature of the King in Yellow is yet to be discovered.

Originally from Thanet, J A DuMairier enjoys writing and long walks in the country.

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