Book Review: The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers
My rating: 6 of 10 stars

This is a hard book to give a rating.

There are more things that made me wanna stop the book than to continue. But I stand firm and continue my path unfortunally the last two stories were too much for me. I read and skipped several paragraphs at time because it was too damn boring without any purpose or interest. But there are some cool stories.

First of all, if you would like to try reading Robert W Chambers start with the first four short stories/novellas. These are the beginning of Weird Fiction as later Lord Dunsany, HP Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Robert E Howard, Arthur Mchen or Clark Ashton Smith made it so popular.

That's no coincidence that HP Lovecraft used some elements in it's Mythos and he said about Robert Chambers:

"Very genuine, though not without the typical mannered extravagance of the eighteen-nineties, is the strain of horror in the early work of Robert W. Chambers, since renowned for products of a very different quality. The King in Yellow, a series of vaguely connected short stories having as a background a monstrous and suppressed book whose perusal brings fright, madness, and spectral tragedy, really achieves notable heights of cosmic fear in spite of uneven interest and a somewhat trivial and affected cultivation of the Gallic studio atmosphere made popular by Du Maurier’s Trilby. The most powerful of its tales, perhaps, is "The Yellow Sign," in which is introduced a silent and terrible churchyard watchman with a face like a puffy grave-worm's. A boy, describing a tussle he has had with this creature, shivers and sickens as he relates a certain detail. "Well, sir, it's Gawd's truth that when I 'it 'im 'e grabbed me wrists, sir, and when I twisted 'is soft, mushy fist one of 'is fingers come off in me 'and." An artist, who after seeing him has shared with another a strange dream of a nocturnal hearse, is shocked by the voice with which the watchman accosts him. The fellow emits a muttering sound that fills the head like thick oily smoke from a fat-rendering vat or an odour of noisome decay. What he mumbles is merely this: "Have you found the Yellow Sign?"
A weirdly hieroglyphed onyx talisman, picked up in the street by the sharer of his dream, is shortly given the artist; and after stumbling queerly upon the hellish and forbidden book of horrors the two learn, among other hideous things which no sane mortal should know, that this talisman is indeed the nameless Yellow Sign handed down from the accursed cult of Hastur—from primordial Carcosa, whereof the volume treats, and some nightmare memory of which seems to lurk latent and ominous at the back of all men's minds. Soon they hear the rumbling of the black-plumed hearse driven by the flabby and corpse-faced watchman. He enters the night-shrouded house in quest of the Yellow Sign, all bolts and bars rotting at his touch. And when the people rush in, drawn by a scream that no human throat could utter, they find three forms on the floor—two dead and one dying. One of the dead shapes is far gone in decay. It is the churchyard watchman, and the doctor exclaims, "That man must have been dead for months." It is worth observing that the author derives most of the names and allusions connected with his eldritch land of primal memory from the tales of Ambrose Bierce. Other early works of Mr. Chambers displaying the outrĂ© and macabre element are The Maker of Moons and In Search of the Unknown. One cannot help regretting that he did not further develop a vein in which he could so easily have become a recognised master."

In my opinion, the four first stories are excelent linked horror stories as Lovecraft said before. The rest are not that interesting nowadays. To me they are boring(with the exception of The Demoiselle d'Ys).

Imagine this to understand what I think of the stories.... A man is walking and finds a woman in a house where he talks with her. As the day/night advances he fell in love with her but it's late he got to get home and promise to return (At least five or six pages of talks/images and such). As he passes a church he talks to a priest and the priest says that there is no-one alive in that house. It existed a family there but they died "insert method of choice". The man frights himself and died. The end. In my experience this is the typical gothic story.

There are similar story arcs in epic fantasy. A boy (usually), orphan, is found by a powerful magician/knight/seer or such and says that he is destiny to save the world/country/woman from a powerful evil, that no-one can defeat. But this boy who had no training in magic/war turns to a warleader/best magician, and fights an undefeated evil lord/magician and lives to tell the tale, unscathed. He and his powerful, beautiful, amazing wife.

Oh well, I am getting sidetracked here.


So, the four stories are linked to a book called The King in Yellow (try imagining Necronomicon). There exists also a powerful evil entity and a terrible Yellow Sign. Two of the stories are in a nearby alternative future America (Circus 1920) and two other stories are set in Paris.

The first story "The Repairer of Reputations" Hildred, our main character in the first tale is one of the first attempts of an unnreliable narrator and as the story progress we get hints that he is delusional and had a broken mind. And this is what interests me, because the plot itself is not important. He thinks that he is the last Heir to the The Imperial Dynasty of America but his cousin is the way.

The main protagonist reads a book called The King In Yellow, which is represented as a universally censored play which deeply disturbs him. This supposedly book makes people going insane and noone can read from end to end. It's legal and exist the Government Lethal Chambers in each city, were people can commit suicide, after reading part of this play.

The second story The Mask is also connected to the first (the damned book and the land of Carcossa) and its straightforward with 10 pages. Maybe Yeovil Genevieve comes from this tale.

In the Court of the Dragon is a fast paced story about a man who has been followed by an church organ player. As he tries to escape through Paris he awakes in the church all began. Suddendly it seems, a dream upon a dream, he awakes in Carcossa dying... "And now I heard his voice, rising, swelling, thundering through the flaring light, and as I fell, the radiance increasing, increasing, poured over me in waves of flame. Then I sank into the depths, and I heard the King in Yellow whispering to my soul: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!"

The Yellow Sign is the last tale and what a tale it is. A tale about a painter and his muse. As the story progress we see the interaction between those two characters and a man by the churchyard that spooks them. As she gives him something she discovers (the Yellow sign) it seems that all come to light...

"I am sure I wished to do so, but Tessie pleaded with me in vain. Night fell and the hours dragged on, but still we murmured to each other of the King and the Pallid Mask, and midnight sounded from the misty spires in the fog-wrapped city. We spoke of Hastur and of Cassilda, while outside the fog rolled against the blank window-panes as the cloud waves roll and break on the shores of Hali. The house was very silent now and not a sound from the misty streets broke the silence. Tessie lay among the cushions, her face a gray blot in the gloom, but her hands were clasped in mine and I knew that she knew and read my thoughts as I read hers, for we had understood the mystery of the Hyades and the Phantom of Truth was laid.Then as we answered each other, swiftly, silently, thought on thought, the shadows stirred in the gloom about us, and far in the distant streets we heard a sound. Nearer and nearer it came, the dull crunching of wheels, nearer, nearer and yet nearer, and now, outside the door it ceased, and I dragged myself to the window and saw a black-plumed hearse. The gate below opened and shut, and I crept shaking to my door and bolted it, but I knew no bolts, no locks, could keep that creature out who was coming for the Yellow Sign. And now I heard him moving very softly along the hall. Now he was at the door, and the bolts rotted at his touch. Now he had entered. With eyes starting from my head I peered into the darkness, but when he came into the room I did not see him. It was only when I felt him envelop me in his cold soft grasp that I cried out and struggled with deadly fury,but my hands were useless and he tore the onyx clasp from my coat and struck me full in the face.Then,as I fell,I heard Tessie's soft cry and her spirit fled to God,and even while falling I longed to follow her,for I knew that the King in Yellow had opened his tattered mantle and there was only Christ to cry. I could tell more, but I cannot see what help it will be to the world. As for me I am past human help or hope. As I lie here, writing, careless even whether or not I die before I finish, I can see the doctor gathering up his powders and phials with a vague gesture to the good priest beside me, which I understand."

The four first stories are worthwhile but the rest are not that good. They are romantic stories with some supernatural/horror elements... IF you can call that horror. Since all these stories are free try reading them for yourselves. If you enjoy weird fiction, lovecraft and the rest of the gang try reading them. As I said, the book "Necronomicon" was based on "King of Yellow" no doubt about it.

Now an excerpt from it...
Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed it's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

He mentioned the establishment of the Dynasty in Carcosa, the lakes which connected Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades. He spoke of Cassilda and Camilla, and sounded the cloudy depths of Demhe, and the Lake of Hali. "The scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhtill forever," he muttered, but I do not believe Vance heard him. Then by degrees he led Vance along the ramifications of the Imperial family, to Uoht and Thale, from Naotalba and Phantom of Truth, to Aldones, and then tossing aside his manuscript and notes, he began the wonderful story of the Last King.

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