The King in Yellow is a book of short stories by American writer Robert W. Chambers, first published by F. Tennyson Neely in 1895. The book is named after a play with the same title which recurs as a motif through some of the stories. The first half of the book features highly esteemed weird stories, and the book has been described by critics such as E. F. Bleiler, S. T. Joshi and T. E. D. Klein as a classic in the field of the supernatural. There are ten stories, the first four of which (“The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, “In the Court of the Dragon”, and “The Yellow Sign”) mention The King in Yellow, a forbidden play which induces despair or madness in those who read it.
I recently borrowed an audio book of The King in Yellow (support your local library!) as part of my Halloween reading list. I’d heard so much about it, and how it inspired many other works of horror I enjoy. I felt like Halloween season was the right time to check it out.
Unfortunately, I have mixed feelings about it.
I’ve never read (or listened to) a book that I was so conflicted about. I’m a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft and early weird fiction from the turn of the 20th century. I also enjoy hoity-toity literature with complex prose, so The King in Yellow should be right up my alley.
Here’s the thing: I loved the first half of the book. It was great! The stories weave semi-related tales of dread and supernatural menace, interspersing lines from the frightening play that is the common thread between them.
The second half of the book is what lost me. Chambers totally changes gears and spins tales about bourgeoisie life in wartime France. This portion of the book supposedly “evokes thematic feelings of dread”, but if they are in there, I couldn’t find them. There are few if any references to the King, and a thematic shift from horror to romance and longing. I kept waiting for something to tie the second half back to the first, but it never happened (the ending arguably has a call back to the first story, but its weak). The prose and language remains excellent, but begins to ramble and turn purple, eschewing story-telling for overly dramatic description. I was disappointed since I enjoyed the first half so much.
Can I recommend this book? Sort of.
If you’re a fan of “cosmic horror” (H.P. Lovecraft, Weird Tales) or video games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls then the first half of The King in Yellow is in your wheelhouse. “The Repairer of Reputations” up through “The Yellow Sign” along with “The Prophet’s Paradise” are must reads. Everything else can be ignored, especially the final three installments that begin with “The Street of the First Shell”. Fortunately, the nature of the book (short stories) allows it to be consumed this way.
I can see how portions of Chambers’ work inspired so many future writers and artists. The King in Yellow was certainly a groundbreaking work for its time, and portions of it still hold up today.
WHAT I LIKED:
- Initial quartet of stories are excellent works of classic horror
- Fanciful, engaging prose
- Themes of madness and existential dread
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:
- Inconsistent themes in latter half of book
- Latter stories are just American bohemians bemoaning their upper-middle class lifestyle while in Paris. Extremely boring.