If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing from the hearth and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa, where black stars hang in the heavens, where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali, and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth — a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow.
The unreliable narrator. What a great driver for a piece of fiction!
I’ve been thinking a lot about this because of extensive pondering of Robert Chambers’s story “The Repairer of Reputations” (quoted from above), especially after also reading (and looking at) I.N.J. Culbard’s graphic take on it. I think it’s the best story in the collection entitled The King in Yellow, first published in 1895. I recently rediscovered that book, and found (to my surprise) that Culbard’s graphic novel adaptation made this story a vivid and striking experience. Disturbing, too.
Here are the elements of the story:
A futuristic setting (1920), in which America is a militaristic, grandiose empire that has just repealed the law forbidding suicide, and has inaugurated the first Lethal Chamber in New York City.
The narrator is a young man (Hildred Castaigne) whose head injury four years earlier led to confinement in an asylum for the insane. He believes that to have been a mistake and intends to be revenged on Dr. Archer, whose error it was. He has read the notorious play called “The King in Yellow,” which is reputed to drive its readers (note, readers) insane.
A young cavalry officer (Louis Castaigne), who is Hildred’s cousin. He’s courting Constance Hawberk, the daughter of an armourer (with a singularly apt surname). Hildred frequents Hawberk’s shop, not because of Constance, but because he is delighted by the sound of hammer on metal and the scintillation of light that strikes it. He is also a friend of the eccentric who lives upstairs…
Mr. Wilde, short and grotesque, with a mutilated hand, wax ears and a streak of masochism he exercises by provoking his cat to attack him savagely. He is the Repairer of Reputations, a kind of blackmailer who supposedly employs hundreds of men to supply him with information. He is also the keeper of documents proving that Louis and Hildred are members of the Imperial Dynasty of America and heirs to its vacant throne. Hildred, whose injury changed him from a fun-loving man-about-town to a brooding scholar, has ambitions to displace his cousin and claim the throne. Both Hawberk and Louis believe Mr. Wilde to be insane (and have doubts about Hildred as well).
Things come to a head when Louis announces his impending marriage to Constance. Hildred sees this as an obstacle to his ambitions and asks Louis to renounce the throne and not marry. Louis agrees to renounce (clearly humouring his crazy cousin), but draws the line at not marrying. Things happen pretty fast after that, and end less than happily for Hildred, Mr. Wilde and his cat.
The whole thing gets weirder the longer I brood upon it, which is a point in its favour. Stories that end cleanly and neatly, with no unanswered questions, fade quickly from the memory. This one does not.
The real question is: How unreliable is this narrator? The story begins with an observation on life in 1920s America — except the book was published in the 1800s, so this is a futuristic projection. The Wikipedia article about this story suggests the action doesn’t take place in 1920 at all; that is part of Hildred’s delusions. Which leads one swiftly to the conclusion that the entire narrative is the ravings of a madman. Which flattens everything out and makes it — for me, anyway — less interesting. I prefer to toy with the idea that at least some of Hildred’s statements are true. The very strange Mr. Wilde knows where the missing bits of a famous suit of armour can be found. Mr. Hawberk is disturbed by Wilde’s declaration that he (Hawberk) is actually the Marquis of Avonshire. Hildred is totally aware that others look at him with tolerant pity — but he also knows he will be king.
Behind the onward-and-upward facade of a fascist America, something else is going on.
One interpretation might be that the shadowy, yellow-garbed King (whom emperors have served) is taking control of susceptible individuals (artists and the head-injured) as they read the perilous play, and eventually he will gain the ascendance. But given the outcome of this particular episode, it could take a while.
One thing every unreliable narrator needs is the sympathy of the reader. If the narrator is presented as completely deluded and evil, the reader regards him or her as “someone not like me” — the Other. It’s easy to give up on that person and leave them to their fate. But if the character snares the reader’s sympathy, even a little; if the reader involuntarily identifies with him, the situation instantly becomes complex and fascinating. So it is with the unfortunate Hildred Castaigne. If I think about him too much I might find myself writing a piece of fan fiction that turns into a series of novels. Oh, wait — I’ve already done that — with H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West.