Well, OK, not that yellow sign.
Most of us have seen many yellow signs, but only one has elicited shudders since 1895, when Robert W. Chambers’s book The King in Yellow was published. It has become a classic among readers of weird fiction, and influenced H.P. Lovecraft and his literary successors.
I first read The King in Yellow more than 30 years ago, but lost touch with it after I inadvertently left my copy at the train station in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1984. Recently I acquired an ebook copy and proceeded to read all nine stories in short order.
I found that 99% of the book’s content had been expunged from my memory — all except for the words of the title and the phrase “the Yellow Sign,” along with a few other key words or phrases — the Pallid Mask, the Lake of Hali — and the name Cassilda. Also that the Yellow King’s garments were, for some mysterious reason, tattered. Everything else was as though brand new in my recent re-reading.
All the stories have these elements in common: the protagonists are young American artists, as Chambers was before he turned from art to writing. The locales in which the stories play out are New York City or Paris, with one tale set in Brittany. Descriptions of bohemian life (American style) in Paris are delicious — sights, sounds, smells, plants, flowers, clothing, birds and even insects, all are all rendered in detail and imbued with nostalgia. I think some of these stories, “The Street of our Lady of the Fields” and “Rue Barree” in particular, are thinly fictionalized reminiscences of youthful hijinks that seem charmingly quaint when read in our cynical times. However charming, these tales boil down to relationships between the young Americans and Parisian ‘working girls.’ Little perfumed notes about rendezvous at various cafes and clubs are mentioned, but the word ‘prostitute’ or any of its synonyms is never to be seen, and yet the point is made that the young ladies, however delightful, are not to be fallen in love with, for one could never contemplate presenting them to Mother back home.
An exception among the Parisian stories is one titled “The Street of the First Shell.” It paints a vivid and disturbing picture of life during the Siege of Paris in 1870-71. The characters are, as usual, young American artists, but they are shown dealing with starvation, betrayal, and the despair of a population pushed to its limits. It’s worth reading as an introduction to an episode in history that is not well known to many now.
The fifth story — a bridge between those that mention the King in Yellow and those about Americans in Paris — is called “The Demoiselle d’Ys.” It is a well-wrought tale, something between ghost story and fantasy, with a bonus of a lot of information about the art of falconry.
But what about the King in Yellow? Well, that reference is to be found in the first four stories — “The Repairer of Reputations,” “The Mask,” “In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign.”
“The Repairer of Reputations” is set in a weirdly dystopian New York City in 1920 (remember, the book was published in 1895). The protagonist is a seriously unreliable narrator, but it takes a while for that realization to emerge.
“The Mask” combines chemistry and art with something of the romanticism of the later stories. It would play beautifully as a graphic novel rendered in the Art Nouveau style of Aubrey Beardsley, an exact contemporary.
“In the Court of the Dragon” takes place in a church. Churches appear often in these stories, and Chambers has some of his protagonists reveal that they are Catholics. This story features a sinister organist who is a harbinger of doom to the narrator, who had been reading the forbidden play entitled The King in Yellow. He hopes the church will be a safe haven in which to recover, but that is not to be.
In “The Yellow Sign” we are once again in New York City. This time the artist protagonist is a man of experience, filled with regret about someone in Brittany by the name of Sylvia, but the story concerns his relationship with his young model, Tessie. It’s all quite innocent until the grotesque figure of a cemetery watchman appears. Things become really complicated when Tessie reads The King in Yellow.
The thing about all these stories is that the action is quite independent of the yellow-clad king and his world. Only at the very end of “In the Court of the Dragon” does the King emerge from the shadows and speak. In the other stories, “The King in Yellow” is a play, reputed to cause madness and terror in those who read it. Bits of text from the play introduce the stories, such as this from “The Repairer of Reputations”: 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.
So who is the King in Yellow? That is never explained. He is a representative of a world that is hinted at, that hovers unseen behind our world, that may break through and destroy those who read the dreadful play. This world and its inhabitants are utterly alien and unknown to us. Only in this do these stories resemble those of H.P. Lovecraft, whom they are thought to have influenced. Otherwise, Chambers’s stories are concerned with the thoughts and emotions of their human characters. The King — whose garments are said to have “scolloped tatters” — is somewhat reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Nylarlathotep or possibly Azathoth. The lack of descriptions of him — only a few fascinating details — is what gives these stories their weird power.
The King in Yellow is definitely worth a read, not only by those who are interested in early weird fiction, but by anyone who would enjoy a vicarious visit to Paris as it was in the 1880s or 1890s.