I read The King in Yellow, so you don’t have to.

Everybody is talking about the King in Yellow, because they are watching True Detective. I decided to read it – not to write about its influence on True Detective.

The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories written by a guy named Robert Chambers (not the Preppy Murderer of the same name), in 1885. A little research tells me that Chambers has the distinction of having been one of those rare classic writers who was actually successful during his lifetime. And he didn’t kill himself or die of Syphilis, or drink himself to death in a NYC pub or die with a needle in his arm. He didn’t suffer addiction to prop himself up under the weight of his own genius, nor did he spend his final days wandering around the streets of Baltimore prattling on like a lunatic.

I was reluctant to read this at first,  as “horror”, and worse, “turn of the century “weird” fiction” is not really my bag. But the introduction suggest that Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe were Chambers’ main influences – the Poe-Bierce-Chambers-Lovecraft continuum was good enough for me. Themes center around characters experiencing a rapid descent into lunacy, replete with disturbing visions of  unearthly things and dire real-world consequences of interacting with them. There’s so much lovely imagery coupled with the absolutely terrifying stories, that I was hooked. The stories are beautiful and creepy and macabre, with heavy use of ambiguities enhancing the dread. There are the weird, creepy names like Carcosa and Hastur, as well as strange terms like “twin suns” and “black stars,” and the fact that the color yellow is so blatantly ominous, with connotations of insanity, death, and decay.

In The Carcosa mythos, the central figure is a king in yellow tatters, “an alien god whose “scalloped tatters … must hide forever”, the talisman of the Yellow Sign, and the mind-corrupting second act of the play The King in Yellow (to read the play is to be exposed to the King and to fall under his influence, going mad in the meantime), which maintains that powerful sense of evocative imagery via haunting quotes from the play, as well as bizarre references to great monarchs and things from Carcosa — an otherworldly place whose name is taken from the work of Ambrose Bierce.

Chambers started his career as a painter (later becoming writer of “for profit” romance novels), then worked as a nature writer and  amateur naturalist. which all seem to have proved useful as a reflection of the times and for descriptives like these:

“A ray of moonlight silvered one edge of the old spinet, and the polished wood seemed to exhale the sounds as perfume floats above a box of sandalwood”


“…the splendid hues radiating on the surface and then the shaft of pure serene light broke through from seemingly infinite depths. Boris plunged in his hand and drew out an exquisite marble thing, blue-veined, rose-tinted, and glistening with opalescent drops.” You know, like fiction!

All the different elements – the never fully explained, the keeping the the reader pondering the possibilities themselves, the understated aura of foreboding, the practice of keeping you enthralled even if it generally takes the tales a little while to develop, have all been borrowed by so many writers  throughout the history of the genre. The “mind-shattering book” device was a favorite of H.P. Lovecraft, (Necronomican),and has been used over and over by other horror writers since then—and movies like The Ring. The Evil Dead, The Ninth Gate”, etc.
The King in Yellow is divided into two parts. The first part is composed of a series of weird and macabre tales, and the second is a handful of creepy Victorian romances. It derives its title from a fictional play of the same name that contains such mind-bending truths that the mere reading of it drives its readers to insanity. The tales are largely unconnected except for their references to this fictional play.  Chambers never divulges the whole text, but he does “quote” from excerpts.

The ten stories in the book are as follows:

The Repairer of Reputations

Dystopian science fiction set in a 1920s New York that never was. The ‘Repairer of Reputations’, is one Mr. Wilde, an absolutely odious and twisted –  but all-knowing – nut ball. Mr. Wilde is the size of a ten-year old child, and as a result of repeated attacks around the face by his vicious and malevolent cat, he is grossly disfigured, has artificial, wax ears, and no fingers on his left hand. Mr. Wilde seeks to be claimed as The Last King of The Imperial Dynasty of America. His cousin, Louis Castaigne, from whose point of view the story is told, stands in his way.

The story reveals, over time, that Hildred has both read The King in Yellow and suffered a nasty fall, both of which are, it is suggested, partially responsible for his delusions of grandeur and paranoia and his attempts to ensure his ascent to the throne.

The Mask


Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.

Stranger: Indeed?

Cassilda: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.

Stranger: I wear no mask.

Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

– The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene 2.

Yikes, right?? Three young friends, living in Paris; Alec, the narrator and a painter; Geneviève, Alec’s paramour; (Geneviève was lovely. The Madonna-like purity of her face might have been inspired by the Sanctus in Gounod’s Mass), and Boris Yvain, Geneviève’s actual partner, a sculptor. Boris has somehow discovered the means to create a mysterious liquid that turns items into pure marble representations of things –  goldfish, rabbits, themselves. I loved this story for its combo of creepiness and beautiful imagery.

“The room was built of rose-coloured marble excepting the floor, which was tessellated in rose and grey. In the centre was a square pool sunken below the surface of the floor; steps led down into it, sculptured pillars supported a frescoed ceiling. A delicious marble Cupid appeared to have just alighted on his pedestal at the upper end of the room.”

In a delirium, Alec recalls scenes and images from the King in Yellow, visions of stone-heavy white creatures,  crawling about in Boris’ basin, a wolf’s head on the rug, foaming and snapping at Geneviève, who lies smiling beside it. Egads.

” I thought, too, of the King in Yellow wrapped in the fantastic colours of his tattered mantle, and that bitter cry of Cassilda, “Not upon us, oh King, not upon us!””

“Feverishly I struggled to put it from me, but I saw the lake of Hali, thin and blank, without a ripple or wind to stir it, and I saw the towers of Carcosa behind the moon. Aldebaran, the Hyades, Alar, Hastur, glided through the cloud-rifts which fluttered and flapped as they passed like the scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow.”

The Court of The Dragon

An un-named man at the Church of St. Barnabé church in Paris reflects over The King in Yellow, which he is reading, only to be disturbed by the very scary organist. The organist (reminiscent of Carnival of the Souls), is a slender man, with a “face as white as his coat is black”. As the un-named man tries to escape, the terrible figure stalks him, from Rue de Rivoli, across the Place de la Concorde and  through he Champs Elysées, all the way to  a church at Rue du Dragon. Of course, the pursuer is an emissary of the Yellow King. In a final twist, the narrator is brought back to the world of The King with a terrible vision. Horror is sprinkled with things like “violets, and white Roman hyacinths in a golden cloud of mimosa.”

“Death and the awful abode of lost souls, whither my weakness long ago had sent him, had changed him for every other eye but mine. 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!”

Sweet dreams!

The Yellow Sign

This one I found very, very scary. Mr. Scott, the narrator, is a painter in Washington Square in New York. He dreams of a mysterious, black-plumed hearse and is obsessed with a loathsome man with a white, puffy face  who inhabits the steps of the church outside his apartment window. The man mutters to Mr. Scott as he passes by, which sends Mr. Scott into a rage. In bed, Mr. Scott is unable to get the sound of the odious man’s voice out of his head, that muttering sound, “like thick oily smoke from a fat-rendering vat or an odour of noisome decay”. The voice in his head gets more distinct, and he begins to be able to make out the words muttered. “They came to me slowly as if I had forgotten them, and at last I could make some sense out of the sounds. It was this”:

“Have you found the Yellow Sign? Have you found the Yellow Sign? Have you found the Yellow Sign?”

Jesus H.W. Christ. One day Mr.Scott notices, on his bookshelves, a copy of the King in Yellow and freaks out. He has never bought a copy of the King in Yellow! He swore to himself to never read it, and never hear any description of it, knowing of the awful tragedies it has brought about! He is dumfounded as to how the book could have come to be in his room. Before he can stop her, his model, Tessie has opened The King in Yellow.

They both start to go insane, uncontrollably talking about The King in Yellow, finally coming to realize that The King is coming for them, and and no matter how hard they fight they are powerless to stop him. Mr. Scott  drags himself to the window and sees the black-plumed hearse arriving…..

“I knew no bolts, no locks, could keep that creature out who was coming for the Yellow Sign.”

The Demoiselle D’Ys

A lovely time-traveling romance with things like “the silvery music of the hunting-horns” and “doublets of silvery grey homespun”. A modern day hunter,“ ‘Philip, a Stranger’, an American, lost on the moors of Brittany, finds shelter and love with the beautiful Demoiselle D’Ys (Jeanne), in the late 16th century. The reader realizes that her castle and those who live there are strangers to the world Philip recognizes.

In a romantic embrace with Jeanne, he feels something bite his leg, tearing a viper from his ankle and killing it. He feels the effects of the poison and falls to the ground. Through his slowly glazing eyes he sees Jeanne’s face bending close to his, as he passes out. When he awakes, Jeanne is gone.

“Jeanne, Jeanne,” I cried, but my voice died on my lips, and I fell on my knees among the weeds. And as God willed it, I, not knowing, had fallen kneeling before a crumbling shrine carved in stone for our Mother of Sorrows. I saw the sad face of the Virgin wrought in the cold stone. I saw the cross and thorns at her feet, and beneath it I read:


A.D. 1573.”

But upon the icy slab lay a woman’s glove still warm and fragrant.”

The Prophets’ Paradise

A collection of short prose pieces which, on first glance, might have nothing to do with the Carcosa Mythos, but which draw on certain themes that have been mentioned in previous tales. The names of the eight pieces that make up The Prophet’s Paradise are: The Studio, The Phantom, The Sacrifice, Destiny, The Throng, The Jester, The Green Room, The Love Test.  My favorite it The Green Room:

The Clown turned his powdered face to the mirror.

“If to be fair is to be beautiful,” he said, “who can compare with me in my white mask?”

“Who can compare with him in his white mask?” I asked of Death beside me.

“Who can compare with me?” said Death, “for I am paler still.”

“You are very beautiful,” sighed the Clown, turning his powdered face from the mirror.”

The Street of The Four Winds

I loved this insane story which has the hero talking to his cat the entire time. Written in the third person, this tale concerns an artist called Severn, who lives alone in Paris. We are introduced to him as he welcomes a scraggly white cat into his home, who he cares for and talks to. I particularly love how he asks the cat if he is a “Latin Quarter cat” as he is a “Latin Quarter man”. I love it so much, I love how the cat grooming herself is described as “finishing his toilet”.

He notices the cats wear a delicately embroidered, rose-coloured flowered garter fastened with a silver clasp, buckled about her neck, delicately embroidered, about her “famished throat” and realized the cat belongs to a woman, Sylvia, who lives in a poor Paris neighborhood and promises to return him to her.

He goes with the cat to the address and to her apartment. The room is dark and  vast,  hanging heavy with embroidery, a massive carved fireplace mantel covered in ash. The bed is  strewn with bedclothes, soft and fine as lace, trailing to the polished floor. He finds a faintly perfumed handkerchief, silk gowns and heap of delicate lace-like garments, flung, pell-mell into piles. Long, crumpled gloves, stockings, the little pointed shoes, and “one garter of rosy silk, quaintly flowered and fitted with a silver clasp.”

Wondering, he steps forward and draws the heavy curtains from the bed. His eyes meet two other eyes, wide open, smiling, and the candle-flame flashed over hair heavy as gold. he recognizes her as the SYlvia in his past/dreams. She is dead, and he kisses her on the mouth.

“And through the long watches of the night the cat purred on his knee, tightening and relaxing her padded claws, until the sky paled above the Street of the Four Winds.”

The Street of The First Shell

This story also has a Sylvia, and its name is suspiciously similar to the previous tale, and set once more in Paris. It features characters another Chamber’s book In the Quarter, but has less in common with the rest of the Yellow Mythos.

The Street of Our Lady of The Fields

The last of the stories in the ‘Street’ trilogy (although, as there is some character overlap, and a continuation of the street theme, Rue Barree could be included to make a quartet), and the first of two that concerns the romantic pursuits of art students in Paris. Little or no connection to the Yellow Mythos, although they could, conceivably, co-exist in the same Paris.

Rue Barree

As with this previous tale, this tale concerns art students in Paris, with no mention of The King in Yellow.

About kara

We know our letters just fine, and we know our numbers to a certain point, but books were always the realm of four-eyed poindexters with bowler hats and cravats. That’s why it pleases us so that America’s proud illiterates are finally stepping up and pushing back against the crushing tide of education that threatens to swallow us all into its gaping maw of checked facts. Champions of the Ignorantiat will not like it here.
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