The Short Version: Originally published in 1895, Robert Chambers’ unsettling collection of stories revolves around two themes: one, the shared experiences of Parisian artists… and the other, far more disturbing, the insidious existence of a mysterious play also called “The King in Yellow”…
The Review: Let’s get this out of the way: I’ve not yet watched True Detective. I know the season finale was last night – I’m looking forward to binge watching, perhaps, once life settles down a bit. But it was impossible not to hear about the references to a nearly-forgotten collection of short stories called The King in Yellow, a collection predating Lovecraft and directly influencing much of modern Weird fiction.
And half of this collection is in fact just that. It’s striking how modern and fluid those first stories are, despite having been written at the end of the 19th Century. There is something about the tone that just feels… it feels like these stories could easily have been written today, not as pastiche or homage but rather just as new stories. It’s also not the sort of thing where a modern author writes a book later described as “Dickensian” or “Twain-esque” – but rather just a striking sense of being on the same continuum today. The first stories in this collection as unsettling as anything Mssrs. Poe or King have written, staking Chambers solidly into a history that has seemingly not aged in the centuries that have elapsed. It is… uncanny, almost.
Mysteriously powerful texts are perhaps my favorite MacGuffin of all MacGuffins and “The King in Yellow” remains intensely mysterious to us throughout. We catch glimpses, but only ever from the first act – and it would seem, even in those more innocuous pages, to be a play of great terror. But the idea that its second act could utterly shatter a mind, cause it to understand things that no one should understand… how can you not feel drawn towards it? The forbidden fruit, the thing too terrible to realize – of course you want to read it. And the teases of the early stories, full of their own terror on top of the play’s, only urge you closer to wanting to know even as you shrink in fear from the open page.
It’s a remarkable achievement, really – to evoke so much emotion from so little. But, of course, less can indeed quite often be more. All four of the initial stories build up to heart-pounding denouements and often in the space of just a few pages. They can almost be too much to take.
Oddly enough, considering all the hubbub around the collection and around the legacy of “The King in Yellow”, there’s a whole back half of the collection that… doesn’t strike the same fear into a reader’s heart. There’s a delightful ghost story, a strange (and perhaps connected still to the earlier stories) set of prose-poems… and then a collection of four stories linked around Paris during the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s. Which is a war that I only just remembered, while reading – in fact, I thought for a while (not knowing that the book was published in the 1890s) that it was set during World War I, perhaps. The stories are full of the same breathless humanity as the Carcosa tales but there is nothing strange or unsettling about them. Instead, they are almost romantic – there is love, there is hope, there is fear, yes, but it is fear for each other. For friends, for the city. It is not the existential icy dread of things beyond our comprehension.
This duality in the collection came, I have to be honest, as a surprise. I just wasn’t prepared for it – and as a result, I set it down for a while and walked away in order to sort of clear my mind. Like any short story collection, it’s in fact better when served up in pieces. The early stories pack such a spooky-scary wallop that if you don’t cleanse your palate a little, you may find yourself (as I did) wondering why this story is happening, what happened to the scary, why are they just being romantic during a siege in Paris? And it’s a shame to expect something that was never going to be delivered, especially when the writing still soars just as deftly as it did in the beginning – it’s just being deployed to radically different ends.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Despite having enjoyed the final suite of stories and being consistently delighted with Chambers’ style, I have to say that I found myself wanting the collection to continue down the eerie path. I wanted to see more tales of horror and confusion surrounding that mysterious play – I wanted to examine the darkness further. Instead, the collection goes out on a more uplifting human note. If you’re forewarned, perhaps you’ll then be able to enjoy both halves of the collection as they deserve – but I was surprised and, as such, the first half weighs far more engaging on my scales.
(I should note – I was lucky enough to nab a copy of the new edition of these tales from CCLaP in Chicago. It’s the first in their Victoriana series, where they’ll be publishing new and spiffy reissues of nearly-forgotten tales of that era. Obviously the timing is right for this one – and it’s nice to see someone delivering a copy that looks as engaging as the stories contained within.)