The King in Yellow (short stories) by Robert W. Chalmers

Oh the sin of writing such words,—words which are clear as crystal, limpid and musical as bubbling springs, words which sparkle and glow like the poisoned diamonds of the Medicis! Oh the wickedness, the hopeless damnation of a soul who could fascinate and paralyze human creatures with such words,—words understood by the ignorant and wise alike, words which are more precious than jewels, more soothing than music, more awful than death!

– from ‘The Yellow Sign’

Thanks to references on True Detective, this eerie short story collection has experienced a surge in popularity over the last few weeks. And while the HBO series has created much debate over its own literary merit, it has certainly done its viewers a favour by introducing them to The King in Yellow. I’m something of a visitor to the horror-story genre – in high school I was a sucker for R.L. Stine, but that’s about as far as my interest in bookish murder and mayhem went. So reading Chalmers’ stories was a completely new experience, and one that left me with a much greater respect for the chilling power of words. The King in Yellow is the sort of horror that hits you in a deep and lingering place. Not with blood and guts, but with a dread of more abstract – and also more inescapable – terrors.

The King in Yellow was first published in 1895, but its influence has continued well into the twenty-first century, inspiring writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Nic Pizzolatto (creator of True Detective). The collection includes ten stories, though only the first four (‘The Repairer of Reputations’, ‘The Mask’, ‘In the Court of the Dragon’, and ‘The Yellow Sign’) directly reference the Yellow King. The second half of the collection is far less sinister, and seems linked to the first through setting (Paris) and character type (artists), rather than theme. Dividing the first and second halves of the collection is a group of poems of an ambiguous and unsettling nature. These poems seem to mark the shift from deep, existential horror to something a little softer – a gradual lightening of mood, like a slow ascent from insanity to sanity.

The first four stories are preoccupied with The King in Yellow – a fictional play that (upon being read) drives people mad. We are presented with bits and pieces of the play – mentions of a lost city called Carcosa where there are black stars, twin suns, and strange moons; a sinister character known as the Stranger (who may or may not also be the ‘tattered’ Yellow King); and a second Act that is apparently too terrible to be described. The fact that we are not privy to the whole play is clever writing on Chalmers’ part – he leaves it up to our own imaginations to join the creepy dots, resulting in a horror that is personal and unique to each of us, and thus infinitely scarier. Objectively, however, the fear and madness that The King in Yellow unleashes seems to be of an existential nature. It is a book of “beautiful, stupendous creation”, one character notes, “terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth”. The horror of The King in Yellow is not unnatural – perhaps it is the realisation of brutal yet universal truths that the human mind is incapable of handling. The true immensity of the universe (and our own insignificance by comparison); or the absolute inevitability of age and death. There is something of the Sublime about the way Chalmers’ characters react to reading The King in Yellow – a feeling of terror and awe that is reflective of Shelley’s poem ‘Mont Blanc’ (“Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom/ – now lending splendour”). Chalmers’ characters, however, are not able to find salvation in the beauty of the truth they are confronted with. Instead, they are destroyed by it.

Aside from the inclusion of the sinister play, Chalmers uses a variety of other devices to create an uneasy tone in these stories. His writing is beautifully simple, and he uses metaphor sparely but perfectly:

For those poisoned words had dropped slowly into my heart, as death-sweat drops upon a bed-sheet and is absorbed.

There are also a number of eerie connections between the stories, creating the sense that these terrifying encounters are not subjective but are part of a larger, horrible world. Chalmers makes deft use of first person narration, drawing the reader deep into the psyche of his tormented characters. He creates characters that are truly creepy in appearance, as well – a watchman who resembles a coffin-worm, a devilish organist with “a thin bent arm” reminiscent of “instruments which lie in the disused torture-chambers of mediaeval castles”. And finally, the writer draws careful parallels between the greater thematic horror (embodied in the awful play) and the individual turmoil in each character’s life. From ‘The Mask’:

The mask of self-deception was no longer a mask for me, it was a part of me. Night lifted it, laying bare the stifled truth below; but there was no one to see except myself, and when the day broke the mask fell back again of its own accord.

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!”

I finished this collection fascinated, haunted, and vaguely mystified. I suspect these stories will stay with me, and that over time their dots will begin to connect until I’m faced with my own truth about The King in Yellow. A slightly unnerving thought…

You can read the full text of The King in Yellow at Project Gutenberg. Read more about True Detective’s use of the stories here.

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