The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The King in Yellow (1895)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The King in Yellow was written by Robert W. Chambers. Chambers (1865-1933) was a popular writer during his heyday, best-known at the time for his romance and historical novels, but he is remembered today only for his fantasy and horror stories, most notably those included in The King in Yellow.
Chambers’ The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories, four of which are about a fictional play, The King in Yellow, which drives those who read it insane and which has a calamitous effect on modern culture. The play is described this way by one of those who read it:
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. When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well-known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.1
Chambers wisely quotes from the play only sparingly, leaving its horrific effect mostly to the reader’s imagination. The two most distinctive quotes are these:
Along the shore the cloud waves break
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thus, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
CAMILLA: You, sir, should unmask.
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!3
That last passage is deliberately resonant with Poe's “Masque of the Red Death,” but Chambers’ work is no lift from Poe. Most of Chambers’ stories are written in the brisk style of the better commercial stories of the 1890s, a style which holds up well today, and it is this style as much as anything which makes the horror of his stories so effective. The horror stories in The King in Yellow have a Decadent, fin-de-siècle sensibility, and the play, The King in Yellow, is portrayed as a more horrific version of Joris Karl Huysmans’ A rebours (see: The Picture of Dorian Gray), but Chambers’ style differs from that of most of the Decadent writers. In a couple of the stories Chambers does use a vivid and impressionistic style, but generally he underplays the horror where the Decadent writers (see: The Lay of Maldoror) overwrite, and to much better effect.
There is an obvious influence of Ambrose Bierce, beginning with the names and mythology taken from “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” But as E.F. Bleiler writes,
There are also obvious differences between Bierce’s work and Chambers’s. The stories of The King in Yellow lack Bierce’s tortuous craftsmanship and narrative complexity; they are more conventional in patterns. They have recognizable heroes and heroines, and what happens has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Gone, too, is Bierce’s icy, macabre irony. Instead there are undercurrents of direct terror and (probably in compensation) oversweetness.
Chambers also wrote from an aesthetic of the supernatural that was quite different from Bierce’s. For Bierce the supernatural had meaning of a sort, not in the literal terms of his stories, but in their psychological equivalents. The ideas within his stories were for him ideas of power that had motivated or wrecked much of his life. For Chambers, on the other hand, there is no evidence that the horrors he wrote about were personal in any profound way.4
Chambers was influential on the generation of American horror writers who followed him, especially those who wrote for the pulp Weird Tales during the 1920s and 1930s. H.P. Lovecraft, who is the foremost writer of the Weird Tales group of writers and who freely acknowledged how influential Chambers’ work was on him, wrote that The King in Yellow “really achieves notable heights of cosmic fear.”5 Chambers' style interestingly contrasts with Lovecraft's. Both deliver a sense of mounting dread, but Chambers goes for understatement where Lovecraft, like the Decadents, overstated matters, and the former, in cases like this, is more effective than the latter. This understated effectiveness, different from Bierce’s chilling sardonicism, was compelling to the authors who read it—who were, in Bleiler’s words, “all the major writers in the emergence period of the pulp story.”6 Those authors may not have imitated Chambers’ style—Lovecraft and his followers certainly didn’t—but “motives were lifted from it, story lines imitated and rechanneled, and, most of all, the new concepts of metaphysical-physical horror were taken over by a host of writers who were tired of stock ghosts, weary of occult phenomena, and unconcerned with mysticism of psychological probing.”7
One aspect of The King in Yellow that receives perhaps insufficient critical attention is Chambers’ resolution of the Future War trope. In The King in Yellow, the Future War has come and gone with a complete American victory:
The war with Germany, incident on that country’s seizure of the Samoan Islands, had left no visible scars upon the republic, and the temporary occupation of Norfolk by the invading army had been forgotten in the joy over repeated naval victories and the subsequent ridiculous plight of General Von Gartenlaube’s forces in the State of New Jersey…the country was in a superb state of defence. Every coast city had been well supplied with land fortifications; the army, under the parental eye of the General Staff, organized according to the Prussian system, had been increased to 300,000 men with a territorial reserve of a million; and six magnificent squadrons of cruisers and battle-ships patrolled the six stations of the navigable seas….8
1895, when The King in Yellow was published, was still the heyday of the American Future War story. For the American reader, the Future War story began appearing in 1880 and did not decrease in frequency of popularity until 1917, when the United States entered World War One.9 But Chambers, though capitalizing on the contemporary American friction with Germany regarding Samoa,10 did not condescend to tell the usual type of Future War story, with its depressive warning to the US of American physical and military unfitness for the coming conflict. Chambers instead indulged in a bit of American jingoism--the backdrop of The King in Yellow is Pax Americana, with America triumphant and gleaming, and Europe in torment: “the United States had to look on in helpless sorrow as Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium writhed in the throes of Anarchy, while Russia, watching from the Caucasus, stooped and bound them one by one.”11 Not only did Chambers tell a Future War story in which Germany rather than the usual suspects of American Future Wars—China, Spain, Britain, Japan, and Russia12--invaded the United States, Chambers told a Future War with a happy ending, something unusual in the genre. (In a jarring antisemitic moment Chambers specifies that “foreign-born Jews” had been excluded “as a measure of national self-preservation.”13)
The King in Yellow was popular enough that Chambers was encouraged to become a full-time writer by its success. Yet The King in Yellow—taken in full and not just in the first five stories of fantastika in the collection—runs counter to the national mood at the time it appeared. In the 1890s what Larzer Ziff calls the “wholesale commercialization of life” had forced literature, like the rest of culture, to take part in
the business of beauty; the business of idealizing daily actualities to make the American scene one with the court of Arthur and the Palestine of Jesus; the business of adding “est” to verbs in poetry so as to render American speech poetic; the business of elevating the American landscape to a distinction equal to that of the Alps and the Nile—the business of decoration.14
But as Scott Emmert notes in writing of all the stories in The King in Yellow, Chambers, like Bierce, subverts these “cherished national ideologies…the stories in The King in Yellow exploit the fear that America may not be a land of progress, that its past was not glorious and that its future may not be an improvement on the present.”15
The King in Yellow’s cursed play, The King in Yellow, provided horror literature with the first concrete use of what would later become a somewhat common trope: the deadly book which curses those unfortunate enough to read it. Traditionally there were “cursed” grimoires and tomes whose contents (whether simple mathematics or guides to Judaism or Islam) were judged deadly to Christians, but the modern trope of the cursed book in horror fiction begins with The King in Yellow. Chambers was not the source of the trope. Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebours (1884) was widely seen, in the 1880s, as a scandalous work, and in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) À rebours is the “poisonous book”16 which warps Dorian Gray’s mind—and Chambers was well aware of both À rebours and The Picture of Dorian Gray. But it was The King in Yellow which was primarily influential on later horror writers rather than The Picture of Dorian Gray, and later writers from H.P. Lovecraft (with his Necronomicon) to Margaret Irwin (with “The Book,” 1930) to G.K. Chesterton (with his Father Brown mystery “The Blast of the Book,” 1933) all took the notion of the cursed book from Chambers and The King in Yellow.
Lastly, there is the question of the influence of The King in Yellow on the concept of cosmic horror, the notion that true reality is so terrifying that the human brain cannot process it without going mad, and that what humans perceive as reality is a delusion and/or our mental defense mechanisms at work. (See: “The Great God Pan”). As Brian Stableford ably notes, the roots of cosmic horror lie in the origin of the sublime, both in its origin, in first century C.E., in a lost work by Cecilius,17 and in Edmund Burke’s expansion on it in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Cosmic horror evolved through Romanticism, which “was fertile ground for the development of a kind of cosmic horror that was not merely supernatural but possessed of a newly exaggerated sensation of sublimity in its attitude—a sublimity that derives from, although it is not usually explicitly associated with, the imagery of the new cosmos of post-Newtonian science.”18 It appeared in certain of the Gothics—Stableford singles out Vathek and Frankenstein—and then began to appear in multiple locations in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) to Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) to Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (1862).19 In the post-Gothics genre of horror fiction, cosmic horror can be seen in Theophile Gautier’s “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” (1838), in James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1845-1847), and in Clemence Housman’s “The Were-Wolf” (1890-1891). Cosmic horror in twentieth-century horror fiction is usually confused with the brand promulgated by H.P. Lovecraft, but the lineage of modern cosmic horror begins with Machen, in “The Great God Pan,” and runs through The King in Yellow to Lovecraft.
The King in Yellow is surprisingly fresh reading, despite its age, and is historically significant as horror and as a document of its decade.
Print: Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004.
1 Robert W. Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations,” in The King in Yellow (New York: F. Tennyson Neely, 1895), 13-14.
2 Robert W. Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations,” 8.
3 Robert W. Chambers, “The Mask,” in in The King in Yellow (New York: F. Tennyson Neely, 1895), 57.
4 E.F, Bleiler, “Introduction,” in The King in Yellow (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), x.
5 H.P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” in H.P. Lovecraft and Leverett Butts, H.P. Lovecraft: Selected Works, Critical Perspectives and Interviews on his Influence (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018), 192.
6 Bleiler, “Introduction,” xi.
7 Bleiler, “Introduction,” xi.
8 Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations,” 10.
9 Franklin, War Stars, 20.
10 Briefly: in the 1880s competing claims to the island of Samoa by Germany, the United States, and Great Britain and support for separate warring parties in the 1880s First Samoan Civil War led to a naval stand-off and near war in March 1889, interrupted only by a hurricane damaging the warships. The Second Samoan Civil War came to a head in March 1899 with a similar stand-off, which was finally resolved by treaty between Germany, US, and Great Britain.
11 Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations,” 11.
12 Franklin, War Stars, 21.
13 Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations,” 10-11.
14 Larzer Ziff, The American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation (New York: Viking Press, 1966), 14.
15 Scott Emmert, “A Jaundiced View of America: Robert W. Chambers and The King in Yellow,” Journal of American Culture 22, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 40.
16 Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Dorian Gray (New York: A.R. Keller, 1907), 230.
17 Brian Stableford, “Cosmic Horror,” in S.T. Joshi, ed, Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: An Encyclopedia of our Worst Nightmares (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 67.
18 Stableford, “Cosmic Horror,” 69-70.
19 Stableford, “Cosmic Horror,” 72 ff.