Robert W. Chambers' "The King in Yellow" is a book within a book. Or, more properly, it's a collection of macabre short stories with a common theme; a fictional two-act play that brings decadence, hallucinations, and madness to any reader.
The stories within this collection, published in 1895, are set in a fictional militaristic 1920s in both the USA and Europe. The tales stand free of each other, and are told from a number of different perspectives, by socialites, soldiers, and artists. Each tells how the lives of the narrator and colleagues have been affected by reading "The King in Yellow", a controversial play that has been denounced by the church and suppressed by governments. After coming into contact with it, their lives are tragically affected. Some find themselves hounded by shadowy agents, while others become confused and delusional. Others are driven to act out the play's sad and decadent events, while some simply go insane.
The substance of the play itself is only alluded to, or hinted at in brief extracts. It is clearly a tragedy, but the motivations and actions of its central characters, including the mysterious King in Yellow himself, are not clear. Like many authors of macabre tales, Chambers was content for our imaginations to do the work, and this book is more powerful for it.
(And by the way, if the central theme of a forbidden book that induces insanity is familiar to you, you've probably read some of the Mythos tales of H.P.Lovecraft. In fact, I doubt that too many people come to read "The King in Yellow" by any other route; Chambers' book is clearly stated as a strong influence on Lovecraft's work.)
To be honest, I was shocked to find myself reading a book that was over a HUNDRED years old, an activity I had assumed was reserved for crusty academics and lovers of classical literature. But, more pointedly, I was surprised to find that "The King in Yellow" is a highly readable volume, full of entertaining, colourful and disturbi! ng tales with a very modern feel to them.
The only downside I found was that the final few stories lose the central theme. I found myself wondering if these thinner, romantic tales, were more representative of Chambers' other work, and were, in effect, "fillers". But perhaps I missed the point? It is only this that stops me from awarding five stars to this impressive book.
Overall, if you've had a bellyful of today's crop of relentless gore and explicit sexuality, take a literary Alka Seltzer by checking out the "King in Yellow".
It's a classic, and I'm not talking Jane Austen.