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The King in Yellow Hardcover – 23 Mar 2012
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'Altogether one of the greatest weird tales ever written' --H.P. Lovecraft
About the Author
Robert William Chambers (1865 - 1933) was an American artist and fiction writer, best known for his book of short stories entitled The King in Yellow, published in 1895. Chambers later turned to writing romantic fiction to earn a living. According to some estimates, Chambers had one of the most successful literary careers of his period, his later novels selling well and a handful achieving best-seller status. Many of his works were also serialized in magazines. --Wikipedia
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Fans of H P Lovecraft will find something to love but general or literary readers will likely be disappointed. My initial excitement faded and I got bored. Most of the stories have an unconvincing 'whiplash' ending and the overarching theme is weak. It doesn't develop the mystery of The King in Yellow: the fictional book at the seat of the collection. It just repeats the book's side effects on the stories' protagonists. I found this trying.
Chambers is skilled at showing his characters' declining mental states, and he can paint a vivid scene, but he's not great on plot or pace. I wanted to fall in love with this book. I didn't. Maybe you will. It's all a matter of taste.
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 disturbing 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.
And one of the most tantalizing bringers of horror and madness is "The King in Yellow," a collection of Robert Chambers' short stories that are loosely tied together by a mysterious play of exquisite horror. The horror stories compiled here are some of the best classic horror that can be found, full of the tattered decay of the unseen and the spellbinding magic that mere words can only hint at... and the problem is that the second half of the collection is just not as interesting.
The first four stories are all tied together by "The King In Yellow," a play whose story and characters are never really explored beyond a few snatches of song and some descriptions of the world where it takes place ("... twin suns sink into the lake of Hali... I saw the towers of Carcosa behind the moon"). It speaks of horrors ("the Pallid Mask") that are hinted at more than explained, and the mysterious King In Yellow, a mysterious personage in "scolloped tatters." And it is written with exquisite beauty and horror -- one character laments: "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!"
The brilliance of this conceit is that Chambers leaves almost everything to the reader's imagination. He plants a few hauntingly beautiful, unnerving images in the reader's mind ("Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens"), and lets us imagine something so exquisite yet nightmarish that it could drive someone mad.
These four stories include:
*When young Hildred Castaigne is recovering from a severe head injury, he reads "The King In Yellow." As his sanity spirals out of control, he encounters a similarly crazy "Repairer of Reputations," and begins to believe he is the last scion of the Imperial Dynasty of America.
*Alec visits his old friend Boris (who is married to the woman Alec loves), who has discovered a mysterious liquid that can turn anything organic into a beautiful marble.
*A religious young man is pursued by a mysterious stalker, and haunted by the horrors he has seen in "The King In Yellow."
*An artist struggles with his affections for his lovely model and the pursuit of a grotesque watchman, only for the infamous play -- which he has on his bookshelf for some reason -- to seep into their minds and poison them.
These stories are absolute perfection, both horrifying and lyrically exquisite, especially since merely reading it can cause reactions from nightmares and illness to outright craziness (down to declaring oneself to be king of America). The problem is... well, the remaining stories do not have that quality. They're still good and often beautifully written ("The name of Sylvia troubles me like perfume from dead flowers"), but after Chambers horrified and mesmerized us, it's kind of a letdown to encounter stories that don't really do either.
These stories include a guy who falls in love with a beautiful young Breton noblewoman, little realizing why their love is impossible; a series of interconnected drabbles with personified abstracts like Love and Truth; an artist has some conversations with a scrawny cat, and eventually tries to take her back to her mistress, Sylvia Elven; a tale in the Franco-Prussian War, where an artist's life is wrecked by the impending German attack; and a pair of romances among young artists in Paris.
Chambers' writing is still sublimely lovely in these stories, and they do have some overarching themes that run through almost every story -- many of the protagonists are artists or close to artists, and there is a lot of yellow, a lot of flowers, and some names that keep recurring in different places (Sylvia, Hastur). But somehow the last two romantic stories just fall kind of flat, especially when death and horror aren't brought into them -- the prose is pretty, but a little too commonplace ("Her face was expressionless, yet the lips at times trembled almost imperceptibly").
Eerie, beautiful and ghastly, "The King In Yellow" collects stories that hint at beauty and horrors that the human mind can't even grasp -- and if he had filled the entire book with these, it would have been perfection. As it is, the first half is sublime, the second is merely okay.
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