The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

the kingThe best parts of this book are about the king– the King in Yellow!

The worst parts of this book are everything else. Which is, unfortunately, most of it.

The lead story is a solid piece of weird horror-sci fi*. In the near future of 1920 — the book was written in 1895 — New York City celebrates the inception of its first Lethal Chamber, a little piece of political futura legalizing and enabling suicide, in part because it is ‘believed that the community will be benefited by the removal of such people from their midst’. It is implied that suicides have greatly increased in the intervening years due to the promulgation of a mysterious book, the eponymous play — The King in Yellow. Banned in theocratic and secular states alike, reading the play generally leads to misery, self harm, insanity, and worse.

In fact, our protagonist, Hildred, has just been released from incarceration from an asylum following his reading of the The King in Yellow. His release is questionable as he is clearly quite mad and the story relates his ascension to the crown of King. The result is frightfully bizarre, though quaint in its antiquity. A collection full of stories such as these would have been welcome. The following three tales relate to the King at least in part and vary in quality. They offer epigraphs from the real-fictional play itself.

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!
THE KING IN YELLOW: Act 1-Scene 2.d

See? Delightful and creepy in an old fashioned, gothic aspect.

But following the King stories are some middling supernatural tales followed by a nosedive into poor-grade literary fiction. I’m thrilled by the idea of a writer oscillating between pulpy genre fic and realist pieces, but this is dreck. The lengthy, penultimate story’s plot revolves around a troupe of free spirited Parisian artists being joined by a pure and innocent religious boy. A loose woman then finds she can go from impure to pure via our little man of God (and love — real chaste love, not that smoky pre-marital sex kind!!). You’d maybe think this could be fascinating as an artifact of the fiction of yesteryear. Moldy and archaic like an archeology dig.

It’s an interminable slog. I was two pages into the final story, which revealed itself to be much of the same, even so far as sharing some of the same cast, when I closed the book for good.

*I picked this book up because I knew that, in part, it inspired the plot of the HBO series True Detective. I wanted to read it before I watched the show. I would guess that it is merely the overarching idea of the The King (a book that drives people crazy) and bits of pieces of the first story that influence the show. While still very cool that an obscure, old cult favorite resurfaced over a hundred years post publication in a major television series, it’s still a bit disappointing. Maybe I’ll change my tune after I watch the show.

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