The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 6: THE KING IN YELLOW by Robert W. Chambers

Just for the record, I’ve known about this book for a long time.  I say that as a snobbish attempt to make readers believe that I was not inspired to read The King in Yellow by its recent surge to prominence via True Detective, which I haven’t seen but would like to.  As a matter of fact, I almost bought this book in 2009 or 2010 at a used book sale in Brooklyn.  Had I done that, I might have a better shot at convincing people my interest in Chambers’ puzzling little volume had nothing to do with True Detective since that show did not exist till 2014!  Truth be told, while I have indeed known about The King in Yellow and its influence on weird fiction since I was a teenager, I probably wouldn’t have read it recently were it not for True Detective.  Yes, I jumped on a current trend.  Happy now?

In any event, I have read the book and, frankly, I found little in it.  As a matter of fact, I think that much of its influence is more of a testament to the creativity of the influenced than it is a credit to Mr. Chambers.  H. P. Lovecraft may have been inspired by aspects of The King in Yellow but only in the sense that Shakespeare drew fire from Arthur Brooke.  Intriguingly, the mythological elements of The King in Yellow that have captivated many do not even originate with Chambers.  He borrowed them from the great Ambrose Bierce.  Of the three Bierce stories Chambers used, I’ve only read “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.”  It is of a stature Chambers never even comes close to scaling.  Also, horror fans should be aware that only the first half this book is part of that genre.

To be fair, there is good stuff in The King in Yellow.  The first four stories (which are firmly connected to each other despite being stand-alone narratives) are worth reading.  “The Repairer of Reputations” and, especially, “The Yellow Sign” are the most famous.  They’re quite good but I preferred the beautiful creepiness of “The Mask” and the mysterious mounting dread of “In the Court of the Dragon.”  (That last story is probably my favorite in the book.  Curiously, the prestigious weird fiction scholar S. T. Joshi never mentions it in his comprehensive introduction to the Barnes & Noble edition I read.  Otherwise, Joshi’s introduction is great and quite enlightening, although I often felt he was straining to endow Chambers with significance.)  Still, while these stories are decent, I would class them as solid “Bs” of horror fiction, nothing more.  And after the first four, things are hit and miss, with an emphasis on miss.  “The Demoiselle D’Ys,” which is loosely related to the earlier tales, is a romantic ghost story.  It’s charming in some ways, but is damaged by being several pages too long, something Chambers clearly had a serious problem with.  “The Prophet’s Paradise” is a collection of unremarkable prose poems.  My interest perked up with “The Street of the Four Winds,” a (refreshingly short) love story containing a startlingly grim twist.  Unfortunately, I then had to plow through “The Street of the First Shell,” “The Street of Our Lady of the Fields,” and “Rue Barree.”  All three are romances, and “The Street of the First Shell” doubles as a war story.  I like to be a charitable reviewer, but I found these three pieces to be dull, hackneyed, and agonizingly long.

The King in Yellow has many attributes that should have captivated me.  Chambers provides a decadent, fin de siecle atmosphere.  Also, much of the book is fragmented but with some of the parts connected to each other.  However, while I love these things, I only love them when they’re done well.  Chambers sometimes does them passably.  The rest of the time he does average or worse.  Bottom line, The King in Yellow is worth it for horror fans, mainly because of its historically important borrowings from Bierce and influence on Lovecraft and others.  The book itself might strike another reader’s fancy more than it did mine.  But I’m sticking with Bierce and Lovecraft.  Especially Lovecraft.


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