The Hang Fire Books Blog

The rantings of a bookdealer in Brooklyn, New York.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Paperback Review: The King in Yellow

So it's been a long, long time since I last checked in. Between malaise, time consuming freelance gigs, and attention drift to lower maintenance social media (and subsequent exhaustion with those), I've barely been able to moderate the comment spam without being paralyzed by guilt.

My schedule has opened up though and--now that I have something to link promote with my spanky new ecommerce site:'s time to dip the toes back in.

I'm going to start slow and just try to read and review one vintage paperback every one to two weeks.

My first:

The King in Yellow

The King in Yellow is a collection of short fiction published in 1895 by Brooklyn-born writer, Robert W. Chambers. The first four stories ("The Repairer of Reputations", "The Mask", "In the Court of the Dragon", and "The Yellow Sign") are linked by the recurring appearance of a notorious, suppressed play entitled "The King in Yellow," the second act of which will drive an impressionable reader insane.

This fictional work plays a varying role in each of the four stories. In "The Repairer of Reputations," the narrator--after a brain-scrambling fall from a horse--works with a mutilated dwarf to bring about the Imperial Dynasty in America and the reign of the King in Yellow. In a later story, the book merely sits on a shelf and is noticed with a shudder. Each successive mention of the book adds to a sinister alternate history that forms the backdrop to this collection.

Robert W. Chambers, a bestselling author in his time, is today remembered primarily for his influence on H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft discussed Chambers in his Supernatural Horror in Literature, paid tribute to Chamber's use of the book within a book with his Necronomicon, and directly integrated The King in Yellow--and his lost cities of Hastur and Carcosa--into the Cthulhu mythos.

Chambers' influence also seems clear in the work of Daphne Du Maurier, particularly "Don't Look Now" and her time travel romance The House on the Strand.

Chambers' style, in the four linked stories, is vivid and evocative. His writing feels less dated than Lovecraft's though the stories do have somewhat trite and predictable outcomes (or perhaps they have since become horror cliches). I keep emphasizing the first four stories because the remaining tales in the collection have no real connection to The King in Yellow. Two stories--"The Demoiselle D'Ys," and "The Street of Four Winds" are passable supernatural tales but with excessively romantic endings. The remainder I struggled with, finally flipping ahead to see if they became interesting but that didn't seem to be the case.

Reading this left me with several questions that Google and Wikipedia don't want to answer. Maybe there's a Chambers aficionado out there who can help me out?

1.) Was this originally published in book form? I see the 1895 first edition but I don't see any reference to earlier serial publication. It seems a very peculiar structure for a work conceived as a book. I did find one web reference to the non-KIY related stories being being added later but it wasn't sourced.

2.) Was this book a bestseller? I know a number Chambers' later romances became bestsellers but not sure about KIY.

3.) Are there earlier occurences of books within books that are haunted or drive the reader insane? The only thing that comes to mind is Don Quixote but it took a whole library of books on chivalry to drive him mad (and most of the name-checked titles were real). I feel like there must be something in Kaidan Japanese ghost stories at least.

4.) Lastly, where did Chambers live in Brooklyn? I always like to check out dead author haunts.

The edition I read was an Ace paperback (M-132) from 1965 with a cover painting by Jack Gaughan (based on Chamber's own design for the first edition).

1 comment:

Velvet Android said...

Hi there – just read and enjoyed your review, and you raise a number of good questions at the end, most of which I can't begin to answer; the bizarre 'structuring' (if one can even use the word here) of the book rather beggars modern reasoning at least, if it were not some kind of publisher's trick to pad out a compilation of previously serialised tales, which isn't something I've heard. One thing I can suggest, though, is that there's a good discourse on the precursor texts that influenced The King In Yellow on The Yellow Site, the KIY wiki, which is a great site I discovered as a Yellow novice maybe a year ago (and have been helping to rewrite much of to make it clearer to fellow novices what the heck's going on). There's everything from Edgar Allen Poe to Oscar Wilde to Breton folk tales fed into Chambers' stories, it seems: see particularly the page 'The King In Yellow (The Book)'. Hope that's of help!