Ripples from Yellow

I’m not sure when I realized The King in Yellow was a real book.  I first became aware of the title from references in the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries.  Since The King in Yellow was often mentioned in company with the Necronomicon and other fictional works (as opposed to “works of fiction”) that contained between their pages Dark Secrets, the Merest Knowledge of Which Would Drive the Reader Insane,  for many years I thought The King in Yellow wasn’t a “real” book.

King in Yellow and Friend

King in Yellow and Friend

Eventually, I learned that I was both right and wrong.  The King in Yellow  is both the title of a purely fictional play (the Merest Glimpse of Which – especially the events in the second act – Will Drive a Reader Insane) and the title of a short story collection by Robert W. Chambers.  Chambers used the play as an element around which he developed various stories, much as Lovecraft would later use the Necronomicon.

In honor of Halloween, I decided that I would finally read The King in Yellow.   When I started the first story, “The Repairer of Reputations,”  it seemed that the author had gotten his history twisted around.  First, I noticed that the name of the President of the U.S. didn’t match any in my memory, but that’s a fairly typical device in contemporary fiction of any era.  Winthrop was close enough to “Wilson,” I thought it might be a stand-in.

Then the narrator mentioned a war with Germany, but this war had apparently  started over the Samoan Islands.   That certainly wasn’t the first World War that I knew.  And what was this about a German invasion of New Jersey?  I quickly flipped to the copyright page to discover that the collection had been published in 1895.   Suddenly, the opening line “Toward the end of 1920” which had seemed delightfully old-fashioned and historical, changed the story into futuristic science fiction!  How incredibly cool!  I was so excited, I ended up reading the first several pages aloud to Jim for our mutual amusement.

I was also surprised to learn how early the collection had been published.  From the references in Lovecraft, even once I learned The King in Yellow existed, I’d assumed that Lovecraft and Chambers were contemporaries.  This error was reinforced by the cover blurb from Lovecraft on my edition: “Achieves notable heights of cosmic fear.”  Blurbs are usually provided by contemporaries.  Those that are not usually use words like “influential” or “landmark” or something else that clue the reader in that the book is a re-release.

However,  Lovecraft did the bulk of his work in the 1920’s and 1930’s – the future setting of Chamber’s work.  I found that unintentional twist oddly appealing.

What’s fascinating about The King in Yellow is that elements in it migrate from author to author,  rather like beads strung on a peculiar necklace indebted to non-Euclidean geometry.  Robert W. Chambers took several of the terms he uses – Carcosa, Hali, Hastur – from the works of Ambrose Bierce.   He expanded this cast of characters (or cosmology; in some cases it’s not clear whether a person or place is being referred to) to include Aldones, Camilla, Cassilda, Carcosa, and Naotabla.

These, in turn, were picked up by other authors, not always in a horror/supernatural thriller context  as one might expect.  Marion Zimmer Bradley mined The King in Yellow for numerous names for her popular “Darkover” books.   There is no actual connection, but the fact that she used many of these names for shadowy figures of the nearly forgotten pre-human history of the planet added a certain resonance.  I can’t recall if I encountered these names first in the works of Lovecraft and his associates or in those of Bradley, but their recurrence between books added a creepy echo to the stories, as if they both drew upon a definite past history forgotten in all but names.

Other authors have continued to make reference to The King in Yellow, adding to the sense that it’s real and out there somewhere, if you can just find the right heap of books in the right old bookstore.  More beads on that non-Euclidean necklace.

I’ve finished the “Reclaimer of Reputations” and am about to move on to “The Mask.”  The  epigraph, a quotation from the play The King in Yellow,  is promising.  I shall share it here:

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.

Stranger: Indeed?

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?

Sounds promising…  I do wonder though, what lies behind the Pallid Mask?  What is the significance of the Yellow Sign?

My doorbell is ringing…  Wait!  The person outside is robed in yellow and wears a mask!  And I’ve just remembered.  It’s a day early for Halloween…

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5 Responses to “Ripples from Yellow”

  1. Sally Says:

    How cool! And the book is available as an ebook at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8492 , so I think I’ll give it a try.

  2. Chris Says:

    My elder bros had this edition on their bookshelves. I confess I’ve never cracked it.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    The stories aren’t all about the play… They aren’t even all supernatural. However, I’m enjoying quite a bit. Now that I’m into the collection, I recognize a few stories, probably from being reprinted in anthologies.

  4. Paul Says:

    Your signoff reminded me of Orson Welles’ at the end of his (in)famous1938 radio broadcast, saying if you heard someone at your door… “That was no Martian. It’s Halloween.”

  5. Paul Genesse Says:

    Jane, Fascinating post. Who knew Lovecraft would blurb a book that had been published so many years before his time? It sounded fun. I actually have a copy of a novel entitled: The Necronomicon. I’ve read the first chapter and I’m afraid I’d go mad if I read the rest. Someday . . .

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