"Strange is the night where black stars rise,
and strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still
- Cassilda's Song in The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene 2.
The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers is a collection of ten short stories, first published in 1895. It has since fallen into the public domain; you can read it here.
The first four stories are thematically connected by repeated references to (and excerpts from) a fictional play called, logically enough, The King in Yellow. Although it's a play, it's never performed, as all who read it go insane.
We never learn the plot of the play, only that it references a strange and horrifying land called Carcosa. Chambers took the name (as well as a few other words for its geography) from the Ambrose Bierce story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa." (As well as his "Haita the Shepherd.") H.P. Lovecraft later referenced "The Yellow King" in his story "The Whisperer in Darkness," leading many to mistakenly believe he coined the term.
The first I heard of all this came via season 1 of True Detective.
|The show appropriates the Yellow King and Carcosa concept, as well as contributing its own dark and unsettling spin.|
Chambers was apparently quite a prolific writer, and based on my enjoyment of these ten tales, I'm definitely interested in reading more from him. To kick off my year-long Short Stories project, I thought I'd take a good gander at the first of the four Carcosa-themed ones.
What a wild story this is, though it's tough to summarize the plot. Its wiki describes it as " a powerful, weird story of egotism and paranoia." It's certainly that, but let me try and do a better job.
It begins with a few pages of sci-fi - or close to it, anyway - set in the then-future world of 1920, (interestingly enough, after a war with Germany has concluded, one that saw the Germans seize the Samoan islands and invade New Jersey). Prosperity and tranquility are abundant due (we're told) to "the exclusion of foreign-born Jews as a measure of self-preservation (and) the settlement of the new independent Negro state of Suanee," (needle scratch!) as well as "the checking of immigration, the new laws concerning naturalization, and the gradual centralization of power in the executive branch."
Well then. The past is a different country, of course, and when traveling to it via its literature or arts, I try and approach everything as an anthropologist and not a missionary. Still, sometimes the casual nature of such remarks can be very jarring. It's the same odd mix of overt racism and antisemitism with early 20th century liberalism (state-subsidized arts and opera and "bigotry and intolerance (lain) in their graves and kindness and charity (drawing) warring sects together") that one finds in the speeches of Woodrow Wilson and work of D.W. Griffith. (This isn't an anti-or-pro-liberal remark, you understand. Maybe pro-consistency, anti-confused-juxtapositions, though.)
All of the above is just table-dressing for the appearance of "Lethal Chambers." The Government has acknowledged the right of any man or woman who suffers from physical or mental anguish to end his or her own life and has opened up one of these Lethal Chambers in every town and city across America. The main character (Hildred) is hurrying past an inauguration ceremony of one such Chamber (on the south side of Washington Square between Wooster and South Fifth) on his way to meet Mr. Wilde, occupant of an apartment above an armorer's shop and the "repairer" of the title.
The armorer and his daughter (the betrothed of Hildred's cousin Louis) think Mr. Wilde to be a vicious lunatic, "crippled and almost demented." Let me pause here to relay that Hildred (our first-person-narrator) is recently released from an asylum after a nasty fall from a horse. More importantly, while convalescing, he read the whole of The King in Yellow, something he shares with Mr. Wilde.
How do you come to read a play that is well-known (as it is in the world of these stories) to cause insanity? Good question. It is apparently only Act II, with its "irresistible revealed truths" that compels the reader to madness: "The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect."
Hildred tried to throw it into the fire after reading the first act, but it struck the barred gate and fell open to Act II:
"With a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it. I wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth—a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow."
Mr. Wilde - who lives with a vicious cat whom he provokes so that it launches itself at his face, tearing it frequently to ribbons - and Hildred discuss the coming Imperial Dynasty of America, which (Mr. Wilde assures Hildred) ends with his marriage to the armorer's daughter. The Yellow King, we are assured, needs nothing; we are all his subjects. But his trusted advisors can rule this world with whatever accoutrements they desire.
Mr. Wilde is a curious character, and not just for the relationship he keeps with his cat. Obviously he's as insane as Hildred, and yet he knows things that are seemingly impossible, such as the location of a famous set of armor, long believed to be lost, or the true identity of the armorer and his daughter (a plot point introduced but not followed up on anywhere else, unless I missed it.) "His mind is a wonder chamber from which he can extract treasures that you or I would give years of our life to acquire." And when Hildred meets with Mr. Wilde, the latter angrily dismisses a caller that turns out to be the owner and editor of New York's greatest daily newspaper.
Or is he? One of the delights of the story is trying to work out what is actually happening vs. what Hildred tells us is happening. For example, there are the contents of the steel safe he keeps in his bedroom:
"The three and three-quarter minutes which it is necessary to wait, while the time lock is opening, are to me golden moments. From the instant I set the combination to the moment when I grasp the knobs and swing back the solid steel doors, I live in an ecstasy of expectation. Those moments must be like moments passed in Paradise. I know what I am to find at the end of the time limit. I know what the massive safe holds secure for me, for me alone, and the exquisite pleasure of waiting is hardly enhanced when the safe opens and I lift, from its velvet crown, a diadem of purest gold, blazing with diamonds. I do this every day, and yet the joy of waiting and at last touching again the diadem, only seems to increase as the days pass. It is a diadem fit for a King among kings, an Emperor among emperors. The King in Yellow might scorn it, but it shall be worn by his royal servant. I held it in my arms until the alarm in the safe rang harshly, and then tenderly, proudly, I replaced it and shut the steel doors."
Later, though, he has placed the diadem on his head and is admiring himself (as much as one can while reliving the perpetual horror of Carcosa) in the mirror:
"The alarm bell in the safe began to whirr harshly, and I knew my time was up; but I would not heed it, and replacing the flashing circlet upon my head I turned defiantly to the mirror. I stood for a long time absorbed in the changing expression of my own eyes. The mirror reflected a face which was like my own, but whiter, and so thin that I hardly recognized it. And all the time I kept repeating between my clenched teeth, "The day has come! the day has come!" while the alarm in the safe whirred and clamored, and the diamonds sparkled and flamed above my brow.
I heard a door open but did not heed it. It was only when I saw two faces in the mirror, when another face rose over my shoulder, and two other eyes met mine. I wheeled like a flash and seized a long knife from my dressing-table, and my cousin sprang back very pale, crying: "Hildred! for God's sake!" then as my hand fell, he said: "It is I, Louis, don't you know me?" I stood silent. I could not have spoken for my life. He walked up to me and took the knife from my hand.
"What is all this?" he inquired, in a gentle voice. "Are you ill?"
"No," I replied. But I doubt if he heard me.
"Come, come, old fellow," he cried, "take off that brass crown and toddle into the study. Are you going to a masquerade? What's all this theatrical tinsel anyway?"
I was glad he thought the crown was made of brass and paste, yet I didn't like him any the better for thinking so. I let him take it from my hand, knowing it was best to humor him. He tossed the splendid diadem in the air, and catching it, turned to me smiling.
"It's dear at fifty cents," he said. "What's it for?"
I did not answer, but took the circlet from his hands, and placing it in the safe shut the massive steel door. The alarm ceased its infernal din at once. He watched me curiously, but did not seem to notice the sudden ceasing of the alarm. He did, however, speak of the safe as a biscuit box."
Apologies for the lengthy excerpt, but I quite like the writing there, and it effectively demonstrates that what our narrator sees as a diamond-encrusted crown in a time-combination steel safe might instead be a Cracker Jack prize in a biscuit box.
Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Camilla: Indeed it's time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
Camilla: Indeed it's time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Casilda) No mask? No mask!
The King in Yellow, Act 1, Scene 2.
I won't ruin the ending for you, but suffice it to say, Hildred has some difficulty getting his cousin to understand his part to play in establishing the Hidden Dynasty of Imperial America. (And yes, Lethal Chambers play a role in the resolution, lest you wonder why I even brought them up.)
Each of the Carcosa-themed stories is a minor masterpiece in atmosphere and tension, but "The Repairer of Reputations" is perhaps the most fully-realized of them all. (Either that or "The Mask.") In each of them, artists of some kind or another are the main characters, with a theme of unrequited love running through them all. The whole book is worth reading, not just the Carcosa stories, if your taste runs to this sort of American horror writing post-Poe, Pre-Lovecraft.
Will reading any of them illuminate anything in True Detective? Not really, but of course that's not what they were designed to do.
"We had been speaking for some time in a dull monotonous strain before I realized that we were discussing the King in Yellow...
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!"