Reading Resolution: “The King in Yellow” by Robert W. Chambers

19. A book older than 100 years: The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

List Progress: 4/30

The King in Yellow is a collection of ten short stories, published in 1895 by Robert W. Chambers.

Read the first four stories, then stop.

“The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, “In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign” are the only reasons that anyone still remembers who Robert W. Chambers is, and with good reason. The genre shifts so completely after those four that reading the book from cover to cover becomes a chore, and not one that a horror fan should feel the need to put themself through.

The first four stories are considered highly influential works of science fiction and horror, and they directly inspired H.P. Lovecraft to tie Chambers’ works into his own Cthulhu Mythos. These stories all include references to a fictional play titled “The King in Yellow”, which is known to drive readers to madness. The audience learns about the in-universe play in snippets, with short quotes and vague references to plot points, and it looms as a dark spectre over the supernatural events that unfold. If the collection of short stories was just these four, I would recommend it, at the very least for the historical perspective of the horror genre and early use of unreliable narrators. 

It is the remaining six stories that hold me back from recommending The King in Yellow. The fifth, “The Demoiselle d’Ys”, is a ghost story, and it’s serviceable. The sixth is a poem. And the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth are about the social interplays of young American painters studying in Paris. Chambers clearly has a pet interest, as “The Mask” and “The Yellow Sign” are also both about American artists in Paris, but the last four stories lack any supernatural or horror aspects and are just romantic stories about fancy lads. I think I have a fairly high tolerance for dry writing, and I struggled to finish this book. There is definitely a reason that Chambers’ horror has outlived his other work, because it is head and shoulders above the other stories collected here. I can’t speak to what the rest of his extensive career looked like, but I would have to think long and hard before picking up another of his books, knowing the quality could be a coin flip.

Would I Recommend It: No. But I do recommend “The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, “In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign”.

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