The occult bookshelf of doom contains many volumes: the Necronomicon, the Book of Eibon, von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten and Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, to name just a few. Perhaps on that same shelf, nestled between the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Book of Dzyan is a much more recent publication—circa 1915—one whose dire effects are more immediate, widespread, and contemporary. This dreadful book is unfortunately accessible to the average reader in a way that the more classical forbidden works are not. Horror enthusiasts should know the name of this book. It is The King in Yellow.
The idea that a single book could have the power to effect great good or terrible evil is very old, and probably goes back to the dawn of literacy. Readers can probably identify several examples in history of books whose publication and dissemination altered the world for good or ill. The King in Yellow is in the latter category, working its evil on every individual that peruses it. As with all forbidden books—and forbidden fruit trees for that matter—consumption brings with it a terrible and shattering knowledge, a new awareness powerful enough to disintegrate souls. Several of H.P. Lovecraft’s colleagues, as well as his emulators today, have transferred their awe and reverence for books into fictional creations like the Necronomicon and The King in Yellow.
Interestingly, The King in Yellow is not a history book or a procedural manual like its brothers on the shelf. It is a dramatic work, a play. Its creator Robert W. Chambers beguiles his readers with snatches of dialogue and song, but never provides enough of the material to cause insanity or suicide in the reader—only curiosity. His marvelous fictional work of the same name, published in 1895, is a collection of stories linked thematically around the effects of reading The King in Yellow. (The 1902 edition is one of the oldest books I own.)
The first story in the collection, considered by some to be a masterpiece, is The Repairer of Reputations. It defies easy classification. The story begins as a speculation about the near future, what Chambers, writing in the 1890s, imagined the world of 1920 to be like. However, there are elements that suggest that The Repairer of Reputations also depicts an alternative universe, an America that has followed a radically different historical path. Victorious in a recent world war with Germany, which included the enemy occupation of Norfolk, Virginia, America has become a strong militarized state, “organized according to the Prussian system”. The government has begun enacting sweeping social and political reforms:
We had profited well by the latest treaties with France and England; the exclusion of foreign born Jews as a measure of national self-preservation, the settlement of the new independent negro state of Suanee, the checking of immigration, the new laws concerning naturalization and the gradual centralization of power in the executive all contributed to national calm and prosperity.
There is a creepy scene at the beginning in which the Governor of New York celebrates the opening of a “Lethal Chamber” with a public speech:
“…The Government has seen fit to acknowledge the right of man to end an existence which may have become intolerable to him through physical suffering or mental despair. It is believed that the community will be benefited by the removal of such people from their midst…Now that the government has determined to establish a Lethal Chamber in every city, town, and village in the country, it remains to be seen whether or not that class of human creatures from whose desponding ranks new victims of self-destruction fall daily will accept the relief thus provided…"
At the beginning of The Repairer of Reputations Chambers is weirdly prescient of terrible realities that emerged only a few decades from his time: two devastating world wars, ethnic purging, euthanasia, the eugenics movement, the rise of fascism. Into this temporarily stable, prosperous and disturbing world glides a forbidden book, The King in Yellow, a vector of chaos, misery and mayhem.
Chambers quickly shifts the focus to a single individual, the narrator Hildred Castaigne. When we first meet him, he has already read the dreaded book, which he remembers vividly, reciting snatches of it. He read the book while in an asylum recuperating from “that fall from my horse”. He reassures the reader—who will not long be reassured—he had been misdiagnosed, and provided the wrong treatment; he was never insane, in fact, the fall from his horse had improved him. “From a lazy young man about town, I had become active, energetic, temperate, and above all—oh above all else—ambitious.” Unsurprisingly, his cousin Louis and friend Constance remain concerned about him, and watch him carefully.
Castaigne’s closest associate is a fellow graduate of an insane asylum, the bizarre Mr. Wilde. He often visits him at work, where his friend delights in reading aloud his notes about various customers. Mr. Wilde’s profession is “repairer of reputations”. His business is growing, and he has 500 men in his employ who assist him in gathering information. They comprise an elaborate system of blackmail and extortion. Mr. Wilde gets to say one of the most chilling lines in the story: “So, you see, those who have in their keeping the reputations of their fellow citizens, I have in my pay.” Wilde and Castaigne are collaborating on an ambitious project that gradually is revealed at the end of the story, which project seems to have been inspired by a close reading of The King in Yellow.
The obsessive and nightmarish tone of the story may remind some readers of the contemporary horror writer, Thomas Ligotti. In particular, the deformed and lacerated Mr. Wilde and his peculiar business would fit comfortably—or uncomfortably—inside one of Ligotti’s disturbing tales.
H.P. Lovecraft was very impressed with Chambers’ work, particularly with another story from the collection, the well known The Yellow Sign (1895), which he described in his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1935). Lovecraft writes:
It is worth observing that the author derives most of the names and allusions connected with his eldritch land of primal memory from the tales of Ambrose Bierce…One cannot help regretting that he did not further develop a vein in which he could so easily have become a recognized master.
Almost certainly H.P. Lovecraft is referencing an interesting short piece by Bierce, An Inhabitant of Carcosa (1886), in which the narrator discovers that he has not in fact survived a sudden fever but become a wandering shade among the ruins of fabled Carcosa—“Such are the facts imparted to the medium Bayrolles by the spirit Hoseib Alar Robardin.” Many feel that this prose poem of Ambrose Bierce is important source material not only for Chamber’s The King in Yellow, but Lovecraft’s own mythos of forgotten Old Ones.
Fans of graphic novelizations may want to check out I.N.J. Culbard’s adaptation of The King in Yellow, which came out just this year from SelfMadeHero. Culbard offers versions of The Repairer of Reputations, The Mask, The Yellow Sign, and In the Court of the Dragon. He has taken a few liberties with the material in order to convert it to graphic form, but has otherwise left it respectfully intact. Culbard has previously done interesting graphic versions of much of Lovecraft’s better known work.