Review: The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers

A king whom emperors have served (3 stars)

Originally published in 1895, The King in Yellow is a supernatural horror classic. It has a series of short stories that involve in some way a mysterious character and play called the King in Yellow. The first part of the play is banal and mediocre, but the second act brings madness to whoever reads it.

This insanity would come from terrible truths about the universe revealed in the text, that are beyond human comprehension. This idea would have great influence in the “cosmic horrors” of H. P. Lovecraft, who even included elements from Robert W. Chambers’ book in his Cthulhu mythos, like the Yellow Sign.

The character of the King in Yellow barely appears directly, but seems to cast a shadow throughout the entire book. It’s a character that is present – and feared – even in it’s absence. To me, he seems like a manifestation of human greed. Yellow is the color of gold, and he is described as “a king whom emperors have served” and several of the stories involve jealously and envy.

The book brings a total of 10 short stories. It begins with the best one, “The Repairer of Reputations”, that shows a then future New York of 1920 – 25 years after the book’s publication – where suicide has been legalized and the interested parties need only to enter a Lethal Chamber. The narrative follows Hildred, a men who desires the young Constance, who is actually in love with Hildred’s cousin, the charming military officer Louis. The best character is the “repairer of reputations” from the title, a deformed and eccentric man who for some reason is constantly attacked by his cat.

“The Mask” brings a new love triangle, this time between a scientist who discovered an alchemical process that can keep live creatures indefinitely frozen like statues. “In the Court of the Dragon” has a man that feels constantly observed by a sinister church organ player, the same theme of “Yellow Sign”, this time with a artist that has terrible nightmares and that believes is stalked by a cemetery guard. Many of the other stories are set in Paris and involve bohemians, war and love, always with a macabre tone.

I liked the psychological terror, a lot more subtle than Lovecraft’s, but I found the quality of the stories very uneven and in the last ones I was bored out of my mind wishing I was reading Edgar Alan Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The fantastical idea of the King in Yellow seems to me bigger than the book itself.

Guilherme Solari is a Brazilian writer and journalist from Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has written about movies, literature and videogames for some of Brazil’s biggest news sites. He is the author of THE CASCAVEL CHRONICLES, a love letter to 80's action movies, as well as the cyberpunk CYBERSAMPA series.