The King In Yellow (Chambers, R., W., 1895)

If anything, The King In Yellow is today known the best for being a collection of stories that greatly inspired one H. P. Lovecraft in his own literary pursuits of creating Cthulhu Mythos. That's not to say that this story collection by Robert Chambers first published in 1895 is void of other merits, far from it. But as far of hearing this over a hundred years old anthology happened to me at least in the context of Lovecraft and reading what inspired him in the creation of his own world.

The King In Yellow consists of 10 short stories, that range from horror to romantic daydreams. Four of the stories, "The Repairer of Reputations", "The Mask", "The Yellow Sign" and "In The Court Of The Dragon", are linked by a fictitious novel that is the namesake of the collection, The King In Yellow. This notorious novel looks at first harmless, but after getting to the second part of it, it was known to drive people to insanity and in despair. Thus it was banned in many countries and was available only under the counter. The rest of the stories are connected to the first four more in a thematic manner rather than directly, or at all, tied to the King In Yellow.

The Repairer Of Reputations is a tale set in the future of 1920's New York. Castaigne, the narrator of the tale believes that he's to become the heir to the Last King of America. On his way to his destiny is his cousin Louis, who's to become the king, so armed with the knowledge gained from the book the King in Yellow as well as from the repairer of reputations Mr Wilde, Castaigne has set in motion plans to force the rulership to himself.

Castaigne is at best, an unreliable narrator. He has suffered a head trauma, that had institutionalized him for a while. On many occasions, other characters seem to amuse him because of eccentricity caused by the trauma as well as it hinted at that what Castaigne believes and what other people see are greatly different matters. The story is, in the end, a narration of a delusional man who is becoming dangerous to those around him.

As a whole, I'd say the Repairer of Reputations is the best story on the collection. It's well written, the world it has is well built and the characters are very well thought of. Castaigne himself is an intriguing narrator, whose unreliability comes more and more apparent towards the end.

The Mask is a tale of obscure science and how a prominent sculptor Boris Yvain, who has found a mysterious liquid capable of turning any living thing into a marble-like substance.  While Yvain himself is aware of the sinister possibilities of the liquid and is adamant about getting rid of it after his experiments with it are over, the existence of the matter ends up in tragedy.

Again, the mystery novel the King In Yellow makes an appearance in the tale and has its own part to play with the internal turmoils of the narrator, Alec, who is in love with the Genevieve, a woman whose affection the two men competed and who ended up choosing Boris. I doubt it'll be a surprise that her fate is tied to the mystery liquid Boris invented, thus creating the tragedy.

I wouldn't qualify the Mask as a horror story. It is more like a melancholic, and maybe even a bit melodramatic love triangle with elements of horror in it. It is a solid story and well worth a read.

In The Court Of The Dragon is a mystery horror story, where an unnamed narrator is attending a mass at St. Barnabe, only to be thoroughly spooked by a sinister church organist, who seems to be stalking him. As the narrator confesses, that he's been reading the notorious titular book of the anthology, he is at first unsure if the creepy man is real or just a part of his strained imagination.

As he leaves the church, he begins to see the man following him, which obviously fills him with dread and with a conclusion, that the man has been sent my the Yellow King himself to kill him. It is left for the reader to decide, if any of this is actually true and if the narrator is having a nervous breakdown. It is, again, a well-written story, just like all the others in the collection.

The Yellow Sign is another tale, where a sinister church employee begins to haunt him. A young artist lives next to a church and a watchman working there catches his attention after he gets frustrated with his newest painting, in which the skin tones turn into the sickly colour of green no matter what he does.

Times passes and the man begins to appear in the dreams of the artist as well as his model Tessie. These dreams are filled with dread and evil premonition. This all leads to the pair reading the much-dreaded book the King In Yellow.

The Yellow Sing again asks the question what is really happening in reality and how much of it is only imagination. While the story again ends in a tragedy, you can ask if the dreadful watchman ever really existed and if he was just a manifestation of something else.

The Demoiselle d'Ys a young hunter, Philip, is lost in the moors somewhere in France.  While he's desperately trying to find a way out, he meets a woman, Jeanne, hunting with falcons and ends up staying at her home castle for the night.

He falls in love with this woman, whom according to her own words, knows very little of the world outside the boundaries of the moors, which can be tricky to navigate even to those who dwell in them. She has lived her life as have her ancestors, being content with what she has, not giving much thought to the world around her.

If The Damoiselle d'Ys is a ghost story or a peculiar time travel mystery depends probably on how you want to look at it. Perhaps Philip managed to step outside the boundaries of time for a moment or perhaps he fell asleep, dreaming of the beautiful Jeanne or perhaps he truly did encounter spirits long since dead.

This is the first story in the collection with no direct connection to the previous stories, but it is a nicely written melancholic tale of love that can never be.

The Prophets' Paradise is not a short story, but a series of poems,. The relevance of these is tied to the beginnings of the other tales, as each of them begins with a small snippet that supposedly comes from The King in Yellow. These are really not my cup of tea, but there's only 8 of them and as such, aren't very long.

The Street of the Four Winds is a dreamlike story of an artist, who is visited by a cat belonging to his neighbour. Like a good neighbour he is, he inquires of the other residents whose cat it is that has entered his home. After he finds out he returns the shaggy cat only to find out the macabre truth of her owner.

The Street of the First Shell, a story set in the Latin Quarters during the siege of Paris in 1870. This a story that stands out from the rest because of its subject matter. Not only is it a war story, it also is happening during a real historical event Franco-Prussian war.

While the war does play a prominent role in the story, the main focus is on the civilians, who follow the happenings from the outskirts of the battle. It is a story I liked the least in the anthology, not only because it felt like it didn't fit in, but because it feels somehow indifferent. It might have worked better as a full-length novel, but as it is here, it feels like a too crammed up affair, where nothing manages to breathe.

The Street of Our Lady of the Fields Young Hastings arrives in Paris to study arts. There he meets a young woman, Valentine, to whom he falls madly in love with. At first, the woman tries to keep him at arm's length, as she thinks the American is too innocent for her, not understanding her true nature. But as time passes, they grow closer and while I don't know if Valentine finds love from his arms, Hastings might find something he at least believes is true love.

This is a straight cut romantic tale, with no horror elements in it at all. But at the same time, I was reading it, I could  not help but the think this story as a whole is meant to reflect on the first half of the fictitious the King in Yellow, as it is stated, that the first part of the book reads out like a romance, only to end up crushing the reader upon the second half.

Be it whichever, it is up to you, as a reader, to decide if you want to think this is a precursor to something that drives the readers to a brink of insanity or if it is just what it seems to be, a tale of innocent love. I have a feeling that's how Chambers meant it.

Rue Barrée is both a name of a street in Paris as well as a name a group of art students have given to a mysterious girl who lives there. The men idolize this shy young woman, whom they don't know, but whom all admire from afar. Young Selby is hit by his desire towards the girl so hard, that he even ends up clearing a flower shop where she patronizes, while he only meant to get her the roses she couldn't afford to. The story ends up with Selby drunkenly approaching Rue at her home before he finally realizes, that him barging in on her like that is more shameful than anything else and the two part their ways, probably forever.

As a love story, Rue Barrée is more comical than the Street of Our Lady of the Fields. It is not a story where two people get each other, it is a tale of two strangers, of which one believes is in love, but probably isn't. There's no tragedy nor horror in it, just some misconception of feelings caused by one-sided admiration and idolization.

Overall, The King in Yellow is a collection of well-written stories. Some of them are even better than just well written and it is easy to see how a writer like Lovecraft would have been inspired by at least some of them  Not only is there a sense of otherworldly horror in them, there's the thematical element of a fictitious book, that has supernatural ability to affect the minds of those who dare to peruse it. But even without the Lovecraft connection, the stories work well. Chambers is a solid writer, who shifts relatively effortlessly between different kinds of genres, experimenting and trusting in the reader.

As the anthology was originally published in 1895 it has long since dropped into the public domain, so it is relatively simple to find a free e-book version of it. There are several printed versions of it as well so you can enjoy it however you want. And I do recommend it, as I did find it a very pleasant surprise on both, themes and quality.