Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Pre-Lovecraftian Horror

The King in Yellow has long been an enigma for me. Everyone who loves Lovecraft has at least heard of the King in Yellow and the mysterious shores of Carcosa. The mysterious King pops up from time to time in modern mythos fiction and I’d heard him mentioned in one of Terence Chua’s hilarious* song “Banned from Arkham”. And he’s now gotten more attention than he ever has before: References from the original work even made it into two episodes of True Detective**.

I think I had a vague idea that The King in Yellow predated Lovecraft and was one of his inspirations. I don’t know a ton about the authors that inspired Lovecraft nor about the work of his friends and contemporaries (which I hope to address/discuss as this blog evolves). I definitely didn’t know anything about the origins of The King in Yellow until I happened across an anthology of Chamber’s work in college. (Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs if you’re already familiar with the King and the Chambers stories he appears in—the stories themselves, though, are absolutely amazing and definitely bear mentioning.)

Two short stories immediately caught my attention, both published in The King in Yellow in 1895.

And just what happened in the acts of the accursed play that drives everyone so mad?

“No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.”

As a horror author, Chambers hits the nail on the head regarding several key issues, and this is one of them. There’s literally no way that the play could ever live up to the mythology that now surrounds it, and he evades specificity quite masterfully. Furthermore, the questions surrounding the narrator and his relationships in “The Repairer of Reputations” are endless—if Mr. Wilde is just a deformed old nutcase, why does he seem to command so much respect? Why was he right on the nail about Hawberk?


and with a title like this, of course there is a but…

There’s a pretty key reason that Chambers is not a well-known horror author today. Only a handful of Chambers’s stories concern The King in Yellow and his Sign. The rest are, quite simply, terrible. I was astounded by the disconnect I saw in the anthology. The King in Yellow was published in 1895. “The Maker of Moons” was a short story of his published the following year. It begins promisingly: strange golden chain associated a curious creature (part “sea urchin, spider, and the devil”) that looks more like an automaton than a living being, and it gets increasingly weird. A group of people who can synthesize pure gold from other elements, a girl who may be a ghost, or may be a hallucination, a mysterious city one of the group claims to have visited, and then it ends like this:

“So here I am, writing all this down, and my wife, who has the same name as the ghost girl, says, ‘Why are you writing so much nonsense?’. So maybe this story you just read is true, or maybe I made the whole thing up, but you don’t know because I am suddenly an unreliable narrator in the last two sentences of this story, so take that, you motherfucker!”

(I may be paraphrasing a bit.)

And that’s one of maybe one or two of his *best* other weird tales. Everything has a happy ending tacked onto it, all stories come to a close with the stakes dramatically lowered, and things are just goofy. If I wanted to read silly tales of adventurers finding funny things and looking stupid, I would…read stories of this nature, and I can’t be more specific than that because I don’t really know who wrote any of them off-hand because I don’t want to read these sort of tales, don’tcha know.

A quick glance at Wikipedia indicates that I’m not the only one who shared this irritation—I quote because writers of yore say it better than I ever could:

H.P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton: “Chambers is…equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them”

Frederic Taber Cooper, editor and writer: “So much of Mr Chambers’s work exasperates, because we feel that he might so easily have made it better”

Why? Why did Chambers, who had this incredible knack for the weird and the profane, who knew how to tell amazing stories of insanity and doom, shy away from this talent? Was he stymied by the market, which favored bold daredevils rewarded with beautiful women and happy endings? Did he genuinely prefer to write brighter, happier works, regarding his literary descent into madness and chaos an interesting but non-compelling experiment? Maybe I’ll find out more as I go, but I get the sense that the real answer to this question might be lost to the ages. Regardless, it still does make me wonder.

The Cultist

*For a certain definition of hilarious, although if you enjoy this blog, you’d probably find it hilarious, so check it out! (starts at 1:18)

**A show that I was more or less unaware of previously because—as much as it pains me to say it, for there’s a ton of fantastic horror now that I should be watching—my TV watching starts and ends with Good Eats and Squidbillies