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Tag Archives: Robert W. Chambers

Feel free to listen to listen to the following while reading this post:

Yep, it’s yet another installment of “Things that irritate the Cultist about modern mythos fiction”, except for I can’t fully place the blame on post-Lovecraft writers. Lovecraft himself started this particular trend*, and by god, I just don’t like it.  Not one bit.

The trend I refer to is the depressing tendency for a huge number of Lovecraftian stories to invoke one of the following tropes:

  1. At the end of the story, the narrator reveals that he is in fact in an insane asylum, and can’t get anyone to believe a word of his story, despite the odd, potentially supernatural, clearly unusual nature of his infraction.
  2. Alternatively, the story begins with the narrator fretting about how he will surely be locked up in an insane asylum once he puts this story to paper, so unbelievable is the tale he is about to tell you.
  3. The narrator is fine, but he isn’t at the center of the story he just told you–the brunt of the horrible, terrible, unthinkable experience fell upon his close friend or relative, who now wastes away in an insane asylum.
  4. A whole bunch of things happened that were creepy and amazing and impressive and delightful to read about, and then at the very last minute, literally in the last two or three paragraphs, something happened that drove someone absolutely insane (and they are now in an insane asylum).  No one is quite sure what that something is, because the insane fellow can’t manage to string a coherent sentence together.  (I’m looking at you, At the Mountains of Madness.)

I’m not trying to insinuate that the loss of sanity isn’t an important component of a lot of mythos fiction–the bleak, impossibly vast nature of the cosmic entities (along with a sense of humanity’s complete powerlessness) combine to make madness inviting, far more preferable to the alternative**.  But…I have weird suspension of disbelief issues.  Which is not to say that I have trouble suspending disbelief, but rather that tiny details succeed in kicking me out of the warm glow of fantasy/sci-fi/horror.

Which is to say: If you act normal, behave normally, can put together a coherent/logical/convincing (if bizarre) story, command respect, and are a member of the academic elite (as so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists are), I find it very, VERY hard to believe that EVERYONE will immediately shun you the moment you step forward with your weird, unbelievable tale, let alone make a discrete call to the doctor who will trundle in the white coats and sippy cups at a moment’s notice.  (Seriously, is this how psychiatry worked in the early 20th century?)

Which is also to say: Even if someone is acting weird and/or criminal (for instance, if he just randomly shot his best friend) BUT there’s also something extremely strange about the case (let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that the putrefying corpse of his best friend’s wife has randomly shown up on the presumed-insane individual’s doorstop, with no sign of human intervention), I find it extremely hard to believe that literally no one would think about the case beyond, “Whelp, that was weird!  A truly strange coincidence that happens to align with your bewildering story perfectly!  Hope the food in the asylum isn’t too bad!”

Which is very seriously to say: There is literally NOTHING more disappointing than ending a story with “And then someone saw something SO BAD that it immediately drove him insane, but we have no idea what it was.  Whelp.  The end!”

(I’m not joking, not even a little bit.  Come up with a worse ending than that.  I challenge you.)

At_the_Mountains_of_Madness_-image002

I’m also not trying to say that incorporating the need for (or inevitability of) insanity is simple.  It’s very hard to tell a first-person narrative of insanity that straddles the line between coherency/disbelief and incoherence/verisimilitude.  I think it’s well worth the effort, though–when the balance is perfect, the uneasy feeling it creates is second-to-none.  Furthermore, I don’t necessarily think that a sight or experience that results in insanity necessarily mandates a clear, easy-to-visualize description.  It just absolutely shouldn’t be the last-minute twist to a story.  (Do I seem a little hung up on At the Mountains of Madness?  Maybe a bit.  I read it when I was 15 or 16, and I STILL remember that moment of letdown at the end.)

While “The Repairer of Reputations” definitely stands out as featuring a superb unreliable narrator, I think that insanity in general has been handled much more masterfully by modern writers.  The stories I’ll talk about on Friday showcase some of the most impressive improvements on the original source.

The Cultist

* I think he started it?  Maybe?  I’ve got an anthology of Lovecraft’s favorite horror writers I’ve been meaning to read, so when I’m finished with that I may be able to make a more educated case, but right now the only Lovecraft predecessor I can think of who pulled out the “I’m so utterly INSANE!” stops was Robert W. Chambers, who noted in the afterward to “The Repairer of Reputations” that the narrator died in an insane asylum.  I’m reasonable okay with this.

**To quote Captain Ahab:

Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmy; sanely woeful to me. In no paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?

***Wellllll…I heard a rumor that not only was Guillermo del Toro was going to make the story into a movie, but that Cthulhu would show up. Everything happening + Cthulhu randomly showing up at the end and driving the one guy who saw him insane=Possibly a more disappointing ending. Possibly.

As much as I’m dismayed that Robert W. Chamber’s genius for weird fiction went largely underutilized, one could easily make the argument he did the world of horror a tremendous service by creating and essentially abandoning such a magnificent construction as The King in Yellow. The King, according to Chambers, is defined in the faintest of terms: the sane have only the dimmest understanding of what he represents (namely, something that should be avoided by all costs). Those who have been exposed to his influence are not only insane, but obsessed with the practical power associated with this knowledge: it’s never quite clear how, or why, but Hildred’s association with the mysterious play will lead to his ascendancy as The Last King of the Imperial Dynasty of America, but this fact is treated as completely irrelevant. He knows the King, he has found the Yellow Sign, and once everything falls into place he will claim the power that is rightfully his.  His obsession renders him completely non-concerned by the questions that might intrigue us about the King.  As such, Chambers has provided weird fiction writers with tremendously fertile ground to develop.

So, it’s actually a big surprise to me that I haven’t seen nearly as much King in Yellow mythos fiction as, for example, fiction revolving around Deep Ones or ghouls. But I have encountered a handful of stories that definitely bear reading:

The more I think about this story, the more I love it, because the crappy, badly-dubbed film both modernizes and perfectly mirrors the nature of the original play: there’s nothing outwardly wrong with it, it’s maybe a little weird, hard to exactly pinpoint why…but it changes you. Irrevocably.

But, to be honest, I’ve gone through all of my anthologies and these are the only stories I’ve found featuring the storied King. Have you encountered any? Recommendations are always appreciated!

The Cultist

 

*Lovecraftian tidbit for you: This story was apparently Lovecraft’s response to “The Shambler from the Stars”, a short story by Robert Bloch. The doomed protagonist is a college student, an academic type who wishes to write weird fiction but his work is continually (and consistently) rejected by the editors of the leading pulp magazines. Sound like a familiar character? Well, in order to avenge the death of his literary doppelganger, Lovecraft wrote “The Haunter of the Dark”, in which a foolish young man finds an artifact capable of summoning a dread creature across time and space. Which, of course, leads to said young man’s—named, of course, Robert Blake—untimely and hideous demise due to a three-lobed burning eye.

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?

But…

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! http://www.khaosworks.org/filk/arkham.html (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