Skip navigation

Tag Archives: The Yellow Sign

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?


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