Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Plague Books: Mellow Yellow

The King in Yellow, stories by Robert W. Chambers, Third Place Press, 1895, Reprint edition 2015

Provenance: I picked this one up at Third Place Books in Ravenna, along with China Mieville's October (reviewed here). The text is a "rediscovery edition", which means it was in public domain, then dusted off, repackaged, and republished because it might see a sales spike. In this case, said spike was due to HBO's True Detective, which refers to the King in Yellow.

The book itself has been reformatted for its current size and has a new cover treatment. It has one of those covers that is slightly tacky to the touch which seems to be popular with publications these days. I don't care for it, but that may just indicate my advancing age.

The publisher, Third Place Press, by the way, has spun off from Third Place Books in 2018 and is now VerVolta Design + Press.

Review: Robert W. Chambers was a popular and now-forgotten author from the early part of the last century. In his day he was a well-known fixture in magazines and books, such that his old-school writing involving "shopgirl romances" was mocked by both H P Lovecraft and F Scott Fitzgerald. He was big in his day, but not critically acclaimed, similarly to Jacqueline Suzanne's potboilers or Tom Clancy's thrillers of later ages. His very name invoked a particular style of writing - old-fashioned, archaic, moralistic and fusty, but still more popular than some of the new stuff being cranked out.

Which is kinda sad, because he's a pretty good writer, but more about that in a moment. 

Most people that DO know about Chambers in the modern day know about him because of his contribution to the Cthulhu mythos with the King in Yellow.  Chambers pulled some phrases and concepts from Ambrose Bierce in creating his King in Yellow stories and were in turn pulled by Lovecraft as namechecks for his own weird fiction, in particular "The Whisperer in Darkness". From there it moved out to become a major supporting pillar of the genre, with the King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign, Hastur, and Hali all getting their moment in the moonlight, analyzed and reconfigured repeatedly.

The King in Yellow, as presented by Chambers, is a play that drives people mad. There are a couple couplets presented throughout the text, but the exact nature of what it says (particularly in the 2nd act, where things go horribly bad and drives the reader insane). In Chambers, the play is "things best left unknown" incarnate. Someone reads the play and goes mad. When referred to in the text, it gets its own font. That's how alien it is.

And most fans will only read the first four stories, which is are the most mythos-y of the collection in that they name-check the King in Yellow. "The Repairer of Reputations" is the most weird of these weird tales, in that it portrays a futuristic New York (of thirty years after the story is written) with a heavily militarized America, a recent invasion of New Jersey by Germany, and suicide chambers in Washington Square. Yet all that is world-building background, in that the narrator is a sociopathic madman who believes himself to be heir of the Imperial Dynasty of America. It is actually a wonderfully strange story, and in a long section name-drops a lot of material used by later writers.

The remaining three, "The Mask", "The Court of the Dragon", and "The Yellow Sign" have similar arcs, filled with growing dread and strange happening resolving in someone encountering the accursed play with horrible results. "The Demoiselle D'Ys" is a fantasy that evokes the later Clark Ashton Smith. "The Prophet's Paradise" is a series of one-pagers. And the remaining four, his "Street" stories - "The Street of the Four Winds", "The Street of the First Shell", "The Street of Our Lady of the Fields", and "Rue Barree" are about art students and demimondes on the Left Bank of Paris (Chambers was an art student in Paris before he became a writer).

And in these stories, there is a bit of really fine writing, and you see why Chambers is an unappreciated genius. "First Shell", set during the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, captures the entire fog of war better than many modern novels. "Our Lady of the Fields" concludes with a practically orgasmic train trip, and "Rue Barree" has a section of the drunk protagonist that is amusing. Even up in "The Repairer of Reputations", with its long paragraph  of Mythos-friendly terms, is impressive. You can see where Chambers earned his reputation.

This collection, Chambers' first, did a lot to establish himself. He later settled into a more traditional, commercial success thereafter, and you can see the talent here. Yes, you should read past the first four stories.

More later,