JANUARY 3, 2020
ROBERT WILLIAM CHAMBERS (May 26, 1865–December 16, 1933) is practically the Harper Lee of horror, having carved out an enduring reputation from an incredibly small body of work. His Carcosa Mythos is now almost as popular as H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and references to the King in Yellow have become nearly as common as Cthulhu plushies. Figures from the Carcosa Mythos make frequent appearances in horror roleplaying games like Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu and Arc Dream’s Delta Green, and collections like Cassilda’s Song (2016) and The Chromatic Court (2019) have expanded the mythos still further. Most notably, the first season of True Detective (2014) introduced Carcosa and the Yellow King to an even wider public. It is remarkable that Chambers’s work has earned this level of renown based only on the four stories and one poem cycle published in The King in Yellow (1895) which mention or allude to the eponymous supernatural monarch and his attendant mythos. “One cannot help regretting that he did not further develop a vein in which he could so easily have become a recognised master,” wrote H. P. Lovecraft in his classic study “Supernatural Horror in Literature” — which only devotes two paragraphs to Chambers.
Author and game designer Kenneth Hite has recently released a gorgeously illustrated annotated edition of The King in Yellow, and readers owe Hite a debt for uncovering so much about the text and its author, as well as for clarifying what makes this small group of stories so influential. Other annotated editions of The King in Yellow have appeared in the past, but this edition’s ground-breaking elucidation of the stories and their author make it the definitive one. During a recent panel on Chambers at NecronomiCon 2019 (recorded in Providence, on August 24), Hite noted that the one thing that surprised him as he started working on his annotated edition was just how little had been written and researched on Chambers: “I thought that I would just lean back and find that real scholars of horror had done all the work, and I would just be able to read the five or six really top essays, go through JSTOR […] and I’d be done.” As it turned out, “there was nothing” aside from a trio of essays and a very unscholarly self-published biography. Chambers’s work was so popular in his lifetime as to secure him instant oblivion after it — except, of course, for The King in Yellow.
That’s a pity, considering how well Chambers captured the currents of his time. The King in Yellow was one of a series of seminal horror works published within the same period that dealt with hidden menaces to Western society, including Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), The Great God Pan (1894), Dracula (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898). Western culture in the 1890s, it seems, was in a fever pitch of anxiety about its own incipient decadence — moral and social rot, it seemed, augured political and military collapse. Hite’s annotations demonstrate how Chambers channeled this zeitgeist, in part thanks to his own experience as an art student in Paris from 1886 to 1893, and also because of his sharp ear for the popular themes of the day.
Hite demonstrates that, as a Francophone expatriate, Chambers’s “The Repairer of Reputations” might well have drawn from Guy de Maupassant’s short story “L’endormeuse” (“The Soporific,” 1889), which features a prototype of the “Oeuvre de la mort volontaire” as well as the trope of a dream vision of a future city, both of which feature heavily in Chambers’s story. The idea of a masked King in Yellow and a catastrophic confrontation at a decadent court may have come from the short story “Le Roi au masque d’or” (“The King in the Golden Mask,” 1892) by Marcel Schwob, as much as from Poe. Or perhaps it drew inspiration from Baudelaire’s “Les Sept vieillards,” where the poet observes seven identical beggars whose “yellow rags / imitate the color of this rainy sky.” The black stars of Carcosa turn out to be coinages from a novel by Heinrich Heine, Florentine Nights, centering on a Satanic performance by Paganini. Antisemitic agitation blocked the erection of a commemorative statue to Heine in Germany in 1891, leading New York to take up the cause, and sparking a controversy in the New York press which Chambers must have followed. Oscar Wilde’s Salomé was first published in French in 1893, after being banned from performance in London in 1892: for that production, Wilde had Sarah Bernhardt dressed in yellow and decorated the stage in yellow, because of the traditional yellow badge for Jews in medieval Europe — one detail which probably impressed itself on Chambers, who was himself a noted antisemite. Carcosa itself, of course, comes from Ambrose Bierce’s “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886).
So many of Chambers’s characteristic images and metaphors turn out, thanks to Hite’s sleuthing, to be recastings of similar tropes in rather more highbrow literature. What makes Chambers more than a simple plagiarist, however, is his imaginative synthesis of his sources and influences, in addition to what he chooses to leave unsaid. The suggestive absences and empty spaces in his only partly realized Carcosa Mythos leave room for readers to project their imaginations, and for other writers to take up the baton and explore the same territory. Whether Chambers chose not to fill in all the blanks out of deftness and subtlety or was simply too lazy to do so is another matter — but it is certainly true that writers like Karl Edward Wagner and Joseph S. Pulver have used those spaces as settings for their own masterpieces.
Chambers also gained something else from being on the ground in 1890s Paris: genuine horror at the prospect of death and madness from syphilitic infection, which he saw firsthand all around him. Maupassant died mad from syphilis in 1893, and Chambers had seen the example of countless lesser figures before him. Henrik Ibsen’s doggedly realist interpretation of this issue, Ghosts, debuted in 1882 — staged, appropriately enough, in Chicago. Chambers’s terror in the face of syphilitic infection is far more grounded and legitimate than Lovecraft’s terror of subversive immigrants. Modern critical maunderings about the allure of Forbidden Fruit for ’90s gentlefolk are a whole lot less pointed than the simple, direct, immediate equation, attested on every street corner: fuck and die. No wonder Chambers’s work is so rich with references to Eros and Thanatos.
Chambers duly generalized his personal fear of syphilis to a more widespread social anxiety about corruption and contamination, inextricably interwoven with the milieu of the Decadents and the avant-garde. “It is as though Decadence spreads like syphilis,” says Hite, ticking off the various associations of yellow with disease and decay — the quarantine flag, yellow fever, jaundice, et cetera. But the most effective propagation vector in the stories is the art itself.
The King in Yellow is presented by Chambers as a very real supernatural force, yet we learn far less about him than we do about a play of the same name — Chambers’s master metaphor for so much of the ’90s. He describes its composition and publication history in great detail, yet barely hints at its contents:
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.
This imaginary play is endowed with far more corrosive, corrupting power than the real-life Salomé ever had. Yet what else but exactly such fears could lead the English authorities to ban Salomé in 1892? The idea of a work of art as a public danger and social hazard was very real in the ’90s.
Himself a hunting and fishing aficionado, Chambers may have felt he had done his duty in issuing the Awful Warning once he returned from Paris to New York: he certainly had no sense of immediate peril back home to give his fiction urgency. Yet his invention of “The King in Yellow,” the play, is one of his other major claims to immortality, where he anticipates Borges and much subsequent writing. If you accept Chambers’s fiction on its own internal rationale, rather than as a coded warning against syphilis and degenerate living or both, then it looks to be a warning against exactly what China Miéville credits J. R. R. Tolkien with achieving: the “neurotic, self-contained, paranoid creation of a secondary world.” This “impossible world which believes in itself” has a power to distort, corrupt, and ultimately supplant reality — a power denied other, more allegorical or even symbolic artistic representations. The very vagueness and multivalence of the King in Yellow mythos, the multiplicity of sources and uncertainty of reference, mean that Carcosa, Ythill, and the black stars do not clearly stand for anything else: they are there in and for themselves, not necessarily signifying anything. Maybe Chambers was deliberately trying to do this, maybe not: he certainly created a very effective warning against the threat of such a world.
In case True Detective hadn’t already convinced you, it’s a warning that carries unexpected contemporary relevance. From QAnon to the Jeffrey Epstein story, neurotic, self-contained, and paranoid secondary worlds have shown a nasty mainstream prevalence lately (and that’s not even to mention the paranoid ravings of climate-change deniers and other purveyors of fake news and alternative facts). Indeed, many modern neo-pagans seem to have swallowed Tolkien’s neurotic, self-contained, paranoid secondary world whole, as a gateway drug to the neo-fascist maunderings of Odinism. It is a shame that the Phantom of Truth, another of Chambers’s coinages, seems distressingly absent these latter days.