Essay by Ted Gioia

Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933) wrote at least 87 books, but only one is still
read today.
The King in Yellow is a strange and marvelous collection of short
stories, first published in 1895, but still capable of stirring up readers in the
21st century. In 2014, sales spiked again when
The King in Yellow was touted
as the “one literary reference you must know” to understand the award-
winning TV show
True Detective. But
producer and script writer Nic Pizzolatto
came to Robert W. Chambers late in the
game. This pioneer of genre fiction had
already inspired
H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond
Chandler,
Robert Heinlein, Stephen King,
Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, and
many other authors, not to mention
video game developers, rock bands,
filmmakers and other creative spirits.

But what a strange, indefinable book it is.
The King in Yellow is typically classified
as a collection of weird tales, but that
captures only a small part of this work,
which starts out with a science fiction
story and ends up with Chambers' attempts
at romantic comedy. Clearly the volume  
stakes out the author’s claims as a genre
writer, but the reader is left to puzzle over
which genre. The horror stories, for which
Chambers is best known nowadays, all
appear in the first half of the book, and the
second half is so radically different that one might be excused for wondering
whether a different writer had taken charge of it.

Fans delighted by these weird tales have sought for others in Chambers’ later
publications. But they have little to enjoy in these other works. More than 90%
of his output focused on stories outside the horror genre. His greatest
successes during his lifetime came with flamboyant romance tales, such as
The
Fighting Chance
(1906) and The Younger Set (1907), both bestsellers in their
day, and probably considered very dicey by the standards of their time. Books
such as these helped Chambers live in the grand style. He resided in a
mansion in upstate New York, where he collected Asian art and devoted his
idle hours to hunting and fishing.

Readers of
The King in Yellow get a taste of this side of Chambers in the last
two stories, the novellas "The Street of Our Lady of the Fields" and "Rue
Barrée."  Here we find stylishly-written forerunners to the genre romances of
our own day.  Charming but sentimental men fall head over heals in love with
young ladies from lower social strata. Chambers hints at scandalous and
sensual activities, but always stops short at describing anything that might
upset a censor or legal authority. These stories are written with grace and
occasionally suggest that this author might have been capable of a masterpiece
of social realism. His eye for detail is acute, and his characters know how to
take charge of a scene. But Chambers makes clear his low ambitions at the
conclusion of each of these romances, when he reaches for the most
sentimental and obvious way of resolving his tales.

But no one reads Robert W. Chambers for his
romance stories nowadays. If  you abandon
The
King in Yellow
after page 100, you will have
acquainted  yourself with the main works that
inspired Lovecraft and later purveyors of  weird
tales.  The first five stories in the collection are
exceptional, and if  Chambers had devoted more
energy to works of this sort, he might rank today
among the masters of non-realist fiction. Instead
he is mostly remembered as a footnote in the history
of the horror tale, a figure who influenced other,
greater talents.

I would call your attention to the opening story in this volume. "The Repairer
of Reputations" ranks among the finest nineteenth century works of genre
fiction, and I place much of my faith in this author's potential greatness on the
evidence of this one magnificent story.  The tale is ostensibly a science fiction
story, and seems to anticipate the advent of World War I. But Chambers is
bursting with ideas and every page threatens to go off in a new, unexpected
direction. Elements of other genres start appearing, and threaten to take over
the story. Perhaps this is a crime story, or a horror story, or a romance, or a war
story.

The constant shifts in subject and bizarre juxtapositions even allow us to praise
"The Repairer of Reputations" as a forerunner of 20th century absurdist and
postmodern literature. Parts of this crazy work remind me of
Borges, Calvino
and Nabokov, and at times I wondered whether Chambers wasn't aiming to
parody genre literature in this tale. But I eventually concluded that he was
dead serious, and no deconstruction is intended. Yet how many 19th century
stories of this sort incorporate an unreliable narrator and so many other
elements that we associate with fiction of a century later?

We even find a forerunner here of the "deadly entertainment" that looms large
in David Foster Wallace’s
Infinite Jest. And though I can comprehend why this
concept—in essence, the notion of a piece of consumer entertainment that
destroys the minds of its audience—appealed to a visionary author who wanted
to critique pop culture at the close of the 20th century, I am both befuddled
and intrigued by a writer in the Victorian era who came up with the identical
idea. In the case of Chambers, the fatal diversion is a dramatic work called "The
King in Yellow," which destroys the lives of anyone unfortunate enough to
make its acquaintance.

Here too we find hints of the homemade mythology that stands out in
Chambers’ oeuvre.  This is perhaps the most influential aspect of his work, and
set the stage of the
Cthulhu Mythos of Lovecraft’s stories, and the many other
alternative universes of later fantasy and science fiction. The reader hears
breathless rumors about mythical places (some borrowed from the writings of
Ambrose Bierce) such as Carcosa, Hastur, Yhtill, and Aldebaran. Chambers
only hints, in the most oblique manner, at what these names represent, but
they contribute to the dark and ominous tone that pervades his weird tales.

This aspect of Chambers’ work obviously
fascinated Nic Pizzolatto, who suggest in
the following dialogue from
True Detective,
that modern-day crimes might have a
connection to these mythic signifiers:

"He said that there's this place down south
where all these rich men go to, uh, devil
worship. He said that, uh, they—they
sacrifice kids and whatnot. Women and
children all got—all got murdered there
and, um, something about someplace
called Carcosa and the Yellow King."

Chambers includes sly references to Carcosa  
and "a “King in Yellow" in some of the later
stories, but by then he had either lost interest
in the concept, or (perhaps more likely) lacked
the ambition to build his private mythology into
something grander. Indeed, the modest goals
of this author are his chief weakness. I can't
help agreeing with the verdict issued on Chambers by Lovecraft, who stated
that this predecessor was "equipped with the right brains and education but
wholly out of the habit of using them." In a similar vein, Chambers’
contemporary Frederic Taber Cooper offered the following equivocal praise:
"So much of Mr Chambers' work exasperates, because we feel that he might so
easily have made it better."

The remaining stories in
The King in Yellow
are less iconoclastic than "The Repairer of
Reputations," but four of them are outstanding
works and deserve the attention of anyone interested
in the history of the horror tale. "The Mask" draws
on a favorite subject of this author, the romantic
exploits of artists in Paris, but here a sculptor invents
a new technique for turning living creatures into
vividly realistic statues.  If Lovecraft had been an
American ex-pat living in France, he might have written
a story of this sort. Two subsequent tales, "In the
Court of the Dragon" and "The Yellow Sign" draw on
a familiar trope of  horror fiction: the protagonist is
haunted by a frightening individual in the  neighborhood.
In the former instance, the villain is a malevolent church organist and, in the
latter, a creepy church watchman. The plots here are fairly  predictable, but
the writing is strong and the mood intense. "The Demoiselle of Y's" is a more
peculiar story, combining gothic horror, romance and time travel  in a striking
manner. It reminds us of Chamber’s skill at mixing a range of  genre styles,
and leads me to speculate that the core of his greatest successes  lay in his
knack for combining the distinctive ingredients of each in surprising new
hybrids.

But at this stage of
The King in Yellow, not quite the midway point of the
volume, Chambers loses steam. He inserts a few pages of eccentric prose
poems that seem to suggest that this book may turn into something avant-
garde and otherworldly. But then our author fills the rest of his collection with
romance stories about Parisians, polished in their own way, but an unwelcome
intrusion into a book that warrants consideration as a masterpiece of strange
fiction.

So I carp and complain. But don’t let my laments dissuade you from reading
this book—or at least reading the first half of it. The best parts of
The King in
Yellow
are masterful.  Under slightly different circumstances, Chambers might
have been the great horror author during that long 70-year interlude between
the death of Poe and the rise of Lovecraft. Alas, he wasn't. Instead, we must
assign that honor elsewhere, probably to Bierce or Machen. So if I chastise
Robert W. Chambers, it is merely because he got so caught up in developing his
talent that he neglected his genius.


Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to
Listen to Jazz
from Basic Books.


Publication Date: April 25, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
annus
horribilis
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
Dracula
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
Carrie
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
Tales
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
Nausea
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers
To purchase, click on image
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
The Author of 'The King in Yellow'
Could Have Been the King of Horror


Robert W. Chambers Left Behind 87 Books, but is
Remembered for Just One, Very Strange Volume
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.
Tales

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

_____


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


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All rights reserved.
Parts of this crazy
work remind me of
Borges, Calvino and
Nabokov
, and at
times I wondered
whether Chambers
wasn't aiming to
parody genre literature
...
Under slightly different
circumstances, Chambers
might have been the great
horror author during that
long 70-year interlude
between the death of Poe
and the rise of Lovecraft.
Alas, he wasn't....