Friday, September 21, 2012

This Week's Book: The King in Yellow

This entry is admittedly disjointed. Read this book - you'll see why.

September 16-22: The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Horror (1895 - 133 pp.) 

The King in Yellow is notorious for its place in the short and often obscure history of weird tales. The combination of hinted supernatural and overt grotesque make this a chilling read, often genuinely scary. The first four stories deal with "The King in Yellow", an almost all unseen play that plunges its readers into madness and despair; the middle of the book is concerned with non-play grotesqueness and quick bites; and the last half or so consists of stories about American students living in Paris. 

The part of the book concerned with the play I found gripping in same way I enjoyed Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the White Powder" from the same year. Themes of obsession and insanity mark both, with the play's impact on its readers having this ethereal drug-like quality that eventually ruins them. "The Repairer of Reputations" especially has an incredible concept, complete with billing for the repair, and the Yellow Sign is just about the creepiest thing in literature. The stories in the middle of the book lack the play and the Sign, yet they have elements like a seemingly dead man who is seen alternately in dreams and on the street. "The Green Room" is less than a page but probably has the highest ratio of impact to words of anything I have ever read. "The Love Test" is like something out of a 19th-century LSAT if those had existed. The way Chambers twists his situations to emphasize the dark nature and arbitrary actions of his characters make otherwise absurd situations seem all the more real. (It is safe to say the chat between a clown and a Grim Reaper set to a Snow White theme could not be cast as realism, for example.) Aside from Chambers's 'cross-the-pond contemporary in Machen, there is a great deal of influence from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and even a little from The Picture of Dorian Gray. Within the drug-addled 1890s, the idea of external possession of the human body took form in supernatural horror like this. 

What I did not find quite as effective were Chambers's attempts at Henry James-style travel writing. The stories about the American students in Paris sometimes provided interesting background semi-related to the earlier stories. Indeed, Chambers is effective in his use of recurring characters. I found his students not all that interesting as people, though. Stories about American students in Paris seem like a clichĂ© now, not so much then, so I can only hold so much against Chambers on that point. The first half or so of The King in Yellow is absolutely classic. 

"You have seized the throne and the empire. Woe! woe to you who are crowned with the crown of the King in Yellow!" 

Ease of Reading: 4 
Educational Content: 4

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