Thursday, June 24, 2010

No Sunflower This!

A line in Smut Clyde's latest post reminded me of a classic, underappreciated series of "weird tales":

It is a tribute to their perceptual acuity that they headed straight for a "King in Yellow" sunflower with their cargo.

Robert W. Chambers was an author of "genre fiction" whose career straddled the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While he was a prolific author of romance fiction, he is best known today for a collection of "weird tales" published in 1895, which revolve around a play, The King in Yellow, which can drive its readers mad. Mentioned in the ficticious play are various locales cribbed from Ambrose Bierce's 1891 short-short story An Inhabitant of Carcosa.

The first tale in Chambers' King in Yellow cycle is The Repairer of Reputations, set in the futuristic world of 1920, a world in which suicide is legal, and every town has a Government Lethal Chamber available to the despondent (NYC's is on the south side of Washington Square, a bad location due to the presence of stressed-out NYU students and losing chess players). The protagonist of the story has succumbed to the fatal charms of the play, which has all the seductive, yet damning, characteristics of an opiate:

During my convalescence I had bought and read for the first time "The King in Yellow." I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the fire-light. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing from the hearth and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa, where black stars hang in the heavens, where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali, and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth -- a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow. When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. 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 afterwards with more awful effect.

As Chambers incorporated motifs from the work of Bierce, Lovecraft and his imitators incorporated motifs from Chambers' works. The very notion of a destructive, madness-inducing book is a common plot element in the tales of the "Cthulhu mythos". While the idea that a book could endanger one's soul is an ancient one, such terrifying tomes as The Necronomicon or The Book of Eibon owe a greater debt to Chambers' King in Yellow than to the Papal Index.


Smut Clyde said...

I was thinking about this the other day after watching Pontypool. The trope is still around in contemporary SF, though updated a bit, so in up-to-date terms the plot element is "A concept that acts as a brainworm and crashes the brain's software".

Robert Anton Wilson parodied the madness-inducing-book trope in Masks of the Illuminati, in which the blasphemous tome turns out to be a Mother Goose Storybook. I think Chesterton made fun of it too in one of the Father Brown stories, but I can't be arsed looking up which one.

a Government Lethal Chamber available to the despondent

Enough of a recurring theme in dystopias from US authors to become a background detail in Futurama.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

"A concept that acts as a brainworm and crashes the brain's software".

Ah, yes:

Black Ice. Ice that kills. Illegal, but then aren't we all? Some kind of neural-feedback weapon, and you connect with it only once. Like some hideous Word that eats the mind from the inside.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Black Ice

Smut Clyde said...

Now I'm reminded of Hofstadter & Dennett's discussion of this trope. They argue that a sufficiently accurate music-reproduction system is inherently self-destructive, because it can be asked to play music that is loud enough or resonant at the right frequencies to shake the system apart. From there it's a jump to the argument (with some hand-waving involved) that a sufficiently versatile thinking apparatus is vulnerable in the same way.

Fortunately our human brains are not designed to be universally versatile thinking apparatuses. At best, we can be presented with thought-systems that just degrade our cognitive abilities a bit without crashing the system completely.

"Religions", that's the word I was looking for.

Smut Clyde said...

Other Black Ice-related activities.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

They argue that a sufficiently accurate music-reproduction system is inherently self-destructive, because it can be asked to play music that is loud enough or resonant at the right frequencies to shake the system apart.

That reminds me of a Kate Bush song.