Imagine my surprise when the local news radio station mentioned one of my favorite collections of "weird tales" from the 19th/20th century cusp- sure enough, Robert Chambers' King in Yellow is now on the Amazon bestseller list due to the popularity of the Cable TV series True Detective.
The tales which make up Chambers' "King in Yellow" sequence are in the public domain. The first The Repairer of Reputations, is a science fiction story set in New York City twenty-five years in the future (1920), when suicide by means of "Government Lethal Chambers" has been made legal. The second tale, The Mask concerns a fatal love triangle among Parisian artists, one of whom has invented a chemical which can petrify organic matter. The third story in the cycle, also set in Paris In the Court of the Dragon, is about a man obsessed by a "hateful" church organist. The final tale, The Yellow Sign returns to a Manhattan setting and involves an artist who is coming to grips with his new-found love for one of his models.
The common thread among these stories is the fictional play The King in Yellow, a literary work that has the power to drive readers to madness:
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 literary anarchists. No definite principals 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 afterward with more awful effect.
Chambers drops vignettes from the play into his stories- the play concerns the inhabitants of Carcosa, a locale borrowed from a short-short story by Ambrose Bierce. The Carcosa of Chambers' play-within-a-story is a dreamscape of black stars and twin suns:
Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
SF author James Blish "added" to Chambers' text of The King in Yellow in his story More Light, and other authors have attempted to "reconstruct" the entire play. Of course, if the entire "play" could be produced, the resultant work would leave madness and horror in its wake... could this explain the rise of the Tea Party?
Here's some bonus content regarding The Court of the Dragon featuring commentary by everyone's favorite sexy antipodean Doktor. In honor of Herr Doktor Awesome, here's Blue Öyster Cult's E.T.I., which references the "King in Yellow":
Now, after writing all that about Robert Chambers' book, I feel I may have to track down the TV series that sparked its newfound popularity. Any readers out there hooked on the show?