006 — King in Yellow, Queen in also Yellow

Oh, a book about a book that you can’t read, that’s original. Next you’ll be telling me about a movie about a movie you can’t watch, on VHS no less. Oh wait, uh, nevermind. So, have you ever heard of Robert W. Chambers?

I honestly can’t tell any longer if these writers are obscure or not. I think he is, but let me know if he’s just so obvious that even the preppies know about him. He’s obscure because he was really popular and well-known in his time – about the beginning of the 20th century – but not for the stuff we actually read now. He wrote a lot of stuff, including terrible romance novels and some historical adventures, but his horror fiction is why we read him now. Not the awful teen pop romances he wrote. He was his generation’s Stephenie Meyer, except, you know, talented.

You may be wondering why I’ve done so much horror now. If we define horror broadly, I think all the history posts so far have been horror. Well, before a certain point in the history of the genre it was pretty much horror or nothing. At least in prose. We’ll be talking about some poetry later, oh yes.

So. Chambers. He wrote a decent amount of horror fiction. The big omnibus collection is a brick of a book, and it’s missing some of his stories – with good reason, probably. It says it’s “the complete weird fiction,” but I’ve read some of the stories it’s left out and they wouldn’t make for an easy sell for readers. They’re just not great.

But The King in Yellow is – and the short story in it, “The Yellow Sign.” Try to keep up with all the titles there. “The Yellow Sign” starts off with a quotation from the play The King in Yellow,” and goes directly into an effete American artist in Paris talking to his attractive young model, who is in love with him, but he doesn’t know it yet. Yes, this is gripping literature. They wander around his studio, smoke cigarettes, act like they’re painting or modeling, and basically have tension with each other.

Then the painter mentions the creepy guy outside his building, who looks like a lump of clay with legs. The model doesn’t like that, and eventually mentions a dream she had where the artist was dead and the creepy dude was driving the hearse by her window. OK, weird. They make out, she leaves, and he worries about making out, then goes to sleep after reading some of The King in Yellow.

The play, in this story and the others in the collection, is a play banned in most countries because of its horrible, blasphemous content. It’s never been performed. The artist, though, says the first act (of two) is banal and dull. He then has a dream where he’s trapped in a tight, dark space that seems to be moving. The coffin from his model’s dream, basically. That’s weird, and not at all explicable through normal means of conversational suggestion, right? Well, of course it’s not.

They worry around some more, he finishes the play, nearly losing his mind in the process; it turns out all the good stuff is in the second act. All we know for sure is that there’s a masquerade, two women ask a man to unmask when they do, and he tells them he has no mask. They’re horrified. I would be too if my friend had forgotten to wear a mask. I mean, it’s in the name of the party, homie.

So this play apparently makes people crazy. As in, it describes thing man was not meant to know! Not meant!

To!

Know!

Or something. In the story it works, because being vague at the right time actually makes for good horror, but it’s still pretty silly just to talk about it. In Chambers’ defense, that wasn’t exactly a common trope, a cliché, yet. He’s part of the reason it is now, actually. The story ends with the model buying a trinket and it turning out to be the Yellow Sign, the clay-guy breaking into the apartment when they’re both there, taking the Sign, and falling apart because he’s not human. This proceeds to make the artist crazy. I mean, he got fake human simulacrum all over the welcome mat, but just go to Target and buy another one. Man, artists…

The other famous story in the piece is about another artist who finds a chemical formula that will turn anything into marble, including rabbits and people. I couldn’t imagine that going poorly at all. At first I was weirded out by the happy ending – the artist and his wife are both marble and the narrator was in love with the wife, who loved him in return, and then he realizes they’re turning back and makes it in time to welcome his love back. Seems like a weird ending for a horror story. But then I realized they can be happy because, in a fit of rage, the narrator broke the artist’s statue long before, and he never mentions it in the ending. The woman doesn’t ask. That’s creepy, and the happy ending just makes it worse. Jeez.

Should you read Robert W. Chambers? Hell yes. Some of his horror stories are weak, but most of them are good at the least, and many are excellent. He toys around with time, mental states, tradition versus modernity, urbanity versus honesty, and all these laid out stark against a background of the unforgiving weird. He did an entire book of short pieces all about people living full, amazing lives in the moment of death. But always with a second of lucidity to realize it was all a lie. Oof.

The language is easy for us to read. The stories can seem a little repetitive, not because of the plots or weird elements, but because his narrators are often similar. I recommend reading each book apart, but do read each book together, not as a disparate collection. He designed most of his collections to be read together.

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