Sunday, April 28, 2013

The King in Yellow and Other Stories

by Robert W. Chambers

5 Stars for the wonderful opening story "The Repairer of Reputations".

The King in Yellowalthough i wonder if 'wonderful' is the correct word. after all, this is a story that opens with a bizarre, sometimes dire alterna-history leading up to a 1920s America that features public "Lethal Chambers" where the dispirited meet their final destination as on-lookers gather to contemplate this terminal disportment. and after this bit of surprising strangeness, the reader is plunged right into the mind of a classic Unreliable Narrator (the poor lad struck his head after a fall from a horse and was never quite the same again), complete with insanely grandiose ambitions and malicious thoughts of revenge and devious yet doltish plans for his enemies - who are everywhere, simply everywhere! with the added bonuses of the creepy title character, various books of ill repute, and some surreal shenanigans starring a peculiarly malevolent cat. all in all, it is a bracing and imaginative bit of darkness on the page. and, to me at least, quite wonderful. the style is so breezy, the pacing so brisk, the imagination so fertile and so oddly modern, the experience was pure pleasure. it is hard to believe that this story was written over a 100 years ago.

i also enjoyed the three tales of weird horror that followed. they did the job, and they did it right. interesting and off-kilter and pleasingly sinister - but perhaps nothing to write home about. the big take-away is the idea of a monstrous play ("The King in Yellow") that horribly impacts anyone who dares read it, and which is a key element in each of the first four stories.

here's an excerpt from said monstrous play (please don't kill yourself or anyone else after reading):

The King in YellowCamilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Indeed it's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.

Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

 if you are at all familiar with this author or classic Weird Fiction in general, then you know the drill. those first four stories (along with Ambrose Bierce's "An Inhabitant of Carcosa") set the template for much Weird Fiction to come, from H.P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith to Karl Edward Wagner and beyond. the names, the places, the idea of fell books of unhealthy influence, creeping dread, hysterical romanticism, humans viewed as repulsive insects... this story-cycle's place at the beginning of it all is well-known.

it is also a well-known disappointment. only those first four could be classified as Weird Fiction. a fifth, "The Demoiselle d'Ys", is an elegant, wispy ghost story/romance - and is also quite traditional. following that is "The Prophet's Paradise" - a collection of bits of ambiguous prose poetry, or impenetrable fable, or snatches from a larger tapestry never completed, or something.

The King in Yellow and Other Horror Storiesthe remaining four tales (each fancifully titled after certain streets) have barely a whiff of horror about them and so have met a chilly reception over the years from Weird Fiction enthusiasts. they are all about living the lifestyle of a bohemian art student abroad in bohemian Paris' bohemian Latin Quarter. think Trilby minus Svengali. they are about romance, art, naive americans, lack of money, enticing but sometimes tragic whores, some bloodshed (at least in one story), a sad and lonely ending (in another story), some unbearable lightness of being... what it feels like to be young and artistic and ready to enjoy life in a bustling and sometimes violent big city. these stories were slim, rather quaint, rather witty, and quite vibrant. i particularly enjoyed "The Street of the First Shell", which plunges the reader into a you-are-there-now account of the milieu itself and then what it feels like to suddenly find yourself in the middle of a bloody, confusing battle full of chaos, terror, and death.

overall this is an unusual and surprisingly quirky collection of stories. none of them were failures, all of them were interesting, and a couple really sang.


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