Robert W. Chambers: Sentimental Horrification

[There are no spoilers in this essay.]

In the catalogues of used booksellers who specialize in early fantasy and horror, there is a phrase that recurs when describing volumes of short fiction: "A mixed collection." This means that the book in question is a potpourri of short stories and that only some are weird or supernatural. In an era of specialization, we sometimes forget that earlier authors, especially those who lived by their pens, often wrote for multiple markets and in several genres. For example, the chronicler of fine consciences Henry James and the once-popular humorist W. W. Jacobs both produced haunting classics of supernatural fiction, "The Turn of the Screw" (1898) and "The Monkey's Paw" (1902), respectively. The latter was published in a book of primarily comic tales.

Robert W. Chambers's The King in Yellow is just such a "mixed collection." Its first five stories -- "The Repairer of Reputations," "The Mask," "In the Court of the Dragon," "The Yellow Sign," and "The Demoiselle d'Ys" -- are all fantastic and subtly linked, mainly through the motif of an evil book titled The King in Yellow. To read its pages, to learn about Carcosa, Hastur, and the Pallid Mask, is to risk madness and worse. However, these five stories -- to which we shall soon return -- are succeeded by a series of prose poems, a form made popular in France by Charles Baudelaire. Their dramatis personae include a clown and a jester, a Pierrot and the personification of Love, among other characters, all very much in the wan symbolist mode of the 1890s. One of the pieces, "Destiny," turns Kafka's parable "Before the Law" on its head.

The last half of The King in Yellow then presents a quartet of stories about young American artists in Paris, doubtless derived from Chambers's memories of the seven years he spent there studying drawing and painting. (He himself created a fabulously evocative poster advertising The King in Yellow -- see the detail from the illustration above.) These four stories vary greatly in tone, though they are all, loosely speaking, about love (as are, for that matter, at least three of the earlier supernatural tales). "The Street of the First Shell," for instance, is set during the Franco-Prussian War and includes a phantasmagoric account of battle that would do credit to Ambrose Bierce (a writer we know that Chambers read). "The Street of Our Lady of the Fields" chronicles the deepening friendship between a naïve young American and a sexually experienced Parisian model -- it would have made a terrific tear-jerker with, say, the youthful Jimmy Stewart and Ingrid Bergman at her most radiant. The last story in the book, "Rue Barree" -- about a beautiful music student who is pursued by all the artists in the Latin Quarter -- culminates in a magnificent two-page description of drunkenness. After leaving a highly liquid dinner party, the befuddled Selby doesn't quite know where he is:

He turned and steered his course towards some lights clustered at the end of the street. They proved farther away than he had anticipated, and after a long quest he came to the conclusion that his eyes had been mysteriously removed from their proper places and had been reset on either side of his head like those of a bird. It grieved him to think of the inconvenience this transformation might occasion him, and he attempted to cock up his head, hen-like, to test the mobility of his neck. Then an immense despair stole over him -- tears gathered in the tear-ducts, his heart melted, and he collided with a tree.

The intoxicated Selby's late-night adventures are just beginning.

But as good as these stories are -- and they are very good indeed -- nobody now reads The King in Yellow for its raffish accounts of "La Bohème." While the color in its title already calls to mind 1890s decadence -- think of the magazine The Yellow Book or the poisonous French work, in yellow covers, referred to in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray -- Chambers darkens that bright color into a hue of cosmic horror.

"Cosmic horror" itself is a term most often linked to H. P. Lovecraft, so it's no surprise that the creator of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth praised Chambers's writing. In Supernatural Horror in Literature, he described The King in Yellow as "a series of vaguely connected short stories having as a background a monstrous and suppressed book whose perusal brings fright, madness, and spectral tragedy," adding that Chambers's work "really achieves notable heights of cosmic fear.... The most powerful of its tales, perhaps, is "The Yellow Sign," in which is introduced a silent and terrible churchyard watchman with a face like a puffy grave-worm's." Lovecraft further notes that several of the names and allusions associated with the accursed book derive from Bierce, most notably his story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa." This is essentially an extended prose poem, a description of a macabre landscape where the rocks seem to communicate unspoken messages and the sky is hung low with lead-colored clouds. It eventually turns out that the narrator, who is searching for "the ancient and famous city of Carcosa," is actually -- I said I wouldn't include any spoilers, but you can probably guess.

In "The Repairer of Reputations," a man named Hildred Castaigne first discovers The King in Yellow -- apparently the published version of a play -- while convalescing from a head injury:

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.

Later, Castaigne visits the hovel of a disfigured, earless dwarf, who has information about "the Dynasty of Carcosa, the lakes which connected Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades." This creature out of Poe quietly mutters to himself, "The scalloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhtill forever," and there are disturbing allusions to the Yellow Sign, "which no living human being dared disregard." Throughout this brilliant and bizarre story, Chambers subtly blurs the real and the imagined, the insane and the horrific.

"The Repairer of Reputations" is set in an alternate 1920, when world peace and the right to legal suicide have been established. In a sense, then, it could be labeled early science fiction, featuring as it does a government-established "Lethal Chamber" on the south side of New York's Washington Square. Near this building's door stands a marble group called The Three Fates, the work of the young American sculptor Boris Yvain, "who had died in Paris when only twenty-three years old."

In "The Mask" we learn more about Boris Yvain, his troubled model Genevieve and their painter friend Alec. Boris, it turns out, has discovered a chemical process that can turn living beings into perfect stone sculptures. Like Hildred Castaigne, the unfortunate Alec also happens upon a copy of The King in Yellow and later cannot forget what he has read:

I thought, too, of the King in Yellow wrapped in the fantastic colors of his tattered mantle, and that bitter cry of Cassilda, "Not upon us, O King, not upon us!" Feverishly I struggled to put it from me, but I saw the Lake of Hali, thin and blank, without a ripple or wind to stir it, and I saw the towers of Carcosa behind the moon. Aldebaran, the Hyades, Alar, Hastur, glided through the cloud rifts which fluttered and flapped as they passed like the scalloped tatters of the King in Yellow.

In the original 1895 edition of Chambers's book the next story is "In the Court of the Dragon." Without comment, it is simply left out of the 1938 Memorial Edition of The King in Yellow, probably because certain aspects verge on the sacrilegious. In this nightmarish narrative a young man finds himself stalked by a mysterious organist whom he had glimpsed during Mass. Is the narrator mad, like others in Chambers's work? His experiences, whatever their degree of reality, lead to a terrifying epiphany: "And now I heard his voice, rising, swelling, thundering through the flaring light, and as I fell, the radiance increasing, increasing, poured over me in waves of flame. Then I sank into depths, and I heard the King in Yellow whispering to my soul: 'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!' "

"The Yellow Sign" is related by a painter named Scott (perhaps the Jack Scott who appears in "The Mask"?) and contains a reference to "the tragedy of young Castaigne." It is the most viscerally distressing story in the whole book, and Lovecraft hints at its ghoulishness though not its terrifying denouement. "The Demoiselle d'Ys," by contrast, is serenely exquisite, a time-slip romance in which a young hunter wanders into a medieval world deep in the Breton woods. It reads like a forgotten fairy tale. There are no references to bleak Carcosa or the King in Yellow.

Robert W. Chambers (1865‑1933) enjoyed a long career as a popular writer, turning out dozens of sentimental romances and historical novels. Many of his books carry frontispieces by, or in the manner of, his friend Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the elegant, bouffant-haired "Gibson Girl." My copy of Chambers's The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906) -- which gave rise to an early radio program, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons -- bears just such a cover illustration, a now faded cameo of a faintly smiling society beauty. The keepsake album design clearly suggests a book for the boudoir or salon rather than a thriller for the lounge at the men's club.

Though he would never again match the sickly-sweet evil of The King in Yellow, Chambers did return occasionally to the supernatural. In Search of the Unknown, for example, focuses on the youthful superintendent of  the bird and wildfowl department of  the Bronx Zoo, who -- like Lord Dunsany's Joseph Jorkens or Baron Munchausen -- undergoes a variety of strange adventures around the world. Our hero, his name is Gilland, discovers great auks and living mammoths, helps prove the existence of the Ux, and even encounters gilled humanoids off the New England coast and invisible creatures who reside deep in a Florida swamp and swarm to the smell of fresh-baked apple pie. Near the end of the book, Gilland meets a young writer, Harold Kensett (author of Culled Cowslips), who relates his own similar experiences with reincarnation, mind reading, and astral projection. (Kensett's stories are actually repurposed from Chambers's 1896 collection, The Maker of Moons.) E. F. Bleiler reprinted the first three of these amusing tall tales in The King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories, but the whole collection is worth looking for. In many ways just fliply commercial magazine fiction -- its bachelor heroes fall for one blue-eyed Gibson Girl after another -- In Search of the Unknown nonetheless remains more than mildly delightful.

The Slayer of Souls, however, explores darker themes. This occult thriller -- some of its more numinous elements first appeared in the short story "The Maker of Moons" -- works the same vein as Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu mysteries and the 1930s shudder pulps. To enjoy it, one must put aside high-minded critical principles and approach the book as the equivalent of The Shadow radio serials or a Marvel superhero comic. Here's the plot: After the death of her parents in China, adolescent Tressa Norne is compelled to become a "temple girl" in Yian, the forbidden city of the Yezidee, an ancient order of sorcerers. Over time, convinced that her soul is now forfeit to the Satan-like god Erlik, the delicate young beauty becomes an adept in the dark arts, as well as the intended bride of Sanang, the Prince of the Yezidee. But during a battle with invading Japanese, Tressa manages to flee Yian and take passage on a steamer home to America. There, she hopes to escape her past and remake her life.

The Yezidee, however, fear that the fugitive temple girl will betray their secrets, in particular a nefarious plan for world domination. These devil worshippers, it turns out, actually control the minds of all "the enemies of civilization." And who might these be? Here Chambers reveals some of the simplistic, and offensive, prejudices of his era: The threat to America is "anarchy," and the Yezidee are behind all the "Reds, parlour-socialists, enemy-aliens, terrorists, Bolsheviki, pseudo-intellectuals, I.W.W.'s, social faddists and amateur meddlers of every nuance -- all the various varieties of the vicious, witless and mentally unhinged."  

To eliminate Tressa, eight Yezidee sorcerers are dispatched to the United States. In the meantime, though, the Secret Service recruits this lonely young woman, gifted with such strange powers. At first, no one in the agency wholly believes in the occult forces being massed to destroy what is regularly described as the Christian and American way of life. But before long, the head of the Secret Service recognizes that Tressa Norne alone possesses the occult knowledge required to defeat the disciples of Erlik and to thwart their insidiously evil designs. "If the Yezidee kill her," he says quietly, "then I do not see what is to save civilization from utter disintegration and total destruction." But are Tressa's mental powers sufficient, is her magic strong enough?

In the course of the novel, Tressa destroys one killer with a yellow adder created out of airy nothing, confronts a deadly "young man in white flannels," calls for astral assistance from her two closest friends among the temple girls, forestalls the creation of an army of artificial soldiers, and eventually learns that her former lover, Sanang, is now the head of an Al-Qaeda-like terrorist organization called the Oriental League.

At the same time, Chambers -- no doubt keeping his usual audience in mind -- inserts into this pulpy action thriller an almost screwball comedy subplot. To guard Tressa from assassination, Secret Service agent Victor Cleves -- well meaning and manly, though actually rather hopeless and ineffectual -- must remain with her at all times. But to live together without being married would ruin the young woman's reputation! So the two enter into a marriage of convenience, simply to preserve the decencies and with no attendant hanky-panky. Naturally, Mr. and Mrs. Cleves fall in love with each other. Still, there remains the vexing question of Tressa's soul: Is she really in bondage to Erlik, or, as Victor Cleves maintains, is this just a Yezidee lie and her immortal soul remains safely in God's keeping?

Tressa is, like many a modern superhero, a riven personality. At times she acts the meek and seemingly docile wife of Victor Cleves, at other times she waxes nostalgic over her free-spirited years as a temple girl. Because of that earlier life spent among depraved sorcerers, she feels wholly unworthy of any good man's love. What's more, some of Cleves's male colleagues are frightened by her powers:

Suddenly the first moonbeam fell across the wall. And in its luster Tressa rose to her knees and flung up her right hand.

Then it was as though her palm caught and reflected the moon's ray, and hurled it in one blinding shaft straight into the dark visage of Tiyang-Khan.

The Yezidee fell as though he had been pierced by a shaft of steel, and lay sprawling there on the grass in the ghastly glare.

Like so many writers of his era, Robert W. Chambers was, above all, an entertainer, equally adept at generating fear, comedy, romance, or suspense. He never approached the level of, say, Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells, yet his work remains accomplished and smoothly readable. He will, I suppose, always be best known for those first five unsettling stories in The King in Yellow, stories that continue to influence later horror writers, as well as musicians, artists, and even the creators of the TV show True Detective. Still, out of Chambers's voluminous oeuvre clearly a few other books also deserve to be remembered and sampled by adventurous readers. Despite, or even because of, their period embarrassments, I certainly found that In Search of the Unknown and The Slayer of Souls provided two days worth of kitschy, guilty pleasure, but pleasure all the same.

About the Columnist
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays. His most recent book is Classics for Pleasure.

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