Monday, April 7, 2014

In the Court of the Yellow King


I don't recall with any clarity when I first read Robert W. Chambers' series of King in Yellow stories; it was probably sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. I can't say they grabbed me. I understood that these tales influenced H. P. Lovecraft, and that they themselves borrowed names from stories by Ambrose Bierce, whose work I had enjoyed since I first read it in college, but Chambers' prose — typical late Victorian era — and the themes of his stories failed to engage me as did the fiction of Bierce or Poe or Wells or Lovecraft, whose authorial voices, to me, tonally enhanced their works. For several years afterward, I thought very little of The King in Yellow.

Then, in 1997, there or about, the good Dr. Robert M. Price edited an anthology for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu fiction line titled The Hastur Cycle, which featured a couple of Chambers' stories — "The Repairer of Reputations" and "The Yellow Sign" — along with numerous other tales that used Chambers' work as a backdrop or jumping-off point, written by such familiar authors as H. P. Lovecraft, Karl Edward Wagner, Lin Carter, and others. While Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness" only obliquely referred to the King in Yellow mythos, as many of the tales in the book revolved around it as around Chambers' own. This is no doubt because, once elements of Chambers' work found their way into Lovecraft's, it was inevitable that August Derleth and others might appropriate those elements and dilute or remove whatever essence might remain of Chambers' original. However, from this volume, two stories in particular caught my notice and gave me an entirely new appreciation for Chambers: James Blish's "More Light," which included an entire script — or most of one, anyway — of the play, "The King in Yellow"; and Karl Edward Wagner's "The River of Night's Dreaming."

Now, you may well know that Chambers' stories are founded on this play of his own creation, but like Lovecraft's Necronomicon, it existed only in fragments, with virtually no context. All we know from Chambers' work is that reading the play leads to madness or death. We know that it includes characters such as the inhuman King in Yellow, Cassilda, Camilla, the Phantom of Truth; and locations such as Carcosa, Hastur, the Lake of Hali, Alar, Dheme, and Aldeberan. We know that the play's first act is so mundane as to induce boredom, while reading even a few words of the second act inexorably draws in the reader and drives him or her mad with its revelations of "irresistible truths."

Blish's "More Light" was, by the author's own admission, ambitious and doomed to failure, yet the script he concocted, while hardly sufficient to drive one mad, possessed an allure that, for me personally, became the "King in Yellow," the play that Chambers himself could not and would not have attempted to write. Lin Carter built on Blish's story by turning a portion of the script into actual verse, though not very memorably. Chambers himself referred to Hastur specifically as a place, while Lovecraft left references to Hastur ambiguous, open to readers' interpretations. Derleth, however, made Hastur into another Great Old Entity, weakening, if not entirely severing, any connections to Chambers' mythos. Lin Carter attempted to reconcile these disparate interpretations, resulting in a few fragmented pieces that Price published under the apt title "Tatters of the King," but this attempt, while perhaps noble, proved ultimately underwhelming.

Wagner's "River of Night's Dreaming" merged contemporary reality both with aspects of the play and the speculative history that Chambers devised for his interrelated stories. Wagner's story, with its vivid imagery and memorable characterizations, haunted me much as had Blish's, and it was these tales that prompted me to revisit Chambers' original work. With so many intervening years since my first exposure to that small body of King in Yellow tales, and now armed with new appreciation for the subject matter due to the work of these later authors, in rereading Chambers, I found myself drawn into a domain so surreal and tragic that I actually found it emotionally draining — particularly the story "The Yellow Sign." While no script could possibly live up to the power attributed to it, Blish's version — which is to some (myself included) canonical — created a foundation for Chambers' tales that he himself had never imagined. This foundation is hardly necessary, but its best, most important function may be that it drives one to take another look at and even re-evaluate Chambers' original stories. Taken together, many of the various works in the King in Yellow cycle seem to offer glimpses of a realm that is not a single author's creation, but that exists and permits assorted authors to glimpse and then reveal small portions of it.

In more recent years, the King in Yellow has enjoyed some resurgence in the dark fiction community and has inspired many new works by numerous authors, such as Joseph S. Pulver Sr., whose collections Blood Will Have Its Season and Sin and Ashes, as well as the anthology, A Season in Carcosa, which he edited, have enjoyed considerable acclaim. Now, editor Glynn Owen Barrass has assembled a new anthology titled In the Court of the Yellow King, due in fall 2014 from Celaeno Press. This volume includes my story, "The Masque of the Queen," as well as new work by many names familiar to aficionados of Chambers and Lovecraft — not to mention from the pages of Deathrealm — such as Willie Meikle, Christine Morgan, Edward Morris, Robert M. Price, W. H. Pugmire, Peter Rawlik, and Jeffrey Thomas. The cover, shown above, is by award-winning artist Daniele Serra. You can read more about In the Court of the Yellow King from Celaeno Press here.

I will post any and all updates about the book here, so... as always... do stay tuned.

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