Wordsworth, £2.99, ISBN 978-1-84022-644-7
Horror, 2010 (Reissue)
It’s October and the TBR Challenge offers the option of reviewing a paranormal story. Of course I will be doing something that can be considered horror. Here’s The King in Yellow.
The late Robert W Chambers wrote mostly fiction that was considered romances in those days in the early 1900s, which is why you don’t see many of those stories these days. Of course, he made lots of money from that, even if his peers and critics thought him a sell-out for supposedly squandering his talent on pap. Ironically, one of his greatest critics was HP Lovecraft, who never made much money from his days and whose works were recognized and celebrated mostly after his death. Ironic, because The King in Yellow, Mr Chambers’s most enduring work to this day, is inspired by Mr Lovecraft’s works, and this one is considered one of the most celebrated titles in the collection of works known as the Cthulhu Mythos.
The Cthulhu Mythos, if you’re not aware, is somewhat like a shared universe of sorts, as multiple authors drew inspiration from Mr Lovecraft’s setting for his more famous tales, and expanded the setting with their own ideas, often with Mr Lovecraft’s blessing. The universe here is a scary one, of course, but it is scary because it is often always about ordinary people just making one small step and discovering a terrifying secret about reality just under their nose. It is terrifying because it often involves dark, primordial deities whose general apathy about good or evil makes their destructive tendencies even more frightening because they just are. They may carelessly destroy all of existence, but they do it because they can and our existence means nothing to them. It’s like people trampling on a dead ant without realizing it. They are unfathomable, and the form of worship from their followers are often debased to our eyes. And they are just at our doorstep, or within merely a summoning ritual away from coming to our world, while our own gods are too far away to even hear our cries of terror.
Mr Chambers’s own addition to the Mythos is more small-scale: a banned book called The King in Yellow. Its author allegedly shot himself in the head after finishing it, while the book itself is widely banned everywhere. Of course, this means that people are more eager to read it, and the result is often disastrous for the reader. As with all things dark and gruesome, messing with it means madness and eventually ruination. Or perhaps it’s salvation rather than ruination, and freedom from the mortal coil may be actually a reprieve rather than tragedy?
That’s the key theme in the first few stories in this collection. Yes, it’s a collection of stories rather than a single story, and you can also know that someone is lying about having read this book when they claim that it’s horror. Yes, I put this review under horror because that’s the genre in which the majority of the stories here fall into, but this collection is actually what they call weird fiction. The last two stories are hardly horror by any means of imagination.
Okay, I’m not getting into the synopsis of the stories because they are too short to be summarized without me spoiling the entire thing. Let me just say that it kicks off with the most hardcore tale, The Repairer of Reputations, which is a tour de force of sorts in how it starts out as an unassuming tale of a man who has fallen on hard times (he was just recently released after being mistakenly incarcerated in a loony bin by a careless doctor, and his back still hurts after a severe accident) trying to make sense of life in a country that is slowly rebuilding after a great war. Eventually, the man’s slow descend into madness begins to mount, until it hits a fever pitch right within its final moments. The terror seizes me without even me realizing it; the author uses slow and subtle shifts in the cadence of his narrative as well as the evocative sense of description in the narrative to generate the chills instead of relying heavily on gore or the literary equivalent of jump scares. The tonal shift from a sense of resigned despair into a discordant kind of fragmented madness in the narrative is very well done, and it’s one hell of a great scary story.
The next few stories are similar, often revolving around a protagonist whose mind seems to gradually crack as time passes. Yet, not every story ends tragically – in The Mask, the protagonist is actually reunited with his lost beloved, even if it’s only a delusion or a result of some possibly malevolent woo-woo at work (the story allows for a few different interpretations here). Throughout these stories, one thing stands out to me: Mr Chambers is a romantic. Really – even in the most cracked story, there is an underlying, sometimes obvious, sense of longing in the protagonist, either for a person, an ideal, an ambition or dream that is now impossible to attain, or a moment in the past that they long to re-experience. This sense of want is often the main catalyst for the mental breakdown of the protagonist, and it can be hard to tell apart where one’s madness ends and genuine creepy horror entities (oh, they exist after all… or do they?) step in and take over.
As for the book that gives this collection its title, its content are left deliberately vague. Snippets of rhymes from the book are presented here and there, creating an incomplete picture for readers to fill in the blanks with their own notions of what kind of content that can both enthrall its reader and drive them mad at the same time. What is given here is a tableau both fascinating and macabre. The King is trapped in a town called Corcosa, which exists in a realm that doesn’t resemble anywhere on Earth, and there is a song by a female character that is both poetic and edgy. Oh, and a stranger who reveals to the female character and her friend in a masked ball that… ta-da, he is not wearing any mask – a fact that apparently terrifies the two women. Seriously, how hideous can he be anyway?
The last two stories here, The Street of Our Lady of the Fields and Rue Barrée are almost shocking in how different they are from the rest of the stories here. In fact, they are actually romantic comedies with happy endings! I don’t know why they are in here – maybe the author was having his last laugh trolling his readers – but I personally like these stories. There is something rather charming about how these two stories, with all the charming gentrified vibes of snooty upper-class Europeans sniffing at their coffee and all, can still exist in the same universe as mad men looking for love and glory in all the wrong places. Mind you, these happier stories still retain the occasional woo-woo bent to remind readers that if the author wishes it, bad things can come out at any minute to crap on these people. Still, they are a nice way to wind down after the discordant psychological beat down caused by the stories that come before it.
The King in Yellow isn’t for everyone: it’s chills are more psychological and visceral than graphic, and it’s all about the slow burn rather than the fever pitch present in more contemporary horror tales these days. Hence, a degree of patience and getting into the right “mood” may be necessary to fully enjoy this one. Me, I think this has been a sublime trip to the Cthulhu Mythos via brain-hopping into the heads of some truly demented or disturbed people, and nearly every second of it is a revelation.