“The Yellow Sign” by Robert W. Chambers

[spoiler warning]


Chambers is one of the earlier writers whose writing was incorporated into the broad category known as the Cthulhu Mythos or the Lovecraftian Mythos, a shared universe of cosmic horror (which is to say, horror that exists above and beyond the sphere of human concerns)  that has been the basis for many short stories, as well as several games including the successful RPG Call of Cthulhu, and even a few movies.  Almost all the creatures in this mythos were either initially suggested by Lovecraft or created by writers explicitly imitating his style and relying on his universe, but Chambers wrote in the 1890s, thirty years before Lovecraft’s mature horror writings.  His chief contribution to the mythos is the cult of Hastur, specifically the horrific circumstances surrounding the play The King in Yellow and the associated Yellow Sign.  Anyone who reads the play, it is said, will either go mad or die, or most likely first one, then the other.

It is The King in Yellow that forms the basis of this collection, which seems to be the principle Chambers collection for horror readers of the past fifty years.  Chambers is an interesting figure.  According to the less-than-flattering opening essay by E.F. Bleiler, Chambers wrote something like seventy novels in a most mercenary manner, most of it apparently unforgivable trash.  However, Bleiler assures us, there is one good thing: the early collection of supernatural stories, The King in Yellow, most of which revolve around or at least feature the titular play.  Included with these supernatural stories are a couple other stories, most of them feeling like the predecessor of pulp and imitations of H.G. Wells and other such writings.

Honestly, I can see where Bleiler’s coming from.  There’s good diction here, and sometimes Howard’s phrasing, particularly in more descriptive passages like in “The Key to Grief,” is very engaging.  However, the plots are often incredibly poor; one sometimes gets the feeling that he wrote these stories without planning, and without editing.  Given his abilities with words it’s a shame he didn’t devote himself more to his craft, but clearly he wasn’t interested in that.  As such, the main value that can be derived from his writing is in the occasional interesting ideas he has, most particularly The King in Yellow.  We get very little information on the play, mainly just names and places (borrowed from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” out of Can Such Things Be?), and the fact that while the first act is disturbing, it is only reading beyond it that actually drives the reader insane.  Also, purchasing this book seems to have been a trend among the decadent set; everyone has a copy on their shelf.  Unaussprechlichen Kulten this is not.


Let’s cut right to the chase: this is about the only story in the collection that I would say is actually mandatory reading for the horror fan.  “The Repairer of Reputations” and some of the others are fun, but this is the one that’s got all the essentials.  And it’s public domain, and it’s short, and it’s available all over the internet, so I’m going to do something different here and tell you to just go read the story.  Right now.  It’ll take you like twenty minutes.

I’ll wait.

Okay, so, that was a kinda bullshit ending, wasn’t it?  I mean, the main focus seems to be on the budding relationship, and we’re building up on so many different threads—the dreams, the Yellow Sign, the book—and they all just kind of don’t come together in the end.  But whereas with some of Chambers’ other stories this messiness is bothersome, I think it actually works quite nicely here.  For me, it creates the feeling that there’s a lot else going on, a lot that the narrator doesn’t understand and doesn’t have access to—which makes sense, there’s no reason he should.  Additionally, suddenly dropping the romance plot as soon as she reads The King in Yellow really makes it more frightening; it’s an instant game-changer, like getting in a sudden car accident.  While the dark premonition dream stuff was a little cliché, I also thought the descriptions of the churchyard watchman were genuinely creepy.

Oh, but what was up with Thomas?  “One night a comin’ ‘ome with ‘Arry, the other English boy, I sees ‘im a sittin’ there on them steps.”  Man, and I thought Lovecraft and M.R. James were bad with their attempts to render dialect into text.

With stories that end like this, I always like to imagine someone going through the dead person’s affairs and finding this account they wrote as they were dying, and seeing that it ends mid-sentence, adding that convenient dash:

“I think I am dying.  I wish the priest would—”

Unless the narrator realized he was about to die and so hastily put in the dash.  Or he put it in for dramatic effect, and then waited around for a couple more hours before dying.

Honestly, I don’t have much to say here.  Chambers is a one-hit wonder.  From all accounts I’ve heard, he never wanted to be anything else; he wrote for money, and that was it.  Final verdict?  It was a pretty good, creepy story, I give it a 7.5/10.  Maybe 7/10.  Should you read more?  If you really want to.  I enjoyed quite a few of the stories, particularly the silly-but-fun ‘dark future’ story “Repairer of Reputations” (all the more fun because its dark vision of the future is set in the 1920s).  If you want more, check out “A Pleasant Evening” and “The Messenger.”  But you don’t really need to buy a book of it; I think most of Chambers’ stuff is available online and it’s probably all in the public domain.

Alright, that’s all for this week.  Monday we start by taking on the man himself, sales juggernaut and cultural force: Stephen King.  Will the writing of the first horror author I ever read hold up to my more experienced tastes, or will yet another icon of my nostalgia be smashed?  Let’s find out!

All quotations from The King in Yellow copyright Dover Publications 1970.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.


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