Book Review: The King in Yellow

A big thank you to my dear friend Jason for encouraging me to broaden my horizons and recommending The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers.

The King in Yellow is a series of short stories, four of which focus on the King in Yellow, while other stories vary in subject.

I will start with the slightly negative opinion that some of the later stories were not as intriguing compared to the strong beginning stories. However, I chalk that up to taste rather than any fault of the writing. I also admit I wanted much more about the King in Yellow and was sad to see the rest had no references to his “scalloped tatters” (p 13). For the rest of this blog, I will focus on the stories that do.

When I first started reading the book, I thought the stories would be about The King in Yellow himself. I was a little confused when I read the lines from the first character, “I had bought and read for the first time, The King in Yellow” (p 3). I soon realized the stories are about those who encounter this two-act play. The torture that is visited upon their souls, specifically after they’ve read the second act, is magnificent.

Before you throw your fists in the air and cry, “there is nothing new under the sun,” keep in mind this was first published in 1895. The story line of an object damning the lives of those that encounter it may be used often, but don’t place Chambers in with the modern examples that may be popping up in your mind.

I will add the somewhat antiquated language did make it hard to adjust to reading (I am ashamed to say!). With my recent studies I have been so focused on modern works that I had lost the ease I had in my BA in English days when Divine Comedy and Shakespeare were homework. However, once I clicked over I knew the stories would lose much of their delicious potency if the language were more modern.

Back to the stories.

I appreciated immensely how different the four stories were. The characters were vastly different and the stories were unique unto themselves. Even the two-act play effects the characters in a variety of ways. It makes reading each story an entirely singular experience, which is brilliant!

And yet, despite reading these woeful, warning tales of anyone who reads this cursed play, I want to experience the “words which are as crystal, limpid and musical as bubbling springs, words which sparkle and glow like the poisoned diamonds of the Medicis!” (p 34). To see the masks. To hold the Yellow Sign. Human curiosity overthrows reason. We are all drawn to our own torment.

Though Chambers is describing the author of the two-act play, I like to believe he understood his own power over the reader and wrote this with some smugness: “Oh the wickedness, the hopeless damnation of a soul who could fascinate and paralyze human creatures with words” (p 34).

Chambers deserves the accolades and references he’s maintained since the writing of these haunting stories. There aren’t many authors who can creep into the reader’s mind and whisper as the King in Yellow himself, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God!” (p 26).

What are your thoughts?