Best known for his mind-blasting “King in Yellow” mythos – a series of five stories published in the eponymous 1895 anthology – Robert W. Chambers doesn’t get much more attention for his other weird fiction, ghost stories, and fantasy – and it’s a damn shame. Chambers excelled at creating an atmosphere of otherworldly dread, misanthropic cosmicism, and eldritch horror. His amphibious “Harbor Master” may have been the prototype for both the Creature of the Black Lagoon and Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, his demonic priest in “The Messenger” is worthy of a slasher film, and his brutally ironic murder of a butterfly collector in “The Purple Emperor” forecasts the grisliest mysteries of Dashiell Hammett. While none of them can top the cult-like status of the Carcosa Mythos, it’s a downright pity that more horror afficianados don’t read past his first book. The following list contains seven of his best works, and if you’d like to read them all, you can find them in our annotated and illustrated edition of The Best Weird Fiction and Ghost Stories of Robert W. Chambers.
7. THE PURPLE EMPEROR
The subtitle of every Oldstyle Tales book is “Tales of Murder, Mystery, Horror, and Hauntings.” It starts with “Murder” because pretty much every writer of horror uses that as a plot device in at least one of their stories. While “The Purple Emperor” doesn’t feature any hauntings, it is rife with the other three. Strait out of a pulp classic, it pits two rival butterfly collectors against one another: the snarky Red Admiral and the unhinged Purple Emperor (each self-styled after their favorite specimen). While it sounds like a Monty Python sketch, the story takes a decidedly dark turn when the Red Admiral’s severed hand is discovered, and the chief suspect is an American tourist who is romancing the Purple Emperor’s ill-used niece. When the French police cart him off for questioning, his memory proves invaluable, and the ingenious-if-dramatic method used to kill the Admiral is used to discover the killer.
6. THE BRIDAL PAIR / A PLEASANT EVENING
This one is a twofer. Chambers is best remembered for his weird fiction, but he also wrote some genuinely creepy ghost stories. Most famous during his lifetime as a writer of romances (in the will-they-won’t-they, “don’t cry, ShopGirl” style of Nora Ephron), it isn’t surprising that warped, twisted, or unnatural romances feature prominently in his darker works. Both “The Bridal Pair” and “A Pleasant Evening” involve a man being lured by the siren-like attractions of a mysterious female shade. Now it’s no secret that they end up being ghosts, but the tension and dramatic irony experienced by the readers make both stories classic ghost stories with a uniquely American flavor. In “The Bridal Pair,” estranged lovers reunite on a remote hill (despite the reservations of the man’s terrified dog) and in “A Pleasant Evening,” a New York artist keeps running into a woman with cold skin and a wet dress. Even I was surprised to find out where she came from.
5. THE KEY TO GRIEF
Enigmatic, mystical, and bizarre, this genuinely mesmerizing fantasy combines elements of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” with “The Blue Lagoon” when a man flees a mining town on the coast of Africa for a mist-swept island surrounded in superstition. This story plugs into several others from the anthology “The Mystery of Choice” – stories which include primeval languages, time holes, and sinister white shadows as recurring motifs. Safely arriving at the eerily Edenic island, the Key to Grief, he meets a primitive woman and experiences a paradise where crime and civilization have never corrupted life. Of course it cannot last, but the way that the story ends required me to read it three times before I landed on a theory (I discuss it in my notes in the book), but the timey-wimey mystery is still up for debate.
A brief but chilling tale, “Passeur” (French for “smuggler”) follows a lonely old man and his recurring dreams of his lost love – a young girl who died on a snowy night when the river was choked with ice. While to say much more is to spoil the ending, it is sufficient to say that this story – like so many others by Chambers – radiates from his influence by Poe, and shares similarities with (among other tales and poems) “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” “Annabel Lee,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Spooky, dreamlike, and tragic, it combines the high-brow qualities of Poe with the deliciously maudlin qualities of some of my favorite urban legends.
3. THE HARBOR MASTER
More than one critic has noted the blatant similarities between Chambers’ “Harbor Master” and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Sent on an assignment to uncover a hoax, a girl-crazy cryptid detective travels to the Pacific Northwest where he investigates the possible existence of a gruesome merman: a porpoise-skinned humanoid with a taste for human females and a propensity to purr sensually when surfacing. One of the most bizarre weird tales I’ve ever read, it’s hard not to see the similarities between Chamber’s lusty merman and Universal’s amphibious girl-snatcher. The lipless, frog-eyed, gilled cryptid also bears a striking similarity to Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, and has been noted as a primary influence on “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”
2. THE MAKER OF MOONS
A fascinating, almost intoxicating fantasy, “The Maker of Moons” is largely considered Chambers’ most notable, non-Carcosan masterpiece. It was an obvious influence on Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” as well as the Fu Manchu series of novels. When our playboy protagonist notices a strange, crablike insect – a goggle-eyed cretin with yellow hair and a scorpion tail – crawling out of his friend’s pocket, he is introduced to a world of intrigue, espionage, weird horrors, and cosmic madness that shuttles him from aimless bachelordom to high adventure and horror. What follows is a fascinating mashup of genres: spy novel, murder mystery, crime thriller, conspiracy theory, science fiction, Lovecraftian cosmicism, romantic fantasy, Poe-esque love-tragedy, and time-wormy escapade. Briefly put, what if a the Chinese demi-god, the Maker of Moons, escaped from an alternate dimension and set up a counterfeiting operation in the New York mountains -- one with global domination as its aim? A stranger, more twisty plot has rarely been conceived.
1. THE MESSENGER
A truly forward-looking horror story, “The Messenger” follows the protagonist of “The Purple Emperor” after he has married the murderer’s abused niece and settled in her quaint Breton village. The paradise is not long-lived, however, before an excavation uncovers the graves of redcoat soldiers who had raided the town 150 years earlier with the help of the village’s treacherous, Satanic priest. Tortured to death and branded on the forehead, his skull is recovered with the rest, and it isn’t long after that a blindfolded, mutilated figure in a priest’s frock begins appearing at the windows of locals. Concerned but skeptical, our plucky American is curious to learn that his wife’s ancestor participated in the priest’s execution, leading to a family curse that puts her (who is incidentally also something of a white witch) in the crosshairs of the brutal spirit. Highly cinematic and hard to forget, “The Messenger” is equal parts “Sleepy Hollow,” “The Candyman,” and “Charles Dexter Ward.”
BONUS. THE TOMB OF SAMARIS