Few writers in the canon of horror fiction are more mystifying or frustrating than the unambitious genius of Robert W. Chambers. Lovecraft famously expressed his stupefaction when he claimed that Chambers had been “equipped with the right brains and education, but wholly out of the habit of using them,” and Frederic Taber Cooper bemoaned that he “exasperates [his readership], because we feel that he might so easily have made it better.” His early writings displayed an unprecedented flair for supernatural horror and the macabre which led E. F. Bleiler to call him the single most important writer in the weird fiction genre between Poe and Lovecraft – and this is no overstatement. Almost no one before 1895 (with the three exceptions of America’s Ambrose Bierce, Ireland’s Fitz-James O’Brien and Germany’s E.T. A. Hoffmann) had so perfectly molded the everyday to the otherworldly, realism to fantasy, the world of mortal concerns to the realm of narcotic nightmares and mystic visions.
His horrors are impossible to peg down, evasive in an almost infuriatingly tantalizing manner, and uniquely visionary. His greatest stories were published in 1895’s The King in Yellow, followed two years later by the barely less brilliant anthology of fantasy and horror, The Maker of Moons and the white-knuckled collection of mystical arcana, The Mystery of Choice. And then it virtually ceased sometime around 1906. There were three more books that contained weird tales: In Search of the Unknown and Police!!!, which both involved Lovecraftian cryptids, and The Tracer of Lost Persons, a popular detective anthology which included an episode of a resurrected Ancient Egyptian dancer. But after these very weak efforts (none of them are worth reading cover-to-cover, though each of them have a handful of outstanding bursts of genius), his imagination seems to have darkened to a dim cinder, then to have expired forever in a thin flare of smoke.
A sometime-painter and illustrator, Chambers was a denizen of New York’s bohemian counterculture when he began writing: “The Yellow Sign” depicts a scene right out of his life as an artist, wherein a gruff painter strikes up an ill-starred romance with the cigarette-smoking, Japanese-robe-wearing prostitute who poses for his nude paintings. The King in Yellow was both influenced by and a commentary on the booming Decadence Movement, and can accurately be called both the subject and the object of that genre – simultaneously satirizing and reveling in the depraved sensuality and morbid hedonism of the so-called “Yellow Nineties.”
The Decadents were artists, musicians, and writers whose work was primarily consumed with a Gothic-inspired fatalism that could be summed up with the phrases “doomed elegance” and “hopeless glamor.” It was a campy movement devoted to cynical hedonism and a carefree fatalism that heralded the imminent consequences of their wanton lifestyles – syphilis, overdoses, scandal, arrest, suicide, destitution, and drug addiction were among the common ends expected of a Decadent whose bohemian existence embraced the YOLO ethos of the early 2010s. You can get an accurate idea of their values and beliefs by reading Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”: tonight we shall dance and drink and make love, for tomorrow we will all be dead.
They were simultaneously sensual and macabre, excessive and stunted. They were consumed with life and death, and obsessed with their well-deserved destruction. If Goths today wore lavish colors and could be infused with the spirits of brooding beatniks, acid-tripping hippies, and a gay pride parade, they might come close to the spirit of the Decadents. Marc Katz summed their self-indulgent, morbid style up by saying “Decadent taste takes some getting used to, though. Writers like Huysmans worked right at the edge of oblivion, with symbols that were ethereal and obscure: serpents twined with human hair; fields of hemlock; succubi; monstrous, purple-draped catafalques; syphilitic flesh; stagnant lakes engulfed by shadows. This wasn’t mere morbidity. The decadents found spoilage to be exhilarating, so long as it could be used to creative advantage.”
It sounds, remarkably enough, very much like the horror stories of Robert W. Chambers. Chambers himself was a member of the Art Nouveau movement – contemporaneous to the Decadents, this school of art was fascinated by supple, feminine beauty, graceful forms, and elegance that took its inspiration from Oriental art, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement, and to some extent the Decadents. Chambers could be said to have a foot in both camps – being fascinated with the lavish corruption of the Decadents while being more comfortable with the elegant innocence of the Art Nouveau style, and his stories frequently dally in both traditions. In none of his books is this balance between pure beauty and corrupt sensuality more apparent than in The King in Yellow.
Colors were tremendously important symbols to the aesthetically-obsessed Decadents, and yellow was their personal bade: it stood for everything debauched and forbidden about life – everything that they wanted to sample and gorge. Deeply associated with the Decadence movement, the color yellow was first connected to themes of corruption and impropriety several decades earlier when the fops of Jane Austen’s Regency period wore the garish color to suggest their appetites for the indulgent, grotesque, and shocking.
Later in the century, French books banned in England for their lewd content were at first discreetly packaged in yellow jackets, but when the code was figured out, booksellers even went so far as to wrap relatively tame publications in the lurid amber color because it would increase sales amongst eager buyers. Yellow became a symbol for all that was diseased in the soul, all that was unconventional, contrarian, rebellious, and decadent. If something was “Yellow,” it was gaudy, luscious, vulgar, decayed, infamous, scandalous, poisonous, sensual, leprous, golden, lurid, bawdy, ghastly, seductive, corruptive, grotesque, fantastic, alien, fabulous, alluring, shocking, fascinating, ribald, repulsive, and repellent.
The King in Yellow himself seems to be the personification of these alternatingly attractive and disgusting qualities, and in a more allegorical way appears to represent the way that Creativity and Inspiration are simultaneously the muse and master of artistic types: obsession and mania both give life and take life from intellectuals, hence explaining why those drawn in by the King are nearly all bohemians or artists (a painter, a sculptor, and a writer are three of the potentate’s most notable victims, along with an eccentric avant-garde, a devil-may-care nude model, and a number of New York City tramps) – people who are sensitive to intangible, irrational, internal influences. In each story the victim is prevented from achieving the thing they want most because of their obligations to their new master: the love of woman, the peace of religion, the hope for power and respect. Creativity can be an alluring lover, Chambers warns, but it is also a demanding and sometimes soul-breaking overseer.
The Carcosa Mythos notably borrows many concepts, names, and motifs from Chambers’ two greatest influences: Poe and Bierce. Hastur, Carcosa, and Hali are directly lifted from two of Bierce’s short stories – the pastoral “Haïta the Shepherd” and the far more sinister “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” wherein the ghost (or is it?) of man who had once resided in the long demolished, cyclopean city of Carcosa dreams that he returned to its antediluvian splendor only to realize its destruction in a moment of existential horror. Poe brought over themes of depravation, fatal self-absorption, and the dominion of a malevolent supernatural master (the King in Yellow owes much to the Masque of the Red Death and the Conqueror Worm, both of whom represent oblivion, the meaningless of human endeavors, and the desolation of time – themes which amply summarize what the King in Yellow really is all about).
The dread city/country/region/planet/dimension/state-of-mind (Chambers never settles on one, thankfully) of Carcosa is a kingdom dominated by logical contradictions (which Chambers frequently used to symbolize the supernatural, e.g. the white shadows which recur in the stories in The Mystery of Choice): it has two suns (the sun, frequently worshipped in ancient cultures, is symbolic of God, and Carcosa is too big for one deity), its strange towers seem to challenge Euclidian geometry by twisting their way up, behind, and above the moon – which incidentally is dripping into the cloud-lake of Hali – and its searing bright sky is spangled with black stars.
Carcosa is an anti-civilization, representing the deletion of huamity’s progress, making mockery of all human institutions and cancelling out the pride of mankind (architecture, geometry, astronomy, physics, religion, government, marriage) in a flourish of existential demolition. Carcosa and the King in Yellow are the enemies of human ambition and love, destroying any chance that their worshippers (willing and unwilling) will be happy outside of their devotion to the Yellow King. Indeed, it is hardly a pun to say that the mission of the King in Yellow is to make mankind jaundiced towards all things in Creation other than him: to make all worldly ambitions sicken, die, and yellow under his corruptive influence.
So the potentate of Carcosa can be read several different ways: what is it in life that causes such a loss of hope? The inevitability of death; the alienating power of self-absorption; the self-destruction passions of the artistic temperament; the loss of religious faith; the soul-crushing horror of cosmic existentialism; the depravity of the Decadent movement and its intellectual descendents, and so on. Any of these things could be the King in Yellow – the ruler of rule-less-ness, the leader of the leaderless.
The King in Yellow was his first major work and it was written during his poverty and contentment as a bohemian illustrator, but it also marked his first major success, and within the span of three years he had become an overnight sensation, a toasted member of New York’s literary elite (financial elite, not artistic elite: P. G. Wodehouse despised him, openly lampooning his saccharine style in his “Jeeves” series with the sentimental writer Rosie M. Banks), and his muse was utterly gone. Almost immediately after the publication of the wildly popular King in Yellow, Chambers realized – perhaps by writing “Demoiselle D’Ys” and “The Mask” – that he had a highly commercial knack for writing historical adventure fiction and (most importantly) “shop-girl” romances: profoundly popular tales of unlikely lovers finding their way to one another despite the disparity in their social backgrounds (usually an arrogant but dashing aristocrat falls in love with a working class vixen eking out a living as a retail worker – hence the term “shop-girl” romances).
These doe-eyed, pure-hearted, down-on-their-luck, spunky-but-virtuous, blue-collared beauties oversee the reformation of their barrel-chested, lantern-jawed, tall-dark-and-handsome, masculine suitors, causing them to come in touch with their sensitive sides and to learn to love in spite of their heretofore selfish, patrician lives. The plots were very similar to the most notable rom-coms of the 1980s and 1990s: You’ve Got Mail (especially – the plot is virtually lifted from Chambers: Meg Ryan’s character’s IM handle is even “Shopgirl”), Pretty Woman, She’s All That, A Walk to Remember, Pretty in Pink, Secretary, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Sixteen Candles among others. Whenever a Chambers book came out, it immediately sold off the shelves, even when bookstores were amply stocked: his historical swashbucklers and tawdry “shop-girl” books made Chambers one of America’s most famous authors of the period, and one of the richest.
He was more popular than Crane, London, Dreiser, or Hardy, and stood alongside Mark Twain, James Whitcomb Riley, and Henry James as a nationally recognized literary personality. In terms of their modern literary descendants, his “shop-girl” novels were the equivalents of the Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey series (or the flimsy Harlequin romances of the previous century) though without the eroticism: they were viewed as trashy, unartistic, indulgent, and ridiculously sentimental. Perhaps history will repeat itself in its opinion of Stephanie Meyers’ and E. L. James’ reputations, because Chambers’ books were once so popular and commonplace that they sold for next to nothing and were used as doorstops, but are now exceedingly rare and little desired – a passing footnote in the literature of the Gilded Age.
Most of his books went out of print as soon as a new one came out – made immediately outdated and irrelevant by the advent of its successor. Unsurprisingly, an author who could erase the memory of his own books from the collective memory of his readership – merely by publishing a new one – has been rendered utterly forgotten in the century since his death. For “shop-girl” romances, at least: Chambers’ love stories made him wealthy and famous, but the only thing saving his memory from oblivion is a three year period of his life (1895 – 1897) when he wrote the supernatural fiction, fantasy, and horror that has made him one of the most mysterious – and to some, disappointing – geniuses of weird fiction.
His most notable and brilliant – and indeed his first – collection of stories was The King in Yellow: that book is the reason that you are currently reading this book; it is why you have heard of Robert W. Chambers, if you have. Profoundly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, the collection borrows heavily – though without plagiarizing, and with all of the original creativity of his infleunces – from “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat,” and “William Wilson” among many other Poe stories, and appropriates themes, motifs, and – most notably – names from Bierce’s stories of madness and horror. His decision to write it would send shock waves through horror fiction since Poe which would profoundly influence Lovecraft, through whom Chambers would influence Ashton Smith, Derleth, Bloch, Campbell, King, and Gaiman.
The King in Yellow is, of course, most notable for the first four stories which feature the eponymous play – a madness-inducing tome that hails from the traditions of literary decadence (modelled closely on Oscar Wilde’s scandalous Salome), but it also contains a good ghost story (“Demoiselle D’YS”) with elements of either multi-dimensionality or reincarnation, an eerie collection of prose poems which seem to imitate the style of the “King in Yellow” play (“The Prophets’ Paradise”), and a very disturbing episode wherein a madman befriends a woman’s cat and follows it back to the house of its mistress, where he discovers her corpse in bed (“The Street of the Four Winds”). Published in 1895, The King in Yellow made Chambers’ reputation and earned him the acclaim of critics as well as the public. His book received similar treatment to its titular publication: its stories of mad bohemians, blasphemies, necrophilia, zombies, evil dimensions, and unrestrained decadence earned it an ill reputation with mainstream society, but New York and London raved over it, comparing it favorably to Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe.
The next year he made a second contribution to the genre: a novella called The Maker of Moons – an adventurous fantasy piece which presages Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and especially “The Whisperer in the Darkness” – about a man who falls in love with a woman from another dimension. While her Yian is more like Coleridge’s Xanadu or Lovecraft’s Unknown Kadath than the King in Yellow’s Dread Carcosa, it is not without Cthulhu-like sea monsters, Mi-Go-like demonic crabs, or swarthy, foreign super villains. In short, it is one of the most Lovecraftian stories that Lovecraft never wrote. The following year saw The Mystery of Choice, a collection of Bierce-esque tales of murder, mystery, horror, and hauntings: Satanic zombie priests, murderous butterfly collectors, fatal rendezvous with dead lovers, and at least two stories inspired by Bierce’s “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” wherein two separate protagonists experience years’ worth of imaginary happiness, romance, and love in the mere moments: one after a terrible fall from a cliff, one just before being lynched for murder. This was Chambers’ high water mark: after 1897, he never again created fine speculative fiction.
There were spats of it in the following years: In Search of the Unknown is a series of goofy chases after cryptids (most notable among which is “The Harbor-Master,” whose amphibious Gill Man creature inspired “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and The Creature of the Black Lagoon), and less notably the similarly-themed Police!!!, whose title hides the utterly cheesy nature of its contents – only “Un Peu d’Amour,” wherein giant worms burrow through the New York countryside, is worth reading, but barely. Both of those anthologies have protagonists who run into shop-girls and their ilk in each story (they fall for the flirty coquettes, of course, and try to win them over hopelessly), and in each story their crushes are stolen away by more cunning men. Awww, shucks.
In 1907 he came out with the collection The Tree of Heaven, which has supernatural elements to it to be sure, but the stories are almost solely of a light, sentimental nature, and none merited inclusion in this anthology. One episode in The Tracer of Lost Persons – a detective novel about a sleuth who finds long lost loves and the like (the Edwardian version of a Facebook search) – is worth mentioning: I have titled this excerpt “The Tomb of Samaris,” and it follows an Egyptologist’s pursuit of the body of an Egyptian dancer whose body has been hypnotized into sleeping for thousands of years. Building upon Conan Doyle’s “Ring of Thoth,” it is a fun little dalliance into the mummy genre, but hardly nearing the fantastic power of “The Yellow Sign,” “The Maker of Moons,” or “The Messenger.” Even if he continued to dabble in the supernatural after 1897, we may consider his career effectively ended after the publication of The Mystery of Choice.
Of the two-and-a-half dozen or so supernatural stories that Chambers wrote, I have culled it down to fifteen need-to-reads which I’ve organized into three thematic clusters. The first was a natural decision: The King in Yellow Mythos. These are the first four stories in the eponymous 1895 anthology which made Chambers’ reputation and most heavily influenced Lovecraft and his disciples. These include “The Repairer of Reputations,” about a vengeful eccentric who believes himself to be the rightful Emperor of America, “The Mask,” a fantasy tale inspired by Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” which follows a sculptor’s ill-fated discovery of an elixir which turns everything it touches to marble, “In the Court of the Dragon,” wherein a man who has just read “The King in Yellow” goes to church hoping to clean his soul of what he has learned, and “The Yellow Sign,” which follows the doomed romance of an artist and his model – a woman who has had the bad luck to find and keep the King in Yellow’s sinister token.
The next division is made up of Weird Fiction and Fantasy – stories that Chambers wrote which blur the lines between horror, science fiction, magic, fantasy, and adventure. Most notable among them is the novella “The Maker of Moons” – perhaps Chambers’ greatest accomplishment outside of The King in Yellow. There is also the hypnotic and discombobulating “Prophets’ Paradise” which may give you an idea of what “The King in Yellow” reads like, the chilling “Harbor-Master,” whose title character is an elusive fish/frog-man in the ilk of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, “The Key to Grief,” whose protagonist escapes a lynch mob and builds a life on a secluded island with a primitive woman (inspired by Bierce’s “Owl Creek Bridge”), and “The Tomb of Samaris,” a romantic story about the resurrection of an ancient Egyptian (inspired by Poe’s “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and Conan Doyle’s “Ring of Thoth”).
The final selection might surprise some readers who did not know that Chambers was a writer of classic ghost stories and horror stories in the Late Victorian tradition. Reading very much like H. G. Wells, Algernon Blackwood, or E. Nesbit, these tales may lack the severity of M. R. James but are chilling episodes of the supernatural notwithstanding. Included are the stories of “The Bridal Pair” (a man meets his fiancée on a secluded hillside after an unfortunately long absence), “A Pleasant Evening” (a strange story about meeting the victim of a mid-Atlantic shipwreck in a New York City park), “The Purple Emperor” (two butterfly collectors’ rivalry takes a gruesome turn), “Passeur” (a smuggler is ferried across the river in a blizzard by a sinister ferryman), “The Messenger” (Chambers’ Gothic masterpiece about the zombie-ghost of a Satanic priest), and “Demoiselle D’Ys” – from The King in Yellow – which involves a man either stepping into another dimension, remembering a previous reincarnation, time-travelling, or encountering a confused ghost – you be the judge.
Throughout his brief and sometimes disappointing collection of horror fiction there are sprouts of promise. Some grow to fruition, some stunt and die. I have tried to avoid any examples of the later from this book, so that you can experience what makes Chambers so good, in spite of his detractors and his own shortcomings. Through it all, Chambers is an uncommonly beautiful writer, and even his worst stories are lush with ripe tracts of prose. Poetry blooms in his most mundane passages, and we are frequently reminded that behind it all, Chambers is a painter at heart: color gleams from these black and white pages as surely as if they had been daubed with oils. While elements of Chambers’ professional career have exasperated and even disgusted fans of his horror fiction, it is worth noting his influence and his unique vision.
With very few exceptions, he is the first great American supernatural writer to appear in print since the death of Poe, and even internationally he is probably the most visionary fantasy writer since Hoffmann, making his debut just ahead of Machen, Hodgson, Onions, and Blackwood, and leading the vanguard of the Golden Age of Weird Fiction which was set off by The King in Yellow, The Great God Pan, and Dracula. Lovecraft (and his disciple S. T. Joshi) can demur all he wants, but his own mythos owes an extreme debt to Chambers: “The Maker of Moons,” “The Harbor-Master,” “The Messenger,” and the entirety of the Carcosa Mythos were reworked into Lovecraft’s later works (post 1927), and even though his hellish Necronomicon predated his discovery of Chambers, he nods in homage to The King in Yellow by cheekily writing that “[it] was from rumours of this book (of which relatively few of the general public know) that R.W. Chambers is said to have derived the idea of his early novel The King in Yellow.” in his false document “The History of the Necronomicon.” His themes and placenames were adopted by Derleth, Bloch, and Ashton Smith, and even Raymond Chandler.
Today his works have been resurrected by his cameo in the HBO series, True Detective, where a serial killer of the Hildred Castaigne variety pledges his allegiance to the cult of the King in Yellow. His influence is easy to note in modern masters like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, T.E.D. Klein, Ramsey Campbell, and Lin Carter. Karl Edward Wagner, James Blish, Robert M. Price, and Charles Stross have all referenced him in their works, and several graphic novels have been published, bringing Carcosa and Hildred and the Black Priest to new generations of readers. In his own introduction to Chambers’ collected weird fiction, S.T. Joshi closes with a meditation on his legacy which perfectly sums up Chambers’ shaky relationship with his readers: “Chambers was an intellectual dilettante, and wrote whatever came to mind; we are fortunate that he now and again turned his careless and free-flowing pen to the creation of a few weird tales of transcendent beauty and horror.” Indeed, we may begrudge Chambers for selling out, for writing fluff, and for watering down some stories which had the potential to be masterpieces, but for what he did give us, we can begrudge him nothing – we can only thank him.