The first story in the King in Yellow Mythos (the first five – or possibly six – works in the eponymous 1895 collection) introduces us to a universe of instability, irony, and pitiful meaninglessness. It is a world turned upside down, one where time and logic are useless, where status and power are pointless, and where all ambitions, hopes, and loves are destined for obliteration. “The Repairer of Reputations” tells of a strange man whose job is to retroactively clean up his clients’ pasts, saving their character from their own poor judgment; and yet most of his clients appear to be lunatics, conspiracy theorists, and ruined men who already live in altered realms of reality. The narrator is a fey aristocrat who made the poor decision to read “The King in Yellow” while recuperating from a personality-altering head injury: a man who longs to live in a militarized, pseudo-fascist, empire-obsessed American dynasty where icons of progressivism and the increasingly mobile working class are replaced with military strong men and authoritarians. He manufactures this world around him, conspiring with the titular character to elevate himself to the role of emperor over this new, heavily armed, strength-obsessed country. The question must be asked, what truth does this delusion hope to avoid or correct?
Like so many of Chambers’ horror stories the pathos of this character lies in a disappointed romantic pursuit which left him feeling powerless, pathetic, and overlooked. Enter the King in Yellow, the only entity which has the power to repair his reputation – to save his dignity and set aright his hopeless crush on his cousin’s fiancée. But who or what exactly is the King in Yellow and what is the significance of its name? 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. During the 1890s, members of the Decadent movement and the literary avant-garde began publishing “The Yellow Book,” a journal of high brow prose, poetry, and fiction most notably for Aubrey Beardsley’s (second only to Oscar Wilde in Decadent circles) unsettlingly crass, Oriental-inspired illustrations.
Critic Richard La Gallienne noted that "The Yellow Book was certainly novel, even striking, but except for the drawings and decorations by Beardsley, which, seen thus for the first time, not unnaturally affected most people as at once startling, repellent, and fascinating, it is hard to realize why it should have seemed so shocking. But the public is an instinctive creature, not half so stupid as is usually taken for granted. It evidently scented something queer and rather alarming about the strange new quarterly, and thus it almost immediately regarded it as symbolic of new movements which it only partially represented." Even though its contents were fairly conventional (if esoteric), the title alone was enough to make it an infamous scandal to be seen with it. The King in Yellow play was probably inspired by another Decadent work, Wilde’s French-published play Salomé, which was banned in Britain and became a moral scandal raged against for its depiction of the victory of vain sensuality over pious self-denial.
While no one claimed that reading Salomé would make one lose touch with reality, it was regarded as highly corruptive and vulgar, and it was preached against from pulpits and the press. Like Wilde’s drama – which challenged Victorian ideals of morality and womanhood – The King in Yellow challenges civilization’s ideals of the value of human life, the virtues of work and ambition, and the power of love. In a deeply Lovecraftian blow, reading The King in Yellow (an obvious predecessor of The Necronomicon, even if Lovecraft claimed to have invented it before reading Chambers) causes its readership to doubt everything: humanity, ambition, work, love, hope, peace, faith, compassion, and society. Nothing escapes the dominating influence of the King. Whether you interpret him as a symbol of madness, death, mankind’s smallness, moral corruption, cosmic existentialism, selfishness, artistic decadence, or a combination of two or more of these, there is no denying that his role in mankind is not unlike that of the merciless apparition in Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” – the proliferation of hopelessness and the squashing of human ambition. For the protagonist of “The Repairer of Reputations,” this unfortunately has the opposite effect: suddenly aware of society’s meaninglessness, he abandons his grip on reality and reimagines his city twenty-five years in the future as an empire he is capable of leading. And his demise in the King’s hands is appropriately pathetic.
Ultimately any probe into the reality of Hildred Castaigne’s narrative is a hopeless bound into speculation. Virtually nothing he tells us can be trusted without question. It is a popular trend to defend his 1920 setting by pointing to the fact that Louis and Hawberk and others appear to observe and comment on several of the futuristic elements in his story; this is largely done in a bid to celebrate this story as an early example of dystopian science fiction, but even this hinges on Hildred’s narration, which is unquestionably compromised. Ultimately, even Louis and Hawberk and Constance may be figments of his imagination (or, if they are real, their words might be fabricated by Hildred’s deranged mind). Some popular – though purely speculative – stabs at finding the reality in his delusion have included the theories that the suicide refuge is really a subway (construction was underway on the first underground system at the time; it finally opened in 1904) that Hawberk is nothing grander than tinker or clockmaker or mechanic, that Louis’ uniform suggests that he is a mounted policeman and that the cavalry drills are just parts of city parades, that the navy flotilla are merely merchant steamers and passenger barks, and that Hildred’s history of the war with Germany is just the result of his mind parroting stories which he has manically read about Napoleon and (if his obsession with Prussia is any indication) the Franco-Prussian War of 1871.
We can check his futuristic setting by cross referencing it with his contemporaries in later stories (Boris in “The Mask,” who dies before him in 1890s Paris and Jack Scott in “The Yellow Sign” who was friends with Boris and recalls Hildred’s recent death; this is further checked by historical references in that story). Then there is the question of Wilde: who or what is he? Shrunken, shriveled, yellow-skined, with missing ears and fingers and a disfigured face, he surely represents the epitome of decadence, fantasy, delusion, and fancy. His sadistic cat, however, has a lineage that dates back to Edgar Allan Poe as a symbol of Truth and confrontation. In reality, Wilde may be the corpse of a recluse which has begun to rot (the yellow skin), whose cat is slowly devouring it; his first visitor – the newspaper magnate who knocked on the door – may be a concerned landlord; his second visitor, the stooped client whom Hildred didn’t at first notice, is likely nothing more than one of Hildred’s hallucinations; his torn throat may have been the result of the cat’s ravenous appetite, or perhaps Hildred missed when he swung at the cat and struck the odious corpse – or maybe there is no cat or no Wilde – who can say?! We do suspect that the narrator, a Mr Hildred Castaigne, committed a crime – killing Dr Archer, perhaps – and died in an asylum for the criminally insane.
This is all we can be confident of, or cite as truth. Everything else is conjecture (which can be terribly fun, but must be treated with a grain of salt). What IS true, however, is that Hildred believes what he sees and it is THIS which has meaning: Hawberk may be a hallucination, but in Hildred’s world he has a place; the suicide booths may be daydreams, but in Hildred’s mind they have a purpose; Wilde and his cat may be fabrications (or just a rotting body and a feral stray going unnoticed), but in Hildred’s universe they are significant. So what IS the significance of Hildred’s universe? The King in Yellow reigns over it with the power to raise up maligned Hildreds and punish arrogant or disrespectful Louises. Hildred – like any protagonist in a good Poe pastiche – is deathly sensitive about his grasp on sanity. Comments suggesting that he has lost touch on reality send him raving and terrify those around him. The King who took away his sanity offers him the dignity of fear – at least if he cannot be respected, he can be feared. And what sort of society would let a frightening bully cow his enemies into submission unchecked?
In Chambers’ world it would be one of the militaristic empires of Europe with a tradition of squelching republicanism and enthroning strong men: Turkey. Russia. Prussia. So Hildred stitches together a history that would require decades of development, pushing his present ahead twenty-five years until he finds himself – finally – in a society that could offer him the dignity of being feared and obeyed and catered to. Whether anything else in this story is real – or to what degree it is real – is pure speculation. What is true is that a man named Hildred Castaigne felt small and weak and rejected, and he found solace in the King in Yellow – the emblem of debauchery, of human frailty, of madness and despair and hopelessness. Like a patron saint of madmen, the King became Hildred’s deity, the Yellow Sign his crucifix, and The King in Yellow his Bible. He became a missionary, spreading the word that the King was coming – that he would bring with him an Armageddon which would crush the powerful and empower the rejects (the tramps, the madmen, the clients of the Repairer of Reputations – those who had lost their respect in the community).
Ultimately this new Messiah – this King of Kings – would be the ultimate repairer of reputations: he would invest the wealthy and happy with terror, bringing anarchy to the world and delight to the madmen who had been banished from it. Hildred rushes to Wilde – the symbol of his increasingly decomposed hopes – to confirm his expectations, but it is too late: Reality has struck a death blow. There is no empire. No coronation. No death booths. No white fleets in the harbor. No restoration of dignity to the insane. No repairing of Hildred’s mangled reputation. There is only the King in Yellow, and as Hildred is dragged away by the police and placed in a padded cell, he finds himself alone with his monarch and moans – as if speaking to himself – “Woe! woe to you who are crowned with the crown of the King in Yellow!”