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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Robert W. Chambers' The Yellow Sign: A Detailed Summary and a Literary Analysis

“The Yellow Sign” is simultaneously Chambers’ horror masterpiece and one of the simplest, least layered entries in The King in Yellow: at its core it is a variation of a familiar theme which began with “Repairer,” was reworked in “The Mask,” matured in “In the Court,” and nearly comes full circle in the penultimate and most cripplingly tragic entry in the Carcosa Mythos. “The Demoiselle D’Ys” will close the cycle with a harmonious resonance of peace and pathos, but if that story is a misty conclusion to a storm, this is the savage power of the tempest’s eye. At its core it is a fanciful modernization of two ancient narratives: Death and the Maiden, and the Garden of Eden. Chambers renders a love story that puts the brunt of his romantic fiction to shame: a playboy artist (Jack Scott from “The Mask”) falls in love with the plucky prostitute who poses for him between implied bouts of emotionally detached sex. Their relationship is shockingly modern for the 1890s: relatable in its honest treatment of a casual affair, its unsentimental description of friends with benefits, and its ultimate vulnerability when that relationship burns with the shame of lust-turned-love.

Chambers’ shop girl romances were usually between rugged cynics and doe-eyed ingénues who overpower their lovers’ gruffness through the moral power of their innocence. While half of that equation is represented here, Tessie – our star-crossed heroine – can give as good as she gets, cynically managing her sexual profession while living a relatively carefree, bohemian lifestyle of Japanese robes, cigarettes, and girls’ nights out. All this relatability is a far cry from Lovecraft’s emotionally dead horror fiction, and this makes it all the more crushing when the Yellow Sign is called for and the King comes to collect it. In a motif that was appropriated by E. F. Benson in “The Bus Conductor” – and one which presages Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where are you Going, Where have you Been?” – Tessie is plagued by a prophetic dream of a hearse driver riding under her window with a message of doom.

The driver has a face and body like a graveyard maggot, and when he appears in the waking world, there is little question that something from Beyond is reaching out to take possession of her. Chambers offers no clues as to the logic or rationale of this supernatural machinery – why her? Why him? Is this planned? An accident? A twist of fate? – and the story is the better for his silence. What remains is a fable which hearkens back to the dawn of human speech: Orpheus and Eurydice, Adam and Eve, the Danse Macabre, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Heathcliffe and Cathy, Death and the Maiden. Less a ghost story meant for pure chills and thrills, it is actually a complex expression of this primordial theme: all stories have their endings, all lovers are doomed to be separated, and no Love is stronger than Death.

In short, the story -- following off the heels of "The Repairer of Reputations" (wherein the madman Hildred describes his delusional plot to overthrow the government and become a vassal of the King in Yellow -- a delusion that leads to murder, insanity, and his ultimate death in an asylum) -- follows Scott, a portrait painter, and his beautiful muse, Tessie, a model implied to be a prostitute. Scott is hounded by the sight of a flabby, corpse-like man (compared to a bloated maggot) in a watchman's uniform. In a dream Tessie sees the man drive a hearse up under his window, and in real life she notices the man skulking outside. His appearance causes Scott to give his painting of Tessie a death-like pallor, and ruins his focus. Encountering him one night, Scott strikes the figure and is horrified both by his cold, squishy head, and by the finger which slides off his hand with ease. In another encounter he resists the desire to attack the zombie, and is disturbed when it mumbles "Have you seen the Yellow Sign?"

As Scott and Tessie grow less cynical and more in love, Scott gifts her with a crucifix (they are both lapsed Catholics), and she reciprocates by gifting him a strange golden pin with a curious symbol on it. She claims that she found it on the ground the day that she had her nightmare about the hearse. Almost as if the token is cursed, Scott sprains his ankle shortly afterwards, and Tessie finds him anxious and depressed. Bored, she finds "The King in Yellow" in his library, and playfully runs off with it when Scott yells at her to put the book down (he knew about Hildred and how reading the book made him insane). When he finally finds her, it is too late: she is stunned by what she has read, and -- like Adam and Eve -- they both consume the forbidden knowledge and bid their Eden farewell. They now know that the pin's symbol is the Yellow Sign, and Tessie (in what seems to be telepathic communication) pleads with him to destroy it. But it is too late: a hearse drives up to the window, and the rotting driver gets out. When he comes up to the locked door, the bolt disintegrates in his hand, and he walks in. Tessie dies of horror as the zombie (whose identity I have a theory about) tears the clasp out of Scott's hands and mercilessly beats him. Scott lingers for a few days -- long enough to write "The Yellow Sign" -- before joining Tessie in death.

At its core “The Yellow Sign” is a somber reworking of the Biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden: an innocent couple flourish in their ignorance, living in a paradise of self-indulgence and simplicity before the female party is visited by a tempter who offers to grant them high wisdom. The female accepts the gift and delivers it to her partner who takes it without suspecting its nature. This indulgence causes them to glean a new understanding of the world and of their significance in the world. The Biblical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil teaches Adam and Eve that they have the option to sin – to break away from the confines of God’s Will; the Yellow Sign and “The King in Yellow” (it is no mistake that the book is bound in serpent skin) teach Scott and Tessie that humanity is pointless, that decadence is unstoppable, and that oblivion is their fate – also restructuring and expanding their worldview in a manner that obliterates their paradise.

Like in Genesis, this new understanding of the universe felicitates the visitation of a Being who comes to disenfranchise the couple of their peace and happiness – to punish them for their sin and their new, carnal knowledge. In Genesis, an angel (the agent of God) with a flaming sword evicts the couple who try to hide their shameful nudity. In Chambers, the bloated watchman (the agent of the King) revokes their protection under the Yellow Sign, leaving them both at the mercy of the King in Yellow. So what is the significance of this comparison?

Ultimately, “The Yellow Sign” is interested in making a sober commentary on the violence of life, the weakness of love, and the inevitability of the Destroyer. There are other comparisons to be made with similarly themed contributions to world literature: Scott is as hopeless to restore Tessie and as devastated by her destruction as the inconsolable Orpheus who journeyed into hell in hopes of recovering his lost Eurydice; Romeo and Juliet (and Tristan and Isolde, and Pyramus and Thisbe, and Cathy and Heathcliff) are seemingly perfect for one another before they are torn to ribbons by Fate and society; the peripheral relationship between the sensual Tessie and the decomposing watchman who comes for her in a hearse match the Medieval motif of “Death and the Maiden” – a theme in art and poetry in which a sexualized coquette is dragged to destruction by Death personified as a skeleton or reaper – and prefigures the similarly themed Joyce Carol Oates story “Where are you Going? Where have you Been?” about a teenage girl who is abducted by a disturbing stalker who may be Death.

Chambers is far more interested in making a statement on the brutality of life and its harshness towards good-hearted lovers than expanding his Carcosa Mythos: wisely, he answers none of the questions that this story raises about the identity and nature of the rotting corpse, its connection to the King in Yellow, and the motives or circumstances surrounding Tessie’s acquisition of the Yellow Sign. Was it lost accidentally, or left for her to find? Was she a hapless victim or a selected sacrifice? Who exactly IS the watchman? Chambers created continuity throughout the King in Yellow Cycle, so we know that Scott is a contemporary of Hildred (whose tragic death shook him), and was a friend of Boris (whose suicide Hildred remembered), and that they all live in a roughly 1890 – 1894 world (Hildred’s 1920 future-scape is debunked by at least three references that place “The Yellow Sign” in the early 1890s), so could this months’ dead horror be one of those unfortunates? Could it be the zombified Hildred still serving the King in Yellow, bearing the precious token of kingly protection back to Carcosa (whatever or wherever or whenever that is)?

The bloated corpse is said to be a “young man,” and we know that Hildred’s death was recent (maybe five months ago?), and that his last weeks on earth seem to have been spent passing out Yellow Signs to homeless people and random strangers. Might one Sign have been real, and might it have been discarded months ago when Tessie discovered it and started having her nightmares? The theory is an intriguing one, although ultimately it is pure speculation. The one thing that certainly seems to be noteworthy about the loathsome thug is that he is devoted to his mission in spite of his death, and that his mission in part seems to be devoted to driving Tessie and Scott to their graves as a form of savage punishment: he rises from the grave in order to drag others to theirs. The conclusion that this causes me to draw is that while Chambers is being very clear that love is strong, but not stronger than death, he has another paradox that seems to hoarde within it all the vulgarity and inhumanity of “The King in Yellow,” in what might be the play’s central thesis: nothing is stronger than Death, except Death itself.

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