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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' Cassilda's Song: An Analysis of the King in Yellow's Poem

“Cassilda’s Song” opens The King in Yellow, setting the tone for the anthology, and giving us our most liberal taste of what the eponymous play would read like, the nature of its prose and plot, and the atmosphere, mood, tone, and setting. We learn of Carcosa – a blighted planet, city, realm, region, dimension, or state of mind which is wrapped in quiet desperation and morbid decadence.

It is a planet dominated by disturbing contradictions: it haunted Lake of Hali is composed of cloud waves (are they cloudy waters or watery clouds?), its stars are black (stars symbolize the spirit, spiritual power, or a spiritual guide – religion, family, duty, etc. – and in Carcosa that energy is inverted towards evil and decadence) and set in a blindingly bright night sky, it has two suns (symbolic of the duplicity of human nature and the lack of a clear moral foundation) which – like the dripping moon described in a later story – are implied to literally sink into Hali, as well as multiple moons (often symbolic of human weaknesses and temptations: on Carcosa there is more than one source of vulgar enticement), and it is recognized by the Hyades constellation (implying either that the literal stars worship Carcosa, or the alien civilizations therein). Finally we learn of the worshipful potentate who is dressed in tatters: a king who revels in campy opulence, in shredded dignity, in disfigured elegance.

Like the King of Fools – a beggar made king for a day on Mardi Gras – his existence and supremacy serve as a mockery and refutation of human ideals and civilized values. This is the realm of the King in Yellow, where souls weary and quiver, where hopes are dashed, where life is degenerate and hollow – and Chambers beckons you in with a crooked smile.

Here is the poem in full:

“ Along the shore the cloud waves break, The twin suns sink beneath the lake, The shadows lengthen In Carcosa. “ Strange is the night where black stars rise, And strange moons circle through the skies But stranger still is Lost Carcosa. “ Songs that the Hyades shall sing, Where flap the tatters of the King, Must die unheard in Dim Carcosa. “ Song of my soul, my voice is dead; Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed Shall dry and die in Lost Carcosa.”

— Cassilda's Song in The King in Yellow, Act i, Scene 2.

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