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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' In the Court of the Dragon: A Two-Minute Summary and Literary Analysis

The King in Yellow is a savage, jealous potentate who longs to possess his worshippers – mind, body, and soul. In this one way -- his deep desire to have unending fellowship with the souls of all humanity -- he is not so very unlike the heart-searching God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. These deities wish to possess their followers' hearts in order to deliver them salvation from spiritual emptiness into eternal peace, but the King in Yellow has a far more insidious desire for His devotees. It is fitting that this story should begin in a Catholic church where a body of Christian worshippers are engaged in their devotion to their faith, because the story ends in the temples of Carcosa with a reluctant convert falling down in a dreadful homage to his tattered god. As we will see in “The Yellow Sign,” the King in Yellow has earthly servants who do His bidding and chase down those who have accepted the Yellow Sign to make them pay their respects.

The cult of the King in Yellow – so similar in many ways to Lovecraft’s Cult of Cthulhu – is composed of strange servants of varying degrees of soundness (physically and mentally). Some are utterly mad, some are not entirely human, and some are not even alive. An inversion of Abrahamic faiths (Catholicism in particular), the Yellow Cult has its own totems and ministers: the Yellow Sign is both a crucifix and the Sign of the Cross – not to mention a Sign of the Beast (like the dreadful 666 which, when adopted by a worshipper, damns them and commits their soul to the cause of Satan); the infamous play is its Gospel and Testament; the King himself is an unholy Trinity; his emisarries (the organist here, Mr Wilde in the first tale, and the coffin worm in “The Yellow Sign”) are missionaries, priests, and monks – aggressive agents of their god who seek to convert and transform the world to their Yellow Order.

The protagonist of this story is like a man who converts to a cult during a manic episode or a moment of desperation: he awakens the next morning, regrets his zeal, and hopes that it doesn’t really matter – but then the cultists come to collect their new brother. After reading “The King in Yellow” he desperately returns to the Faith of his Fathers, kneeling in prayer at Mass. But the words are wrong, the theology seems heretical, the organ music is dissonant and discordant, and the Mass seems an unholy and vulgar thing. It is as if he is viewing life through Yellow-colored glasses.

Even the Biblical text is sinister if it is understood in its context: the verse from Psalm 104 describes beasts which lay down in their dens when the sun rises, which sounds comforting, but the larger passage tells of a game-keeper god who tosses victims to his hungry monsters: “You appoint darkness and it becomes night, / In which all the beasts of the forest prowl about. / The young lions roar after their prey / And seek their food from God. / When the sun rises they withdraw / And lie down in their dens.” The King in Yellow doesn’t shut the lions’ mouths like the God of Daniel, but provides them with the flesh of sacrifices. It is in the Court of the Dragon – in central Paris near the Palais de Luxembourg – that the protagonist comes face to face with a real dragon – a lion hungry for food who is about to be lovingly fed by his Yellow master: You appoint darkness and it becomes night, in which all the beasts of the forest prowl about. The young lions roar after their prey and seek their food from the King.


In this highly impressionistic, psychological story, the narrator decides to attend a sunset Mass at the Church of St. Barnabé in Paris, where he settles into a pew and listens closely to the liturgy in an attempt to ease his mind. However, he gradually finds himself assaulted by an encroaching anxiety – a nameless dread that he had hoped to stifle with the elegant authority of the modern architecture and the preaching of its rector, the reliably inoffensive and comforting Monseigneur C—. He finds his mind sinking deeply into the unusual organ music pealing from the sanctuary: no one else seems to be unsettled by it, but he is shocked at the sacrilegious, vulgar nature of its pounding chords and dissonant melody: “…in the labyrinth of sounds now issuing from that instrument there was something being hunted. Up and down the pedals chased him, while the manuals blared approval. Poor devil! whoever he was, there seemed small hope of escape!”

This is hardly what he was hoping for, for he had a very particular reason for coming there: “I was worn out by three nights of physical suffering and mental trouble: the last had been the worst, and it was an exhausted body, and a mind benumbed and yet acutely sensitive, which I had brought to my favourite church for healing. For I had been reading The King in Yellow.”

Then the priest begins his homily on Psalm 104: "’The sun ariseth; they gather themselves together and lay them down in their dens.’" Monseigneur C— delivered his text in a calm voice, glancing quietly over the congregation. My eyes turned, I knew not why, toward the lower end of the church. The organist was coming from behind his pipes, and passing along the gallery on his way out, I saw him disappear by a small door that leads to some stairs which descend directly to the street. He was a slender man, and his face was as white as his coat was black. "Good riddance!" I thought, "with your wicked music! I hope your assistant will play the closing voluntary."

The narrator is momentarily soothed by the silence, until he realizes that something is off: the priest’s homily begins to sound oddly blasphemous – extolling the invulnerability of the human soul and the foolishness of the fear of evil. Stranger yet, looking back at the organ, he sees the same organist standing back up from the organ and once again walking down the side aisle – as if he never had left the first time.

To a modern reader, it presages “The Matrix” and immediately suggests some sort of other-dimensional encounter or a blip in Time. Here in the 1890s, though, our narrator decides to attribute this to deja-vu, and intends to shake it off, but this time he notices that – instead of passively sitting down – the gangly, white-faced organist is glaring directly at him with barely surprised loathing. At first the narrator is stunned into terror, but he rapidly shakes this off as a misunderstanding and decides to leave the church and head home to his apartment in the courtyard of the Rue du Dragon, in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres quarter of the 6th Arrondissement of Paris.

On his way home, he is startled, several times, by the seemingly intentional reappearances of the strange organist make his paranoia surge back. He rushes down the narrow, claustrophobic streets of the Bohemian neighborhood, but he is increasingly certain that this is pointless: he is meant to be cornered by the organist – the organist is meant to find and overtake him – it is all ordained by a higher power with a brutal, sadistic sense of humor. He gets the impression that this pursuit is something he deserves, and rooted in something far bigger than himself: "It began to seem as if I deserved that which he threatened: it reached a long way back — a long, long way back. It had lain dormant all these years: it was there though, and presently it would rise and confront me..."

Finally, he finds himself in the Court of the Dragon, where he is cornered against the locked gates, and instinctively knows that it is all over – he has been handed over into this bizarre man’s power:

“I felt this by the blackness which surrounded me, and at the same instant I read it in his face. How his face gleamed in the darkness, drawing swiftly nearer! The deep vaults, the huge closed doors, their cold iron clamps were all on his side. The thing which he had threatened had arrived: it gathered and bore down on me from the fathomless shadows; the point from which it would strike was his infernal eyes. Hopeless, I set my back against the barred doors and defied him…”

And then – all at once – he wakes up to the soothing shuffle of feet and realizes that he has fallen asleep during the Mass at the Church of St. Barnabé. Everything is back to normal: the music is once again serene and priestly, and the service is orderly and comforting – or, it should be. He exits – “half-dead” – with the congregants and ponders how he escaped this otherworldly hunt (for, as he asserts, “he had been hunting my soul in the Court of the Dragon”).

Looking towards the chancel, he sees the organist again and wonders if this really was a nightmare: “I had slept through the sermon. Had I slept through the sermon? I looked up and saw him passing along the gallery to his place. Only his side I saw; the thin bent arm in its black covering looked like one of those devilish, nameless instruments which lie in the disused torture-chambers of mediaeval castles.”

But despite his relief at escaping his ghoulish stalker, he feels no relief, for he realizes that he knows the man – that he knew him all along – and that he will always know him and have him in his life, and just as he begins to understand this, the cosmic floor falls out from beneath him and – whether literally, psychologically, spiritually, or metaphorically – in a stunning and otherworldly moment, he finds his soul delivered to the Court of the King in Yellow:

“I crept to the door: the organ broke out overhead with a blare. A dazzling light filled the church, blotting the altar from my eyes. The people faded away, the arches, the vaulted roof vanished. I raised my seared eyes to the fathomless glare, and I saw the black stars hanging in the heavens: and the wet winds from the lake of Hali chilled my face.

“And now, far away, over leagues of tossing cloud-waves, I saw the moon dripping with spray; and beyond, the towers of Carcosa rose behind the moon.

“Death and the awful abode of lost souls, whither my weakness long ago had sent him, had changed him for every other eye but mine. And now I heard his voice, rising, swelling, thundering through the flaring light, and as I fell, the radiance increasing, increasing, poured over me in waves of flame. Then I sank into the depths, and I heard the King in Yellow whispering to my soul: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!’"


“In the Court of the Dragon” is one of