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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 Detailed Summary and a 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 Chambers’ most unsettling depictions of mental illness. Modelled after Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (a story in which a man is about to be hanged over a river, escapes when the rope breaks, evades the bullets of his executioners, swims to freedom, has a daring flight across the countryside, makes his way back home, and then is suddenly knocked unconscious: the bulk of the story was a blip of fantasy that occurred during the moment that he was falling through the air before his neck was broken), the story has serious questions about the difference between (and meaning of ) fantasy and reality.

The fantasy that our narrator suffers – an apparent hallucination brought on by the mental stress of having endured “The King in Yellow” – is no less real or meaningful when it turns out (or… appears to turn out) to be a nightmare or vision. He is in no way pacified or relieved; in fact his terror is only heightened once he understands that his perception of reality is no longer to be trusted. What is real and what is false has no currency any longer. The phantom that assaults him is notable for his ghastly white face and awkward body (it reminds him of torture devices, feels like iron, and gives him a grotesque and otherworldly appearance), which effortlessly calls to mind the lore of the Pallid Mask.

We learn in “The Mask” that this motif appears to have a close relationship with ideas of self-deception, denial, and repression, and that at a primal level the Pallid Mask seems to represent the looming inevitability of death. Chambers’ narrator directly associates his loathsome stalker with Death Incarnate (a figure who returns in the moody piece “Passeur”), and obviously ties him to his earlier perusal of the haunted tome.

When his vision transitions into “reality,” it is poignant that this only lasts a moment until the rafters and walls melt into infinity where he is brought face to face with the ghastly horrors of enigmatic, oxymoronic Carcosa. We are forced, once again, to question just what “Carcosa” is, and perhaps more pressingly, what it represents. Is Carcosa a planet? A country? A city? An alternate dimension (like Yian in “The Maker of Moons”)? A state of mind? Or is it some combination? What seems unquestionable is that Carcosa – for Chambers at least – represents the oblivion of reason and the loss of meaning and human significance: when people tread on its cursed soil they feel the weight of existential agony and seem to understand the inevitability of extinction. Carcosa is chaos. It is mortality. It is the emblem of the ancient concept of “Vanitas”: a meditation on the pointlessness of human ambition and reason, on the all swaying power of Death and oblivion.

In Carcosa the moons are dwarfed by the buildings (a nice touch of non-Euclidean geometry that Lovecraft so frequently mimicked), the stars are black and sightless, the sun – which has been worshipped as an all-powerful god since the beginning of civilization – is twinned, almost as if to suggest the insignificance of the things which humans value and honor. And after learning these philosophies and pondering them, our narrator tries to wash them out with mortal religion – to no avail. The service is hijacked and the priest overcome, his words made heretical and ludicrous, the organ music sacrilegious and lurid. The Church of St. Barnabé has been desecrated, becoming the Court of the Dragon.

While this is the name of the narrator’s street, it also becomes the identity of his soul. Dragons have long been interpreted as symbols of irreverent destruction, chaos, and devilry, and once his spirit has shared communion with the King in Yellow, it becomes the territory of his terrible religion – of which the pale-faced stalker (a gangly ghoul like something out of a Creepypasta tale or a Slenderman meme) is a high priest who has been charged with collecting the new convert’s soul and returning it to Carcosa – to the land of contradiction and oblivion.

There is one last meaningful moment in this story which must attract our notice: the last quote, the only words we have directly from the King in Yellow: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!” This is actually a quote from the Bible, repurposed and repackaged for the King’s ludicrous liturgy. The verse comes from Hebrews 10:31, and this is its poignant context:

‘If we deliberately go on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins remains, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and raging fire that will consume all adversaries. Anyone who rejected the Law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think one deserves to be punished who has trampled on the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge His people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.'

A verse about punishment. A text on destruction. A meditation on the fate of those who continue to practice their patterns in spite of a higher understanding of the Truth. In Hebrews this verse is a warning to sinners. For the King in Yellow it is a threat to those who cling hopelessly to their sanity: “let go and stop the pretense, you know the spires of Carcosa, you know the mists of Hali, you know the visage of the Pallid Mask. Abandon the pretense and fall on your knees before the King in Yellow or suffer his wrath, because unlike the tender faith practiced in the Church of St. Barnabé, the only living religion is that practiced in the Court of the Dragon, and the only living god is the King in Yellow, and is it not a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God?”


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