Robert W. Chambers' The Mask: A 5 Minute Summary and Literary Analysis
“The Mask” begins with one of the most substantial artifacts that we have from The King in Yellow, a scene commonly referred to as “the unmasking.” This episode seems to have been largely influenced by the Edgar Allan Poe horror tale, “The Masque of the Red Death.” In this story, the aristocracy of a country plagued by the “red death” (a ghoulish amalgamation of the black plague, tuberculosis, cholera, and scarlet fever) lock themselves up in a castle and ignore the suffering of the peasantry outside, certain that they can weather the disease out. Surrounded by debaucheries and consumed with decadence, they bide their time indulgently until a masquerade is held in the palace.
One of the partiers is seen to have donned a costume which makes him look like a victim of the plague: his face is pallid except where it is clotted with streams and blisters of gore. The prince chases down the offender, promising to hang him, but when the two encounter, the prince realizes that the face is no mask. He is immediately stricken by the plague and dies, and his revelers suffer the same agonizing death – the Red Death himself had attended the party.
The Yellow Nineties was an era renowned for its decadence and debauchery: despite several economic catastrophes, the rich seemed to grow richer, their free time freer, and the boredom more boring. Artists became obsessed with this climate of indulgence and appetite, and the graphic and literary art of the period underscored themes of depravity, self-involvement, sexual liberation, and eccentricity. Like the revelers in the Poe story, the artistic and aristocratic communities of the 1890s seemed bound and determined to test their moral boundaries, to defy their mortality, and to deny the consequences of their actions.
Chambers introduces us to this episode in The King in Yellow before “The Mask” as a means of introducing the story’s larger theme: our actions – our indulgences, our appetites, our eccentricities – have a payback, and eventually we must face them: eventually we must realize that the masquerade has ceased being a performance and has become a reality. In The King in Yellow Camilla and Cassilda are quizzically amused by the stupid stranger who doesn’t realize that the time to stop make-believing has come and that the façade must revert to reality. The stranger shocks (literally “terrifies”) them with the revelation that there is no more make-believe: what was assumed to be a joke has become the truth.
“The Mask,” built on Hawthorne’s version of the ancient myth of King Midas (and a heavy dose of his Gothic tale, “Rappaccini’s Daughter”), tells the story of an eccentric sculptor (the creator of “The Fates” sculpture referred to in “The Repairer of Reputations”) who has taken the act of creation far too literally: like Victor Frankenstein he has transferred from a harmless benefactor of humanity to a power-hungry tyrant who seems oblivious to the ramifications of his meddling in the natural order.
The tale opens in Paris, prior to the time when the French government banned The King in Yellow, where we are introduced to an innovative sculptor named Boris Yvain, whose sculpture of “The Fates” is referenced in “The Repairer of Reputations”. In this story, however, he has created an alchemical solution which can turn any living thing, plant or animal, into flawless marble (though not stated, Chambers implies that he learned to do this by studying the mystical play and its esoteric secrets). This, of course, allows him to bypass the artistic process and mass produce wildly realistic sculptures in a matter of moments. His studio now becomes host to a massive pond of his fossilization fluid.
Boris reveals his secret to his three closest friends: two painters, Alec (the narrator) and Jack Scott (who is almost certainly the protagonist – Mr. Scott – of “The Yellow Sign”), and his lover Genevieve. Both men were former suitors of Genevieve, and – not unlike the relationship between Lucy, Arthur, Jack, and Quincy in Dracula – their four-part friendship is respectful but fragile, and fraught with repressed attractions. In fact, Alec is currently living with the couple where he has awkwardly volunteered to paint Genevieve “boudoir.”
Boris demonstrates his elixir to Alec by dipping an Easter lily (which Genevieve had brought him from Notre Dame) into the petrifying solution. The transformation is psychedelic: the fluid foams, turns milky, then opalescent, shimmering through shades of orange and crimson before a beam of golden light shoots from the bottom of the pool, signaling the completion of the transition. Withdrawing the lily from the settling liquid, Boris presents Alec with a flawless, marble lily: white as snow, traced with pale azure veins, and somehow blushing warmly from within.
Boris delights in his friend’s obvious astonishment, but is also worried about its widespread use. When he admits to having petrified one of Genevieve’s pet goldfish, Alec uses the word “destroyed” to describe what he has done to it and the lily. Boris is hurt and says that he prefers the word “preserved,” but admits that if the world had access to his elixir, no good would come of it. Instead, he keeps it for his own amusement, but has promised Genevieve to have its secrets destroyed upon his death.
As Alec continues his work decorating Genevieve’s bedroom, he begins to realize that things are not as rosy as they once were between Boris and his lover. Geneveive has become distracted and moody lately, pulled back and forth by erratic shifts in her emotions. She is disturbed by Boris’ experiments and her platonic friends worry that something terrible will happen if Boris – who had used her as a model for his critically acclaimed Madonna – decides to make another sculpture in her likeness. He had already admitted to keeping a veritable pond of his elixir (rather than, say, a jar or barrel) because he eventually wants to “experiment on something large.” Alec begins to wonder if the increasingly unstable sculptor might one day be tempted to use his solution on her?
One night when Alec wakes up to the sound of her weeping, and finds her playing “the saddest music I had ever heard” on her harpsicord in the dark, raising his concerns that there is serious trouble between her and Boris. On her way out of the dark room, she sprains her ankle after tripping on the open mouth of a wolf skin which Boris uses as a carpet. She asks Alec to send for her maid then asks him to go back to his home for the night.
In the morning – after watching Boris recklessly transform another goldfish and declining to stay while he tests the solution on a living rabbit – he finds a copy of The King in Yellow in Boris’ library, and becomes fascinated by its shocking ideas. This discovery seems to trigger something in Genevieve, who, after spraining her ankle on the wolf-skin, woke up with a high fever.
As Alec puts the book down, a shriek is heard, and a maid begs them to call a doctor. Boris rushes in from his experiments (with Jack in tow, carrying a marble rabbit) just in time to hear Genevieve call out Alec’s name -- in a less than platonic tone. She shocks all three of them by passionately raving about her love for Alec and her regret for having rejected his proposal two years prior.
“At that same instant,” Alec moans, “our three lives turned into new channels; the bond that had held us so long together snapped forever.” Boris seems to take the revelation in stride, but Alec is beside himself with shame. Humiliated, and heartbroken for Boris, he tries to ignore this as the ravings of her violent fever, and goes to bed.
That night, however, Alec is struck down by the same bizarre illness: one which leaves his face unnaturally pale (so much so that it reminds him, sinisterly, of the Pallid Mask from The King in Yellow). This is followed by the same crippling fever that leaves him raving and bedridden for days, consumed with vivid nightmares of The King in Yellow and Dim Carcosa, of Genevieve and Boris, and of the marble creatures in Boris’ studio coming to life:
“[Thoughts of Genevieve] passed through my troubled mind as I lay sick, but they were hopelessly entangled with visions of white creatures, heavy as stone, crawling about in Boris’ basin,—of the wolf’s head on the rug, foaming and snapping at Geneviève, who lay smiling beside it.I thought, too, of The King in Yellow wrapt in the fantastic colors of his tattered mantle, and that bitter cry of Cassilda, “Not upon us, oh King, not upon us!” Feverishly I struggled to put it from me, but I saw the lake of Hali, thin and blank, without a ripple or wind to stir it, and I saw the towers of Carcosa behind the moon. Aldebaran, The Hyades, Alar, Hastur, glided through the cloud rifts which fluttered and flapped as they passed like the scolloped tatters of The King in Yellow…”
The fever is extremely serious, and goes on for weeks. During a lull in his delirium, Alec clearly sees a dejected Boris reaching out and touching him, and Alec has a strong sense that he is being silently tasked with a duty – a commission to finish some critically important unfinished business which Boris is no longer able to pursue.
Once the fever breaks, he is stunned to learn that Boris and Genevieve are dead. Without Alec’s support, Genevieve began using narcotics to sleep, which lead her to spend her waking hours in a psychedelic daze. One night, overwhelmed with sorrow and maddened by drugs, she tossed herself into the alchemical pool, transforming herself into a marble statue.
Boris, who tried to intercept her, is overwhelmed with despair and immediately shoots himself in the heart (although his friends spread the rumor that he died of a heart attack). Scott drains the petrification pool of its deadly fluid and destroys Boris’ records in accordance with the promise Boris had made to Genevieve before their deaths. Upon recovering his health, Alec is disturbed to discover that Boris has willed him his menagerie of marble statues – including Genevieve, who has been placed at the foot of the Madonna statue, for which she had modeled long ago, their two faces staring at one another like doppelgangers.
Horrified by the prospect of inheriting these uncanny statues, but unable to destroy them, Alec goes on a spiritual quest, wandering the Orient for two years. During that time he and Jack correspond, and both become increasingly uneasy about Alec’s ghostly vision of Boris standing over him. Convinced that his spirit has a job for them to execute, the two reunite around Eastertime to look over the marble statues and select one to serve for Boris’ grave marker. They settle on the Madonna, but Jack is unsettled by his memories and heads off to England, leaving Alec to wander the empty halls of Boris’ house by himself.
He is flooded with memories, reminded of dreams, and is aware of strange sensations all around him. Finally, “drawn by the strength of my life’s passion,” Alec finds the willpower to examine the marble room. He finds Genevieve at the foot of her Madonna statue, utterly lifelike: her skin is snow-white, but her veins are pale azure and her skin glows with the same rosy blush as the lily, fish, and rabbit. He ponders the Madonna’s face, which is illuminated by a halo of late afternoon sunlight, and turns away.
Returning to the study, he reads a letter from Jack – frantic and hysterical – begging him to stay at Boris’ house until he can get back from England: he has been plagued with dreams and doesn’t trust himself to effectively describe or explain them other than in person, so he prays that Alec will not leave the house until he can explain it further.
Troubled, his thoughts are interrupted by a housemaid who complains of strange happenings: someone is playing pranks on them, because a rabbit has somehow gotten into the house, and the marble one has been stolen. She is further disturbed to find two goldfish flopping on the floor of the studio, and notices that the marble counterparts have also been pilfered.
Alec soothes her and agrees to investigate. Still unconvinced of the implications, he storms into the studio adjacent to the marble room but is arrested by the sight of the once marble Easter lily, which is now “fresh and fragile and [filling] the air with perfume.” Stunned and hopeful, he charges the doors of the marble room, which is flooded with the light of the setting sun. There, watched over by the Madonna with her face, he sees Genevieve sitting up and opening her eyes.
“The Mask” is the tamest story in the King in Yellow cycle (the first four stories of the eponymous anthology), but it includes some of the starkest revelations of the play’s plot, contents, and atmosphere. Here we have some of the only plot details, and some of the grisliest depictions of Carcosa: “I thought, too, of the King in Yellow wrapped in the fantastic colours of his tattered mantle, and that bitter cry of Cassilda, “Not upon us, oh King, not upon us!” Feverishly I struggled to put it from me, but I saw the lake of Hali, thin and blank, without a ripple or wind to stir it, and I saw the towers of Carcosa behind the moon. Aldebaran, the Hyades, Alar, Hastur, glided through the cloud-rifts which fluttered and flapped as they passed like the scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow.”
The story gives us oblique insights into the plays content, but it is the glimpse into the emotional and philosophical heart of the play that make this story so interesting. Just before the quote I have just printed is a very telling comment on the part of our lovelorn narrator which manages to twine the Carcosan play together with the contemporary story: “The mask of self-deception was no longer a mask for me, it was a part of me. Night lifted it, laying bare the stifled truth below; but there was no one to see except myself, and when the day broke the mask fell back again of its own accord. These thoughts passed through my troubled mind as I lay sick, but they were hopelessly entangled with visions of white creatures, heavy as stone, crawling about in Boris’ basin — of the wolf’s head on the rug, foaming and snapping at Geneviève, who lay smiling beside it.”
The horror of the pallid mask (if this is the mask referred to in the unmasking) is not its visual appearance, but the terror of its reality – it simply IS, and there is no comforting that can possibly dilute the magnitude of this revelation. To the narrator the horror comes from the reality that he has been conducting an emotional affair that is now understood by his heartbroken friend. The mask is removed and can never be replaced. To Camilla and Cassilda the horror comes from the understanding that their companion is exactly what or whom he seems to be, and that no amount of theorizing or wondering can ever cause them to doubt his identity. The mask is removed and can never be replaced. To Boris the horror that eventually drives him to suicide comes from the realization that his desire to fabricate nature – to forge art by subverting nature – has resulted in the loss of his beloved. But this is both a physical and emotional fossilization: Geneviève has been forced to live a lie as Boris’ wife, and when she falls into the pool that he uses to fake art, it is more of a sign of her internal fossilization than a physical transition: she has been a marble statue long before she was turned to stone – a living forgery of love.
The “unmasking scene” is, as I mentioned earlier, largely inspired by Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” but the story proper also traces its origins to an Edgar Allan Poe tale, namely “The Oval Portrait.” Also sharing some elements with the legend of King Midas, “The Oval Portrait” tells of a wild painter who married a beautiful girl whom he wanted nothing more than to paint her portrait. The two lock themselves in a Gothic tower where the artists slaves over the canvas, obsessively trying to fabricate the traces of life. Meanwhile, the neglected woman’s vitality seems to transfer supernaturally onto the canvas (or, more literally, she wastes away from want of food and drink and exercise), until – with the last stroke – her life has fully transferred onto the painting (which brims with her life), and he looks over to see a corpse.
While the genre of art is different, and the mode of death different, the basic themes are the same: Boris kept Geneviève not as a husband devotes himself to his wife, but as an art collector takes pride in the ownership of a masterpiece. Her transition from living woman to cold marble is an allegory of Boris’ treatment of her – more as an object d’art than a human person with emotional needs – and this is what drives him to suicide: not her apparent death, but his sudden understanding of its poetic symbolism: it is as if she removed the mask of a mortal woman to unveil the marble beneath – the chipper Geneviève is the disguise, and the marble statue is the reality, the price of Boris’ eccentricity, decadence, and self indulgence. The mask has been removed and can never be replaced...
You can read the original story HERE!
And you can find our annotated and illustrated edition of Chambers’ best weird fiction HERE!