March 18, 2014

The King in Yellow: CCLaP's new introduction

The King in Yellow (CCLaP Victoriana Series), by Robert W. Chambers

As part of the promotion for CCLaP's new re-release of the 1895 horror collection The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, I thought I'd post here at the blog the new scholarly introduction I wrote for this edition. Find it in its entirety below.

It's the hit HBO show from the 21st century, True Detective, that has brought Robert W. Chambers' 1895 book of "weird" stories back into the mainstream public eye for the first time in 120 years; but those in the know have been aware of The King in Yellow this entire time, with its Wikipedia page listing such modern notables as H.P. Lovecraft, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Raymond Chandler, Blue Oyster Cult, and a lot more as fans who have self-professed this book as a major influence. And why shouldn't they? An inauspicious volume from an artist just starting his career, who up to then had been a visual painter who suddenly switched mediums without any given explanation, there wasn't much of a reason to expect great things from this mid-list story collection; but it turned out to be one of the very first volumes to help define what horror became in the modern era, the fabled "bridge between Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King" that's been cited in so many term papers on the subject. Ostensibly a meta tale about tales about tales, The King in Yellow has at its heart a fictional play also called "The King in Yellow," which according to Chambers' mythos apparently appeared for the first time somewhere in Europe in the 1880s and quickly became a cult-like viral hit that spread across the continent; it's said by the bohemians who manage to track down a copy of the script that actually finishing it will drive a person insane, and the book Chambers has put together for us is an anthology of sorts, showing us the fates of various random citizens as they do indeed finish the play, and unexplainably things of an insane nature do indeed start happening to them. Sound suspiciously like the modern horror classic The Ring? There's a good reason for that.

Or, actually, it's not unexplainable what happens to the good people of Chambers' stories; they simply go crazy, overwhelmed by the exposure to the black void of existence that reading this play gave them, all of them becoming convinced that the world is actually run by a mysterious yellow king in a mythical and evil land called Carcosa, where the stars are always black and humanity is ruled through slavery and an iron fascist fist. And that's why this is often called the first true horror tale of the modern era; because far from The King in Yellow being about things that go bump in the night, it instead examines the horror that comes with existential dread, the horror of serial killers and criminal insanity, of glimpsing dark truths about the universe that humans were never meant to understand, and having one's brain ripped apart because of it. This is the same kind of existential horror that drives every slasher movie that's ever been made, and it's the same fear of the universe's abyss that also drives Lovecraft's entire Cthulhu/Great Old Ones mythology, which is why he's so often brought up whenever the subject of Chambers is discussed. (Although of course, in Lovecraft's usual style, he never was able to pay Chambers a simple compliment, instead always referring to him as an author who started out well but then devolved into sentimental tripe later in his career; or as he put it in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, "Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans--equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them.")

But there's another reason that this is cited as the first true modern horror tale, which is for all the elaborate and ultimately unnecessary world-building Chambers did, in order to create a strange but believable alt-history universe for which his stories to take place: imagining a fake-future 1920 from his current 1895, the first four stories of The King in Yellow take place in a society that has eerily just seen the end of a "world war" caused by an overly militaristic Germany (although in Chambers' case, a war that was ultimately won by the Americans after the Germans unwisely attacked their Pacific territory of Samoa), and as a result of that war the US has become a slightly more fascistic place itself, theoretically more peaceful than before but only because they rounded up all the Jews and African-Americans and shipped them off to other countries. Oh yeah, and people seem to keep killing themselves a lot too, and more with every year, so much so that the national government has just decriminalized the act of suicide when our book opens, and the city of New York has just established a painless "euthanasia center" on the south edge of Washington Square Park, designed to look like an ancient Greek gazebo. And there are other modern genre touches here too, such as callbacks to a shared set of characters; the sculptor who designed the suicide chamber of the first story, for example, is the lead character of the book's second story, set in an entirely different city. None of these things were strictly necessary for Chambers simply to tell his tales; he seems to have done it just to enrich the universe in which his stories take place, a proud tradition that now informs nearly every space opera and alt-history book ever written.

Now, to be sure, Lovecraft's complaint was right: although one of the most commercially successful writers of his generation, Chambers only managed this by hopping from one quickie genre to the next over the course of his 50-year career, and was known by his contemporary audience just as much (in fact, maybe more so) for his love stories and war novels as for the smaller amount of proto-science-fiction and proto-horror he also occasionally outputted (known collectively at the time by the aforementioned label of "weird," a sort of catch-all phrase during the Victorian Age that only in the 20th century got further boiled down into sci-fi, fantasy, horror, noir, and other specializations). And so it is even with The King in Yellow as well; for while the first four stories of this book are collectively about this mysterious evil mythos we've been discussing, there are also stand-alone weird tales in this collection, a series of straightforward human-interest stories about French bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris (based off Chambers' actual time in the 1870s and '80s, living in Paris himself and studying/teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts), as well as a series of action-drama stories about this Latin Quarter neighborhood as it existed during the infamous 1870 Siege of Paris (with characters literally lifted from Chambers' debut novel the year before, 1894's In The Quarter). This is why Chambers is often referred to by even his fans as both the most brilliant and most frustrating genre novelist of the Victorian Age; because just when he would get cooking on something that was really fascinating, he would often take a complete left turn in his work, mostly into territory that wasn't nearly as good, and done almost entirely for the purpose of putting food on his family's table. (It was the human-interest and war stuff that sold a lot more copies to 1890s audiences, in fact so much so that eventually the term "Chambers Girl" came to be known as shorthand for any forward-thinking modern female in the early 20th century, much like the term "Gibson Girl" stood for the same thing in the visual arts; it would take an entire extra century and the rise of Jacob's Ladder, Twin Peaks and Lost before existential horror would achieve the same cultural satiation.)

But still, we have these first four stories to show us a Chambers at the top of his form, a Chambers who unwittingly drove the rest of us to a place in literary horror we didn't even know we wanted to go; and it's not very often that an author gets to be this solitarily influential on an entire genre of writing, so let's perhaps forgive him for the dozens of quickie love stories he pumped out as well in the name of having a career. If you want a single book you can point to and say, "Everything in genre fiction changed after this," you could do worse than to point at The King in Yellow, a prescient collection with still a palpable ability to scare the beejeezus out of you. It's our pleasure to make this the first of our new line of modern Victoriana reprints, and we hope that you end up enjoying it as much as we enjoyed putting it together.

Download a free copy of The King in Yellow, or order the paperback edition, at [cclapcenter.com/kinginyellow].

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:23 AM, March 18, 2014. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Literature | Profiles | Reviews |