21 thoughts on “The King In Yellow – A Real-Time Review

  1. The Repairer of Reputations
    “The great furrows which the cat’s claws had ploughed up in his face he had filled with collodion,…”
    I shall try to re-read this whole book with new eyes, pretending I know nothing about it, nothing of what others have said about it, indeed what I myself have said about it. This first story — blend of Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens and speculative or retrocausal Steampunk — is one where I sense one needs to take along a portable darkroom onto the field of reading-battle to develop photographically the faces (although some no better than pallid masks) and Dickensian scenes on the spot as you absorb them. Unlike Proust, though, this is not Remembrance of Things Past but of Things Future, more a Thomas Pynchon ‘Against the Day’ than a stream of consciousness tale of unrequited love, whereby we are tuned into accepting the arrival of Lethal (Robert W.) Chambers as if civilisation, I infer, is giving everyone the potential not only to fulfil some anti-natalist ideal but to become Messiahs by the craft of assisted suicide, now legal as well as lethal, and one can perhaps see how this has been subliminally encouraged by Christ who, by wilfully accepting his crucifixion, brought his own death on himself in redemptive default, from which he was perceived to die before coming back to life on the back of such a suicide. The ‘hero’ here, Hildred Castaigne, once treated for madness after hitting his head when falling off a horse, plots against his own military cousin Louis Castaigne so as to become a sort of Messiah known as the King in Yellow, but was too mad to realise what entailed such Messiahship and how to bring it about and to whom! Too mad to be constructively mad enough.
    The ‘King in Yellow’ is indeed a mad book containing, I infer, a theatrical play, but not as mad as this very book (photographed above) that I am reading so that it can tell me about the book it describes as not so much mad in itself as maddening others with its implications including a list of strange pre-Lovecraftian names to orientate readers in its own alternate world but within another alternate world of the book where I am reading about it (speculative steampunk published in 1895 written about events in, say, 1920).
    Like two negatives, two alternates make a sort of positive.
    The man with ‘wax ears’, however, is the first face that I develop in my portable darkroom, the Repairer of Reputations, and his first job for me has been to repair my own reputation as a mad book reviewer. Job done. Onward…

    [[ “I saw Elvis at the mall last night. He was eating pizza with DF Lewis. Can’t think why they’d ordered anchovies.” – Karl Edward Wagner: ‘The View from Carcosa’ ]]

  2. The Mask
    “I turned my eyes to the spinet; every yellow key seemed eloquent of her caressing hand,…”
    A tale of the sculptor, Boris Yvain, someone mentioned in the first story, involving a liquid-dipping process that marble-ises living matter as the perfect sculpture. I sense the imperfect model in Gauguin’s painting — shown above and entitled ‘Nevermore’ — is suffused throughout with a single brushstroke of a sunlight beam. Meanwhile, this story is a a blend of a mad scientist yarn but, much more than that, a beautiful Proustian unrequited love affair that finally is requited, with the backdrop of twenty-something Parisian artists and their fallible ambitions and relationships plus a single mention of the ‘King in Yellow’ and its embedded items of recondite nomenclature. Music frozen, too, only to melt on the page in the form of words.
    I have, for the purposes of this review, been exploring various aspects of Gauguin including his death mask in the image of Christ. This story has this spoken: “We painters lose more than we ever gain by photography.” Reviewers, too, and mask-makers. Nevermore is nevermore. Perfection, like madness, never truly perfect.
    [A ‘mahl-stick’ is a stick with a small padded pillow at the end of it with which the painter can steady his brush-stroking hand, to staunch its shakes until he strokes no more.]

      • Thanks, Harold. As I said above, I was really stirred to start this review as a result of your scholarly observation here about a line in ‘The Yellow Sign’ section of KiY. Perhaps, I shall say more about that in due course.
        You and others may also be interested in my review of Joe Pulver’s edited ‘A Season in Carcosa’ (and ‘Grimscribe’s Puppets’) here.

  3. In The Court Of The Dragon
    “I belong to those children of an older and simpler generation, who do not love to seek for psychological subtleties in art; and I have ever refused to find in music anything more than melody and harmony, but I felt that in the labyrinth of sounds now issuing from that instrument there was something being hunted.”
    I do not belong to ‘those children’ myself (I have long been a lover of atonal ‘classical’ music), but I can empathise with the dread and paranoia, born from a Christian church and its service, a dread and paranoia that partly issue from atonal organ music or, more definitively, from the atonal organist himself who continues – after the protagonist’s earlier reading of the ‘King in Yellow’ book described within this ‘King in Yellow’ book I am myself reading – to stalk this protagonist to his own unsavoury apartments in the Court of the Dragon, in dream or reality. This is a classic story of the deepest dread possible and I feel that its last line is relevant to my tentative gestalt in the series of leitmotifs ineluctably emerging from this book about a book that I am currently reading: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!”
    [Additional recommended reading: DOCTOR FAUSTUS by Thomas Mann, in connection with musical Aesthetics and the atonal music theme mentioned above.]

  4. 'The Yellow Christ' by Gauguin - significantly painted in 1889 and depicting Breton women praying...

    ‘The Yellow Christ’ by Gauguin – significantly painted in 1889 and depicting Breton women praying…

    The Yellow Sign
    “What was it in the roar and turmoil of Broadway at six o’clock that flashed before my eyes the picture of a still Breton forest…”
    This is, of course, another classic story of dread and paranoia, of stalking by death or half-death, suicidal or a cynically deliberate death so as to hunt others, stemming from both the internal and external KiY books, with the Aesthetics of Art as prefigured by earlier stories, and it is such a famously classic story I do not need further to adumbrate its plot – but for any callow newcomers, I did clumsily read the whole story aloud here (http://www.filefactory.com/file/5fjnwwrvrqkj/VN650649.WMA) a few days ago.
    But, now, addressing its specific line mentioned earlier, “…for I knew that the King in Yellow had opened his tattered mantle and there was only God to cry to now.” – I understand that this line appeared as such in the first British edition of KiY that I am currently reading, a version which all future editions followed. But in the first American edition, it had ‘Christ’ rather than ‘God’ in that sentence. I sense, from the context, that the narrator is in a similar position as that above in the Chagall painting of ‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel’, as when the KiY opens his mantle in the story. (The Gauguin painting, ‘The Vision after the Sermon’, shown above, remarkably also has Breton women watching Jacob fighting the angel, but an angel with yellow wings! Wrestling was common in Brittany, I think, in those days, and there are several references to Brittany in KiY). I guess that in this arguably sexual context, ‘Christ’ would be too personal, too human, too sacrilegious a reference, whilst an immanent God, after all, is, in the terms of Christianity, the ‘fount’ of all existence symbolised by what is now being offered as something akin to a religious revelation or, dare I say, ‘flashing’? However much one recoils from this interpretation, in view of the considered, otherwise inexplicable, change in the story’s text, it now seems inescapable or at least worth considering then discarding.

    “Where flap the tatters of the King,…” From Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow.” Act 1. Scene 2.

    [My other readings aloud of fiction are linked from here.]

    • Certainly an interpretation not to be discarded, but worthy of consideration given a rather major change of this word (Christ) after it had already been published; but, what or why, then to draw the author’s attention back to it? What so momentous the nudge towards such a major consideration? Although I have read all, all the works of Chambers, I cannot recall anything that would have been the Creator of this change. Chambers having been too long laid aside and his work tattered and thrown into a trash heap of purely popular reading, when most of them are worth reading, indeed for “popular” reading despite their worth if only for that. But this interpretation leads me to wonder after all these long years of having read those many works whether there are here and there hints for what might have attracted Chambers’ attention to make this change, and so soon within the reprinting of this collection — the stories having written within such a disparity of dates, one assumes. The answer lies most probably within Chambers’ earliest work as an artist, perhaps even in his perusal of the Gauguin. Or at the urging of an editor reviewing the text for the British edition and subsequent American printings, or the reconsideration for the earliest American reprint, changed in print at the earliest for the British printing. Such a jumble of my own ill-formed and tentative thinking. Why don’t I just reread all of these worthy stories.

  5. The Demoiselle d’Ys
    “‘Ah,’ she said, ‘to come is easy and takes hours; to go is different–and may take centuries.'”
    An idyllic, pre- and post-Raphaelite tale of love on the brink of requital till those ‘centuries’ poignantly intervene. A Breton scenario, a lost domain when Old French was spoken there, and falconry is deployed for us meticulously. One of the falconers is called Hastur, the only reference to the internal KiY book of a play that I could find, but with an amorphous radiance suffusing the externality of the old Brittany as well as speculative New York KiY that I am reading and reviewing. Also the serpent on the grey rock reminds me of the basilisk (shaped from a curtain) roosting in a previous story’s church setting, and of the stance if not the nature of Billings’ ‘angel bird’ that haunts my dreams.
    (The 19 year old demoiselle d’Ys not but lives on in this story.)

  6. Now. now. we find the decadence, that poetic decadence, appear in both the story and in the review, and in the review sufficiently so to make it worth a repeat reading and re-reading, and so to be at once satisfied with both. Should that bird strike along the beach walk and we find these reviews no more, we can sadly expect to find them nevermore. Sadly so.

  7. The Prophets’ Paradise
    “‘If it is true,’ she sighed, ‘that you find in me a friend, let us turn back together.'”
    I really love this series of incantatory refrains in prose, prophetic of a resonance with Dylan Thomas if you imagine his voice reading them or with Schoenberg casting them for Pierrot Lunaire. Oblique references to the requitable loves of this book, and to pallid masks … while prophetic of Lethal Chambers, perhaps those of the Second World War, and with glass ceilings… And clowns and jesters, to boot.
    “…I read a thousand names, while from within the fresh blood bubbled to the brim.”

  8. The Street of the Four Winds
    “The name Elven has a charm for me. It tells me of meadows and clear rivers. The name of Sylvia troubles me like perfume from dead flowers.”
    This is a meticulous and haunting study of a man with a stray cat he has befriended, a cat with a remarkable garter, that causes the man to fantasise about the cat’s owner with, later, a deliciously open-ended scene when he returns the cat to her owner. It is so meticulous and methodical, this prose could have been written by Robbe-Grillet. Its floridly Proustian, yet ‘anti-novel’ or deadpan, approach opens like a dead flower suddenly come to life.
    [There is one strangely isolated reference by the protagonist to the cat that haunts me more than any other, perhaps unsurprisingly: “At the sound of his voice she broke into a harsh rumbling which he recognized as an attempt to purr. He bent over to rub her cheek and she mewed again, an amiable inquiring little mew, to which he replied: ‘Certainly, you are greatly improved, and when you recover your plumage you will be a gorgeous bird.'”]

  9. The Street of the First Shell
    “The wounded man rummaged in his haversack and produced a crust of black bread. / ‘He can’t eat it, his jaw is smashed, and he wants you to chew it for him,’ said the soldier next to him. / Trent took the the crust, and grinding it in his teeth, morsel by morsel, passed it back to the starving man.”
    And I feel like I have just chewed this lengthy story of the Siege of Paris during the Winter of 1870, chewed it for you, digested the reputed unfantastical dryness of its plot and prose and turned it into what it has always been: a wonderfully evocative vision of a time and a place – with the rat-killer gamins selling rat as food, the rumours, the snow and ice, the conspiracies, the unrequited and requited loves (“And a young Moon requite us by and by”), the interaction between artists, the bombardment over the city roofs with shells, the protagonist’s foray into the fight through perceived shame and disgrace… I felt that, in the context of this review, it was significant that it was a young Bretonne girl who helped him toward the battle, and that it was the rat-killer who enacted the title of this story with a poster outside the protagonist’s house where he had left his loved one. And I imagined a vision of pallid masks as squadrons of soldiers appeared like ghosts through the fog (“A pallor crept above the horizon…”)… And the ostensibly happy ending also made me think that the baby would grow up to be a parent of someone who’d likely die in an even greater war in this story’s future…
    Yet, that baby at one point is referred to in an oblique context as ‘the other’ – and I was wondering whether Chambers is implying a new Messiahship?
    “…the bookstore tottered, ripped from roof to basement,…”

  10. Street of Our Lady of The Fields
    This novelette is Paris again – but later, around the time of this book’s publication. And, as if denying the gloomy contention in my review above of the previous story, this is an engaging social flirtation of artist students whose etiquette is fluid; birds tweet, and fish are fished, but it is a text textured enough to remind me of Proust and of Elizabeth Bowen (the pallid squadrons in the fog of the previous story reminding me of her ‘shoals of the dead’ in a Wartime Blitzed London …. but lightly reflected by the itemised crowds in this novelette that stroll between the Odeon and the Fountain)…
    This novelette has a fine finale on a Paris train as Valentine Tissot, considering herself too Bohemian and unworthy of our hero Mr Hastings, hangs from the train window…
    An engaging frivolity, with an artist author who does “pick out the lights in his sketch with a bit of bread” and one liaison or tryst does duly take place “under the shadow of a winged god” (but a cherub as it turns out!) and it has, inter alia, a wonderful literary adumbration of a drummer and of bayonets marching…
    The novelette’s last line, though, brings us subtly back to KiY, I feel. As if this slice of social media in 19th century print is again overseen by our Lady Bretonne, the one who was seen as a girl in the previous story…

  11. Rue Barrée
    “‘Name, Yvette; nationality Breton–’ / ‘Wrong,’ replied Clifford blandly, “its Rue Barrée.’”
    Well, this is arguably the most powerful story in the book, in itself as well as in the book’s context. Would it surprise you then if I tell you that it is a sequel to the social flirtation in the previous story, even to the extent of carrying over some of the same characters? Yet, this one is, by contrast, hilarious with flowers and wooing, yet filled with obsessively unrequited love, including rivalry among the artist students for a girl called Rue Barrée, named after where she lives in the Latin Quarter (tellingly a barricaded road in the Court of the Dragon) and, presumably, because of her unapproachability of purity and beauty.
    “Out of the throng of passers by, out of the world of yesterday, out of the millions passing, one has turned aside to me.” That shoal of the dead, recurring? And indeed, here, birds still tweet and fly, but now we have mention of one bird in a cage. And among those wooing bouquets of flowers, there is a single cactus. Objective Correlatives that resonate with a “dangerous sweetness”.
    Meanwhile, the most obvious connection with the rest of the book is where one of the protagonists, unaccountably, has “…a nightmare about a river of yellow ochre in which he was drowning.” And, like Wilde with the ‘wax ears’ earlier, the love-pursuing protagonist has his real ears removed – now replaced with his eyes like a bird’s.
    The story’s obsession is tangible when, in the final scene, a single rose acts as the strongest symbol of unrequited love between two human beings but, upon its very brink of requital, there is separation from each other. To love nevermore.
    Like Man and his God. Their reputations irreparable.

    • All pointing towards the easy artistic flow that would allow Chambers to produce the string of successful popular novels, “romances,” composed with such artistic sharpness, that would subsume him while the illustrative work for journals would be given up — no more the Gibson Girls for him, except by word alone in his stories, rich in historical detail, still worth the reading.

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