A prized possession of mine is a 1902 Harper & Brothers edition of The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers. Much has been written about this book, a collection of short stories linked by the appearance and impact of a forbidden text, a play called “The King in Yellow”. The stories remain influential over a century since their publication. Chambers, along with Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, William Hope Hodgson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was among the generation of horror and fantasy writers who preceded “the big three”1 at Weird Tales in the 1920s and 1930s. Chambers and his colleagues developed many of the concepts that still appear in horror and fantasy entertainment today.
H.P. Lovecraft used some of Chambers’ ideas in his fiction: certain place names, but also perhaps the concept of a forbidden text or knowledge that is hazardous to possess. In “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931) Lovecraft’s narrator rattles off a list of “…names and terms that I heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections…” These include Hastur, the Lake of Hali, and the Yellow Sign, all from Chambers’ book. Readers can think of other examples, past and present, where imagery from Chambers’ book is borrowed or further developed.
So much has been written about “The King in Yellow” that it is unnecessary to go into detail, except to highlight a few elements related to egregoric phenomena. These are drawn from the key stories in The King in Yellow, including “The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, and “The Yellow Sign”.2 The last is probably best known, often appearing in horror anthologies.3
Chambers’ book suggests a list of typical paraphernalia and procedures for conjuring entities like the eponymous King in Yellow. These include: a forbidden text, ritualistic behavior, a talismanic emblem, (the “Yellow Sign”), and a social group initiated or socialized into worshipful attentiveness to an egregrore.
In the “Repairer of Reputations”, Castaigne, the doomed and delusional narrator, has already read the play cover to cover. He describes the world-wide impact of “The King in Yellow” in this way:
“It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists.” He later adds: “It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in “The King in Yellow”, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.”
These days we might consider such a phenomenon a dangerous meme, or reckless bit of disinformation, or a popular conspiracy theory, (Q’Anon comes to mind). But the model for this trope may be the Bible, or perhaps any holy or revelatory scripture, regardless of religious tradition. What other literature would be imbued with the power to alter a life, a society or even the perception of reality? Chambers’ The King in Yellow is one of many examples of the intersection of religious sentiment with horror literature.
Reading the play accelerates Castaigne’s demise, though the story implies he already struggled with mental instability. The three characters in “The Mask”, who form a romantic triangle, only read portions of “The King in Yellow”, but still succumb to its malevolent influence. In the third story, Tessie and Mr. Scott eventually read the entire play and then quote it to each other, which hastens their end, though a series of dreams and premonitions has already foreshadowed this.
In the first story, Castaigne is an active reader of “The King in Yellow”, having purchased the book during his “convalescence”. However, in the other stories, the characters just happen to discover the book on a shelf. Initial curiosity leads them to destruction. Perhaps the work appears at a time in their lives or relationships when it will have the greatest impact.
Compare this to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, which is actively consulted by its temporary owners, who then fall prey to various eldritch consequences. And while the Necronomicon is only known to a handful of scholars and occultists, the play about ‘The King in Yellow’ is known worldwide and shunned.
A disturbing element in Chambers’ work is the passivity of several of the characters. Their exposure to the forbidden text is like a viral infection they are powerless to avoid. As they read the play, characters begin to engage in ritualistic behaviors that magnify the impact of the entity they are invoking.
Castaigne, the megalomaniacal victim in “The Repairer of Reputations” repeatedly dons a crown he keeps in a safe, and regularly visits the evil Mr. Wilde, a fellow cult member, to review a document called “The Imperial Dynasty of America”, which confirms his delusions of grandeur.
In “The Mask”, there is increasing focus on a room “built of rose-colored marble, excepting the floor…in the center was a square pool sunken below the surface of the floor; steps led down into it…” This is a kind of baptismal font, filled with a magic liquid concocted by one of the artists—it has the power to turn living things into marble sculptures. In this story the imagery of a Christian ritual is borrowed to symbolize something else entirely. Petrification and suicide soon follow.
Finally, ritualistic behavior of a kind appears in “The Yellow Sign”, as Tessie and Mr. Scott tell each other their weirdly parallel dreams, recite passages from the play, and repeatedly go to the window to look down on the mysterious man in the church courtyard, the one who resembles “a plump, white grave-worm.”
All of these activities effectively summon the approach of the shadowy, nightmarish King in Yellow, whose appearance and manifestations spell psychic and physical doom.
A religious talisman appears in “The Repairer of Reputations” and is explicitly identified in “The Yellow Sign”. Castaigne gives his copy of the sign, scrawled on a piece of paper, to a homeless person on the street, and later shows it to his cousin, whom he is threatening to murder to protect his accession to the throne. Earlier in the story, he and Mr. Wilde, apparently part of a large conspiracy, decide not to give the Yellow Sign to those who might oppose their secret rebellion, though it has already been given to thousands of confederates: “…every man whose name was there had received the Yellow Sigh, which no human being dared disregard. The city, the State, the whole land, were ready to rise and tremble before the Pallid Mask”.
In the third story the mysterious night watchman of the church ominously chants “Have you found the Yellow Sign?” as Mr. Scott passes by. He later receives it as a gift from Tessie. It’s described as “…a clasp of black onyx, on which was inlaid a curious symbol or letter in gold. It was neither Arabic nor Chinese, nor, as I found afterwards, did it belong to any human script.” Tessie gives it to him as a keepsake—it was an item she happened to find in her travels around town. He has given her a gold chain with a cross. Tellingly, the cross does not prevent her inevitable demise.
It’s not clear what the significance of the Yellow Sign is. In some situations it appears as a harbinger of disaster. In others it is protective, or identifies one as a member of a secret organization. (Could it look like the letter Q?) The idea that a remnant of some chosen group will survive a coming conflagration by being marked in some special way is ancient and troubling.
All three of the stories indicate that many are generally aware of the evil play and the effects of reading it—it is part of the culture that the author creates for his characters. This is especially the case in “The Repairer of Reputations”, where Castaigne and Mr. Wilde are members of a larger group marked with the Yellow Sign and prepared to overthrow the government. (However, this idea could be part of the grandiosity and delusional beliefs of the narrator, who may be an unreliable reporter.)
The book, ritualistic behavior, and yellow sign operate on the doomed characters by changing their consensual reality, and replacing it with a new and terrifying perception. Though the stories describe the individual effects on various readers of the book, it is clear in the book that the impact of reading the play is or could soon become a mass phenomenon. In this way, Chamber’s The King in Yellow continues to be a relevant depiction of how “forbidden” knowledge, ritual, talismanic symbols, and mass socialization can summon egregores.
1H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith.
2There are 6 other stories in the book, a couple of which contain supernatural themes, but these seem unconnected to the King in Yellow mythos of the first three.
3Hastur appears in the fourth story, “The Demoiselle D’Ys”, but only as a minor character, and does not appear related to the “Hastur” mentioned earlier in the book.
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The King in Yellow stories are a kind of literary Rubik’s Cube. You think about them one way, and then another, and in the end you can’t come up with a logical explanation. But that’s part of the experience. Not quite as dire as the effect of reading the play, but equally weird.
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