Robert W. Chambers phenomenal collection of short stories, The King in Yellow, was first published in 1895. It is a bizarre mix of horror, romance and a number of other genres that rarely go together in one collection. Yet, Chambers is a master of all trades. Each story brings its own uniqueness and cleverness to the set, particularly the four in the beginning which centre around the mysterious and terrifying manuscript of The King in Yellow which the characters all happen to stumble across.
The introduction, added to my addition for re-publication in 2010 by David Stuart Davies, is really useful and sets the book up well. It gives some interesting context to the collection as a whole, and to the individual stories themselves.
Although only the first four stories make reference to the infamous The King in Yellow, I really like how it is portrayed. Despite only being able to read snippets as the characters recall extracts, the play seems as overwhelming and frightening to us as it does to the characters. Chambers utilises the power of the imagination by leaving many things left unsaid or unexplained, and it works incredibly well with the suspense and thrilling nature of the stories. Chambers is undoubtedly a very talented writer, and he links his stories in a subtle and clever way that tells a lot about the collection as a whole. Some of his connections are so subtle, that if you aren’t paying full attention then you might miss them.
Chambers has an affinity with the uncanny. The way he poses human nature especially is unsettling to read. His stories have a hallucinogenic quality; nothing is stable and the reader is left constantly questioning if any of it is real. Knowing that some parts of the stories are informed by autobiographical information makes this even more scary. My favourite example of this is in ‘The Repairer of Reputations’. It is a wonderfully sinister story, uncomfortable to read and disturbing in the descriptions of its grotesque characters. Similarly, Chambers’ ability to build tension and switch between moods is made evident in ‘The Mask’, and it is incredibly effective.
But my favourite story in the collection has to be ‘The Street of the First Shell’. The descriptions of the war sections of the narrative, whilst gruesome, are absolutely outstanding and the ending is beyond brilliant. Chambers remembers all the little details and knows when to bring them back for maximum impact.
Overall, I loved reading this collection, although I would definitely say that the stories are ordered generally from best to worst. Chambers is such a fantastic writer of both prose and verse, and his combination of them within his stories is hauntingly good. I would definitely recommend reading this, it is worth the effort!