Literature / The King in Yellow

"Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa."
—From Cassilda's Song in The King in Yellow, Act i, Scene 2

The King in Yellow is a rather surreal collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers published in 1895. The stories are scattered all over the map between horror and romance, but all generally have ties to France as a setting, the later ones moving more and more into romance and increasingly starring artists. A common thread is a fictional play also called The King in Yellow, the reading of which either drives people mad or leads them to a dark fate.

Due to the publishing date, it's in the public domain in most countries and readable online.

H.P. Lovecraft cited this book as an influence, and it's the directnote  source of Hastur's name. According to Lovecraft's friend and fellow writer August Derleth, the actual performance of The King in Yellow is a summoning ritual for an Eldritch Abomination.

Several authors have crafted facsimiles of the "real" text of Chambers' fictional play, including playwright Thom Ryng's 1999 version, which premiered at the Capitol Theater in Olympia WA and has seen two printings from Armitage press. A particularly notable version was written by James Blish for the story "More Light".

You might be looking for the Raymond Chandler short story of the same name (in which the lead refers to this book).

This work contains examples of:

  • Alien Sky: Carcosa—black stars, twin suns, you name it.
  • All First Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: Taken to a rather odd extreme when it turns out that the narrator of The Yellow Sign has been fatally wounded and is writing his account as he is dying.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: The Yellow King may personify decadence itself. That's what the colour yellow means (see the yellow book in The Picture of Dorian Gray).
  • Bilingual Bonus: There's a lot of untranslated French.
  • Bright Is Not Good: Hastur.
  • Brown Note: The eponymous fictional play. Don't read it! Also the Yellow Sign, which seems to leave the viewer susceptible to some kind of mind control if they've already read The King in Yellow.
  • Cats Are Mean: The title character of The Repairer of Reputations not only almost lives in fear of his, but also seems to enjoy it.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Arguable example, depending on the politics espoused by the actual author and the reader's interpretation. In "The Repairer of Reputations," the narrator waxes lyrical about how glorious and Utopian America has become in the year 1920. But all the while he describes an America that is gradually becoming more xenophobic, more militaristic, more imperial, less democratic, and more given to sweeping its problems under the rug. Everything is orderly, pretty, and colorful, but very dark currents are moving beneath the surface. (Notably, enough people seem to be dissatisfied with their lives that the government is subsidizing assisted suicide!)
  • Driven to Suicide: "The Repairer of Reputations," "The Mask". In "The Yellow Sign", once the protagonist's girlfriend goes insane from reading the play, he despairingly picks it up and reads it too.
  • During the War: "The Street of the First Shell"
  • Eldritch Location: The lost city of Carcosa, located somewhere in the Hyades, "where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali..."
  • Genre Blindness: Almost every story, somebody picks up a copy of The King In Yellow and reads it, even though they should know, both from the genre and from in-universe sources, that the book is horrific and should never be read, no matter how artistic it is. Despite this, everyone keeps a copy on their shelf where anybody can read it and go insane. One character even mentions seeing it in bookstores...
    • The main character of "The Yellow Sign", however, is both shocked and bewildered to see his girlfriend pull out the book out of his shelves; while he desperately and repeatedly tells her to put it down and not to open it, he's also wondering how the hell the book managed to end up in his apartment in the first place, as he is well aware how dangerous it is.
  • Humanoid Abomination: This is one of the texts Lovecraft was inspired by, after all. Notably, the King In Yellow himself is (seemingly) absent from the actual book, but he is the one that made the play named after him. Book covers (and many depictions, before and after the internet arrived) generally depict him as a humanish being wearing bright yellow robes.
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: Severn.
  • Love Triangle: "The Mask"
  • Mad God: The King in Yellow him/her/itself or as an inversion by making everyone crazy via the play.
  • Masquerade Ball: "The Mask": Implied to occur in the play. "I wear no mask."
  • Mercy Kill: "Government Lethal Chambers" are introduced in "The Repairer of Reputations" so that any citizen who desires it can end their lives.
  • Metafictional Title: The King in Yellow, the book, is named after The King in Yellow, the play.
  • Mind Screw: "In the Court of the Dragon"; "The Prophets' Paradise"; "The Repairer of Reputations"; even the opening poem. Let's just say that of all the authors whose work is regarded as belonging to the "weird tales" genre, most aren't half as weird as Chambers.
  • Noodle Incident: Mr. Scott's love affair with Sylvia ended with him concealing an unnamed secret within the forests of Brittany.
    • Most portions of the play itself.
  • Not a Mask: Played straight.
    Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
    Stranger: Indeed?
    Cassilda: Indeed, it's time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
    Stranger: I wear no mask.
    Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!
  • Schmuck Bait: People keep reading The King in Yellow even if they've been informed doing so is a bad idea. There's a subtle implication that the play exerts some sort of One Ring-style influence on people to get itself read.
  • Shout-Out: Chambers took the enigmatic names Hastur and Carcosa from two of Ambrose Bierce's short stories.
    • A Shout-Out in the other direction occurs in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series, which uses lots of the names from the book — mostly for Darkovan mythical/historical characters, occasionally for places.
  • Surreal Horror: Nothing about the horrific weirdness is explained. Ever.
  • Taken for Granite: "The Mask" but it's reversible.
  • Time Travel: "The Demoiselle d'Ys"
  • Together in Death: Well, madness, but it works out to the same thing. In "The Yellow Sign", after the model he's fallen in love with gets an eye-full of the play and goes bonkers, the artist despairingly picks it up and starts reading.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Chambers' "utopian", reformed United States in the far-off year of our Lord... 1920.
  • Uncanny Valley: Invoked. The pale hearse-driver in "The Yellow Sign" is constantly described in eerie terms as seeming unnaturally soft and puffy, and people often reacts to his presence with revulsion or fear. For good reason.
  • The Undead: "The Yellow Sign". It is linked to the eponymous play.
  • Unobtainium: "The Mask": A newly discovered element tentatively placed in the Incredibly Awesome group.
  • Unreliable Narrator: "The Repairer of Reputations". We don't even know if the Crapsaccharine World is real or not; the tales featuring the King in Yellow play are interconnected, but this is the only one which explicitly depicts such a world.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Although the evil cat is killed, animal lovers will be pleased to note that the bunny and the goldfish in "The Mask" are restored to life and the fish are immediately re-homed.

In 1999, playwright Thom Ryng wrote a production-length facsimile of the "real" King in Yellow based on Chambers' short stories (and following the rough plot laid out by Kevin Ross in the Call of Cthulhu RPG). Set on the world of Hastur, the play centers on the last generation of a dying, world-spanning Imperial dynasty; Queen Cassilda must find and choose a royal heir before she dies, but one of her kids is an empty-headed socialite, one has joined the Religion of Evil, and the last is a hothead who is too young to be crowned.

Meanwhile, her brother plots to assume the throne for himself, the Sinister Minister High Priest undermines her family's power with the common folk, and as if that wasn't enough, a mysterious phantom city appears, bringing with it a dark messenger and all manner of unsettling omens. And then things go downhill.

Thom Ryng's play The King in Yellow uses the following tropes:

  • Anachronism Stew: The play is supposed to be over a hundred years old, but its vocabulary is inappropriate for Third Republic-era France and the stage directions involve technical references impossible in that period. Justified in that this is supposedly Ryng's "modern English translation" of the text.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Although some are just Jerkass, or hopelessly naive.
  • The Atoner: Thale, eventually.
  • The Blank: The Stranger in Pallid Mask aka the Phantom of Truth, whose equivalent haunts the protagonists in "The Mask". He is a living corpse whose face is white smooth like a mask.
  • Blind Seer: Actually, eyeless altogether.
  • Break the Cutie: Camilla.
  • Break the Haughty: Aldones, Naotalba.
  • Call-Back: Across multiple texts. Ryng uses all of the lines and passages quoted in Chambers' short stories, here found in their "original" context.
  • Cassandra Truth: If you pay attention, you'll see that the Stranger actually tells the characters everything they need to know.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Bremchas, The Fool.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Cassilda tortures the Stranger for the entirety(!) of Act 2, Scene 1.
  • Corrupt Church: The Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign.
  • Determinator: Cassilda.
  • The Dragon: Alar to Aldones. The Phantom of Truth to the King In Yellow.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The King in Yellow, probably.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The Stranger says his name is "truth", and indeed, he always tells the truth, although rarely do the other characters correctly interpret what he says.
  • Evil Chancellor: Aldones.
  • The Evil Prince: Also Aldones. As Cassilda's brother, he needs to get all three of her children out of the way in order to be king after her.
  • Evil Uncle: Aldones seems to hit all of the tropes that begin with "evil."
  • External Retcon: Ryng manages to compromise between the original, extremely ambigiously used name Hastur, which may refer to a place just as well as a person, and August Derleth's rather liberal interpretation that Hastur is simply the King in Yellow's true name by making Hastur the name of the planet on which the play is set on, and in the end have the King declare "We are Hastur" to indicate that his presence has overwhelmed the entire world.
  • Fictional Document: Ryng's first edition claimed to be a translation of the "original French play." Of course, there is no original play, in this world at least...
  • The Fool: Bremchas, a drunken (and possibly insane) guardsman who might be the only character who really understands what's going on in the play.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Camilla.
  • Guns vs. Swords: Only the royal family are allowed to carry swords, as a symbol of rank. The guards all carry muskets.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Stranger.
  • Jackass Genie: In the last scene, the King in Yellow answers the surviving characters' prayers, but always in ways that pointedly do not profit them.
  • MacGuffin: The Yellow Sign.
  • Masquerade Ball: Act 1, Scene 2.
  • Mind Screw
  • Oh, Crap!: When Cassilda sees the fabled city of Carcosa appear, she knows her dynasty is at an end.
  • The Ophelia: Camilla.
  • Poor Communication Kills: If anyone had told Cassilda that her son had been imprisoned, a lot of tragedies could have been averted.
  • Popular Is Dumb: Camilla is the centerpiece of Yhtill's social scene, but apparently not all that bright.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right.
  • Religion Is Magic: The priests of the Cult of the King in Yellow are shown to be capable of becoming invisible at will.
  • Religion of Evil: Played with. It's not clear whether the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign are actually evil or whether they simply have a Jerkass leader.
  • Royal Blood: The members of the royal family seem to have absolute power in the city, regardless of their actual title.
  • Royally Screwed Up
  • Royal "We": The King in Yellow addresses himself in this manner. None of the mortal royalty follow the suit.
  • Significant Anagram: Bicree and Bremchas are anagrams of Bierce and Chambers, respectively.
  • Sinister Minister: High Priest Naotalba.
  • Sins of Our Fathers: Apparently everything that goes awry in Yhtill is because the first king murdered the old prophet twelve generations ago.
  • Standard Royal Court
  • Succession Crisis: If Cassilda doesn't name an heir, this may happen. Aldones tries to set one off intentionally.
  • Those Two Guys: Bicree and Bremchas.
  • The Undead: At the end of the play, the King in Yellow overruns the imperial city with an army of the dead.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Uoth, Cassilda's hot-headed youngest son.
  • Vestigial Empire: Ythill apparently once covered the better part of the planet, but a dozen rulers later it's rare for anyone to even leave the capital city.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Aldones loses it at the end.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Aldones wants to return the empire to its glory days for the sake of his father's memory.
  • When the Planets Align: Cited almost verbatim.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Cassilda spends the entire play trying to avert the ancient prophecies, but of course everything she does just makes it worse.

Alternative Title(s): The King In Yellow