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Literature / The King in Yellow

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"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 direct source of Hastur's namenote . 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". In addition, the stories are the basis for The Yellow King Tabletop RPG by Robin Laws.

You might be looking for the Raymond Chandler short story of the same name (in which the lead refers to this book), or for the Dead Milkmen album of the same name. Also don't confuse with Yul Brynner, the King in Yellowface—though the real Thai monarchy, including Brynner's Historical Domain Character King Mongkut, is associated with the color yellow.

This work provides examples of:

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  • 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).
  • Artifact of Doom: Any copy of the play The King in Yellow. The subject matter of the play isn't entirely revealed, other than that it's set in "the lost city of Carcosa", perceived to be very artistically written, though the first act is tame and the second act drops hard. Reading the play will either lead to madness or a dark fate. The King in Yellow himself is never seen, nor shown whether or not he actually exists, though he appears to be a Humanoid Abomination that embodies decadence.
  • Bilingual Bonus: There's a lot of untranslated French.
  • 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.
  • Deadly Book: The eponymous play, supposedly published in 1889, drove the author to suicide, and all who read it to suffer a tragic fate, or go mad from irresistible revelations.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • "The Repairer of Reputations," "The Mask" and "The Yellow Sign".
    • The original author of the play also killed himself according to Louis in "The Repairer of Reputations".
  • Eldritch Location: The lost city of Carcosa, "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..."
  • Fictional Document: While referenced and quoted, the entire text of The King in Yellow is never set out.
  • Genre Blindness:
    • In many of the stories, 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.
  • The Last of These Is Not Like the Others: The later short stories - Prophet's Paradise, Street of the Four Winds, Street of the First Shell, Street of Our Lady of the Fields, and Rue Barrée have little to no involvement with the King in Yellow or the play mentioned in the book.
  • 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."
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Is all the strange things just the result of people being either mad or careless, or is there really something magical going on? This is a question the book never answers.
  • 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.
  • Series Continuity Error: Chambers would freely change major details between stories.
    • Hastur is variously a city, a planet, a person, or a god.
    • In-universe, several editions of the play exist, and it's implied that no two performances are the same.
  • Shout-Out: Chambers took the enigmatic names Hastur and Carcosa from two of Ambrose Bierce's short stories.
  • Surreal Horror: Nothing about the horrific weirdness is explained. Ever.
  • The Undead: "The Yellow Sign". It is linked to the eponymous play.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Anyone who reads the play.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Although the evil cat is killed (and that's not even a sure thing, given that Hildred's an Unreliable Narrator putting it mildly), 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.
    • The exact fates of most people in the play are unrevealed, though heavily implied to be awful.
    • Hildred apparently sent a blackmailed client to kill Hawberk and Constance. We don't know what happened there, but both seem to be alive at the end. Of course, Hildred being not exactly in touch with reality we can't even be sure he actually sent the guy.

    The Repairer of Reputations 
"Ne raillons pas les fous; leur folie dure plus longtemps que la nôtre.... Voilà toute la différence." note 

  • Hypocritical Humor: In the USA of 1920 "bigotry and intolerance were laid in their graves and kindness and charity began to draw warring sects together" ... but only after "the exclusion of foreign-born Jews as a measure of national self-preservation, [and] the settlement of the new independent negro state of Suanee", which the narrator considers equally positive.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Hildred's clearly an Unreliable Narrator at best, but seems to accurately describe what others say, at least... making Mr. Wilde's collaboration with Hildred either a cruel manipulation from the Repairer of Reputations, or a shared madness that might have some truth to it.
  • Only Sane Man: Two characters, Louis Castaigne and Constance, seem to be wholly normal and free of the sinister power of ''The King In Yellow''.
  • Pre-Insanity Reveal: Hildred Castaigne was a fairly normal, cheerful gentleman-about-town before a fall from a horse caused some sort of brain damage, resulting in his madness. (Or, in his own view, was a shiftless layabout before his accident led to him gaining his newfound focus.)
  • Spanner in the Works: The evil scheme is foiled by the title character getting his throat torn out by his own Right-Hand Cat. Then again, since most people involved were insane, the plan might not have worked anyway.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The narrator is definitely not stable.
  • Unreliable Narrator:
    • 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.
    • The unreliability of Hildred is first touched upon when his cousin Louis outs his diadem in a safe for what it truly is: a brass costume crown in a biscuit tin.
  • Villain Protagonist: Hildred Castaigne is, essentially, a mad wannabe supervillain, whose Evil Plan is to spark a Second American Civil War which will end with him as Emperor of the United States — his ultimate goal being to Take Over the World as a minion of The King In Yellow. In-story he kills at least one man, drives another to suicide, and tries to kill two other people, before the police capture him.
  • Villainous Breakdown: When Louis refuses Hildred's demand to jilt Constance and go into exile, Hildred decides to murder both of them.
  • We Will Have Euthanasia in the Future: "Government Lethal Chambers" are introduced so that any citizen who desires it can end their lives. Or at least so we're told.

    The Mask 
CAMILLA: You, sir, should unmask.
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!

The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene 2.

  • Death of the Hypotenuse: With Genevieve's revival at the end of the story, Boris's suicide seems to be this, as she and Alec are free to be together. The real question is, can they get past their shared trauma and guilt?
  • Driven to Suicide: When Boris find that Genevieve has been turned to stone, he shoots himself.
  • Love Triangle: Boris and Alec both love Genevieve. She confessed she loved Boris more and married him, though she reveals during her fever that she has realized she loves Alec more and wishes she had chosen him.
  • Taken for Granite: Boris's compound turns any living entity immersed in it into marble. He is starting to experiment with animals...and then his wife falls into the pool of solution. By the end we find out that, while it takes years, it eventually wears off.
  • Unobtainium: "The Mask": A newly discovered element tentatively placed in the Incredibly Awesome group.
  • Wax Museum Morgue: It begins innocently enough with turning flowers into marble... and then goldfish... and then a rabbit... and then, quite by accident, a woman.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Animal lovers will be pleased to note that the bunny and the goldfish are restored to life and the fish are immediately re-homed.

    In the Court of the Dragon 
"Oh, thou who burn'st in heart for those who burn
In Hell, whose fires thyself shall feed in turn;
How long be crying—'Mercy on them.' God!
Why, who art thou to teach and He to learn?"

  • All Just a Dream: After his harrowing flight from the organist, the narrator wakes up back in the church pew, with his neighbors glaring at him for dozing off during the sermon.
  • As the Good Book Says...: The story ends with a quote from Hebrews 10:31: "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: The narrator notes that the church organ that plays during the sermon sounds off in some way, evil and hateful as it is described while none of the other people in the church seem to notice.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: While most of the story is implied to be a dream, the ending casts doubt on whether the narrator is still dreaming or if he really has ended up in Carcosa before the Yellow King.

    The Yellow Sign 
"Let the red dawn surmise
What we shall do,
When this blue starlight dies
And all is through."

  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Tessie confesses her love for the narrator in such a fashion.
  • Dead All Along: The hearse-driver is revealed to have died months prior.
  • Kill the Cutie: Tessie, who is the nicest and most innocent character in the tale, is the first to die.
  • Mood Whiplash: Most of the story is a rather innocent and sweet love story about the growing affection between Scott and Tessie, with sinister going-ons in the background. And then it switches to full-blown Cosmic Horror.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Tessie Reardon is a nude model, but despite that virginal, and rather obviously saving herself for Mr. Scott.
  • Together in Death: Well, madness, but it works out to the same thing. Once Tessie goes insane from reading the play, the narrator despairingly picks it up and reads it too. And then an avatar of the King in Yellow kills Tessie and leaves Scott dying.
  • 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 Demoiselle d'Ys 
"Mais je croy que je
Suis descendu on puiz
Ténébreux onquel disoit
Heraclytus estre Vereté cachée."

"There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not:
"The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid."

  • Death by Despair: Jeanne's grave notes that she died in longing for her lost love.
  • Rescue Romance: Philip falls madly in love with Jeanne after she rescues him lost on the moors.
  • Time Travel: At the end, the narrator finds out that the castle he stayed in was a ruin and the girl had been dead for five hundred years.
  • Together in Death: At the end, Philip feels his foot numbed, suggesting that he has been fatally bitten. He will be reunited with his beloved Jeanne very soon.