Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
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).
In 1999, playwright Thom Ryng wrote a production-length facsimile of the "real" The King in Yellow based on Chambers' short stories.
This work provides 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Driven to Suicide: "The Repairer of Reputations," "The Mask" and "The Yellow Sign"
- 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..."
- Fictional Document: While referenced and quoted, the entire text of The King in Yellow is never set out.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
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.
- Surreal Horror: Nothing about the horrific weirdness is explained. Ever.
- The Undead: "The Yellow Sign". It is linked to the eponymous 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.
"Ne raillons pas les fous; leur folie dure plus longtemps que la nôtre.... Voila toute la différence." note
- Bad People Abuse Animals: The Repairer has a cat he constantly taunts and mistreats to laugh at when it lashes out at him violently.
- Berserk Button: The narrator becomes particularly agitated when people mention his time in an asylum or refer to him as crazy.
- Cats Are Mean: The title character 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!)
- 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.
- 20 Minutes into the Future: Chambers' "utopian", reformed United States in the far-off year of our Lord... 1920.
- 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 the narrator is first touched upon when his cousin calls out his diadem in a safe for what it is: a brass costume crown in a cardboard box.
- We Will Have Euthanasia in the Future: "Government Lethal Chambers" are introduced so that any citizen who desires it can end their lives.
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.
"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.
"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.
- 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.
- 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.
"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: Phillip falls madly in love with Jeanne after she rescues him lost on the moors.
- Time Travel: At the end, the narrator find that the castle he had stayed in was a ruin and the girl has been dead for five hundred years.
"If but the Vine and Love Abjuring Band
Are in the Prophets' Paradise to stand,
Alack, I doubt the Prophets' Paradise,
Were empty as the hollow of one's hand."
"Ferme tes yeux à demi,
Croise tes bras sur ton sein,
Et de ton coeur endormi
Chasse à jamais tout dessein."
"Je chante la nature,
Les étoiles du soir, les larmes du matin,
Les couchers de soleil à l'horizon lointain,
Le ciel qui parle au coeur d'existence future!"
"Be of Good Cheer, the Sullen Month will die,
And a young Moon requite us by and by:
Look how the Old one, meagre, bent, and wan
With age and Fast, is fainting from the sky."
"Et tout les jours passés dans la tristesse
Nous sont comptés comme des jours heureux!"
"For let Philosopher and Doctor preach
Of what they will and what they will not,—each
Is but one link in an eternal chain
That none can slip nor break nor over-reach."
"Crimson nor yellow roses nor
The savour of the mounting sea
Are worth the perfume I adore
That clings to thee.
The languid-headed lilies tire,
The changeless waters weary me;
I ache with passionate desire
Of thine and thee.
There are but these things in the world—
Thy mouth of fire,
Thy breasts, thy hands, thy hair upcurled
And my desire."