The Valley of Fear / His Last Bow
David Stuart Davies looks at the final Sherlock Holmes novel and the penultimate collection of ...
‘Achieves notable heights of cosmic fear.’ H. P. Lovecraft.
The King in Yellow is a mysterious book, but perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding it is why it is so little-known today. American literary scholar E.F. Bleiler called it, ‘the most important volume in American supernatural fiction between Poe and the moderns.’ There can be no doubt that the book is a classic of the fantasy/supernatural genre and yet in recent years it has been neglected by publishers and readers alike, but now there is a smart edition published by Wordsworth ready to be devoured.
The premise behind this fascinating collection of stories is that the title tale ‘The King in Yellow’ is in fact a printed play script, which takes a hypnotic malevolent hold on all of those who read it. To explain further would not be fair for it will rob you of the surprises and the creeping horror found in these unusual stories.
The King in Yellow was penned by Robert William
Chambers (1865 – 1933), an American author and artist whose life was as
fascinating as his work. He was born in
On returning to the United States Chambers decided to channel
his artistic energies into writing. Initially, he composed a series of short
pieces on bohemian life in
We are told that the author of this dangerous drama has been denounced ‘from pulpit and press’. He is rumoured to have shot himself, but probably still lives, because as one character observes mysteriously, ‘bullets couldn’t kill a fiend like that.’
Chambers’ evil text ‘The King in Yellow’ features most prominently in the first story ‘The Repairer of Reputations’, which sets the mood for the rest of the book. It lures the reader into the narrative initially by novelty – the presentation of the future as seen by Chambers writing at the end of the nineteenth century. We are in the New York of 1920 where a fascistic government has built ‘Lethal Chambers’ for those who wish to escape life by committing suicide.
This tone of dark satire tinged with elements of science fiction soon shifts and the focus turns to the narrator who, chancing to read Act I of ‘The King in Yellow’, in which ‘the essence of purest poison worked’, is compelled to fling the book into the fireplace. However, as fate has it, it falls open and he catches a glimpse of the opening words of the second act. Instantly, he snatches it up, rescuing the book from the coals to devour the rest. This is his mental undoing. But take care, dear reader, it could be yours also. Indeed, I would offer a warning: Beware reading this book. You do so at your own peril. To allow your eyes to wander freely over the text could bring disastrous results. Your mind, your personality and your life will be affected in a most dramatic fashion.
As we move further into the book and the section that features the stories set in France, the supernatural elements fade away. However, we still have the themes of the danger of too much knowledge, and of innocence threatened and protected. It is as though the author is not tethered to any genre conventions and allows his rich imagination to have a free reign.
Strangely Chambers never achieved such high critical acclaim
with his other writings as he did with The King in Yellow. Although he
went on to write other books in a similar dark and imaginative style, such as The
Maker of Moons (1896), In Search of the Unknown (1904) and The Tree of Heaven (1907), he became
better known for his popular romances both contemporary and historical, which he
appeared to turn out in great numbers with ease. Such an output provided him
with a healthy income, enabling him to live in his opulently furnished mansion
It may have been that Chambers realised he could never replicate the unique qualities of The King in Yellow and so resignedly took the easier option. Whatever we feel about the bulk of his output, Chambers’ remarkable book remains as powerful as it did when first published, a work that caused August Derleth to state that ‘The King is Yellow remains… a masterpiece of its kind, and with the work of Poe and Bierce, shares the distinction of having contributed to the famed Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft.’
It is interesting to note that elements of the book were introduced into the Home Box Office’s dark crime series True Detective starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. The series opens with the investigation of a ritual murder of a young woman who is mysteriously linked to ‘The Yellow King’ The series prompted much speculation regarding the links with Chambers’ book. TV reviewer Kyle Anderson observed: ‘There’s a lot of cosmic horror in everything having to do with the Yellow King in the series, and they all point back to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.’ It may be you’ll have missed the series, but you can certainly get hold of a copy of the book to carry out your own investigations.
Image:Cover of Robert W. Chambers 'The King in Yellow' with illustration by the author. The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
Robert W. Chambers, American Artist and Author Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo