#79: The King in Yellow

A cosmic horror classic — with all the problems that implies

june gloom
5 min readMar 30, 2023

This review was originally posted to Twitter on March 25, 2019.

Initial release: 1895
Author: Robert W. Chambers

Twenty years before a weird xenophobe inflamed imaginations with terrifying tales of dead gods from beyond the stars and, um, miscegenation, came a collection of short stories that set the tone for what would come later: Robert W. Chambers’ The King In Yellow. In addition to helping introduce the idea of a memetic hazard, as well as being one of the earliest examples of weird fiction, Chambers’ collection is loosely connected by a fictional play of the same name, that supposedly drives people mad upon reading it or watching it performed, with the central figure being the mysterious Hastur, the King in Yellow, a darkly alien entity that has since moved out of the confines of the original collection and is now one of the most recognizable elements of the Lovecraftian mythos.

Not all the stories in this collection are weird fiction; several, especially towards the end, veer instead towards romance, which Chambers was increasingly interested in towards the end of his career. But still, there is an element of the macabre throughout most of the book. I’m not going to cover each and every story in this, but I will be covering the first one, because it’s the most famous of the King in Yellow cycle and the most discussed, and, given its content, controversial in a way Lovecraft scholars would understand.

(I’m talking about the racism.)

This first story, “The Repairer of Reputations,” is set in what was (at the time) the near-future of 1920, and America is a dubious “utiopia” where, after a war with Germany (!), the United States “solves” the bigotry problem by getting rid of all the Jews and black people. Classy.

There’s hints that all is not well in the American empire, though. Suicide is legal to the point where assisted suicide chambers open for business as the story begins, and the President has complete autocratic control (this is portrayed as a positive.) Now here’s the twist: all this is told by a character who is clearly off his nut, spent some time in an asylum, believes himself to be descended from an alien imperial dynasty, suspects his cousin of trying to usurp him, and so on — all the usual crackpot stuff. So the question is: do we take this utopia at face value?

That’s a valid reading, of course; after all, this story was written in the 1890s, and Chambers was definitely racist. But I think it’s worth examining the implicit messaging and subtle hints, like the way the narrator’s reliability is carefully built up, then subtly undermined. The narrator’s friend, the titular Repairer of Reputations, gets paid to clean up his clients’ messes — but his clients are all lunatics and fuckups. Our narrator is also a lunatic and fuckup, following a head injury and an ill-advised reading of a certain play. By the end of the story Chambers has completely pulled the rug out from under the reader as the narrator is dragged away screaming from the corpse of his “co-conspirator,” and the story ends with the editor’s note that he died in an asylum. (How very Poochy of him.)

So what is Chambers’ motivation here? Is it a critique of the then-burgeoning eugenics movement? A parody of those who welcome authoritarianism (presumably because they think they’ll be on top?) A mockery of American exceptionalism?

Or do we take it at face value, that our narrator’s utopia really is intended as a utopia, despite clear clues that having read “The King in Yellow” has driven the narrator absolutely, utterly insane and delusional and that none of the story as it’s told is real?

I mentioned that Chambers was also pretty racist himself. “The Maker of Moons,” one of his other stories, is a genre-busting spy/romance/cosmic horror tale that’s… also really really racist Victorian-era yellow peril literature. As common as this was, it still has to be accounted for. So not only are we questioning the narrator’s reliability, but also Chambers’. why would he as a racist create a fascist whites-only “utopia” but make it the deranged fantasies of a lunatic who read an evil, mind-controlling play? What’s he playing at? We may never know.

The next several stories link to this first one and to each other mostly by way of passing references and recurring themes of yellow, masks, kings, and mind control, as well as the play, the king himself, and his symbol. Artists, Paris and New York all appear frequently as well. Some of these connections are quite tenuous; for example, the fifth story, a time-travelling ghost story set in the French wilderness, features a character named “Jeanne d’Ys” — jaundice. Really, Robert?

At the mid-point of the book is “The Prophets’ Paradise,” a brief collection of prose poetry that seems to have the stylistic trappings of the snippets of the play we’ve already seen, but are generally non-sequitur and repetitive to the point of surrealism. Unfortunately, while this hints at Chambers’ taking things in an avant-garde, experimental direction, the rest of the book descends into an irritatingly mawkish romanticism, with not even the occasional macabre touch saving it from being a jarring, unwelcome change.

But that’s Chambers for you: much of his fiction starts off with an intriguing, unique premise and then he fails to stick the landing. His twists are predictable, his romances overly sentimental. And yet, the mini-mythos he created remains compelling beyond his lifespan.

Thanks in part to H. P. Lovecraft’s passing references and August Derleth’s explicit linking of Chambers’ mythos with Lovecraft’s (in a rather melodramatic, and in my opinion less interesting fashion) ol’ Hastur is something of a dark horse favorite among cosmic horror fans. It’s easy to see why, as he’s overall somewhat more interesting than Lovecraft’s pantheon of fish gods and space goats, being, at his core, a basically faceless dude in a ragged yellow cloak whose play makes people go insane and he will personally come to your house to fuck you up if you read it. He’s cool!

Chambers also chose to avoid the trope of the lone scholar working in the dead of night; most of his stories are told in the brightness of day, starring perfectly normal, bohemian artist types, young and full of life, which has the effect of making his characters feel more ordinary (as opposed to the usual bookish nerds who might otherwise be the only audience for these stories) and giving his stories a more sinister edge when he breaks them.

Cosmic horror has a long and storied history, but not many realize that Edgar Allen Poe was the real originator of cosmic horror. Chambers could have filled the gap between Poe and Lovecraft; “Repairer” alone hints at literary genius with its wild blend of genres and prescience. but he wasted it on sentimentality and melodrama. And racism.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]