#81: Le Rois en Jaune
The King in Yellow gets meta
This review was originally posted to Twitter on March 27, 2019.
Initial release: 1̵8̵9̵3̵ 2015
Author: ̵T̵h̵o̵m̵a̵s̵ ̵D̵e̵ ̵C̵a̵s̵t̵i̵g̵n̵e̵ Simon Bucher-Jones
When Robert W. Chambers wrote those early stories of the so-called Hastur Cycle he couldn’t have guessed at how the intrigue of this mystery play that he included snippets of in his fiction would outlast the cultural impact of the stories it appeared in. Think about it: a play, vaguely Shakespearean in affect, that drives people mad, with whispers of mind control and secret truths, with most copies destroyed and only scant excerpts surviving that we know of. It’s compelling, and audiences will wish for the whole thing. Unfortunately Chambers never actually wrote the whole thing. At its core it was a literary device to tie some of his weird fiction together before he abandoned the genre for twee romance. So what we’re left with are a handful of attempts at recreation… in other words, fanfic. That’s not to say fanfic is a bad thing. H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth’s takes on the Hastur mythos are essentially fanfic in itself, and through their use of it, have kept Hastur (and Chambers’ legacy) alive, and continuing to intrigue fans of weird fiction into the present day.
While there have been several partial or complete reconstructions of the play, the most important ones are as follows: excerpts in James Blish’s “More Light,” Lin Carter’s rewrite of said excerpts in poetic verse, and Thom Ryng’s 1999 version, which actually got performed!
Which leads us to Simon Bucher-Jones. A sci-fi writer and poet mostly known for Doctor Who novels, he’s also written works in the Chtulhu mythos, making him well-suited for an attempt to reconstruct the play. Right away just from the cover we can tell this is a different spin on the usual reconstruction. Thom Ryng’s version has his name on it; this version, however, is attributed to “Thomas De Castaigne.” if you’ve read “The Repairer of Reputations,” that surname will seem familiar.
It gets weirder: not only is the French and English title on the cover, but the play is also presented in French and English, with French on the left page, English on the right, based on the idea that the play was originally in French. Now, you might wonder, “wasn’t it translated from French according to ‘Repairer’?” Sure, that’s what Hildred Castaigne said, but first of all, he’s crazy, and second of all, he might have meant an English translation for the English-speaking artists of Paris’ Latin Quarter. And hey, that’s not my argument, that’s the book’s argument. There’s an attention to detail in this book that really makes you wonder if there actually was a cursed French play; it’s like a hint at some kind of alternate universe that we can just barely see beyond the veil.
The book really works hard for a veneer of authenticity, with piles and piles of annotations on the play, plus several essays, some notes on the structure of the play (the scenes in the second act were supposedly moved around for each performance) and ultimately a tell-all by Simon himself, the man behind the curtain.
While the play itself is essentially a writing exercise, mostly a prop for a broader discussion of cosmic horror, it’s interesting in itself. Presented in a faux-Shakespearean style, it has its elements of humor and starts out fairly light-hearted. But by the end of the first act it becomes clear that something is deeply, terribly wrong; the second act is surrealist and sinister. Given that this is the real world, it’s hard to imagine this play actually driving people mad or causing riots, but as Lisa Simpson once said, “maybe people were easier to scare back then.” So it’s fair to wonder what a theater patron of the 1890s would make of a work like this. There’s an ambiguity to the play that raises the question: is the play’s setting our Earth, and if so, when? And if it’s not Earth, then where? I was honestly reminded of the overall vibe of the mythology/lore of the Dark Souls series, and it’s hard not to visualize the play in those terms.
Ultimately, while this is still just one take of many on Chambers’ mysterious, but wholly fictional, play, only a few spelling and formatting errors mar what is otherwise a well-thought-out surrealist take.