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The King in Yellow

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The King in Yellow
Cover of an 1895 edition[1]
AuthorRobert W. Chambers
GenreDecadent literature, horror, supernatural, weird, romance
PublisherF. Tennyson Neely
Publication date
Publication placeUnited States
Media typePrint
LC ClassPZ3. C355
Followed byThe Maker of Moons 
TextThe King in Yellow at Wikisource

The King in Yellow is a book of short stories by American writer Robert W. Chambers, first published by F. Tennyson Neely in 1895.[2] The British first edition was published by Chatto & Windus in 1895 (316 pages).[3]

The book contains nine short stories and a sequence of poems; while the first stories belong to the genres of supernatural horror and weird fiction, The King in Yellow progressively transitions towards a more light-hearted tone, ending with romantic stories devoid of horror or supernatural elements.[4] The horror stories are highly esteemed, and it has been described by critics such as E. F. Bleiler, S. T. Joshi, and T. E. D. Klein as a classic in the field of the supernatural.[5][6] Lin Carter called it "an absolute masterpiece, probably the single greatest book of weird fantasy written in this country between the death of Poe and the rise of Lovecraft", and it was an influence on Lovecraft himself.[7]

The book is named for the eponymous play within the stories which recurs as a motif through the first four stories, a forbidden play which induces madness in those who read it.[5]



The first four stories are loosely connected by three main devices:

  • A play in book form entitled The King in Yellow
  • A mysterious and malevolent supernatural and gothic entity known as the King in Yellow
  • An eerie symbol called the Yellow Sign

These stories are macabre in tone, centering, in keeping with the other tales, on characters who are often artists or decadents, inhabitants of the demi-monde.

The first and fourth stories, "The Repairer of Reputations" and "The Yellow Sign", are set in an imagined future 1920s America, whereas the second and third stories, "The Mask" and "In the Court of the Dragon", are set in Paris. These stories are haunted by the theme: "Have you found the Yellow Sign?"

The macabre character gradually fades away during the remaining stories, and the last three are written in the romantic fiction style common to Chambers' later work. They are all linked to the preceding stories by their Parisian setting and their artistic protagonists.

List of stories

Illustration of Tessie in "The Yellow Sign", from a 1902 edition of the book.

The stories in the book are:

  • "The Repairer of Reputations" – a story of egotism and paranoia which carries the imagery of the book's title.
  • "The Mask" – a dream story of art, love, and uncanny science.
  • "In the Court of the Dragon" – a man is pursued by a sinister church organist who is after his soul.
  • "The Yellow Sign" – an artist is troubled by a sinister churchyard watchman who resembles a coffin worm.
  • "The Demoiselle d'Ys" – a time travel love story.
  • "The Prophets' Paradise" – a sequence of eerie prose poems that develop the style and theme of a quotation from the fictional play The King in Yellow that introduces "The Mask".
  • "The Street of the Four Winds" – an atmospheric tale of an artist in Paris who is drawn to a neighbor's room by a cat; the story ends with a tragic touch.
  • "The Street of the First Shell" – a war story set during the Siege of Paris (1870–71).
  • "The Street of Our Lady of the Fields" – romantic American bohemians in Paris.
  • "Rue Barrée" – romantic American bohemians in Paris, with a discordant ending that playfully reflects some of the tone of the first story.

The play called The King in Yellow


The fictional play The King in Yellow has at least two acts and at least three characters: Cassilda, Camilla and "the Stranger", who may or may not be the titular character.

Chambers' story collection excerpts some sections from the play to introduce the book as a whole, or individual stories. For example, "Cassilda's Song" comes from Act 1, Scene 2 of the play:[8]

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

The short story "The Mask" is introduced by an excerpt from Act 1, Scene 2d:[9]

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed it's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda) No mask? No mask!

It is also stated, in "The Repairer of Reputations", that the final moment of the first act involves the character Camilla's "agonized scream and [...] awful words echoing through the dim streets of Carcosa".[10]

All of the excerpts come from Act I. The stories describe Act I as quite ordinary, but reading Act II drives the reader mad with the "irresistible" revealed truths: "The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect". Even seeing the first page of the second act is enough to draw the reader in: "If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it" ("The Repairer of Reputations").

Chambers usually gives only scattered hints of the contents of the full play, as in this extract from "The Repairer of Reputations":

He mentioned the establishment of the Dynasty in Carcosa, the lakes which connected Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades. He spoke of Cassilda and Camilla, and sounded the cloudy depths of Demhe, and the Lake of Hali. "The scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhtill forever", he muttered, but I do not believe Vance heard him. Then by degrees he led Vance along the ramifications of the Imperial family, to Uoht and Thale, from Naotalba and Phantom of Truth, to Aldones, and then tossing aside his manuscript and notes, he began the wonderful story of the Last King.

A similar passage occurs in "The Yellow Sign", in which two protagonists have read The King in Yellow:

Night fell and the hours dragged on, but still we murmured to each other of the King and the Pallid Mask, and midnight sounded from the misty spires in the fog-wrapped city. We spoke of Hastur and of Cassilda, while outside the fog rolled against the blank window-panes as the cloud waves roll and break on the shores of Hali.

Inspirations for The King in Yellow


Chambers borrowed the names Carcosa, Hali and Hastur from Ambrose Bierce: specifically, his short stories "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" and "Haïta the Shepherd". There is no strong indication that Chambers was influenced beyond liking the names. For example, Hastur is a god of shepherds in "Haïta the Shepherd", but is implicitly a location in "The Repairer of Reputations", listed alongside the Hyades and Aldebaran.[11] The Mask that the Stranger is instructed to remove but turns out not to exist at all in the excerpt from The King in Yellow play (in Chambers' short story "The Mask") evokes the scene in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" where Prince Prospero demands that the stranger dressed as the Red Death should remove his mask and robes, only to find nothing underneath. Given the recognition of that short story, this might be an inspiration or even a tribute from Chambers to Poe.

Brian Stableford has pointed out that the story "The Demoiselle d'Ys" was influenced by the stories of Théophile Gautier, such as "Arria Marcella" (1852); both Gautier and Chambers' stories feature a love affair enabled by a supernatural time slip.[12]



Influence on Cthulhu Mythos

"The King in Yellow", illustration by Earl Geier in Richard Watts' scenario "Tatterdemalion" for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game published by Chaosium. The Yellow Sign adorning the back of the throne was designed by Kevin A. Ross for the scenario "Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?"

H. P. Lovecraft read The King in Yellow in early 1927[13] and included passing references to various things and places from the book—such as the Lake of Hali and the Yellow Sign—in "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1931),[14] one of his main Cthulhu Mythos stories. Lovecraft borrowed Chambers' method of only vaguely referring to supernatural events, entities, and places, thereby allowing his readers to imagine the horror for themselves. The play The King in Yellow effectively became another piece of occult literature in the Cthulhu Mythos alongside the Necronomicon and others.

True Detective


The first season of True Detective, a 2014 American anthology crime drama television series created by Nic Pizzolatto, references a figure called "the Yellow King". Allusions to The King in Yellow can be observed in the show's dark philosophy,[15] its recurring use of "Carcosa" and "The Yellow King" as motifs throughout the series, and its symbolic use of yellow as a thematic signature that signifies insanity and decadence.[16]


  1. ^ "The King In Yellow: First Edition Controversy". Retrieved March 21, 2014.
  2. ^ American Supernatural Tales. New York City: Penguin Books. 2007. p. 474. ISBN 978-0-14-310504-6. First publication: Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow ... F. Tennyson Neely, 1895
  3. ^ "The King in Yellow". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved April 28, 2014.
  4. ^ China Miéville, "Weird Fiction", in Bould, Mark et al., The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2009, p. 510–516. ISBN 0-415-45378-X
  5. ^ a b American Supernatural Tales. New York City: Penguin Books. 2007. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-14-310504-6.
  6. ^ Klein, T. E. D. (1986). "Chambers, Robert W(illiam)". In Sullivan, Jack (ed.). The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural. New York City: Penguin/Viking. pp. 74–6. ISBN 0-670-80902-0.
  7. ^ Carter, Lin, editor. Great Short Novels of Adult Fantasy, Volume II, New York: Ballantine Books, 1973, p.26.
  8. ^ "The King in Yellow" in e.g. Chambers, Robert W. (2004). The Yellow Sign and Other Stories. Call of Cthulhu Fiction. Chaosium. p. 3. ISBN 1-56882-170-0.
  9. ^ "The Mask" in Chambers, Robert W. (1895). The King in Yellow. New York: F. Tennyson Neely. p. 57.
  10. ^ Chambers, Robert W. (2004). The Yellow Sign and Other Stories. Hayward, California: Chaosium. p. 20. ISBN 1-56882-170-0.
  11. ^ Chambers, Robert W. (2000). Joshi, S. T. (ed.). The Yellow Sign and Other Stories. Oakland, CA: Chaosium. p. xiv. ISBN 978-1-56882-126-9.
  12. ^ Brian Stableford, "The King in Yellow" in Frank N. Magill, ed. Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature, Vol 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, Inc., 1983. (pp. 844-847).
  13. ^ Joshi, S. T.; Schultz, David E. (2001). "Chambers, Robert W[illiam]". An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-313-31578-7.
  14. ^ Pearsall, Anthony B. (2001). "Yellow Sign". The Lovecraft Lexicon (1st ed.). Tempe, AZ: New Falcon. p. 436. ISBN 0-313-31578-7.
  15. ^ Calia, Michael (January 30, 2014). "The Most Shocking Thing About HBO's 'True Detective'". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on November 5, 2015.
  16. ^ Hughes, Michael M. (February 14, 2014). "The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate True Detective". io9. Archived from the original on November 5, 2015.

Further reading