I imagine you’ve heard of the King In Yellow by Robert W. Chambers; but if not then I have a birthday present for you. An 1895 book of short stories – only four of which matter – by a dude who wrote bohemian romance stories and historical fiction and whatever else would pay the bills. Somehow, in a sizzling flare of genius very early in his career, this Brooklyn artist wrote one of the most intriguing, ahead-of-its-time, white-hot weird stories ever put in words. This guy:
Don’t take may word on this – the basis of these four stories has inspired writers you’ve read or at least heard of: HP Lovecraft, James Blish, Lin Carter, Charles Stross, George R R Martin, Neil Gaiman, blah blah blah. Seriously, google it. Core concepts pop up in True Detective as well, if you’re into that show.
Go listen to Peter Yearsley read The Repairer Of Reputations on YouTube. You can hire Peter here if you need a voice actor – this guy has a voice and delivery ideally suited to give you chills in the sunshine. That’s the key story I want to talk about – the one that opens the collection. If you’d prefer to read it, the book’s also on Gutenberg.
Did you do it – all the way? Man, is that creepy or what?
The story opens with a bang, outlining a 1920’s New York imagined in a 19th Century European style and following a war with Germany. Government sponsored suicide chambers are being christened throughout the city. The narrator casually mentions a fall from his horse a few years ago and speaks of his doctor like somebody he needs to kill:
“At last he decided that I was well, and I, knowing that my mind had always been as sound as his, if not sounder, ‘paid my tuition’ as he jokingly called it, and left. I told him, smiling, that I would get even with him for his mistake, and he laughed heartily, and asked me to call once in a while. I did so, hoping for a chance to even up accounts, but he gave me none, and I told him I would wait.”
A banned play circulating in bootleg copies is mentioned, titled ‘The King In Yellow’. You can get away with reading Act 1 and only go a little crazy. But read farther into Act 2 and you’re nuts – maybe you’ll kill people, maybe you’ll scheme and wait for the mysterious ‘yellow sign’ to rise up in revolt, maybe you’ll blubber like a lunatic in the corner.
“It is well known how the book spread like infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in ‘The King in Yellow’, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.’
A bit of unintended magic happened here. Since Chambers wrote this before the turn of the century, what is an alternate history now was just an extrapolation of pre-WW1 Europe reproducing its pageantry and courtyards and brightly plumed soldiers on horseback in the new world. Every time I read this, I imagine Miyazaki’s alpine city in Howl’s Moving Castle. Except with suicide chambers and lunatics roaming about.
Steampunk didn’t exist when this was written; but now that’s what it is. An unreliable narrator. Meta-style self-references. Larger-than-life, scheming caricature grotesques right out of Dickens or Gormenghast. Gentle, wicked hints at the looming threat instead of blatant noise like many popular hacks writing today. Chambers made absolute magic happen; and he probably didn’t even know how he did it. And unfortunately, he never matched his success either.
Rather than me ruining it, do me a favor now. Here at Grailrunner, we try to show you something that inspires…things that are awesome and want to steal your attention long enough to make an impact that will last forever in how you think. ‘The Repairer Of Reputations’ will do that for you. Have patience with it. Let Peter Yearsley’s creepy voice work its hoodoo on you.
Go meet the eerie Mister Wilde and his stalking, vicious cat that tears at his face. Follow the panicked, desperate Vance into the shadows on his mission for the King. Sit with Louis and his cousin at midnight in the park by the suicide chamber and read ‘The Imperial Dynasty Of America’. See if you think it’s a shining crown in a safe or a pasted tinsel in a biscuit box.
If all of that is unfamiliar, I envy you.
And if you’re a wordslinger, maybe you’ll do like so many before us and steal from Chambers something that strikes you as too good to leave alone. Something that needs to change shape and whisper in a different way, but with the same fascination.
I envy that too.