The King in Yellow
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Created: February 2017
| Updated: February 2017
The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories written by Robert W. Chambers and published in 1895. The stories could be categorized as early horror fiction or Victorian Gothic fiction, but the work also touches on mythology, fantasy, mystery, science fiction and romance. The first four stories in the collection involve a fictional two-act play of the same title: The King in Yellow (Mythos play).
The first four stories are loosely connected by three main devices:
The color yellow signifies the decadent and aesthetic attitudes that were fashionable at the turn of the 19th century, typified by such publications as The Yellow Book, a literary journal associated with Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. It has also been suggested that the color yellow represents quarantine — an allusion to decay, disease, and specifically mental illness. For instance, the famous short story "The Yellow Wallpaper", involving a bedridden woman's descent into madness, was published shortly before Chambers' book.
These stories are macabre in tone, centering on characters that are often artists or decadents. The first story "The Repairer of Reputations", is set in an imagined future 1920s America, whose history, being at odds with the knowledge of the reader, adds to the effect of its unreliable narrator. The next three are set in Paris at the same time.
The other stories in the book do not follow the macabre theme of the first four, and most are written in the romantic fiction style common to Chambers' later work. Some are linked to the preceding stories by their Parisian setting and artistic protagonists.
The Play The King in Yellow
The fictional play The King in Yellow has two acts, and at least three characters: Cassilda, Camilla, and the King in Yellow. Chambers' story collection excerpts sections from the play to introduce the book as a whole, or individual stories. For example, "Cassilda's Song" comes from Act I, Scene 2 of the play:
The short story "The Mask" is introduced by an excerpt from Act I, Scene 2d:
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 of 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":
A similar passage occurs in "The Yellow Sign", in which two protagonists have read The King in Yellow: