If you’re like me you’re sick to death of the flood of vampire and zombie stories in recent decades. It’s gotten unbelievably monotonous. When it comes to Goths in particular you just want to shake them and scream “There’s more to Gothic horror than just vampires!”
In that spirit and in keeping with my blog’s overall theme here’s a look at an 1895 work of Gothic horror that is among my favorite Halloween reading material, The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers. This unjustly neglected book was praised by H.P. Lovecraft himself and has been called America’s most influential volume of horror between Poe and the moderns.
The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories in which a published but unperformed play, also titled The King in Yellow, brings madness and death to anyone who reads it. Daring to peruse the pages of this damnable drama also makes the reader susceptible to attacks from the sinister minions of the eponymous King, who rules over his own private Hell like Freddy Krueger rules over the Dream Dimension. Here, then, are the tales that make up the King in Yellow cycle.
I. THE REPAIRER OF REPUTATIONS – This opening tale immerses us in a world plagued by suicides and madness brought on by the infernal work The King in Yellow. The unperformed play has been banned by governments and condemned by all the world’s clergy members but a few curious souls still seek it out. Bohemians from all the creative arts and obsessed literary scholars are among those seeking out the forbidden thrills contained in the work.
In New York City a man named Hildred Castaigne, freshly released from an insane asylum, seeks the aid of the Repairer of Reputations in order to regain his good name and rightful inheritance. The Repairer, a servant of the King in Yellow, is a gruesome man who has lost all the fingers on one hand and both ears, leaving just holes on the side of his head. He also has an underground network of grateful clients, among them an assassin who can assume feline form. Castaigne’s association with the Repairer involves him in a search for an old suit of armor, some revelations about his family’s history and with conspiracy theories that would make today’s internet kooks go pale.
II. THE MASK (AKA THE PALLID MASK) – This tale takes place in 1890’s Paris. A talented sculptor (some of whose works are on display in New York in the previous story) has read The King in Yellow and been inspired to concoct a bizarre chemical formula. That formula instantly transforms anything immersed in it into a flawless marble statue. Is this the secret of his amazingly life-like sculptures? (Decades before Walter Paisley in A Bucket of Blood) Throw in a romantic triangle involving another artist and a woman who starts reading The King in Yellow herself and add some harsh experiments on living animals immersed in the sculptor’s chemical formula.
III. IN THE COURT OF THE DRAGON – A student in 1890’s Paris has read The King in Yellow and attends a mass at St Barnabe to try to cleanse his mind and soul of the stain of that vile book. He becomes increasingly disconcerted by the way the clergyman overseeing mass preaches the notion that nothing can harm the human soul and therefore there is no danger in succumbing to temptation. He becomes even more apprehensive over the unusual, blasphemous-seeming renditions of hymns by the church organist. Apprehension turns to alarm when the student notices that the organist – a black-clad, sinister-looking man with a chalk-white complexion – is regarding him with a hostile glare all through mass.
After mass no matter where the student goes the organist turns up, still subjecting him to that sinister stare. No matter what steps the student takes to get away the organist inevitably shows up again, sometimes arriving at his destination ahead of him. Think of the white-faced man in Carnival of Souls (and when you throw in the church organist angle it makes you wonder if the director of that cult classic read this short story). In a panic our protagonist flees to his apartment in a Paris neighborhood called the Court of the Dragon, where the cat and mouse game now becomes more like Mike Myers’ and Jason Voorhees’ silent, relentless pursuit of their victims.
When the organist at last corners the student and touches him, we learn that his sinister touch transports the contactee to the realm of the King in Yellow himself. That realm consists of oddly-colored skies with coal-black stars, watery moons and perpetually rolling clouds. The King in Yellow personally welcomes this latest victim to his domain with words that drain all hope from his soul forever.
IV. THE YELLOW SIGN – Back to 1890’s New York City for this final story. A young portrait painter who was a supporting character in the second tale, The Mask, is recovering from a broken heart over the tragic death of the woman he loved. His steady female model, who is enamored of him, has purchased a ring inscribed with the Yellow Sign, the royal emblem of the King in Yellow. This has made her and the artist targets of the King’s minions. The sinister organist from the previous story is now playing his jarring renditions of hymns at the church which adjoins the artist’s apartment building.
Even worse, the church’s hearse driver – a hideous, shambling brute – is forever watching our hero’s apartment window. As romance blossoms between the artist and his model the hearse driver begins to dominate their dreams. Those dreams involve the eerie man driving his horse-drawn hearse carrying a coffin imprisoning the still-living artist. When the young couple reads The King in Yellow things turn even grimmer, and the hearse driver makes a personal visit to their apartment.
SPOILER: The dimension ruled over by the King in Yellow turned out to be the site where human souls go when they die. Horrifically enough it turned out there was no God or Satan and no Heaven or Hell – after death no matter how “good” or “evil” you were in life your soul would be tormented forever in the King’s realm. There was no escape.
Come on, folks! Let’s make the King in Yellow and his minions Halloween icons! And let’s see people costumed as the King, the Organist, the Hearse Driver, the Mad Sculptor and maybe even the Repairer of Reputations!
FOR MY TAKE ON THE PERFECT HALLOWEEN OPERA CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2012/10/04/halloween-opera-tales-of-hoffmann/
© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.