Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow (Project Gutenberg, 1895)
The King in Yellow is best-remembered these days for being one of the seminal works behind the formation of the style of H. P. Lovecraft. Well, part of it, anyway (more on that later); as such, it’s must-reading for Lovecraft fans, and its current public-domain status means it can be had for free from Gutenberg, not to mention the many, many companies who take Gutenberg tracts and repackage them (usually also for free, but be wary of paying for a Gutenberg file!) to circulate at Amazon, B&N, and other web outlets. Hey, free is a wonderful thing. And the unprepared Lovecraftian may appreciate that, given the dual nature of the book.
The King in Yellow is divided into two sections. The first is the one the shallower Lovecraft fans are going to want to read, a series of loosely-connected (sometimes very loosely-connected) stories centering around the titular tome, the first part of which, we are told, is deadly dull, but the second part of which is capable of either driving people mad or gifting them with unimaginable power. (Or, possibly, both.) At least, most of them are; the first clue you’ll find that the thing is not a thematic whole is “The Demoiselle d’Ys”, a (this is a minor spoiler, but only a minor one; most modern readers will pick up on it immediately, though readers in 1895 may not have) parallel-time story that has nothing at all to do with The King in Yellow. Then comes the second half of the book, which is entirely different. It, too, is a series of loosely-connected vignettes, this one concerning an artists’ enclave in Paris. The stories are much more realistic, slice-of-life pieces about young passion, artistry, and war (one might argue that Chambers—almost supernaturally, if one believes in that sort of thing…presaged the devastation of Paris twenty years later in “The Street of the First Shell”). There is a minor connection between the two parts, in that the protagonists of most of these stories are artists of some form or another, but one would do well to simply consider them separate cycles brought together for the purposes of coming up with a full-length, publishable manuscript.
This is not to say the Paris cycle is in any way inferior to the King in Yellow stories. In fact, as much as I liked those, and would be thrilled to find myself a package cruise that would swing by Carcosa and Lake Hastur, I have to say I ended up liking the Paris cycle better; perhaps because Chambers was striving for more realistic tales, his characters are somewhat better-drawn, and (oddly; one would think this true of the supernatural characters) quirkier, more individual. They sometimes do irrational things, but at no point does one equate “irrational” with “out of character”, and that’s a lesson any number of writers would do well to learn. This is good stuff indeed, and stands equal to any number of solid short story collections published since. Check it out (for free!). *** ½
It seems there is also a free audiobook version, and you can find it in two parts on Youtube!