He was born on May 26th 1865 in Brooklyn, New York, to William P. Chambers (1827–1911), a famous lawyer, and Caroline Chambers (née Boughton), a direct descendant of Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, Rhode Island. Robert's brother was Walter Boughton Chambers, the world-famous architect.
Robert was first educated at the the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, then entered the Art Students League of New York at around the age of twenty, where the artist Charles Dana Gibson was his fellow student. Chambers studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, and at Académie Julian, in Paris from 1886 to 1893, and his work was displayed at the Paris Salon as early as 1889.
On his return to New York, he succeeded in selling his illustrations to Life, Truth, and Vogue magazines. Then, for reasons unclear, he devoted his time to writing, producing his first novel, In the Quarter (written in 1887 in Munich) and published in 1894. His most famous, and perhaps most meritorious, effort was published the following year: The King In Yellow, a collection of weird fiction short stories, connected by the theme of a book (to which the title refers) which drives those who read it insane. Chambers' fictitious drama within the book, also called The King in Yellow, features in Karl Edward Wagner's story The River of Night's Dreaming, while James Blish's story More Light purports to include much of the actual text of the play.
Chambers later turned to writing romantic fiction to earn a living. According to some estimates, Chambers' was one of the most successful literary careers of his period, his later novels selling well and a handful achieving best-seller status. Many of his works were also serialized in magazines. After 1924 he devoted himself solely to writing historical fiction.
In reference perhaps to the fact that despite creating one of the seminal works of weird fiction in The King In Yellow, Chambers did not pursue this genre in his later writing and instead concentrated on knocking out romances and historical stories, H. P. Lovecraft said of him: "Chambers is like... a few other fallen Titans – equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them".
On July 12, 1898, he married Elsa Vaughn Moller (1882-1939). They had a son, Robert Edward Stuart Chambers (later calling himself Robert Husted Chambers) who also gained some fame as an author.
He died in New York City on December 16th 1933. His body was transported to the author's home in Broadalbin, New York where, as per his wishes he was buried beneath his favorite oak tree. His wife Elsie later had his body moved to the family plot at Mayfield Cemetery.
A critical essay on Chambers' work appears in S. T. Joshi's book The Evolution of the Weird Tale (2004).
A fine fuller biography is available at the 'Miskatonic University' site's Hall of Authors profile on Chambers. The site also includes the full text of The King In Yellow and of numerous other Chambers stories.
- In the Quarter (1894)
- The King In Yellow (1895)
- The Red Republic: A Romance of the Commune (1895)
- The Maker of Moons (1896)
- The Mystery of Choice (1896)
- Lorraine (1897)
- Ashes of Empire (1898)
- Cardigan (1901)
- In Search of the Unknown (1904)
- The Reckoning (1905)
- The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906)
- The Tree of Heaven (1907)
- The Green Mouse (1907)
- The Common Law (1911)
- The Gay Rebellion (1913)
- Quick Action (1914)
- Athalie (1915)
- Police!!! (1915)
- The Slayer of Souls (1920)
- The Talkers (1923)
- The Yellow Sign and Other Stories: The Complete Weird Tales of Robert W. Chambers (2001, ed. S. T.Joshi) – a collection of his horror and fantasy tales