The Yellow Site
The Yellow Site

Full cover of The King in Yellow (1895, likely 2nd or 3rd edition)

The King In Yellow is a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, whose first edition appeared in 1895. The book could be categorized as early horror fiction or Victorian Gothic, but it also touches on fantasy, mystery, war, romance, mythology, surrealism, and science-fiction.

The first few stories in particular are loosely connected by three main devices:

The stories are often macabre in tone. Those characters who read the play The King in Yellow go mad or meet horrible dooms.

Although Chambers was an American writer, most of the stories are set in and around France, particularly Paris, where he had spent many years as an artist – the central characters are usually decadents and artists. This served as the inspiration for some of the tales, particularly the final stories of the book, which have no obvious connection to its title and emphasise romance over horror. The ones in between vary in theme and content, but arguably touch on subjects related to the play. The stories often contain or reference the same characters, implying they have a shared setting though they may not all occur in the same time period.

Wordsworth Editions 2010 UK edition of The King In Yellow

Contents of The King In Yellow

Cassilda's Song

The first page of the book introduces us to the setting of Carcosa through this song:

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.
Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Cassilda's Song in The King in Yellow, Act 1, Scene 2.

The ten stories in the book then follow:

The Repairer of Reputations

This story is set in a 1920s that never was (the story was written in the 1890s), and is a tale told from the point of view of Hildred Castaigne who, with the help of the 'Repairer of Reputations', Mr. Wilde, seeks to be claimed as The Last King of The Imperial Dynasty of America, and that his cousin Louis Castaigne stands in his way. The story reveals, over time, that Hildred has both read the play The King In Yellow and suffered a nasty fall – each of which are, it is suggested, partway responsible for his delusions of grandeur and his attempts to ensure his ascent to the throne. As such, his narration of the setting and story may be unreliable.

The Mask

The story revolves around three young friends, living in Paris: Alec, the narrator, a painter, Genevieve, with whom he is in love, and Boris Yvain, her partner, a sculptor. Boris has somehow discovered the means to create a mysterious liquid that turns items plunged into it into marble representations of themselves. The story follows the tragic relationship of the three of them. Alec remembers, whilst in a moment of delirium, scenes and images from The King In Yellow.

In the Court of the Dragon

This short story tells the tale of an unnamed man who, whilst at church, reflects over The King In Yellow, only to be disturbed by the fearful nature of the organist. As he tries to escape the man and return home, he is pursued by this figure, only to awaken back at the church. Then, in a final twist, the narrator is brought back to the world of The King with a terrible vision.

The Yellow Sign

A story about the narrator, Mr. Scott, an artist, and his model Tessie, whose relationship becomes more intimate throughout the story. Tessie finds an ornate interpretation of the Yellow Sign and gives it to the narrator as a gift. Then later, when they mysteriously find a copy of the play The King In Yellow amongst his books, the two of them realise that The King is coming for them, and they are powerless to prevent him.

The Demoiselle D'Ys

The story of 'Philip, a Stranger': an American who gets lost whilst hunting in Brittany. He then encounters The Demoiselle D'Ys (Jeanne), and is invited back to the castle where she lives. Whilst the two become close, it is clear to us, the reader, that this castle and those who live in it are strangers to the world Philip recognises, and at the end he returns to the world he knew, after a sudden attack by a snake.

The Prophets' Paradise

A collection of short poetic prose pieces which, on first glance, might have nothing to do with the Carcosa Mythos, but which draw on certain themes that have been mentioned in previous tales. The surrealistic style of the poems is also remiscent of the play The King in Yellow. The names of the eight pieces that make up the collection are as follows; The Studio, The Phantom, The Sacrifice, Destiny, The Throng, The Jester, The Green Room, The Love Test.

The Street of The Four Winds

The first full story in the book to be written in the third person, this tale concerns an artist called Severn, who lives alone in Paris. We are introduced to him as he welcomes a cat into his home, which he talks to and feeds, before returning it to its mistress, 'Sylvia Elven'. He finds her in darkness in her bed, and waits with the cat purring in his lap, the sky turning pale.

The Street of The First Shell

This story also has a Sylvia, and its name is suspiciously similar to the previous tale, and it is set once more in Paris – though during the dramatic events of the city's 1870 siege during the Franco-Prussian War. It features many characters first introduced in Robert W. Chamber's first novel In the Quarter, but has less in common with the rest of the Yellow Mythos.

The Street of Our Lady of The Fields

The last of the stories in the 'Street' trilogy (although, as there is some character overlap, and a continuation of the street theme, Rue Barree could be included to make a quartet), and the first of two that concerns the romantic pursuits of art students in Paris. Little or no connection to the Yellow Mythos, although they could, conceivably, co-exist in the same Paris.

Rue Barrée

As with this previous tale, this tale concerns art students in Paris, with no mention of The King in Yellow.

The Stories Online

These four links take you to four different sites where the stories may be read online (or printed out) – the order of the stories is not necessarily the same order as it appears above.

Precursor Texts

The King In Yellow belongs to the genre of Victorian Gothic horror, though it reaches beyond this genre to include pre-Lovecraftian "Cosmic Horror". The text includes many names drawn from Ambrose Bierce's fiction, most notably An Inhabitant of Carcosa. Bierce in turn may have been inspired by Gustave Naudad's poem Carcassonne, about a city which is never reached before death; this poem is a song about wonder, longing, failure and, ultimately, death, in a rhythm quite reminiscent of Cassilda's song from the play as quoted in the book.

The plot of the play within the book seems to closely resemble Edgar Allen Poe's 1842 short story The Masque of the Red Death, particularly the motif of a masked stranger bringing tragedy to an aristocratic party. It also shares the use of a colour as a sign of doom.

The famous French poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal ("Flowers of Evil"), published first in 1857, is another possible source as well. It must be noted first that its author, Charles Baudelaire, was also the French translator of most of Poe's work. The general decadent mood of this work fits perfectly with the feelings of The King in Yellow. Like the fictional play, this work suffered form a partial ban, lifted in France as late as 1949. Of particular interest for Chamber's studies is the poem 'Les Sept Vieillards' ("The Seven Old Men"). Therein, a character described very similarly to the King in Yellow, or its messenger (especially in Chambers' "In the Court of the Dragon") appears mysteriously seven times in succession in a misty street in Paris. The narrator is then led to the brink of madness by this vision and flees home, in a way very reminiscent of "In the Court of The Dragon".

Suddenly an old man whose tattered yellow clothes
Were of the same color as the rainy heavens,
And whose aspect would have brought him showers of alms
If his eyes had not gleamed with so much wickedness
Exasperated like a drunk who sees double,
I went home; I locked the door, terrified,
Chilled to the bone and ill, my mind fevered, confused,
Hurt by that mysterious and absurd happening!

Vainly my reason tried to take the helm;
The frolicsome tempest baffled all its efforts,
And my soul, old sailing barge without masts,
Kept dancing, dancing, on a monstrous, shoreless sea!"

Other texts, especially from the symbolist writers, may have influenced Chambers as well: Le Roi au masque d'or ("The King in the Gold Mask"), a short story written by Marcel Schwob, a French novelist and a friend of Oscar Wilde was published in 1893 while Chambers was still studying in Paris. In this story, a king rules a city where all inhabitants are masked. One day a strange blind beggar comes into his palace. After meeting with the beggar, the king, believing he's afflicted by leprosy, feels compelled to remove his mask; he then tears his own eyes out and leave his city. A beggar now, the former king heads toward the faraway "city of the wretched" but dies before the end of his journey, much like the old man in Naudad's poem Carcassonne.

It is also possible that the (in)famous play Salome by Oscar Wilde, published also in 1893, may have been another symbolist source of inspiration for the King in Yellow. As the fictional play, it has been originally written in French before being translated, then banned in Britain because of its scandalous reputation. Wilde's play, in one act, involves a queen, a princess, a king and an ominous prophet clad in camel's hair dress, Iokanaan, whose appearance may bring untold and terrible events. The ominous language used, the drama, the feeling of unease and expectation evokes Chamber's play; on page 1 of the play, the moon is described as a "little princess who wears a yellow veil"; on pages 3 and 9, the young Syrian says: "How pale the princess is! Never have I seen her so pale". On page 16, the young Syrian is named by Salome: his name is Narraboth and he beseeches Salome to avoid looking at Iokannan and, finally, commits suicide. It must be added that Marcel Schwob corrected the original French version of Salomé on behalf of Oscar Wilde.

In theme (Parisian art students confront a mysterious being with power over human minds; tragedy ensues) The King In Yellow also resembles the George du Maurier novel Trilby, published in 1894, the year before The King In Yellow. The villainous Jewish hypnotist Svengali, now a household name, originates from Trilby. Svengali, The Red Death, and The King In Yellow may have been the inspirations for Gaston Leroux's mask-wearing, King In Yellow-like figure, the Phantom of the Opera.

The Yellow Wallpaper, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1891 and published in 1892, was explicitly rejected for publication in 1891 by a physician who claimed "it would drive anyone mad" to read it. It chronicles a woman's descent into madness under the misguided and oppressive care of her husband, who confines her in a room with yellow wallpaper, within which she begins to see visions of other women trapped in the walls. Both the reaction to the text and its theme of yellow and madness make it a likely precursor of Chambers' book.

Finally, an often overlooked source of The King in Yellow, is the cycle of Breton legends revolving around the city of Ys. Chambers was a great lover of Breton legends: he perfectly knew these and even included them in name in his King in Yellow ("The Demoiselle d'Ys"). The original legend was in fact far more sinister: it tells about the marvellous city of Ys, which borders the ocean, protected by a huge dike. In this powerful city reigns a princess, the perverse Dahut, whose absent father, the king Gradlon holds the key to the city dike. Each evening, Dahut choses a new lover, organises orgies with her court, and every morning, the lover leaves, wearing a silk mask to protect his identity; the silken mask then magically smothers him to death and Dahut disposes of the body. One stormy night, a stranger (the Devil) arrives in the city, seduces the princess and makes Dahut steal the keys of the city from her father, spelling the watery doom of Ys.

Like Carcosa, Ys is a powerful city-state, lying besides a large body of water and ruled by partying female royalty in lieu of an absent king. Just like Carcosa, the arrival of a mysterious stranger brings final disaster to the city.

Breton legend assures that the city of Paris, dear to Chamber's heart, is somewhat mystically linked to Ys: "Pa vo beuzet Paris, Ec'h adsavo Ker Is" – "when Paris will be swallowed, the city of Ys will rise up from under the waves".

H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft was influenced by Chambers' book to include references to The Yellow Sign and Hastur in his short story "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1931), one of the seminal Cthulhu Mythos stories. August Derleth further developed this connection and tied the King in Yellow explicitly to Hastur. In Derleth's work and some later mythos materials, the King is an avatar of Hastur, so named from his appearance as a thin, floating man covered in tattered yellow robes. In contrast, Lovecraft often borrowed Chambers' method of only vaguely referring to supernatural events, entities, and places, including those created by Chambers and Bierce, without explaining their natures or connections, thereby allowing readers to imagine the horror for themselves.

Other Appearances in Fiction

  • Some writers have attempted to write a full text for the fictional The King in Yellow, including James Blish in More Light (1970) and Lin Carter in Tatters of the King (1986).
  • Karl Edward Wagner used it as a motif in his novella The River of Night's Dreaming.
  • Elements from the first two stories, including The Prince's Emblazoned armor, the Imperial Dynasty of America, and Boris Yvain's fossilization solution figure prominently in the novelette Copper Knights and Granite Men (2014) by Michael A. DiBaggio.
  • Appears in the game "We Happy Few" on the shelf alongside with other fiction.
  • It is part of a complex riddle in the hacking simulation game "Nite Team 4".