Tuesday Terror! The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers

Indescribable horror…

This is a short collection of four horror stories, all linked by a play called The King in Yellow which, we are told, reveals truths so awful that anyone who reads it will be driven to madness and despair. Sounds perfect for this week’s…


Tuesday Terror 2The King in Yellow
by Robert W Chambers


It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.

The first thing to say is that it appears that Chambers’ The King in Yellow collection usually includes ten stories. For this new edition, Pushkin Press have extracted the four that are linked and omitted the other six, which reviews tell me are mostly of a different style.

Each story is very short, so the entire volume isn’t much more than novella length. In truth, I found it a rather disappointing collection, with only one story that stood out for me. The awful truths contained in the play of The King in Yellow are not revealed to the reader, so fortunately at least I was spared from being driven insane. But this technique of telling the reader that there is something so awful it can’t be described – a technique used frequently in weird fiction, particularly by my old friend Lovecraft – strikes me as a major cop-out.

…it set me thinking of what my architect’s books say about the custom in early times to consecrate the choir as soon as it was built, and that the nave, being finished sometimes half a century later, often did not get any blessing at all: I wondered idly if that had been the case at St. Barnabé, and whether something not usually supposed to be at home in a Christian church might have entered undetected and taken possession of the west gallery.

* * * * * * *

Here’s a brief idea of each of the four stories:

The Repairer of Reputations – a story told by a madman, driven mad obviously by having been foolish enough to read The King in Yellow. He is convinced he is entitled to become a King which involves him having to bump off the man he believes stands in his way. All very weird, but not really in a good way. I gave this one a generous 2½ stars.

The Mask – a sculptor, Boris, has discovered a solution that turns living things into the purest marble (including sweet little bunny rabbits – you have been warned, animal lovers!). Meantime Boris’s friend, the narrator, is in love with Genevieve, Boris’s wife. There’s lots of gothic drama, high, exalted love, madness and despair, mixed together with some nice horror and just a touch of weirdness. Good stuff! I gave this one 5 stars.

….Although I knew nothing of chemistry, I listened fascinated. He picked up an Easter lily which Geneviève had brought that morning from Notre Dame, and dropped it into the basin. Instantly the liquid lost its crystalline clearness. For a second the lily was enveloped in a milk-white foam, which disappeared, leaving the fluid opalescent. Changing tints of orange and crimson played over the surface, and then what seemed to be a ray of pure sunlight struck through from the bottom where the lily was resting. At the same instant he plunged his hand into the basin and drew out the flower. “There is no danger,” he explained, “if you choose the right moment. That golden ray is the signal.”
….He held the lily toward me, and I took it in my hand. It had turned to stone, to the purest marble.
….“You see,” he said, “it is without a flaw. What sculptor could reproduce it?”
….The marble was white as snow, but in its depths the veins of the lily were tinged with palest azure, and a faint flush lingered deep in its heart.

In the Court of the Dragon – a man goes to church just after reading The King in Yellow. He becomes obsessed by the organist – a dark figure who keeps appearing wherever he goes. Is he paranoid, driven to madness by the play? Or is there a more sinister reason behind the organist’s appearances? Hmm – I found this OK-ish, but nothing special, and gave it just 3 stars.

The Yellow Sign – An artist and his model seem to be sharing a common nightmare about the artist being in a coffin in a hearse. Needless to say, they’ve both read The King in Yellow, thus allowing evil and madness into their lives. This one has some quite good horror aspects, though, and a nice sense of creepiness to it. I gave it 3½ stars.

“Do you think I could forget that face?” she murmured. “Three times I saw the hearse pass below my window, and every time the driver turned and looked up at me. Oh, his face was so white and – and soft? It looked dead – it looked as if it had been dead a long time.”

* * * * * * *

So a mixed bag. The question is – would I recommend it? In truth, not for the quality of the stories themselves on the whole, but I’m led to believe these are considered to have been influential on Lovecraft and others, and are often referenced by later writers, so I guess I’d recommend them to people who are interested in the development of weird fiction.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀

The porpy doesn’t understand why people would find yellow scary…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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29 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers

    • The Mask was quite fun, with people falling into brain fever over unrequited love, etc. I wish we still did that! But otherwise… well, no arm-twisting today…


  1. This does sound like a bit of a mixed bag, FictionFan. But I think that’s often the case with short story collections. In any event, I am glad you found some things to like about this. Because if you didn’t, something awful would happen – something so horrible, so terrible, so vile that it would drive you mad if you knew… 😉


    • Hahaha! That’s much scarier than most of these stories! 😱😱 Yes, this was such a short collection that the weaker stories didn’t have any room to hide. Still, at least I’ll get references to it now, if I come across them in later horror fiction, so worth reading for that.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well… I don’t know… maybe I should do away with that mysterious dark figure in the corner of the room who’s coming towards me waving a copy of The Ki…. aaaaaaaarghhhhhhhhhh!!!


  2. If reading the play drove people mad, how would writers of fantasy know? The idea and name of the play are often referenced in fantasy (and I guess in horror, which I don’t really read) but the stories aren’t. Your review shows why!


    • Hahaha! An excellent point! Yes, I read that somewhere, but I must admit I’m not conscious of having come across it in horror. But maybe I just didn’t notice it because I didn’t realise it was a reference. It’s a pity, but these really didn’t stand out for me…


  3. Whew, I’m safe today! These just don’t sound like stories I want or need to read, especially the one with the marbleized bunnies! *shudders*


    • Haha – I was thinking about you when I mentioned the bunnies. The good news is *spoiler alert* they come alive again at the end and appear to be none the worse for their experience… (which is more than can be said for some of the humans) 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I often find short stories disappointing. It’s difficult to build up much suspense or tension, let alone any real horror, especially in the very short ones.


    • Yes, there are a few that have shivered my spine and more that I’ve enjoyed for the quality of the writing, but there are also loads of these early horror stories that have left me thinking people must have been more easily scared back then…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The premise sounds interesting to me, the fact that reading a story will forever mark you, but it’s too bad the execution wasn’t all there. perhaps reading the full collection would have made it better?


  6. Another one here who is glad you didn’t tempt me to add anything else to my TBR list, FF… but as always I enjoy your take on weird stories! Leaving out what it was that made people insane seems like a cop-out to me too. The writing in the selection from “The Mask” was appealing though.


    • I liked the writing too and thought the gothic horror of The Mask suited his style better than the weirder stuff of the other stories. It’s odd – I’d never read a weird story until about three years ago and now I seem to be fascinated by them… maybe some strange book really has driven me insane…! 😨

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Argh this is so annoying, I was really looking forward to this one. And what a massive swizz that we don’t even get to find out the horrible truths about the play! I have a good mind to write that play myself and risk becoming mad(der).


  8. It WOULD be nice to know what was so terrifying that it would drive a person mad because I’m assuming society’s very worst fears change in different time periods. Actually, if would be cool to read a collection of stories that make such a claim and reveal the terror to see how fears have altered.


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