This week on Weirdfictionreview.com, we’re spotlighting a legacy of weird fiction that has been gaining an increasingly strong foothold in the public consciousness: the King in Yellow Mythos, created in the late 19th century by American writer Robert W. Chambers. Through his short story collection The King in Yellow, Chambers gifted our literature with several enduring touchstones: the titular character himself, a mysterious being commonly depicted in yellow robes; the kingdom of Carcosa, an ancient, cursed city lying beyond our everyday perspective of time and place, on the shores of Lake Hali; and a cursed play inspired by (and written by?) the king himself and title after him, which drives its readers to madness, strange visions, and other things.
We’ve wanted to run some material on the King in Yellow Mythos for a while, for several reasons. It’s a hugely influential thread of weird fiction, which has inspired and continues to inspire many writers and readers alike. The stories themselves have also held up amazingly well. “The Yellow Sign” is still a spooky, ethereal story with the ability to unsettle readers through its unique imagery and ability to suggest horrors and figments of the imagination that take hold and don’t let go, which is why we’ve chosen to reprint it on site this week.
We’re also reprinting two other stories: “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” by Ambrose Bierce and “Carl Lee and Cassilda” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. With his eerie story, Bierce introduced the concept of the lost city of Carcosa, laying the groundwork for Chambers to take that setting and make further magnificent literature of it. Pulver in turn updates the King in Yellow Mythos with his take on a serial killer seeking a lover’s communion with a woman named Cassilda, who readers familiar with the mythos will recognize from “Cassilda’s Song,” an excerpt from the play The King in Yellow that prefaces a story in the collection of the same name:
Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
The King in Yellow Mythos has gained many new readers in the past few weeks, thanks to its incorporation into the central mystery of the acclaimed HBO dramatic series True Detective, written by Nic Pizzolatto, himself a fan and avid reader of both weird fiction (he has cited site favorites Laird Barron, John Langan, Thomas Ligotti, and Simon Strantzas in interviews, among others) and pessimistic philosophy (a touchstone for him is Ligotti’s thought-provoking and perhaps disturbing book-length treatise The Conspiracy Against the Human Race). Regardless of how True Detective resolves itself, and regardless of whether the one and only King in Yellow of Chambers’s work is at the heart of it, the literature that Chambers created (with an assist from Bierce) will carry on for quite some time.
We want to draw the attention of WFR readers to this interview that Justin Steele of Arkham Digest conducted with Pulver about the King in Yellow, the writing of Robert W. Chambers, and Pulver’s own involvement with the mythos as a writer and editor. It’s well worth listening to, whether you’re a neophyte to the King in Yellow or a seasoned reader, to gain valuable insight into the literature and how it differs from other strains of weird fiction (don’t call it Lovecraftian, for instance; it didn’t inspire Lovecraft’s writing so much as he was just a fan of it). Be sure to follow the link to Arkham Digest as well for a useful King in Yellow-centric reading list. And, of course, make sure to read the stories we have here this week!