Monday, October 6, 2014
Return of the Yellow King
Robert Price does a nice job in these Chaosium Press thematic Lovecraftian anthologies of putting together a broad assortment of related stories from a long time period. The 'Hastur' of the 'Cycle' began life as a bucolic god in a 19th-century allegory by Ambrose Bierce, was almost immediately thereafter lifted by Robert W. Chambers for his pre-Lovecraftian horror stories about the looming, supernatural city of Carcosa and the mysterious, malign King in Yellow, and then incorporated into the Cthulhu Mythos by H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and others. Earlier this year, Carcosa, the King in Yellow, Hastur, and other concepts riffing on Chambers and the Cthulhu Mythos played a major role in the HBO series True Detective. Rust never sleeps.
Price's notes can get a bit wonky in a breathlessly undergraduate-who-just-swallowed-nine-pounds-of-literary-theory way, no moreso than when he goes off on a riff about the true meaning of Chambers' play-within-a-story The King in Yellow, a riff not only lacking textual evidence but contradicting what evidence there is of that play's content. Oh, well.
The central importance of The King in Yellow to the development of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos is as follows: Chambers creates a malign, supernatural play named The King in Yellow in the short-story cycle also called The King in Yellow, first published in 1895. The play figures in that story cycle in a number of ways. In the two Chambers stories reprinted here, the play drives one already unstable person to violent, delusional madness ("The Repairer of Reputations"). In "The Yellow Sign," the play seems to have supernatural powers leading to the resurrection of the dead and malign consequences for the two people who read the play.
Lovecraft and his literary circle (or Affinity Group, if you prefer) began to follow Chambers' lead in creating fictional texts within their fictions beginning with Lovecraft in the 1920's and continuing to the present day, from Lovecraft's demonic compendium the Necronomicon through August Derleth's Ghoul Cults, Robert Bloch's Mysteries of the Worm, and Ramsey Campbell's Book of Gla'aki. However, while Chambers' The King in Yellow was a play, future fictional texts would be 'non-fiction.' All would carry with them some danger, often mortal, to anyone curious enough to seek them out.
Accreting around these fictional texts would be an assortment of fictional 'gods,' though in Lovecraft's world, the gods are aliens from other worlds and other dimensions in space and time. Their powers are god-like when compared to humanity's feeble abilities, but they are nonetheless natural beings, albeit of a nature utterly alien to humanity's world.
Price's selection traces the use and development of Bierce and Chambers' concepts over the course of a hundred years. Lovecraft briefly mentions some of the concepts in "The Whisperer in Darkness," and Price nicely lays out the critical basis for believing that the King in Yellow appears in that story, and that Lovecraft there makes explicit the idea that the King and Lovecraft's malign messenger of the Great Old Ones, Nyarlathotep, are one and the same.
Besides the excellence of Bierce, Chambers, and Lovecraft, we also get solid though peripherally related stories by Arthur Machen and Richard Lupoff, and an assortment of other stories that work with either Chambers or Lovecraft in the development of The King in Yellow. James Blish contributes a startling, sly gem from 1970 in "More Light," in which he attempts to (re-)create the play The King in Yellow, from which Chambers only ever gave us a few short lines and vague descriptions of characters and action. It's dynamite. In all, highly recommended.