The King in Yellow

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The King in Yellow
The King in Yellow.jpg
Cover of an 1895 edition[1]
AuthorRobert W. Chambers
CountryUnited States
GenreSupernatural & Horror, Decadent literature
PublisherF. Tennyson Neely
Publication date
Media typeBook
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The King in Yellow
The King in Yellow.jpg
Cover of an 1895 edition[1]
AuthorRobert W. Chambers
CountryUnited States
GenreSupernatural & Horror, Decadent literature
PublisherF. Tennyson Neely
Publication date
Media typeBook

The King in Yellow is a book of short stories by American writer Robert W. Chambers, first published by F. Tennyson Neely in 1895.[2] The book is named after a fictional play with the same title which recurs as a motif through some of the stories.[3] The first half of the book features highly esteemed weird stories, and the book has been described by critics such as E. F. Bleiler, S.T. Joshi, and T. E. D. Klein as a classic in the field of the supernatural.[3][4] There are ten stories, the first four of which, "The Repairer of Reputations", "The Mask", "In the Court of the Dragon" and "The Yellow Sign", mention The King in Yellow, a forbidden play which induces despair or madness in those who read it. "The Yellow Sign" inspired a film of the same name released in 2001.

The British first edition was published by Chatto & Windus in 1895 (316 pages).[5]


The first four stories are loosely connected by three main devices:

These stories are macabre in tone, centering, in keeping with the other tales, on characters that are often artists or decadents. The first and fourth stories, "The Repairer of Reputations" and "The Yellow Sign", are set in an imagined future 1920s America, whereas the second and third stories, "The Mask" and "In the Court of the Dragon", are set in Paris. These stories are haunted by the theme: "Have you found the Yellow Sign?"

The weird and macabre character gradually fades away during the remaining stories, and the last three are written in the romantic fiction style common to Chambers' later work. They are all linked to the preceding stories by their Parisian setting and artistic protagonists.

List of stories[edit]

The stories in the book are:

The play called The King in Yellow[edit]

The imaginary play The King in Yellow has two acts and at least three characters: Cassilda, Camilla, and "The Stranger", who may or may not be the title character. Chambers' story collection excerpts sections from the play to introduce the book as a whole, or individual stories. For example, "Cassilda's Song" comes from Act 1, Scene 2 of the play:

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.[6]

The short story "The Mask" is introduced by an excerpt from Act 1, Scene 2d:

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed it's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask![7]

It is also stated, in the "The Repairer of Reputations," that the final moment of the first act involves the character of Cassilda on the streets, screaming in a horrified fashion, "Not upon Us, oh king! Not upon us!".[8]

All of the excerpts come from Act I. The stories describe Act I as quite ordinary, but reading Act II drives the reader mad with the "irresistible" revealed truths. "The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect." Even seeing the first page of the second act is enough to draw the reader in: "If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it [...]" ("The Repairer of Reputations").

Chambers usually gives only scattered hints of the contents of the full play, as in this extract from "The Repairer of Reputations":

He mentioned the establishment of the Dynasty in Carcosa, the lakes which connected Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades. He spoke of Cassilda and Camilla, and sounded the cloudy depths of Demhe, and the Lake of Hali. "The scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhtill forever," he muttered, but I do not believe Vance heard him. Then by degrees he led Vance along the ramifications of the Imperial family, to Uoht and Thale, from Naotalba and Phantom of Truth, to Aldones, and then tossing aside his manuscript and notes, he began the wonderful story of the Last King.

A similar passage occurs in "The Yellow Sign", in which two protagonists have read The King in Yellow:

Night fell and the hours dragged on, but still we murmured to each other of the King and the Pallid Mask, and midnight sounded from the misty spires in the fog-wrapped city. We spoke of Hastur and of Cassilda, while outside the fog rolled against the blank window-panes as the cloud waves roll and break on the shores of Hali.


Chambers borrowed the names Carcosa, Hali, and Hastur from Ambrose Bierce: specifically, his short stories "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" and "Haïta the Shepherd". There is no strong indication that Chambers was influenced beyond liking the names. For example, Hastur is a god of shepherds in "Haïta the Shepherd", but is implicitly a location in "The Repairer of Reputations", listed alongside the Hyades and Aldebaran.[9] Possible influences may include Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death". Its synopsis is similar to Chambers's imaginary play: a masquerade is held by decadent members of the aristocracy. They isolate themselves from the outside world where the Red Death, a plague, reigns supreme. At the end of the masquerade, a stranger appears, wearing a bloodied shroud and a mask figuring a Red Death victim. When the shocked dancers try to unmask him, they find nothing but an empty shroud and a Mask; then they die from the plague, one by one.[10] In both stories, colors have an ominous importance and the strangers are both portents of death and destruction.

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 leaves his city. A beggar now, the former king heads toward the faraway "city of the wretched" but dies before the end of his journey.[11]

It is also possible that the play Salomé by Oscar Wilde, published in 1893, was another symbolist source of inspiration for The King in Yellow. Like The King in Yellow,[citation needed] Salomé was originally written in French before being translated; it was 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.[12] The ominous language used, the drama, and the feeling of unease and expectation, evokes Chambers's play; on page one of Salomé, the moon is described as a "little princess who wears a yellow veil"; on pages three and nine, 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 Iokanaan and, finally, commits suicide.[13] Marcel Schwob corrected the original French version of Salomé on behalf of Oscar Wilde.[citation needed]

Brian Stableford pointed out that the story "The Demoiselle d'Ys" was influenced by the stories of Théophile Gautier, such as "Arria Marcella" (1852); both Gautier and Chambers' stories feature a love affair enabled by a supernatural time slip.[14]

Cthulhu Mythos[edit]

H.P. Lovecraft read The King in Yellow in early 1927[15] and included passing references to various things and places from the book—such as the Lake of Hali and the Yellow Sign—in "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1931),[16] one of his seminal Cthulhu Mythos stories. Lovecraft borrowed Chambers' method of only vaguely referring to supernatural events, entities, and places, thereby allowing his readers to imagine the horror for themselves. The imaginary play The King in Yellow effectively became another piece of occult literature in the Cthulhu Mythos alongside the Necronomicon and others.

In the story, Lovecraft linked the Yellow Sign to Hastur, but from his brief (and only) mention it is not clear what Lovecraft meant Hastur to be. August Derleth developed Hastur into a Great Old One in his controversial reworking of Lovecraft's universe, elaborating on this connection in his own mythos stories. In the writings of Derleth and a few other latter-day Cthulhu Mythos authors, the King in Yellow is an Avatar of Hastur, so named because of his appearance as a thin, floating man covered in tattered yellow robes.[citation needed]

In Lovecraft's cycle of horror sonnets, Fungi from Yuggoth, sonnet XXVII "The Elder Pharos" mentions the last Elder One who lives alone talking to chaos via drums: "The Thing, they whisper, wears a silken mask of yellow, whose queer folds appear to hide a face not of this earth...."[17]

In the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game published by Chaosium, the King In Yellow is an avatar of Hastur who uses his eponymous play to spread insanity among humans. He is described as a hunched figure clad in tattered, yellow rags, who wears a smooth and featureless "Pallid Mask". Removing the mask is a sanity-shattering experience; the King's face is described as "inhuman eyes in a suppurating sea of stubby maggot-like mouths; liquescent flesh, tumorous and gelid, floating and reforming."[attribution needed]

Although none of the characters in Chambers' book describe the plot of the play, Kevin Ross fabricated a plot for the play within the Call of Cthulhu mythos.[citation needed]

Other appearances[edit]





The first season of the HBO original series True Detective uses the phrases "The Yellow King", "Carcosa" and "You, sir, should unmask", as well as other themes and ideas from the book. Its use in the TV series resulted in a spike in sales of the book.[27][28]



  1. ^ "The King In Yellow: First Edition Controversy". Retrieved 21 March 2014. 
  2. ^ American Supernatural Tales. Penguin Classics. Penguin Books. 2007. p. 474. ISBN 978-0-14-310504-6. "First publication: Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow ... F. Tennyson Neely, 1895" 
  3. ^ a b "Robert W. Chambers" in American Supernatural Tales. Penguin Classics. Penguin Books. 2007. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-14-310504-6. 
  4. ^ Klein, T. E. D. (1986). "Chambers, Robert W(illiam)". In Sullivan, Jack. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural. New York: Penguin/Viking. pp. 74–6. ISBN 0-670-80902-0. 
  5. ^ "The King in Yellow". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved 28 April 2014. 
  6. ^ "The King in Yellow" in e.g. Chambers, Robert W. (2004). The Yellow Sign and Other Stories. Call of Cthulhu Fiction. Chaosium. p. 3. ISBN 1-56882-170-0. 
  7. ^ "The Mask" in e.g. Chambers, Robert W. (2004). The Yellow Sign and Other Stories. Call of Cthulhu Fiction. Chaosium. p. 33. ISBN 1-56882-170-0. 
  8. ^ Chambers, Robert W. (2004). The Yellow Sign and Other Stories. Call of Cthulhu Fiction. Chaosium. p. 20. ISBN 1-56882-170-0. 
  9. ^ Chambers, Robert W. (2000). Joshi, S. T., ed. The Yellow Sign and Other Stories. Oakland, CA: Chaosium. p. xiv. ISBN 978-1-56882-126-9. 
  10. ^ Poe, Edgar Allan (1850). "The Masque of the Red Death". In Willis, N.P.; Lowell, J. R.; Griswold, R. W. The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe: with notices of his life and genius. Volume 1: Tales. New York: J. S. Redfield. p. 344. OCLC 3741354. 
  11. ^ Schwob, Marcel (1893). Le Roi au masque d'or (in French). Paris: P. Ollendorff. pp. 303–315. OCLC 9436749. 
  12. ^ Wilde, Oscar (1894). Salomé: A tragedy in one act. London. p. 7. OCLC 79405695. Printed for Elkin Mathews and John Lane. 
  13. ^ Wilde, Salomé, pp. 1, 3, 9, 16–24.
  14. ^ Brian Stableford, "The King in Yellow" in Frank N. Magill, ed. Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature, Vol 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, Inc., 1983. (pp. 844-847).
  15. ^ Joshi, S. T.; Schultz, David E. (2001). "Chambers, Robert W[illiam]". An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-313-31578-7. 
  16. ^ Pearsall, Anthony B. "Yellow Sign". The Lovecraft Lexicon (1st ed.). Tempe, AZ: New Falcon. p. 436. ISBN 0-313-31578-7. 
  17. ^ Lovecraft, Howard Phillips (1971). Fungi from Yuggoth and other poems. Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0-345-02147-2. 
  18. ^ "More Light" in McCaffrey, Anne (1981). Alchemy & Academe. Del Rey. pp. 104–137. ISBN 0-345-28643-X. 
  19. ^ Carter, Lyn (2006). "Tatters of the King". In Price, Robert M. The Hastur Cycle (2nd ed.). Chaosium. p. 282. ISBN 978-1-56882-192-4. 
  20. ^ Ryng, Thom (2006). The King in Yellow. Seattle: Armitage House. ISBN 978-1-4116-8576-5. 
  21. ^ Starrett, Vincent (1990)."Cordelia’s Song from The King in Yellow", in Haining, Peter, Weird Tales, Xanadu, (p. 94). ISBN 1-85480-050-7 .
  22. ^ "Parodic treatment of horror motifs from various classics-"The Wendigo" and "The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood, "The Yellow Sign" by Robert W. Chambers, etc." "The Space-Eaters" in E. F. Bleiler and Richard Bleiler, Science-Fiction: The Early Years. Kent State University Press, 1990. (p.452). ISBN 9780873384162.
  23. ^ Keene, Brian (2005). Fear of Gravity. Delirium Books. ISBN 978-1-929653-74-4. 
  24. ^ Clute, John; Grant, John (1997). Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Orion. p. 177. 
  25. ^ Fager, Anders (2011). Collected Swedish Cults. Bonnier. ISBN 9789146220961. 
  26. ^ Hoffman, Justin (2014). The Yellow King: The Memoirs Of Dr. Carcosa Laveau. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 9781497317987. 
  27. ^ Ria Misra (February 21, 2014). "True Detective has made 1895 book The King in Yellow a bestseller". io9. 
  28. ^ "'True Detective' References Boost 'The King in Yellow' Book". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2014-03-04. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]