A Left-Hand Path Analysis of the Themes in Robert W. Chambers’s “The King in Yellow” By: Xalthizan
Dreams of Carcosa
“Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
-From Cassilda’s song, The King in Yellow
What can we on the Left-Hand Path learn from Robert W. Chambers’s “The King in Yellow”? This book, its merits gone unnoticed by many since its publication in 1895, inspired Lovecraft and later authors, but is generally ignored by all but the most die-hard fans of cosmic horror. At least it was, until the popular first season of True Detective drew heavily upon it for inspiration. However, what I wish to discuss here is how we on the Left-Hand Path can draw inspiration from it ourselves by exploring the themes in the first few stories of the book, those that can be considered a precursor to the cosmic horror that Lovecraft later made into a true genre. As such, I will be discussing the first four stories in order and picking out themes that give us a picture of these tales that has, perhaps, not been seen before.
The first tale in “The King in Yellow” is “The Repairer of Reputations”. Here we meet our protagonist one Hildred Castaigne after a somewhat lengthy exposition revealing that this story is set in an alternate future relative to the date of the story’s publication. In short order, we are also introduced to four further characters who make up the cast of this story, Hawberk, an armorer, and his daughter Constance, Louis Castaigne, Hidred’s cousin, and finally the mysterious Mr. Wilde. The scene is set around a newly opened “Lethal Chamber” in what seems to be the center of New York City, and Hildred is attending the opening ceremony. The Lethal Chamber is something of a suicide booth, as one sees in the animated comedy Futurama, where one can go to end their life if they so desire. It sort of serves as a backdrop to the entire story, and as a plot device. During part of the exposition at this point, Hildred speaks of his fall from his horse some years ago, and of his association with a side character, Dr. Archer, who was his physician while he spent time in an insane asylum after his fall. Dr. Archer had declared his “brain affected” and had him committed. During the time of his convalescence, it’s revealed that Hildred read the play, “The King in Yellow”, and he speaks of how the play’s second half affected him greatly. Hildred leaves the ceremony at its commencement and goes to briefly see Hawberk and his daughter Constance, where we see a quirk of Hildred’s, his strange obsession with the sound and sight of armor being worked on. We also learn that Constance is in love with Hildred’s cousin Louis. Then Hildred declares that he is going to visit Mr. Wilde, who lives above Hawberk’s shop, and we see that Hawberk and Constance consider Mr. Wilde to be a madman, and generally hold a very low opinion of him. After a brief discussion involving a piece of armor that Hildred claims Mr. Wilde knows the location of, and Hildred mentioning that Mr. Wilde refers to Hawberk as the Marquis of Avonshire, which seems to put Hawberk on edge, Hildred heads upstairs to visit Mr. Wilde. Mr. Wilde is a strange looking man, described as having cropped ears and missing the fingers of his left hand, and wearing wax false ears that do not match his skin tone, as they are pink, and his skin tone is described as yellow. Mr. Wilde also keeps an ill-tempered cat who apparently scratches him at any provocation. Mr. Wilde regales Hildred with a listing of his retainers and clients for his business, something called a Repairer of Reputations, and their meeting is briefly interrupted by a knock from an employee of Wilde’s, a news paper editor who is apparently well known, and this impresses Hildred. Then, we see the real reason for Hildred’s visit, he wishes to read over a manuscript entitled “The Imperial Dynasty of America”. Here we get our first real glimpse into what Hildred’s goal is, and we see that this supposed dynasty is somehow linked to The King in Yellow.
Hildred’s visit with Mr. Wilde is ended when he notices that Louis’s regiment has come in from their deployment. Hildred leaves Wilde’s apartment, and goes to his own rooms, where he opens what he describes as a safe and removes a crown, described as “a diadem of purest gold, blazing with diamonds.” We also get a description of the park, and see a young man go into the Lethal Chamber, a bit of foreshadowing for the end of the story. Hildred leaves his apartments and meets with his cousin Louis, who also disparages Mr. Wilde, to Hildred’s annoyance, and we see further how Hildred denies that he was ever insane, despite his commitment. The two return to Hauberk’s and decide to go on a walk in the parks along the North River, though Hildred only accompanies them reluctantly. During this walk, we find out that Hawberk confirmed Mr. Wilde’s knowledge of the piece of armor mentioned earlier, and we can see also that he is somewhat concerned for Hildred’s mental health, though he somewhat talks around the issue. Finally, Hawberk reveals that Wilde nailed a sign next to his declaring his services as a Repairer of Repuations, and we see that the romance between Louis and Constance has come to fruition, and Hildred ominously declares that the time to speak with him of “important matters” is near at hand.
Approximately a month passes, at this point, and we again see Hildred with the crown from his safe, trying it on and thinking of what he read in “The King in Yellow”. We also might have a glimpse into his state of health, for he describes the face he sees in the mirror as one he hardly recognizes. He is also clearly getting very worked up over his obsession with the supposed dynasty and is acting rather erratically. He is interrupted, however, by the arrival of his cousin Louis, though he responds by threatening him with a knife before he realizes who has arrived. Here, interestingly, we see Louis describe the crown as brass and asks Hildred about the “theatrical tinsel”. Hildred also seems to let slip that the safe he describes may actually be a biscuit box, though Louis does not comment on this. Louis does comment on the fact that Hildred’s collection of books all seem to be about Napoleon, whom Hildred seems to admire so greatly that he wishes the books were “bound in gold”. Again, here, “The King in Yellow” is mentioned, and Louis seems to feel very strongly about the book and has avoided it rigorously. But the reason for Louis’s visit is that he wishes to tell Hildred that he is marrying Constance, though Hildred proclaims he already knew that would happen. Then, as Louis prepares to leave, Hildred asks him to meet him in the park at midnight, an appropriately dark hour. Louis agrees, and Hildred sets his plan into motion.
Hildred takes the crown and a silk robe embroidered with the Yellow Sign and goes towards Mr. Wilde’s apartment. He avoids Hawberk and Constance and goes upstairs to find Mr. Wilde bleeding from another attack from the cat. A near repeat of their first visit occurs, Hildred once again reading over the Imperial Dynasty document, and once again their visit is interrupted by a knock. This time, Mr. Wilde invites the visitor in, a man called Vance, and the man acts very strangely upon being introduced to Hildred, acting afraid of Mr. Wilde and begging Hildred to save him, all while ranting about The King in Yellow. Wilde attacks the man, apparently choking him out, and then somehow causing him to get up by his command, where Vance is described as acting as though he’s hypnotized. Mr. Wilde then proceeds to read The Imperial Dynasty of America to him and goes over the apparent genealogy that declares Hildred to be the cousin of the King. We finally see what it is that Hildred wants: Louis gone or dead, and for him not to be married to Constance, whom he says is the daughter of the Marquis of Avonshire. He orders Vance to kill her and provides a knife to him. Vance leaves, and shortly thereafter, Hildred does too, taking the manuscript with him.
Hildred awaits his meeting with Louis, sitting in the park and looking at the Lethal Chamber. He meets two different homeless men, and gives money to one, and a paper with the Yellow Sign on it to another. Louis arrives, and they talk for a bit before Hildred asks him to read The Imperial Dynasty without asking questions. Louis seems somewhat confused by the document, and even more so when Hildred attempts to show him a paper with the Yellow Sign on it, not recognizing it, and seeming concerned for Hildred as well. It is revealed now that Hildred has killed Dr. Archer, and he demands that Louis renounce the crown and not marry Constance. Louis clearly thinks Hildred is insane, and attempts to brush off Hildred’s ranting, but is quite frightened when Hildred tells how Dr. Archer died. Then, Vance comes running into the Lethal Chamber, and Hildred feels victorious, thinking that Constance and Hawberk are dead, proclaiming that Louis will “never marry Constance now”, and Louis flees towards Hawberk’s shop. Hildred follows, but instead goes to Mr. Wilde’s apartment. The cat runs past him as he goes to enter Mr. Wilde’s apartment, and he stabs at the cat with his knife, killing it. But then, at the seeming moment of his victory, he finds Mr. Wilde lying on the floor, near death with his throat torn open, likely by the cat. In that moment, he bends over Mr. Wilde, and the man dies. Hildred screams in despair and rage, and he is taken hold of by someone, and as he is being dragged away, he sees Louis, Hawberk, and Constance, all alive, and he rants about how Louis was stealing the crown away from him. The story ends on an editor’s note saying that Hildred died in an asylum.
Now, what can we glean from this admittedly strange story of a madman and an apparently fictitious royal dynasty? One primary theme throughout the story is ambition. Hildred’s ambition, to seize a crown that does not exist is very apparent, and ambition is also a topic of several conversations in the story. When Hildred first speaks to Hawberk in his shop, he asks if Hawberk has any ambition, to which he replies that it is to be the best armorer in the world. Louis has ambition to advance in rank within his military service, and also to marry Constance who he clearly is in love with. Louis actually achieves both of those things, being promoted to captain in advance of his planned wedding to Constance, which we can assume happens as they both live at the end of the story. This is in contrast to Hildred’s ambition, which is obviously a product of his madness. Ambition is also alluded to in Hildred’s obsession with Napoleon, a famously ambitious man. More importantly, jealousy is a hidden theme, and it can almost go unnoticed, if not for an almost throwaway line where Hildred says he does not care for Hawberk or Constance, aside from the fact that she is in love with Louis. How this is most critical will be made apparent later, however.
Ambition is obviously a most critical part of any endeavor onto the Left-Hand Path, but we can infer more from these characters than this simply being a story about realistic versus fanciful ambitions. Let us look closely now and Hildred, Mr. Wilde, and the cat. Hildred is an unreliable narrator, and we cannot be sure that what we see in the story is the truth of what is actually occurring. Do we know for certain that Mr. Wilde’s behavior is what Hildred relates to us? No, but we can interpret that Mr. Wilde might be a projection of Hildred’s own subconscious. We know the man exists, but perhaps he is a simple madman whom Hildred for some reason projects a personality onto that does not reflect his true behavior, and Hildred only thinks that he’s hearing and seeing what Wilde says and does. The profession of Repairer of Reputations also is suspect, though Hawberk seems familiar with it, who can say that Wilde is such a thing? It is also kept quite vague what this profession actually does, though it is implied that they get up to some rather unsavory things. No, I’d say that what might be occurring is Hildred is projecting his madness on the world around him and relating that to us throughout the narrative. The cat, however, might be another projection. I propose that the cat is Hildred’s last vestige of sanity.
Hildred is an interesting case, the catalyst for his current state being the fall from his horse taking place four years prior to the story. In his own words, he describes it thus: “The fall from my horse had fortunately left no evil results; on the contrary it had changed my whole character for the better. From a lazy young man about town, I had become active, energetic, temperate, and above all—oh, above all else—ambitious.” However, that’s not all there is to it. Hildred also speaks of his reading “The King in Yellow”, which seems to serve as a further catalyst for his descent into madness. Here is the most relevant paragraph: “During my convalescence I had bought and read for the first time, “The King in Yellow”. I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. (Here we could possibly interpret that this action was a remanent of his sanity, postulating that perhaps his fall really did not cause his insanity, but it was the book itself) I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the firelight. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the simplicity, irresistible in its truth—a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow. When the French Government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. 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.” This shows that “The King in Yellow” somehow reveals truths to the reader. Deep, personal truths that somehow affect the reader in what we will see to be varying ways. In Hildred’s case, we can see that he is driven mad.
A further quote supports this, from when Hildred speaks to Louis. “‘But wait, yes, there is another book, ‘The King in Yellow’’ I looked him steadily in the eye. ‘Have you never read it?’ I asked. ‘I? No, thank God! I don’t want to be driven crazy.’ I saw he regretted his speech as soon as he had uttered it. There is only one word which I loathe more than I do lunatic and that word is crazy. But I controlled myself and asked him why he thought ‘The King in Yellow’ dangerous. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said, hastily. ‘I only remember the excitement it crated and the denunciations from pulpit and Press. I believe the author shot himself after bringing forth this monstrosity, didn’t he?’ ‘I understand he is still alive,’ I answered. ‘That’s probably true,’ he muttered; ‘bullets couldn’t kill a fiend like that.’ ‘It is a book of great truths,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘of ‘truths’ which send men frantic and blast their lives. I don’t care if the thing is, as they say, the very supreme essence of art. It’s a crime to have written it, and I for one shall never open its pages.’” So here we come to what I perceive as the meat of the matter. Hildred is a madman, true, but he has had truths revealed to him through the vehicle of “The King in Yellow”, and we can see a contrast between him and Louis. Louis does not desire these truths revealed to him, and as such represents society in general, those who will never confront those inner demons and wish to remain concerned with surface level, everyday matters. Hildred, on the other hand, has seen what Jung would call his Shadow self, his personal demons, albeit through the vehicle of “The King in Yellow”, and while he knows these things, he bemoans them and rejects them. Instead, he begins projecting a fantasy version of himself outwards onto the people in his life, assigning them roles and even inventing a false personality for Mr. Wilde, if he really was as I postulated, a madman who did not actually behave as Hildred describes. We can see this rejection when Hildred is posing for himself with the crown: “I remembered Camilla’s agonized scream and the awful words echoing through the dim streets of Carcosa. They were the last lines in the first act, and I dared not think of what followed—dared not, even in the spring sunshine, there in my own room, surrounded with familiar objects, reassured by the bustle from the street and the voices of the servants in the hallway outside. For those poisoned words had dropped slowly into my heart, as death-sweat drops upon a bed-sheet and is absorbed.” Hildred fears the truths he learned upon reading “The King in Yellow”, and therefore has rejected the Shadow. This, I postulate, leads to his projecting those demons onto Mr. Wilde, and therefore this makes Mr. Wilde the personification of Hildred’s Shadow.
Mr. Wilde, as characterized by Hildred, is a ruthless man, and Hildred repeatedly says that he is “as sane as I am”. I feel this alludes to Wilde actually being Hildred’s subconscious. Confusion is added because it’s clearly stated that Wilde is known to Hawberk, Constance, and Louis, who all think he’s a madman, and therefore I believe that what we see of Wilde is actually a delusion of Hildred’s, a projection of his inner thoughts onto someone who is not all there. From the physical description of the man, Mr. Wilde resembles someone afflicted with microcephaly. According to Wikipedia’s article on the disease, microcephaly can cause severely impaired intellectual development, seizures, and various other symptoms, which are not readily evident in Mr. Wilde’s behavior. Mr. Wilde is treated as a genius, or near so by Hildred, and therefore I contend that the Mr. Wilde we know must be a projection of a delusion. Perhaps, in reality, Hildred was sitting with a severely mentally disabled man and listening to his ramblings while coming up with this complex story of an Imperial Dynasty in his own mind. Likely, Hildred himself is responsible for the manuscript and notes, and perhaps even put up the sign declaring Mr. Wilde’s profession himself, unseen by Hawberk. Therefore, Hildred is seeing his Shadow self in Mr. Wilde, this Shadow causing him to fully buy into his own delusions of grandeur and instilling this all-consuming sense of false ambition. Intrinsically connected with Mr. Wilde is the cat, described as a beast that constantly attacks Mr. Wilde, and yet Mr. Wilde seems loathe to rid himself of the animal. Every time Hildred mentions getting rid of the cat, or killing the cat, Mr. Wilde shakes his head or otherwise denies Hildred’s suggestion. I mentioned before that I believe the cat to be a projection of Hildred’s last shred of sanity. The cat is far weaker than any human, therefore is unable to suppress the thing causing Hildred’s insanity, his inability to confront the Shadow self. It is constantly trying to kill Mr. Wilde, scratching and harming him. It seems that each time Hildred comes to meet with Mr. Wilde, he has suffered an injury from the cat. In a literal sense, the cat is confronting Mr. Wilde, representing the sane part of Hildred’s brain confronting that which is a manifestation of his insanity. But this is not Shadow integration, as the goal should be, but conflict, and this is most clearly seen in the final scene of the story, when Hildred goes to see Mr. Wilde and finds him near death on the ground. Hildred kills the cat just before seeing Wilde’s corpse, and this represents his final break and loss of sanity. But dead too is Wilde, and so Hildred has failed to integrate his Shadow. Two parts of the subconscious, the cat representing what sanity he has left, and Wilde, his Shadow and the root cause of his insanity, are dead and so Hildred is driven to a final collapse, and finally, death.
And so, the “Repairer of Reputations” is, at its core, in my opinion, a story about failure to integrate the Shadow. Hildred could not confront the truths revealed to him, and therefore his subconscious mind began to wage war against itself, his insanity the most prominent part by far, but in the end, it caused him to truly go mad and die. Ambition plays a role, and is a recurring theme, as is death and suicide. Most importantly, jealousy also seems to be a hidden theme, for one could argue that Hildred is jealous of his cousin Louis and his relationship with Constance. That is not directly stated, but it could be a motivating factor in Hildred’s actions. In fact, by not stating it, and clearly stating that he has no interest in Hawberk or Constance, it could very well be that the truth revealed to Hildred in his reading of “The King in Yellow” was the fact that yes, he was jealous. He desired what his cousin had, a successful military career, a woman in love with him, and a successful and proud future father-in-law. These things might have contributed to his madness, and therefore caused him to invent the story of “The Imperial Dynasty of America” to give himself and excuse to try and ruin his cousin’s life. The fact of this jealousy is clear in the final act of the story, where he declares that his cousin has taken what was his, the crown of the King in Yellow. He projected those negative feelings onto someone he met somehow and provided a puppet for his dark subconscious thoughts to manifest within his delusions. And therefore, I would say that “The King in Yellow” did not drive Hildred mad, but his inability to accept the truth about himself did. He forged, in the aftermath of his fall, a personality for himself that he felt was better than his old one. This could be an admirable thing, but he failed to understand what it was about himself that was flawed. The one flaw his personality change could not eliminate: jealousy.
But what does this say to someone on the Left-Hand Path? We’re meant to embrace the Seven Deadly Sins, not reject them. But here again, we can see that Hildred failed again to use Pride to control his Envy. One could argue that Hildred has Pride for days, but I would say his Pride is an empty shell, a false thing born of his insecurities, otherwise he would not be mad and projecting his subconscious onto the world around him. Hildred, I’d argue, is a prime yet extreme example of what happens when someone unstable and unsuited for the Left-Hand Path attempts to confront a part of themselves that they are unprepared to face. Here is a cautionary tale, one that the reader should take into consideration before embarking on a trip of discovery of the self. The Shadow can be deadly if not properly integrated.
The next story in this collection is “The Mask”. This is a short tale, focusing on a group of three men, all artists, and one woman, our narrator Alec, Genevieve, a young Parisian woman, Boris, her lover, and their friend Jack Scott. The story opens with Boris demonstrating a chemical compound for Alec; the compound has the unique effect of near-instantaneously petrifying living things. Boris demonstrates the process on an Easter lily, and shows Alec a fish that he had tried it on the day before. Objects petrified in this way look to be made of white marble with delicate blue veins running through it. The two men discuss the chemical reaction, and Boris invites Alec to stay for lunch, saying Genevieve will return soon from Mass. After a brief background into Boris and Genevieve, Alec and Boris continue to discuss the chemical before Genevieve arrives. Importantly, it is revealed here that Alec has long been in love with Genevieve, and she does not love him, though all three remain friends. Per the narrator’s reaction, Genevieve is acting somewhat coldly to him when she arrives, though he seemingly chalks it up to her shifting moods. The three go to lunch together.
A little time passes, and we once again come to see Alec in Genevieve and Boris’s house. He comes upon Boris in the room where he is sculpting, and he and Boris have a brief, friendly tussle after a joking exchange. However, in his play, Boris nearly dunks Alec in a pool full of the petrifying chemical, and both are briefly frightened by the idea of a human coming into contact with the stuff. Boris says he does want to try it on a bigger animal than the fish he’d tried it on before, and then Jack Scott comes in and he and Boris leave together. Alec goes to work on painting a screen, but his model, a young boy, is uncooperative and he ends the session early, going to the smoking room in Genevieve and Boris’s house. The room is described as containing a number of eccentric objects, including an old spinet and a wolf rug. There, he lights a pipe and falls asleep, only to be awoken by what he describes as the saddest music he’s ever heard. He sees someone rise in the dark, and hearing weeping, he calls out to Genevieve, and sees her drop as his call. He goes to see her fallen, and helps her to lay on a divan, and goes to try and find Boris or the servants of the house. Unfortunately, Boris has gone, and would not return until the next day. Genevieve also seems to be acting strangely, the narrator asking if she had been playing the spinet and lying to say he had not heard her playing, and her acting relieved that he had not heard. She had also forgotten that Boris had left, and then instructs him to get her personal maid and leave for the night.
The next day, Alec returns to find Boris pacing about, telling the narrator that Genevieve is in bed with a fever. The sprain she suffered from the fall the night before is written off as minor, but both men are concerned and confused as to why she’d have a fever. Genevieve is so bad, it seems, that she declared that her heart is broken, and she wants to die. The men linger for a bit, but then go to where Boris has the chemical stored, and Boris demonstrates turning yet another fish into marble. Jack Scott then arrives, and he and Boris declare that they’re going to try the chemical on the rabbit mentioned before, but Alec says he cannot bear to see that happen, so he goes to find a book to distract himself. Unfortunately for him, he picked up “The King in Yellow”, and begins reading it. His reading is interrupted “after a few moments, which seemed ages” by a bell ringing and a call from the sick room. Boris runs to the room, only to tell Jack to get the doctor and for Alec to come with him. Here, we see the emotional turning point in the story. In her fevered state, Genevieve admits that she’s in love with Alec. This strikes Alec mute, and Boris attempts to speak with him, but the doctor and Jack Scott’s entrance interrupts him. Alec leaves, taking Jack with him, and is soon struck ill himself. In his illness, Alec realizes that he had been deceiving himself for two years, to the point that the self-deception had become more than a mask to him. During his sickness, Alec sees visions of the King in Yellow, of Carcosa and Hali, possibly going temporarily mad. He manages to cling to sanity, however, by seeing himself as obligated to Genevieve and Boris in some way. He also says that there were crowds around him, as he lay ill, and that he saw Boris among them.
Eventually, Alec recovers, and hopes to take up his relationship with Boris and Genevieve exactly as they had left off, however, after a week or so of avoiding the question, Jack Scott finally reveals that both Boris and Genevieve are dead, sending Alec into mourning. As more time passes, Jack gives Alec a letter and the keys to Boris’s house. He tells Alec that after his illness took him, Jack seemed to have taken an emotional turn of his own, continuing to work on his sculpture and not speaking to anyone, and even carved his own face into one of the figures he’d been creating, though it was described as the face he wore after Genevieve’s revelation. While watching Boris sculpt, Jack says they heard a door open and what he describes as a swift rush from the next room, and they go to find Genevieve lying at the bottom of the pool containing the petrifying chemical. At this discovery, Boris shoots himself through the heart. Jack carries Boris to his room, and then describes how he drained the pool Genevieve was in, and how he destroyed both the remaining samples of the chemical and all of Boris’s notes detailing the making of it. He says that he and the doctor worked to cover up the true natures of the couple’s passing and told the servants that they were traveling before paying them and sending them to the country, while the doctor faked the death certificate for Boris saying he had heart disease. Genevieve’s petrified body was laid in Boris’s sculpture studio beneath a statue of the Madonna which she had posed for, and Boris was buried. Jack then tells Alec to open the letter, and they find that it contains Boris’s will, leaving the house in Paris to Alec, and another residence to Jack to care for.
Alec briefly returns to Boris’s house, but decides he cannot stay. He then leaves Paris, to go for a journey around the East for two years, while continuing to write letters to Jack Scott. At the end of his second year of travels, a letter from Jack arrives asking him to meet, and Alec returns to Paris. There he meets with Jack and spends some time with him at both of their inherited residences, and Jack describes a feeling of expectancy. Alec feels that he is doing Jack harm, so tells him to try a change without him, but decides for himself to stay in Paris in Boris’s old home. He is somewhat surprised to find it tranquil there, and not difficult to stay there as he feared it would be. The only room he did not visit in the house was the one where the petrified Genevieve lay in state. After a time, he finds himself in the smoking room once again, and thinks of the night two years before, and finally goes to see Genevieve’s stone form. He leaves, and not long after a maid brings him a letter, and also tells him of a white rabbit having been caught in the house and asks him what to do with it. He tells her to set it free in the garden, and reads the letter, it having come from Jack. He describes the letter as rambling and incoherent, but that Jack begs him not to leave the house until he returns. Then the maid returns bearing two goldfish, and claiming people are playing tricks on her. She says that the marble fish and rabbit are missing, and that someone is putting live animals in their place. Alec tries to reassure her, and he goes to the studio where Boris had changed the Easter lily into stone but finds it to be a living flower. Alec finally realizes what is happening and goes to the marble room to find Genevieve waking up, alive and well.
So, what, pray tell, can we gain from this story? At first glance, this seems to be a tale of a love triangle with a supernatural element, an unusual potion that turns things into marble. But the key to this story’s lesson is the events that cause both Genevieve and Alec’s illness. Both Genevieve and Alec suffer fevers before realizing that most important aspect of themselves, the idea that both have engaged in self-deception. We know that prior to his illness, Alec read “The King in Yellow”, and therefore we might infer that Genevieve had been reading that play as well, since both characters suffer a similar sickness, and Alec lays his hand on the book almost by accident, implying the Genevieve had possibly left it out after reading it. Also, Genevieve reveals her secret love for Alec during her fever, which I take to mean that the play itself caused her to realize the depths of her deception, deceiving Alec, Boris, and herself that she was truly in love with Boris, Boris being the far more successful of the three artists as he’s described in the beginning of the story. But in her guilt, which I would posit is the true cause of her illness, she confesses her truth to them. Alec, having deceived himself, suffers similarly after reading the play, another state I’d say was caused by, in his case, both his guilt and grief, for he did not truly want to hurt his friend, but still felt the way he did about Genevieve. Perhaps the play caused him to realize the depths of those things, and thereby sent him into a mental spiral manifesting as a physical illness, as we know today can and does actually happen, whether due to depression or grief. And the same applies to Genevieve.
We can see here a tale that cautions against self-deception, and to an extent, the act of deceiving those one cares most about. The petrifying chemical in the story is something of a MacGuffin, serving only as a catalyst for certain behaviors, most importantly motivating Boris’s suicide, but relatively unimportant in itself. The true goal, for the reader, is to observe the characters’ behavior and understand why they do the things they do. Jack Scott’s seemingly psychic understanding of “something happening” after Boris’s death is another minor thing that adds another layer of paranormal possibility to the story, but it too is truly unimportant. The thing that matters is “The King in Yellow”, for it is the ultimate catalyst for the change that occurs in our characters, their realization of self-deception, and how they resolve this lie in the end. For those of us on the Left-Hand Path, this is a valuable lesson. Deception of oneself is antithetical to the Path, for one must confront their inner demons with honesty and truly see one’s flaws for what they are. Self-deception only leads to disaster, and one failure after another. In this story, we can even view the direct connection to the quote from the fictional play heading the story:
“Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!”
The Stranger, often implied to be The King in Yellow himself, wears no mask. The mask, in the story is that of self-deception, declared as such by Alec himself as is fevered and despairing. The Stranger does not deceive himself, and those who follow the Left-Hand Path should not as well.
For the third story, we are presented with “In the Court of the Dragon”. One of my personal favorite stories in the collection, though I enjoy them all, we are presented with an unnamed narrator visiting the Church of St. Barnabe, again in Paris. Almost immediately, the narrator seems to be ill at ease in the church, saying he finds something off about the organ playing. The music is strange, discordant, and the narrator likens it to the thought of something being chased, and those around him do not seem to hear it in the same way that he does. The priest then calls for silence and begins his sermon, and we learn that our narrator is exhausted, having been reading “The King in Yellow”. The narrator then notices the organist get up and leave the church, and he feels at ease for a moment, thinking this man was playing the strange music earlier. The priest’s sermon is curious as well, for he begins by saying:
“‘My children,’ said the preacher, ‘one truth the human soul finds hardest of all to learn: that it has nothing to fear. It can never be made to see that nothing can really harm it.’”
Then, the narrator notices that the organist has returned, even though not enough time had passed for him to have returned to where the narrator spotted him, and even if he had returned, the narrator should have seen him. When the narrator’s eyes meet his, however, he feels from the man an intense hatred, so much so that the narrator feels pain. He does not understand why this is, however, and tries to rationalize the feeling, and somewhat laugh it off.
Discomfited, the narrator leaves the church to try and rid himself of the mood he’s entered since seeing the organist. But as he is joining the crowd outside, he is passed by the organist, and once again feels that sense of dread as the man passes him. Here, he begins to feel a sense of responsibility long forgotten, the feeling that he deserves this hatred and that it has to do with something years in his past. But our narrator is determined to avoid this and escape the organist who has become the embodiment of this vague notion. He continues to walk away from the church, and sees the organist yet again, walking down one of the alleys nearby. Again, attempting to flee, the narrator sees the organist, this time sitting among others in a small park, and he continues to comment on how he feels a “malignant hatred” from the man. Continuing his escape, the narrator thinks he’s left the man behind, only to see him arriving again from a different direction: “He came so close that he brushed me. His slender frame felt like iron inside its loose black covering. He showed no signs of haste, nor of fatigue, nor of any human feeling. His whole being expressed one thing: the will, and the power to work me evil.”
He watches the man go, and after he vanishes amongst the crowed, the narrator flees, resolving to go home, saying he lives in the Court of the Dragon. He makes it there, thinking he’s fled his “enemy”, but then just before he can make it to his home, he sees the man following him again. Again, he attempts to flee, only to find himself cornered, the doors to the Court having been closed for some reason. The man approaches, and the narrator knows that he is doomed. However, suddenly, he finds himself back in the church, the service having ended, and the narrator having apparently slept through it. He looks, though, and once again sees the organist, realizing that he now recognizes the man: “That which gave him power over me came back out of oblivion, where I had hoped to keep it. For I knew him now. Death and the awful abode of lost souls, whither my weakness long ago had sent him—they had changed him for every other eye, but not for mine. I had recognized him almost from the first; I had never doubted what he was come to do; and now I knew while my body sat safe in the cheerful little church, he had been hunting my soul in the Court of the Dragon.”
The narrator once again attempts to leave the church, but as he does so, the organ breaks out with a blare, and the narrator finds that the church around him has dissolved, and now he is at the Lake of Hali, seeing black stars and the towers of Carcosa in the distance, while the King in Yellow whispers to him: “‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!’”.
So now we have another tale to learn from, and the lesson here is a powerful one. This story has been described as mysterious, but I would contend there is no great mystery here. Our narrator, through his own admission, has done great harm to the organist in the past. Whether through action or inaction, as the narrator says his weakness sent the organist to death, we can infer that somehow our narrator is responsible for this man’s demise. However, our narrator has failed to take personal responsibility for this, and therefore we can guess that the organist is the vengeful spirit of the man he wronged. An interesting idea here too is the primary setting being a church, implying that religion is no bastion from vengeance and no refuge from taking personal responsibility for one’s own actions. Again, our narrator has read “The King in Yellow”, and perhaps that revealed to him, albeit slowly, that which he had hidden from himself. Another act of self-deception, as in “The Mask”, but also a far more deadly fate, for this narrator’s actions engendered vengeance against him, for which it seems The King himself was all to willing to assist with. And so, we learn of our duty to ourselves to take personal responsibility for those things that we have done wrong, for those we have injured. For, it does not seem that our narrator has committed some great sin, he does not seem to be a murderer, though we do not know this for sure, but we do know he is somehow responsible for this man’s death, and he does not own up to that. Taking personal responsibility is a valuable lesson to learn for those of us on the Left-Hand Path, for not doing so leads to self-deception. And we may also learn from the actions of the organist, a warning to those who would cross us, for we take our vengeance rather than turn the other cheek. Chambers is masterful, here, though I highly doubt he intended or knew how future readers might interpret the biblical quote he ended the story with: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!” For do we not all aspire to be living gods? And those who cross us might find us fearful indeed.
Finally, the fourth story in this collection is “The Yellow Sign”. This is a popular story, and it too can teach us a lesson. We are introduced to our main characters, Mr. Scott, another artist living in New York, and Tessie, his nude model. Scott is painting a portrait of Tessie, and finds himself distracted by a pale, disgusting looking man loitering in the churchyard of the church near his apartment. He finds that the color in his painting has gone off, resembling gangrene or green cheese, as Tessie comments. He has a fit of temper over the ruined piece, and Tessie teases him about it. She then tells him about a nightmare she had, one where the man in the churchyard is driving a hearse carrying a coffin that she says Mr. Scott is interred in, though alive. Mr. Scott brushes the dream off, saying it was simply due to eating rich food. Tessie leaves for the evening after discussing the strange man.
The next morning, Mr. Scott speaks to one of the bell boys for the apartment he lives in, learning that the church next door was sold. He then talks to the man about the strange man he’s been seeing in the churchyard, and the bell boy says that the man is the night watchman for the church. He then goes on to relate an incident with the man to Mr. Scott, where he and his friends felt insulted at how the man stared at them. He says he hit the man, but it felt like the man was squishy and cold, finishing by saying that when the man grabbed his wrists, one of the strange man’s fingers came off in his hand as he was trying to get away. After the bell boy leaves, Scott again goes to the window, and is horrified when he sees that one of the strange man’s fingers is missing. However, Tessie returns, and begins posing for a new painting for Scott, and once he no longer needs her posing, she tells him of the good time she had the night before. They have lunch together, and Scott thinks about how Tessie has grown, and about her future, and thinks it’s best if she be kept away from men like himself. He then tells her of a dream he had, one paralleling hers from his point of view, him finding himself in the coffin, and seeing Tessie all in white in an open window as he passed. Tessie is visibly upset, hearing this, and Scott attempts to play it all up to the fact that her telling him of her dream influenced his, but Tessie is still afraid. Then, she confesses her love for him, and Mr. Scott, while thinking of every possible reaction, decides to kiss her.
Scott reflects later, as he takes his evening walk, onto the events of the day, saying to himself that it is too late to regret his actions. He shows some disdain for this future he has caused to come into being, and reflects on his past, and his now-deceased former love. He feels awful, though not for himself but Tessie, thinking that this affair as he calls it would damage Tessie in some way. He hopes to himself that it will end when she gets bored, and that she will still have her life before her. Upon returning to his home, he receives a note from another woman asking him out to supper. He goes to supper with her, and then returns to his apartment, noticing the strange man again. He hears the man muttering as he walks past, and feels anger that the man should talk to him, but does not act upon it. Though in his bed, he finally realizes what the man was saying: “‘Have you found the Yellow Sign?’” He was saying this repeatedly, and Scott wonders what he meant by that. Falling asleep at long last, Scott dreams again of the man and the hearse, and of Tessie.
Tessie returns the next day and is now reluctant to model in the nude for him, as she has now confessed her feelings and feels awkward. So they decide to try something different, her posing in an outfit described as Moorish costume, and Scott gives her a gold chain with a cross on it. Tessie, too, has a gift for Mr. Scott. She gives him a box containing “a clasp of black onyx, on which was inlaid a curious symbol or letter in gold. It was neither Arabic nor Chinese, nor, as I found afterwards, did it belong to any human script.” He is annoyed, but thanks her, saying he’d always treasure it, and Tessie tells him of how she found it. She attempted to find the owner, but no one ever came forward, and that she found it on the same day she had her strange dream.
The next day, Mr. Scott is injured as he attempts to move some paintings around, and as he sits around seeking something to do, he calls Tessie in to retrieve a book from a high shelf that he does not recognize. She tells him that the book is “The King in Yellow”. Fearful, Scott tells her to put the book back, knowing the he should not have it, and would have never purchased it for he knew of what happened to Castaigne, referring to the first story in these four. Tessie does not obey him, however, and runs off with the book, and Scott tries to stop her, only to find that she’s hidden herself away and he does not find her for half an hour. It is too late, however, for she has read “The King in Yellow”. Scott takes the book, and then sits down to read it himself. Now they both know that the clasp she had given him is The Yellow Sign. They sit for long hours, discussing the play, and the truths they learned therein, speaking of the King, of Hastur and Cassilda. Somehow, it seems a connection has formed between them, something sublime over the play. But they also know that the watchman will be coming to collect the Yellow Sign. And come he does, ripping the Sign from Scott’s coat, and striking him roughly. As he falls, Scott hears Tessie cry out, and knows she is dead. There, Scott lays dying, the doctor unable to help him, and saying that the watchman whose body lays there must have been dead for months. The story ends with Scott saying: “I think I am dying. I wish the priest would—”
Here we see another subtle take on the uselessness of religion. It seems, from the ending, the Mr. Scott did not receive last rites, based on how quickly his words cut off when he thinks of the priest. This reflects the theme from “In the Court of the Dragon”, once again showing how useless prayer is in the face of the King in Yellow. God dwelleth not here. In this story, we can see something different from our other protagonists. Mr. Scott is not deceiving himself, for he recognizes the type of man he is, and even takes what he wants in the form of Tessie, though he does not necessarily think that he is the best for her, he is somewhat greedy in the fact that he wants her. Obviously, for what healthy man would not take a beautiful young woman who practically throws herself at him, given the circumstances? Also, when both Tessie and Scott read “The King in Yellow”, they do not seem to go mad. Instead, they seem to understand what it was they read, and sit and discuss it for hours after finishing. And yet, both of them die in the end. They do not seem to have the same level of self-deceit as the characters in the other stories, but they do have in their possession the Yellow Sign. One interpretation is that this story describes the full circle for those who would read “The King in Yellow”, and since they understand it, and thereby understand themselves, there is no more life to live for them. Scott only lingers on long enough to tell the story but dies before the priest’s last rites can whisk his soul away to heaven, for he belongs in Carcosa and to The King in Yellow. We can perhaps view this as a parallel to life lived on the Left-Hand Path, seeing Mr. Scott and Tessie’s understanding of the play as apotheosis, and then they die, for death is inevitable to those who achieve even that. Further, it might be said that the only thing that kept them both from true understanding was their clinging to their Catholic faith, though Scott does seem to understand that in that his faith is useless, in the end.
And so, this concludes my analysis of the first four stories in this collection. These stories stand as some of the earliest examples of cosmic horror, published years before Lovecraft even began to write. But there is one more thing to analyze; the play itself, “The King in Yellow”. Much has been made of this fictitious play over the years; writers have tried to recreate it based on the excerpts in the text of Chambers’s book, and others have tried to understand what it might contain. I personally think that we cannot know what it might contain, because I believe the contents of it are unique to whoever reads it within the fictional world. It is said that no one discusses the second part, and I think that is because the truths it reveals are personal, and in the case of the unprepared, horrifying. Many cannot face the truth of their being. In essence, I take this to mean that the play “The King in Yellow” is a kind of shorthand for the Left-Hand Path itself. The first act of the play is called banal, by Hildred, and one can see that as the precursor to walking the Left-Hand Path, one lives one’s life, only to encounter the horrors hinted at being revealed towards the end of that act, these horrors being analogous to the real-life horror and tragedy that most of us have faced. Then, in the second act of the play, we realize our own truths, we delve into our own psyche and face the demons within us. Those unable to face them may go mad, but those who understand can move to a greater understanding of the self and apotheosis. Perhaps, in the end, we may glimpse the collective unconscious and look upon it with wonder rather than fear. Perhaps that is where Scott and Tessie failed, for they could understand their own psyche, but when faced with something so much greater than themselves, they could not retain their lives, instead, clinging to their God. Or perhaps they did understand it, perhaps death was only the beginning for them, and for that reason they could not be allowed to receive last rites. “The King in Yellow” is described as both awful and beautiful, and I think that is apt, for the process of apotheosis can be both simultaneously as well.
The entity itself, the titular King in Yellow, I think is an archetype, a being representing those hidden truths, and in magical usage, can be used as an aid to self-discovery and confronting one’s own inner demons. It also represents entropy, for all things decay and die, even the universe may eventually go into heat-death. This is well represented in those characters where it can be seen that its influence holds sway, such as Mr. Wilde and the watchman. Both are described as decaying in some way or another. And therefore, that leads us to that ultimate truth: All things die. We will all be dead one day, sooner or later, and only entropy exists eternally. This truth flies in the face of the brief beginning to the sermon spoken by the priest in “In the Court of the Dragon”. For perhaps the soul can be done harm, and nothing is truly eternal. Yet another direct confrontation between religion and the idea of the King in Yellow. Even the soul may decay in time, and only The King in Yellow persists eternally in dead Carcosa. Death, and the acceptance thereof, is the most important lesson one can learn on the Left-Hand Path. We must become as the dying, and accept that our fate is sealed, as Mr. Scott and Tessie might have, for only then, knowing that the time we have is limited, can we truly live.
“Once I dreamt of a god, the gentle god of shepherds,
Loved and beloved by those who held him in their hearts,
But in time the shepherds died, their joys unfulfilled,
And the god lie, forgotten and dead.
But that is not dead, which can eternal lie,
And in strange aeons, even death may die,
Such the god heard in unquiet death,
And from slumber he arose drawing breath.
How his world had changed, in interceding time,
His shepherds gone, replaced by a noble kind,
They who knew him not, he sought to discover,
And in their midst, as a Stranger he did hover.
Corruption and lies, self-deceit and envy,
Found the once-gentle god in his entreaty,
But while Camilla knew him not, Cassilda did know,
For she bore his sign, a relic of long ago.
The city was his, by divine right,
And Carcosa faded away into the night,
To the lake of Hali, where black stars shine,
And thoughts become real in due time.
This I dreamt, and knew the truth,
For the Yellow King had spoken sooth,
May the dreams of Carcosa remain still,
For there my soul lives and dies, on the ancient hill.”