The Taint of Yellow: A Mythos in the Making?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Since its appearance in 1895, Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow has drawn the dark affections of many weird fiction admirers. A favorite of H.P. Lovecraft and subsequent giants in supernatural literature, the book is a collection of short stories revolving around a mysterious play called “The King in Yellow." Upon encountering this text, most characters in Chambers’ stories experience a swift dive into lunacy, with disturbing visions of beings not of this Earth and dire real-world consequences of interacting with them. The two stories within the set, “The Repairer of Reputations” and “The Yellow Sign” are most well known, and the most effective at illustrating these motifs. 

The role of the color yellow in these tales is often blatantly ominous, with connotations of insanity, death, and decay that were commonly associated with it in the late 19th century. Chambers, who started his artistic career as a painter, maintains that powerful sense of evocative imagery by giving haunting quotations of “The King in Yellow” play that is the focus of these stories. Coupled with bizarre references to great monarchs and things from Carcosa—an otherworldly place whose name is taken from the work of Ambrose Bierce—Chambers masterfully sketched haunting yarns that have stood for decades as some of the greatest works in all of horror fiction.

As expected, The King in Yellow flaunted a universe too enticing to resist for horror artists following Chambers. From subtle hints of Chambers’ creations dropped in subsequent tales of the strange, a la Lovecraft, to full fledged sequels directly involving the accursed play, the King’s fictional realm is alive and well. Lovecraft himself probably began this recycling of Chambers’ forms in new ways, with his references to things like the Yellow Sign and the Lake of Hali in several tales (“The Whisperer in Darkness,” for one). Among its more remarkable attributes, several small press publishers have put out entire collections, both magazines and paperbacks, focusing on new stories wholly set in the Yellow universe. The British publisher Rainfall Books is responsible for one of these editions, and among their more interesting creations, a limited release CD mimicking the elusive scenes from the play. Additionally, Tom Ryng has written his own imaginative account of the play’s text. Perhaps at the vanguard of the rest of the pack, increasingly popular Elder Signs Press recently published Rehearsals for Oblivion, a fine selection of Yellow-related tales from some of horror’s most imaginative contemporaries. Its appearance as “Act I” is also encouraging, since it may well mean future collections by Elder Signs are planned.

Other prominent horror writers have also tackled Chambers’ world. Brian Keene, currently of zombie novel fame, wrote a short story several years ago called “’The King,’ in: Yellow.” Incredibly, the altered punctuation makes a world of difference. It tells of a couple who go to see the play “Yellow,” and meet with disturbing results. The dark humor of various celebrities like Elvis, for instance, starring as the King, is overshadowed by the dark conclusion and sanity-uprooting imagery. It is by far one of the cleverest stories to date, good enough to be republished in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 16, and even a graphic novel adaptation in Brian Keene’s Fear

And still, the incredible odyssey of Chambers’ King hasn’t ended there. The taint of Yellow has crept even onto film in recent years. Some observers saw overtones of Chambers in Masters of Horror’s season one episode, Cigarette Burns. Produced by John Carpenter, this miniature film involves a collector’s search for an incredibly rare film of early 20th century notoriety, responsible for inducing insanity and violence among its viewers. Lurker Films presently sells a number of amateur Yellow films collected onto DVD. Aaron Vanek, who produced several other excellent shorts based on Lovecraft’s tales, has a prize winning adaptation of “The Yellow Sign” on this disc. Also noteworthy, places and things from the Yellow universe occasionally pop up in various quests and campaigns for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu role playing game. 

Clearly, the explosion of diverse ephemera reveals a growing interest in the Yellow universe, and proves it fertile ground for other artists. The question must be asked: is Chambers’ creation forming a belated mythos, not unlike Lovecraftians’ vast Cthulhu mythos? To gain insight, it is fair to examine the swarm of interest around Yellow artistry using the lens provided by Lovecraft’s offspring. 

The Cthulhu mythos (which Lovecraft himself called “Yog-Sothery) was encouraged from the start by HPL, who headed a talented circle of writers like Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard. Lovecraft encouraged his fellow writers to use his creations as they pleased, and the Providence author did the same with their own gods and fantastic places on more than one occasion. From there, the mythos developed on its own, with many early pastiches of Lovecraft’s worlds, up to the present day stories of a (mostly) superior, liberated quality. 

The Yellow mythos, if it can be called that, isn’t nearly as vast or visited (yet) as that of Cthulhu’s. Serious tales directly involving Chambers’ universe, rather than mere mention of selected entities, are still quite new. Moreover, Yellow mythos tales, like those of the Cthulhu mythos, remain rooted firmly in the small press, and even then among just a few selective publishers. For this reason, Chambers’ work has not seeped a great deal into the popular consciousness, as can be said for at least a few of Lovecraft’s creations. The phenomenal growth and health of the Cthulhu mythos is crowned by a few mass market mythos story collections by large publishers like Del Rey. Innumerable parodies of Cthulhu online, in addition to several video games in recent years drawing both subtly and directly from Lovecraft’s mythos only underscores this success. 

While Chambers’ King in Yellow can be said to be analogous to something like Cthulhu (in that both are the best known entities of each author), the King still falls short of Cthulhu’s popular recognition. Thus, it may be years before Chambers’ great contribution to weird fiction is as acclaimed as Lovecraft’s. On the other hand, the Yellow universe is beginning to thrive in a manner unique, but not wholly different from the Cthulhu mythos’ evolutionary path.

 In the final analysis, if there is a Yellow mythos developing, then it will only come slowly and likely won’t reach the heights obtained by Lovecraft’s horrors. Nevertheless, Chambers’ creations enjoy an increasingly small, but vibrant, diverse existence in the smaller circles of artistic horror. This may prove beneficial, since the Yellow universe can avoid the inferior pastiches that hampered the evolution of the Cthulhu mythos (and still pop up periodically). If the worlds of great weird fiction are to remain more than mere fan fiction, consistently high quality, along with innovation, is vitally important. And that goes for any stage of development.

-Grim Blogger

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