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The King In Yellow

by Robert W. Chambers

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"The King in Yellow, a series of vaguely connected short stories having as a background a monstrous and suppressed book whose perusal brings fright, madness, and spectral tragedy, really achieves notable heights of cosmic fear in spite of uneven interest and a somewhat trivial and affected cultivation of the Gallic studio atmosphere made popular by Du Maurier's Trilby. The most powerful of its tales, perhaps, is The Yellow Sign, in which is introduced a silent and terrible churchyard watchman with a face like a puffy grave-worm's." - from the Introduction by H.P. Lovecraft.

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THE HORROR CLASSIC THAT TERRIFIED H. P. LOVECRAFT Here is how Lovecraft described this masterpiece of supernatural horror: "The King in Yellow, achieves notable heights of cosmic fear. It is a series of connected short stories having as a background a monstrous and suppressed book whose perusal brings fright, madness, and spectral tragedy. The most powerful of its tales, perhaps, is The Yellow Sign, in which is introduced a silent and terrible churchyard watchman with a face like a puffy grave-worm's. A boy, describing a tussle he has had with this creature, shivers and sickens as he relates a certain detail. 'Well, it's Gawd's truth that when I 'it 'im 'e grabbed me wrists, Sir, and when I twisted 'is soft, mushy fist one of 'is fingers come off in me 'and.' An artist, who after seeing him has shared with another a strange dream of a nocturnal hearse, is shocked by the voice with which the watchman accosts him. The fellow emits a muttering sound that fills the head "like thick oily smoke from a fat-rendering vat or an odour of noisome decay." What he mumbles is merely this: 'Have you found the Yellow Sign?' A weirdly hieroglyphed onyx talisman, picked up on the street by the sharer of his dream, is shortly given the artist; and after stumbling queerly upon the hellish and forbidden book of horrors the two learn, among other hideous things which no sane mortal should know, that this talisman is indeed the nameless Yellow Sign handed down from the accursed cult of Hastur -- from primordial Carcosa, whereof the volume treats, and some nightmare memory of which seeks to lurk latent and ominous at the back of all men's minds. Soon they hear the rumbling of the black-plumed hearse driven by the flabby and corpse-faced watchman. He enters the night-shrouded house in quest of the Yellow Sign, all bolts and bars rotting at his touch." Cover: Mia Jennings mia.j@comcast.net

From the Publisher
From the Editor's Introduction:

To the extent that Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933) is remembered at all today, it is for "The King in Yellow", an odd collection of supernatural and "French" stories first published in 1895. It was followed by a few science-fiction comedies which are still reprinted from time to time, and then by dozens of popular historical romances and "society" novels, now long out of print and apparently unlamented. That he was originally an artist and friend of the famous Charles Dana Gibson is now mostly forgotten; knowing this, the reader can guess that Chambers was an art student in the Latin Quarter and attended the schools mentioned in his stories.

For his weird tales, Chambers took some names from Ambrose Bierce, and his own stories were later mined by H. P. Lovecraft and the pulp magazine writers of his circle. Such usage has kept "The King in Yellow", if not alive, then at least in the awareness of readers of the fantasy and horror genre. For all I know, the references have now spread to board games, rock music albums and cult television programs.

Like other readers of such literature, when I was young I enjoyed the supernatural stories in the first half of the book, but tended to skip over the tales of the artists' life in Paris in the second half. Indeed, several editions have omitted these stories entirely, substituting others more likely to appeal to the fantasy reader. However, as I grow older, the French stories appeal to me more and more. I am grateful for even a small glimpse into the author's youth in another time and place, now long gone. As an aside: the characters of these stories first appeared in Chambers' first book, "In the Quarter", which appeared in 1894.

What is "The King in Yellow" about? ("There are so many things which are impossible to explain"). The title refers to a book within our book, actually to a play in two acts, and to a supernatural character within that play who we suspect also exists outside of it. We know very little of the contents of the play, but discover that it drives the reader insane and damns his soul. Yet the book is said to be beautiful, expressing the "supreme note of art". As such, the device is a perfect one for the Decadent time in which it was created, suggesting the flowers of evil, the admixture of life and decay, beauty and malevolence.

As we move into the French stories, the supernatural elements fade away. We still have the themes of the danger of too much knowledge, and of innocence threatened and protected. The stories are loosely connected but not presented in any sort of chronological order. In fact, the first, "The Repairer of Reputations", is set in the future of 1920, and one of the later stories, "The Street of the First Shell", is a realistic account of the siege of Paris in 1870. Did Chambers have a reason for arranging the book in this way? Perhaps he wanted to introduce some distance from the locus of horror, showing how evil ripples out from a center, never entirely vanishing, but diminishing and being conquered by love. As dark as his vision may be, hope and love are never absent.

A reader is allowed his favorites. I have two: "The Mask" features a striking combination of hope and the intimation of transcendence, set against the sinister background of Chambers' mythology. It is the most Catholic of his stories, a strain that runs through many of them. And, at six pages, "The Street of the Four Winds" is one of the most perfect short stories I know.

Excerpted from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. Copyright © 2002. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
From "The Yellow Sign":

There are so many things which are impossible to explain! Why should certain chords in music make me think of the brown and golden tints of autumn foliage? Why should the Mass of Sainte Cecile send my thoughts wandering among caverns whose walls blaze with ragged masses of virgin silver? What was it in the roar and turmoil of Broadway at six o'clock that flashed before my eyes the picture of a still Breton forest where sunlight filtered through spring foliage and Sylvia bent, half curiously, half tenderly, over a small green lizard, murmuring: "To think that this also is a little ward of God!"

When I first saw the watchman his back was toward me. I looked at him indifferently until he went into the church. I paid no more attention to him than I had to any other man who lounged through Washington Square that morning, and when I shut my window and turned back into my studio I had forgotten him. Late in the afternoon, the day being warm, I raised the window again and leaned out to get a sniff of air. A man was standing in the courtyard of the church, and I noticed him again with as little interest as I had that morning. I looked across the square to where the fountain was playing and then, with my mind filled with vague impressions of trees, asphalt drives, and the moving groups of nursemaids and holiday-makers, I started to walk back to my easel. As I turned, my listless glance included the man below in the churchyard. His face was toward me now, and with a perfectly involuntary movement I bent to see it. At the same moment he raised his head and looked at me. Instantly I thought of a coffin-worm. Whatever it was about the man that repelled me I did not know, but the impression of a plump white grave-worm was so intense and nauseating that I must have shown it in my expression, for he turned his puffy face away with a movement which made me think of a disturbed grub in a chestnut.



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