Friday, August 26, 2016

The Weird World of Robert W. Chambers

Last night I read The King in Yellow, the 1895 collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers. Chambers, like the more famous weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, has lingered at the edges of my awareness for decades. A couple of events prompted me to finally read Chambers: watching season one of True Detective, which weaves the titular King in Yellow into its subtext, and a delightfully creepy experience a friend shared with me - an experience I can't share in turn, lest I spoil it for others.

The first four stories in the collection concern the unseen King in Yellow him(it)self, as well as the macabre world that lurks around the edges of our own - a world of looming, unseen, but horrifying menace. Two of the first four stories are set in a then-future USA of 1920; two take place in Paris. Each is full of dreary atmosphere and subtle menace, though not every story has an unhappy ending, which I found added to the effectiveness of the collection as a whole.

I was particularly intrigued, however, by the way in which the genre of the stories suddenly jump from horror to mainstream midway through the collection. The King in Yellow fades into the distance, and Chambers turns his attention to crafting amusing stories of 19th-century romance.

I don't recall reading a work that shifts so suddenly in genre and tone. There is a slight callback to the titular menace in the last couple of paragraphs of the final story, but it's subtle.

Chambers' prose is economical, and yet he manages to evoke a palpable sense of dread where appropriate. And while some of the details date the work, the writing itself is surprisingly timeless and fresh. I look forward to sampling more of his weird world.


1 comment:

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

"Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa."

or

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!

Brilliant stuff!