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The Yellow Sign and Other Stories: The Complete Weird Tales of Robert W. Chambers
Robert W. Chambers
Call of Cthulhu/Chaosium, 643 pages

H.E. Fassl
The Yellow Sign and Other Stories
Robert W. Chambers
Robert W. Chambers (26 May 1865 -- 16 December 1933) was born in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of 20, he joined the Art Student's League where he was a fellow student with Charles Dana Gibson (creator of the "Gibson Girl" covergirls of the day). From 1886 to 1893, he studied in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and at Julian's, also spending some time in Brittany. Returning to New York, he was successful in selling illustrations to various magazines including Life and Vogue. In 1894 he produced his first novel, In the Quarter, a loosely connected set of stories set around the artist life in Paris.

The next year Chamber's reputation was established by the publication of The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories (and poems) of which the first four introduce the mind-shattering text of the second act of the play "The King in Yellow." Based on references from Ambrose Bierce's tales "The Death of Halpin Frayser," "Hasta the Shepherd" and "An Inhabitant of Carcosa," Chambers created the mythos of lost Carcosa, the god Hastur (items later used by H.P. Lovecraft and others), and the tattered robes of the King in Yellow. In many ways this was the apex of Chamber's weird writing, his later writing becoming increasingly commercial. He devoted himself to cranking out close to 80 bestselling equivalents to today's Harlequin Romances. This did, however, allow this humble and cheerful man to afford a luxurious mansion in upstate New York where he could indulge his passion for the great outdoors: hunting, fishing, and collecting butterflies. In this regard, Chambers did write a handful of Nature appreciation books for children.

The current collection collects tales from The King in Yellow (1895), In Search of the Unknown (1904), The Maker of Moons (1896), The Mystery of Choice (1897), Police!!! (1915), The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906), and The Tree of Heaven (1907).

Tribute Site
Study of The King in Yellow by Christophe Thill
Study of The King in Yellow by Christophe Thill (in French)
FAQ about The King in Yellow
E-text of The King in Yellow omits non-genre stories
E-text of The King in Yellow (complete)
E-text of The King in Yellow (complete)
E-text of The Mystery of Choice (complete)
E-text of "The Purple Emperor" from The Mystery of Choice
Sources and borrowers of The King in Yellow
Hobgoblin Press ed. of The King in Yellow
Ash-Tree Press ed. of Robert W. Chambers' weird fiction
Original cover of Maker of Moons
Original covers of The King in Yellow
Original cover of The Mystery of Choice

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

As sad as it is to say, Robert W. Chambers was a writer whose imaginative fiction peaked in his first genre book and went downhill from there. But boy, when he peaked did he ever peak! This isn't to say that his later work wasn't competent, popular, or entirely free of flashes of brilliance, but it might be best described as the triumph of easily written but bestselling romance novels (think Harlequin Romance with silent film era sensibilities) over artistry. While the selections in The Yellow Sign and Other Stories exclude the worst of his vast (approx. 85 books) output of implausible sentimental drivel (trust me, I've read some), unlike H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and other American genre writers of the era, women aren't entirely ignored or relegated to the role of witch or muscular hero's bimbo.

While I haven't too much of a gripe with editor S.T. Joshi for excluding Chambers' 1920 yellow menace novel The Slayer of Souls, which is largely a rehash of the themes in his much better novella "The Maker of Moons" (1896) and dripping with saccharine sentimentality besides, his exclusion of an excerpt from or at least a mention of Chambers' excellent The Hidden Children (1914) -- where, in 1778 New York State, the young Euan Loskiel defeats the evil scarlet priest Amochol of the Seneca tribe and the nasty alien minions he has conjured up -- seems an unfortunate oversight. However, The Yellow Sign and Other Stories is intended to only collect Chambers' short fiction, and at close to 650 pages of small type, The Hidden Children would have close to doubled the bulk of The Yellow Sign and Other Stories.

The book that made Chambers and remains the apex of his work was The King in Yellow. While derived from some Ambrose Bierce tales, Chambers created, so to speak, the Carcosa mythos -- its central figure a king in yellow tatters, the talisman of the Yellow Sign, and the mind-corrupting second act of the play "The King in Yellow." As much as Lovecraft expert S.T. Joshi states that H.P.L. developed his Cthulhu Mythos and associated paraphernalia independently, Chambers' creation differs little from it, except that he completely abandoned it after a passing allusion to it in "The Maker of Moons."

S.T. Joshi, in his introduction, and others have suggested that Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe were Chambers' main influences; I might suggest that the tone of the tales in The King in Yellow might also have been influenced by the "decadent" French writers of weird fiction of the last decade of the 19th century, when Chambers was himself in France. In particular, there are certainly similarities in terms of motifs with the stories collected in Marcel Schwob's Le roi au masque d'or (1892; The King Who Bore the Golden Mask), and in Jean Lorrain's Histoires de masques and Contes d'un buveur d'ether (early 1890s), amongst others.

The first tale in The King in Yellow, "The Repairer of Reputations," is one of the greatest and weirdest tales of delusions of grandeur and paranoia ever written. The characters are chillingly twisted, particularly the absolutely bizarre, but all-knowing Mr. Wilde, grossly disfigured by his mad malevolent cat. In "The Yellow Sign" a man dreams of a mysterious hearse and is obsessed with a loathsome man who inhabits the steps of the church outside his apartment window. When he receives the "Yellow Sign" as much as he fights it, he isn't long for this world. Similarly, in "In the Court of the Dragon" a man is stalked through the narrow streets of Paris by an emissary of the Yellow King. One of loveliest stories is "La Demoiselle d'Ys" where a modern day hunter lost on the moors of Brittany finds shelter and love with the beautiful Jeanne d'Ys in the late 16th century. Here Chambers' has just the right balance of romance and fantasy. But to top it all off are some wonderful weird prose poems in "The Prophet's Paradise" -- in particular, perhaps my favourite weird poem of all, "The Sacrifice":

I went into a field of flowers, whose petals are whiter than snow and whose hearts are pure gold.

Far afield a woman cried, "I have killed him I loved" and from a jar she poured blood upon the flowers whose petals are whiter than snow and whose hearts are pure gold.

Far afield I followed, and on the jar I read a thousand names, while from within the blood bubbled to the brim.

"I have killed him I loved!" she cried. "The world's athirst; now let it drink!" She passed, and far afield I watched her pouring blood upon the flowers whose petals are whiter than snow and whose hearts are pure gold.

This is followed by two tales from The Maker of Moons (1896), the title novella, perhaps Chambers' last truly great story, and "A Pleasant Evening," a story of return from death to fulfil a vow. There follow six tales from The Mystery of Choice (1897). These stories are more tales of supernatural mystery than weird tales. The narrator and his wife live in a remote village in Brittany where he is suspected of the murder of a butterfly collector, and followed by the spirit of a centuries-old renegade priest, amongst other things. While the stories certainly capture the landscapes of Brittany, the overtly romantic relationship between man and wife begins to intrude. Another thing that is disappointing is that Chambers exploits very little of the extensive Breton mythology surrounding death and the occult (e.g., La legende de la mort chez les Bretons armoricains by Anatole Le Braz (1859-1926), c. 1900).

The next two books, included in their entirety, are In Search of the Unknown (1904), and Police!!! (1915). Here Chambers' main character is a male zoologist who goes around capturing all sorts of odd or mythical creatures, while avoiding entanglements with members of the opposite sex, ranging from scientists' pretty young daughters and pretty young scientific assistants, zoo administrators who are overbearing battleaxes, and scantily-clad blubbering cave women in the wilds of Florida:

With an uncontrollable shout of triumph and delight I pranced towards the huddling cave-girls, arms outspread as though heading a horse or concentrating chickens. And, totally forgetting the uselessness or urbanity and civilised speech as I danced around that lovely but terrified group, "Ladies!" I cried, "do not be alarmed, because I mean only kindness and proper respect. Civilisation calls you from the wilds! Sentiment, pity, piety propel my legs, not the ruthless desire to injure or enslave you! Ladies! You are under the wing of science. An anthropologist is speaking to you! Fear nothing! Rather rejoice! Your wonderful race shall be rescued from extinction -- even if I have to do it myself! Ladies, don't run!" They had suddenly scattered and were now beginning to dodge me. "I come among you bearing the precious promises of education, of religion, of equal franchise, of fashion!"

"Blub-blub!" they whimpered continuing to dodge me.

"Yes!" I cried in an excess of transcendental enthusiasm. "Blub-blub! And though I do not comprehend the exquisite simplicity of your primeval speech, I answer with all my heart, 'Blub-blub.'"

These two titles are made up of a number of linked short stories, and while chapters like "The Harbor Master" may have elements of horror, the main thrusts of these stories are humour and romance, not horror or fantasy. The Yellow Sign and Other Stories is filled out with a few stories from The Tree of Heaven (1907) and an episode from The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906).

When I undertook to review The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, I had already read about 75% of its contents as well as half a dozen other novels. Still, I think I gained some insights into Chambers' work which I wouldn't have had without rereading and reading fresh material by him. S.T. Joshi in his introduction points out that Chambers' later "for profit" romance novels are so bad as to not even be useful as a reflection of the times in which they were written. I think that a neglected aspect of Chambers' work is his work as a Nature writer. Chambers, besides being a well trained artist, was certainly an avid outdoorsman and a very competent amateur naturalist, even writing some Nature books for children (apparently amongst his rarest works). Chambers' descriptions of wild locales, particularly the forests of the Northeastern United States, and the wild, barren landscapes of Brittany show both his artists' eye and his obvious appreciation for the grandeur of Nature. While this aspect of his writing is rarely, if ever, the foremost aspect of any of his works, it is perhaps the quality of his work least dimmed by his shift to literary commercialism. From the mysterious forest glade in "The Maker of Moons" (1896), the Central New York forests of the late 18th century in The Hidden Children (1914), to a female Civil War spy's escape through the forests of Pennsylvania in the posthumously published Secret Service Operator 13 (1934), Chambers' descriptions of the forest remain rich and heartfelt.

So, if you only want to read Chambers' work with a view to simply understanding the Poe-Bierce-Chambers-Lovecraft continuum, you will be safe enough simply reading The King in Yellow (see e-text links) and perhaps "The Maker of Moons." However, if you want to understand both the progression of his work and sample his weird, humorous, and even romantic fiction, or simply want a handy compendium of his short works of imaginative fiction The Yellow Sign and Other Stories is certainly for you. Either way The Yellow Sign and Other Stories is great value for your money, considering the scarcity of some of the material reprinted.

"Introduction" by S.T. Joshi
from The King in Yellow
"The Repairer of Reputations"
"The Mask"
"In the Court of the Dragon"
"The Yellow Sign"
"The Demoiselle d'Ys"
"The Prophet's Paradise" (poems)
from The Maker of Moons
"The Maker of Moons"
"A Pleasant Evening"
from The Mystery of Choice
"The Purple Emperor"
"Pompe Funèbre"
"The Messenger"
"The White Shadow"
"The Key to Grief"
In Search of the Unknown complete
from The Tracer of Lost Persons
Chapters 17-20
from The Tree of Heaven
"The Carpet of Belshazzar"
"The Sign of Venus"
"The Case of Mr. Helmer"
"The Bridal Pair"
"Out of the Depths"
Police!!! complete

Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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