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The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

''The King in Yellow'' by Robert Chambers is the title of two different texts: a cursed play with a terrifying supernatural being and a collection of short stories. We'll learn about references to the play that occur in the stories.

A Cursed Play

Have you ever wondered what kinds of books were in the Restricted Section of the library in the Harry Potter books and movies? Well, if it contained any literature, it would definitely include the (fictitious) play, The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers. This play is reputed to be cursed: Act 1 lures readers in, and anyone who reads Act 2 will go insane.

A Collection of Short Stories

What is not fictitious is Chambers' collection of short stories, also named The King in Yellow after his ''dangerous'' play. It was published in 1895. The first four of these stories (''The Repairer of Reputations,'' ''The Mask,'' ''In the Court of the Dragon,'' and ''The Yellow Sign'') make references to the play and give us glimpses of what it contains.

A first edition of the collection of short stories titled The King in Yellow after the cursed play
The King in Yellow

Clues to the Play in the Short Stories

A Strange Epigraph

At the beginning of some editions of The King in Yellow short story collection is an epigraph, or a quotation that prefaces a written work. The note at the end of the epigraph tells us it's an excerpt from Cassilda's Song in Act 1, Scene 2 of the King in Yellow play. She talks about the ''strange'' place called Carcosa with two moons and twin suns that set on a lake there. She also mentions ''black stars'' and the (real-life) star cluster called the Hyades. She says that that the ''song of [her] soul'' will die in Carcosa.

''The Repairer of Reputations''

In ''The Repairer of Reputations,'' we learn that the lake is called Hali, and the story's narrator, Hildred Castaigne, mentions reading about a mysterious ''Pallid Mask'' in the play. He claims that the world we live in ''trembles before the King in Yellow,'' who seems to be a god-like person that earthly kings will one day serve. He himself (deludedly) asserts his right to become the king of the ''Imperial Dynasty of America'' because ''[he] knew the mystery of the Hyades, and [his] mind had sounded the depths of the Lake of Hali.''

''The Mask''

In the next story, ''The Mask,'' Chambers appears to be drawing a connection between the protagonist's ''mask'' of denial of his love for Geneviève and the Pallid Mask. The epigraph in this story is also from Act 1, Scene 2 of The King in Yellow. It consists of an exchange between a character called Camilla and someone called only Stranger in which Camilla tells the stranger he should ''unmask'' as everyone else has done. Stranger claims he's not wearing a mask, and Camilla utters a ''terrified'' exclamation to Cassilda.

The story's protagonist, Alec, idly peruses The King in Yellow, but it's not clear whether he reads the second act. He mentions ''the towers of Carcosa behind the moon'' and the (again, real-life) star Aldebaran and the star cluster Hyades. More difficult to define are the names Alar and Hastur, although Hastur is thought to be both a person and a place related to Aldebaran in some way. Finally, he mentions ''the scolloped [scalloped] tatters of the King in Yellow.''

Two towers under the moon that might resemble those on Carcosa
Kuala Lumpur towers

''In the Court of the Dragon''

The narrator of ''In the Court of the Dragon'' also reveals that he's been reading The King in Yellow. He's convinced that he's being followed by a church organist with evil intentions. At the end of the narrative, he claims that the church and the world as he knows it ''vanished'' and that he found himself by the Lake of Hali instead, looking at the towers of Carcosa and its black stars. Blinded by a ''flaring light,'' he hears the King in Yellow telling him: ''It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!''

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