61 pages 2 hours read

Robert W. Chambers

The King in Yellow

Fiction | Short Story Collection | Adult | Published in 1895

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Summary and Study Guide


The King in Yellow is a collection of 10 short stories by American writer Robert W. Chambers, first published in 1895. These stories, taking place in America and in France, exemplify the decadence and degeneracy of fin de siècle society (“end of the century”). Of the 10 stories in the collection, the first four are linked by the motif of The King in Yellow—the name of a fictional play invented by Chambers—and share an atmosphere of horror and supernaturalism. These four stories are Chambers’s most famous works and are regarded as a link between the early horror fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and the later work of H. P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos (first published 1928). The other stories in The King in Yellow are successively less macabre and unsettling; the last three are romantic fiction of the type that Chambers wrote later in his career.

Chambers (1865-1933) was born in Brooklyn, New York, into a wealthy professional family. Pursuing a career as an illustrator, he studied art at the École des Beaux-Arts, and the Académie Julian, prestigious art schools in Paris from 1886-1893. While in Paris, he lived in the Latin Quarter, known for its bohemian atmosphere. He then returned to New York in 1893 where he worked as an illustrator for various magazines and also started writing. His first novel, In the Quarter, was published in 1894, followed the next year by The King in Yellow.

Despite his early experimentation with supernatural horror, Chambers eventually settled into the genres of historical romance and adventure stories, and these later writings met with commercial success during his lifetime. However, his early works in horror—The King in Yellow as well as The Maker of Moons (1896), and In Search of the Unknown (1904) gained renewed attention after his death, thanks to the admiration of H. P. Lovecraft, who credited The King in Yellow as one of his inspirations. The King in Yellow is the only one Chambers’s works still sold with any regularity.

This study guide references the Warbler Press Edition, published in 2021. This edition contains an excerpt from Lovecraft’s seminal essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” which references Chambers’s work.

Content Warning: The King in Yellow employs outdated and offensive language around mental health conditions and suicide, which this guide quotes. The collection also more generally reflects stigmatizing attitudes toward mental health conditions and suicide, which were prevalent when The King in Yellow was published and that this guide discusses.

Plot Summary

The collection opens with an epigraph placed before the contents, in the form of a passage from a play in verse entitled The King in Yellow. This play is an invention of Chambers and is the most significant motif repeated throughout the collection of stories. The verse passage describes the country of Carcosa, with its twin suns, black stars, strange moons, and mysterious lake. This passage implies a country in decline and decay where songs die and the “tatters of the King” flap in the wind. The epigraph sets the tone for the first four stories in the collection,

The first four stories are in the horror genre and all center around the play, The King in Yellow. In “The Repairer of Reputations,” Hildred Castaigne reads The King in Yellow while in a psychiatric hospital following a head injury. After his release, he meets with Mr. Wilde, an eccentric man who claims that Castaigne is the rightful ruler of the “Empire of America,” and they plan revenge on those who mean to usurp him. “The Mask” is set in Paris, where sculptor Boris devises a chemical formula to transform living things into marble. Boris’s friend Alec reads The King in Yellow and falls unconscious. Following this, Boris’s lover Genevieve throws herself into a pool of Boris’s chemical formula, turning herself to marble, and Boris dies by suicide from grief. The unnamed narrator of “In the Court of the Dragon” sits in church during Mass, physically and mentally drained after three long nights of reading The King in Yellow. When he leaves the church, he is pursued by a menacing figure until he awakens back in the church and realizes he was dreaming. In “The Yellow Sign,” artist Mr. Scott and his model Tessie are both unsettled by the church watchman outside Mr. Scott’s apartment, who has a face like a coffin-worm. When they both read The King in Yellow, the watchman walks into the apartment and Tessie drops dead with fright. The watchman’s body seems to decay, implying that it had been dead for weeks.

The fifth story, “Demoiselle d’Ys,” is a time travel story in which an American, Philip, gets lost in the Breton moors and is rescued by a young woman from 16th-century France. They fall in love, only for Philip to return to the present, leaving the woman to die alone in her own time.

The sixth story, “The Prophets’ Paradise,” is a collection of brief prose poems constructed from repeated phrases and dream-like imagery, developed from a quotation from the play The King in Yellow.

The last four stories are all romances set in Paris, in the Latin Quarter. They form two pairs of stories linked by themes and motifs. In “The Street of the Four Winds,” artist Severn finds a stray cat that he idly imagines might have belonged to a woman he once loved named Sylvia. He then learns that a woman of that same name lives in his building. He tries to return the cat to her, only to find her dead in her apartment. The second of this pair, “The Street of the First Shell,” follows Jack Trent and his wife, also called Sylvia, during the 1870 Siege of Paris. After learning that Sylvia has a child from an earlier relationship, Jack runs off in acute jealousy to join soldiers marching out of the city. He returns just in time to help Sylvia and her child escape from their home when a shell hits it.

The final pair of romances focus on Bohemian artist students. First, in “The Street of Our Lady of the Fields,” innocent and idealistic Hastings falls in love with a woman named Valentine, who has a mysterious and scandalous past. Valentine fears Hastings will leave her when he learns of her history, but he surprises her. In “Rue Barrée,” Clifford tries to woo a mysterious woman known only as Rue Barrée, who rejects him. At the same time, new art student Selby also tries to court Rue Barrée, anonymously sending her flowers and then drunkenly breaking into her rooms.