“Then let us call it by a different name. The good of the Hero shall be called the ‘hero’ as you have always thought of it. And the dark side of the Hero, that which is evil, shall be called the ‘King in Yellow.'”
—from The Book of Heroes
Sound familiar? It may. The King in Yellow is one of the most intriguing persons, no, it’s a two-act pla—nooo…well, what is the King in Yellow? Well, for one thing it is the title of a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers. Chambers was once a very popular writer but today only his fantastical material is still in print, thanks in part to the enigmatic King, who has served as a muse of sorts to many since. Within the stories of The King in Yellow, there are two identifiable kings. The first king is a play in two acts by that name. And it’s a doozy:
It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent,barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.
—from “The Repairer of Reputations”, by Robert W. Chambers
Actually, we’re told, the first act is all right. A little boring, even. The second act though, if you manage to sit through it, will render you completely
insane enlightened insane. (Well, there’s some controversy on this point.)
And the king is also a supernatural figure associated with rulership, madness, the fine and practical arts, and a certain bohemian dabbling in the unknown and unusual. There’s little more than a few hints as to the aspects of the play and the king in the stories, but they were popular enough, and tantalizing enough, to gain a measure of literary immortality. H.P. Lovecraft made a few references to the King—and to the related Yellow Sign, an especially persuasive seal for those in the know—and some mistakenly believe the King to be a Lovecraftian invention. Alexander O. Smith, who translated The Book of Heroes for us, called me one day to say, “The King in Yellow is from Lovecraft.” “Robert W. Chambers, ack-chew-ally,” I said, because I’m not above such pulp snobbishness.
Once out in the world, there was no limiting the King. Much like the diabolical play, he pops up everywhere. Here’s a photo of him hanging out in Portland earlier this month at the H.P. Lovecraft film festival:
Photo by Sarah L. Gerhardt of She Never Slept, with permission. Note the baby Cthulhu and the Yellow Sign banner.
See, the King clearly hasn’t quit show business.
The King has appeared in many other stories, songs, and games though even Wikipedia’s list is not exhaustive. One of my favorite allusions is in the title of the short story by Haikasoru friend and Otsuichi fan Briane Keene, author of “The King, In: Yellow.”
So I was thrilled when The Book of Heroes came in and I saw that the King played a role. Miyuki Miyabe’s fantasy for children isn’t as horrific as Chambers or Lovecraft of course, but her novel does take a good look at the dark side of stories, the futility of escapism, and the eager desire we all have to make sense of our lives through narrative. The King in Yellow is not just an occult figure but a symbol of the power of the state to tell us how to think with this or that pleasing story. The King, according to Chambers, wears a “Pallid Mask”, but late in the first act when asked to take off the mask, the King simply explains that he isn’t wearing one at all.
And though it’s not a factual story, it surely is a true one. We all may believe ourselves able to tell the difference between reality and propaganda, but in the end the power of story is insidious and omnipresent. Miyuki Miyabe, who writes for adults as well as children, has with The Book of Heroes has taken the usual type of fantasy story—that of a eager bookish young protagonist finding a wonderful fantasy world waiting on library shelves—and turned it on its head. Or at least revealed the flipside of the coin. It’s a good thing too; the first step in the King in Yellow’s takeover is to convince the world that he doesn’t exist except in the babbling of madmen. The King in Yellow has made it over to Japan and early next year he’s headed back to our shores. Be sure to arm yourself with a copy of The Book of Heroes!