Monday, December 28, 2015

Robert W Chambers and the King in Yellow 1897

Robert W Chambers and the King in Yellow - An Appreciation by William Sharp 1897

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The four books by which this author has been known hitherto are The King in Yellow, In the Quarter, The Red Republic, and A King and a Few Dukes. Of these, the first is much the most noteworthy, though the third is a powerful and moving romance of the Paris Commune of 1871. In the second, we have a light, pleasantly told story of artist life in the Quartier Latin: charmingly written, in fact, but without that distinction of individuality which could make a narrative in this familiar genre stand out from its fellows. When A King and a Few Dukes appeared, the American Press in general hailed the author as a new humorist, and as a master of a fresh and delightful style. The hook certainly is amusing, and the fantastically extravagant narrative proceeds with unflagging verve, and, indeed, often with a charming suggestion of delicate style, if not style itself. But would Mr. Chambers have written it, have thought of it, if he had not read, let us say, Prince Otto and The Prisoner of Zenda? Along the Stevensonian road many feet have tramped; but where Mr. Anthony Hope has gone far Mr. Chambers has fared a brief way only, and rather obtrusively. It is to be feared that when the history of later Victorian fiction comes to be written there will be a large chapter headed "Stevenson first, and the rest nowhere." Perhaps one is a little prejudiced against A King and a Few Dukes by the declaration of the New York World that "it would be difficult to name in the whole range of English fiction a more charming, wholly delightful story"; while the New York Times, more enigmatically, states, "No superior fiction has appeared in months." "The whole range of English fiction," &c. These be large orders. The book is an amusing and well-written extravaganza, with scenes where the fantastical element is so delicately exposed as to recall the charming sidelong imaginings and deft craft of the author of the New Arabian Nights. To say this is to say a good deal. To advance the New York World claim is heavily to handicap a "coming man."

While it is true that it was by The King in Yellow Mr. Chambers won special attention on both sides of the Atlantic, that book is neither his most ambitious nor his best achievement. The Red Republic is the most vivid certainly, and I think the most enthralling narrative of the evil days of the Commune which any romancist has given us. In his winsome little Quartier-Latin story, In the Quarter, Mr. Chambers shows what may be called his spectacular familiarity with Paris and Paris life, but in his romance of the Commune he gives ample proof that he has studied the City of Revolutions and its firebrand populace with a thoroughness shown by few novelists who attempt to depict foreign life. So far as I have read in literature of this kind, I know only two romances of outstanding merit: The Red Republic and The Reds of the Midi, the one dealing with the Commune of 1871, the other with the Revolution of '48, or, rather, with the revolutionary march of Marseilles upon Paris.

When The King in Yellow appeared, critics and readers were puzzled. Here was a new writer with an imagination in fantasy as strange and vivid as that of Stevenson in his New Arabian Nights, though more Bombre in quality; so touched, indeed, with the contagion of horror akin to madness that one instinctively wondered if the author of "The Fall of the House of Usher" were reincarnate in this new disciple of "The Grotesque and the Arabesque.

In one of the tales in this strange book, a paragraph begins thus: "I belong to those children of an older and simpler generation, who do not love to seek for psychological subtleties in art." If Mr. Chambers were speaking in propria persona this would be a wild perversion of the truth. He is all for psychological subtleties, and the darker and deeper and more uncanny and perturbing the better is he pleased. The King in Yellow is not to be recommended to readers of a natively morbid turn. The whole book, or the dominant portion of it, might well be the literary recreation of a man whose uncontrolled imagination had landed him in an asylum; and it is the best proof of Mr. Chambers's "psychological subtlety" that he can turn from these studies of wildly fantastic mental obsession to work so sane and virile as his Red Republic or In the Quarter. This strange little volume, however, would be much more impressive were it shorn of "The Street of the Four Winds" and its companion stories; not because these are poor, for they are among Mr. Chambers's best work, but because they do not cohere with the haunting, the painfully fascinating tales dominated by the subtle conception of "The King in Yellow." Who is the King in Yellow? That mystery is never explained, though the reader infers him to be Death incarnate. But the words which come to have so terrifying a significance indicate not a personality but a book. "The King in Yellow" so frequently alluded to in Mr. Chambers's volume of the same name is a mysterious book. It is the very quintessence of evil, of moral and mental corruption. From its pages the spiritual tyranny of hell is exhaled. Despair, madness, and death lie in wait for those who read them. In his veiled allusions to this terrible work Mr. Chambers betrays imagination of a remarkable kind, an imagination coloured by sombre poetry. One begins, soon or late, to believe in this accursed book, whose influence is so widespread and disastrous. It is as though Baudelaire and Maldoror had combined, with subtle art, to make abstract evil actual; though a Power infinitely more potent than the author of Les Fleurs du Mai or Les Chants de Maldoror, the Supreme Evil himself, fashioned this impossible book, this bible of corruption and the grave. Even as the fantastic background of The House of Usher has, for many readers, a convincing actuality, or as the shadow-haunted valleys of Ulalume are as real as other vales on the hither verge of dreamland, so is Carcosa credible—Carcosa, the mysterious land where Hastur and the Hyades, the Lake of Hali, the Black Stars, the tattered King in Yellow, the Pallid Mask, the Yellow Sign, are names of indefinable terror.

In The King in Yellow the three most distinctive stories are those which, collectively, might bear that title: "The Repairer of Reputations," "The Court of the Dragon," and "The Yellow Sign." The first is the most remarkable. To use a commonplace, no one who has read this wild fantasy is likely ever to forget it. True, it is, after all, merely the uncontrolled imagining of a madman, one Hildred Castaigne: but there is method with a vengeance. "The Repairer of Reputations" is, in its opening pages as in its title, eminently Stevensonian. Later, as also in The Yellow Sign, one is reminded more of Poe in his most morbid tales of horror. In one and all, however, Mr. Chambers is no imitator. Here he is akin to the two great writers alluded to, and not merely a self-trained follower.

As yet Mr. Chambers has done nothing to equal, much less to surpass, his first volume—if, as I understand, The King in Yellow is his first book. He has produced none so unsatisfactory as his Maker of Moons. There is in this certainly entertaining and occasionally convincingly able book little of the distinctive quality which pertains to his first. A cheaper, a vulgar note is struck again and again till it becomes insistent. The art is less subtle, loss genuine, more arbitrary: the tricks of the craftsman are more obtrusive. Something of the same fantastic imagination as informs The King in Yellow characterises the exciting titular story, but there is (for one interested reader, at any rate) a fatal lack of verisimilitude. The best thing in this book seems to be "In the Name of the Most High," a powerfully realistic war episode, clearly inspired by Mr. Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, or, if not, then singularly suggestive of Mr. Crane's method and manner. Perhaps the stories in The Maker of Moons are reprints of early experiments: one hopes so. But it is time for so promising, for so genuinely able and individual a writer, to be done with tentatives. Let Mr. Chambers eschew the extremes of fantasy; let him cease to emulate the example of Stevenson; let him subdue his ambition to out-Poe Poe. Then, if he will concentrate his forces and give us a book, whether fantastically real or actually real, he will, I am convinced, speedily be among the few who have honourably arrived.

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