Sometime earlier this year I posted the news that Spectral is going to publish a pamphlet of poetry in April 2016 (via Theatrum Mundi), reminiscent of the Yellow Book journals of the late 19th century and based around the King in Yellow mythos, edited by John Allen, called Songs of the Shattered World: The Broken Hymns of Hastur. Here’s an interview with the editor, originally posted to Thomas Ligotti Online, which gives an interesting insight into the interpretation of Robert W. Chambers’ creation.
A King in Yellow Q & A With John Thomas Allen
John Thomas Allen is a part of the online weird fiction community, maintaining Facebook pages devoted to surrealism and Richard Chambers’ King in Yellow. As a result of this devotion, he and a group of fellow-minded writers now have an anthology of poetry centered around the Yellow King and all things Carcosian appearing in the near future. Over the course of our discussions, I had the opportunity to ask Allen a number of questions about everyone’s favorite golden-hued otherworldly monarch, to explore some of the mysteries, and explain his own fascination with the Yellow King.
Q: How and when did you first encounter The King in Yellow, and what sort of effect did it have on you?
I borrowed an edition that was a dark yellow hardback, no cover illustration, from a University library and I don’t think I ever returned it. I was feeling especially forgetful at the time. That got to be a big thing. I got in trouble for not returning the book, serious financial trouble.
It wasn’t just that book, but they almost brought me to court on that one and a few others. Let me tell you something, when you have a guy at your door with a ticket for a prospective court date and on the summons is something for the King In Yellow, you’ll think about it a lot more.
Q: At the time Chambers was writing, the color yellow had become associated with corruption and decadence ( The Yellow Book , etc.); what sort of significance, if any, does ‘yellow’ possess for you?
Yellow is an inherently fascinating color, I think. I don’t why, specifically, but when I hear about the word “yellow” I think of madness, decay, death before I think about anything beautiful in nature. I grew up reading decadent poets like Ernest Dowson, Thomas Beddoes, etc.
Like probably every other quote on quote “literary” person, I’ve fantasized about drinking absinthe with Verlaine or snorting something with Sara Teasdale in the rain or whatever and dying some fanciful death you can never really die.
Q: Speaking of the Decadent movement itself, do you think it shares any special connections or connotations with the King in Yellow mythos?
I’m in love the idea of the King In Yellow; there’s something of a color coordinated majesty about Chambers’ idea that synthesizes the blood starved, ghastly iridescence of the so called “Decadent movement”. I like my idea of the Decadent movement probably more than what I would see if I went back and saw Maurice Rollinat bang away on his piano or, tangentially, watched the habits of Isidore Ducasse for a few days. To answer your question I absolutely do see a connection between Chambers’ stories and the collection of individuals who were later negatively termed “decadents”.
Q: The creations of some authors of weird fiction, such as Lovecraft’s ‘Great Old Ones’ and Machen’s ‘little people’ for example, can be read as expressions or embodiments of the personal beliefs of their creators; did Chambers intend the King in Yellow to retain a similar meaning? If so, how do you interpret him?
As a person who aspires to be an individual artist and write supernatural prose (Though I’m ordinary and boring enough to have started a surrealist group and stood with that group as one of them; ergo I’ll never be cool as Paul Valery and his disciples.), I don’t believe you can write anything with that kind of sustained genius and not attach a personal meaning to it. For all I know, the King In Yellow might exist in a non ironic and non symbolic and non reductionistic way.
Q: While The King in Yellow is typically categorized as ‘supernatural fiction’, Chambers’ stories also contain such elements as Poesque psychological horror, near-future alternate history, symbolist/proto-surrealist phantasmagorias, and the conte cruel; it is fair then to classify Chambers amongst the authors of weird fiction, or does he deserve a different place in the literary canon?
Whatever play is being read by the characters in Chambers stories is not something one could reproduce. It drives people mad (it doesn’t give them a mental illness treatable by a psychotropic; it drives them mad, a word brought into question by the NIMH) and creates a venereal, polluted atmosphere.
I couldn’t go buy that at Barnes and Nobles and no amount of discouraging logical positivism is going to drive one mad either. Therefore, I personally conclude it is supernatural..which is to say a phenomenon outside the bounds of space, time, and any kind of limitation whatsoever by physics or human and natural laws.
Q: Throughout its history, The King in Yellow has become a sort of collective creation; Chambers originally created the ‘Yellow King’ stories by dramatically expanding upon several short Ambrose Bierce pieces, HP Lovecraft in turn incorporated Chambers’ mythology into his own fictional universe, and numerous writers since have used these texts to build and flesh out further connections. What is it about The King in Yellow that lends itself to this sort of group effort?
To use a bit of hippy jargon, I think Chambers takes us for a moment into the forbidden zone philosopher Norman O. Brown wrote about and suggests what might happen if every degenerate, cackling impulse flew out of the ovulating giggles of our really strange, semiotically balanced psyches.
Mr. Castaigne, for instance, in “The Repairer of Reputations” is a hilarious caricature of a brain damaged nutcase. Ever met anyone with a brain injury who behaves quite like that? Probably not. But Chambers’ suggestion, that an event as simple and horrific as falling off a horse could bathe one in the fetid areas of the psyche permanently is so believable when you read the story.
He does what great horror writers do: he makes us fear ourselves, the world around us, and above all, the world within.
“In the Court of the Dragon” takes a bunch of young artists and makes their Sturm und Drang real. At first they have the average sort of ‘let’s paint something or do something but gave affairs first.’ Somehow, someone gets a copy of ‘The Yellow Book’ and boy, do things get real.
Q: The King in Yellow is not just the title of a book; it is also the title of a play and the name of an otherworldly entity appearing within that book; what does this interplay of meaning and identities (potentially metatextual) suggest or conjure up for you?
I suspect that the color yellow is no more inherently disturbing than any other color, but I like to think it actually is because of my literary enthusiasms and the imaginative potency it now possesses. The King In Yellow could just as easily have been some obscure 60’s band, like The Crystal Chandelier or the Velvett Fog, or been a song lyric in one.
But Robert W. Chambers put this uncanny phrase into a series of powerful stories (as powerful, to my mind, as anything Lovecraft wrote) that Derleth later called mythos. Me? to me it suggests some sort of supernatural, immaterial, immanent antihero composed of spectral hues with an unfathomably disgusting book written in bitter calligraphy. I love it!
Q: Characters in The King in Yellow who read that titular play find afterwards find reality undergoing strange mutations; have you ever felt haunted by any of Chambers’ tales, and in what way?
Yes. Once, in college, I was watching a movie that every dystopic or antinatalistic or pessimistic would love called Pate by directorAgnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo.
It really should be on DVD, as it is a horrific and slow meditation on the nonsense of social mores and a sort of elegant, refined cannibalism–as elegant and refined as that can get.
A friend of mine who was slightly sinister offered me some Kava tea, claiming Kava was known to calm people down. I just had this thought: it’s kinda weird, us watching this beyond desolate movie and everyone being lulled to sleep with the herb which I hated. Then I noticed the 1989 Dedalus copy of The King In Yellow on his bookshelf. I got creeped, and I actually left after awhile…..with the copy of the book I’d given to him.
Q: Which of Chambers’ Yellow King stories and has had the greatest effect upon you, and why?
“In the Court of the Dragon.”
Just how he rips away youth and innocence. It’s like someone threw acid on the immortal souls of everyone in the story.
Q: Many other notable weird writers, including the likes of Karl Edward Wagner and Joe Pulver, have also fallen under the spell of Carcosa; what is your favorite contribution to the King in Yellow canon not written by Chambers?
Hands down, Don Webb’s short “Movie Night At Phil’s.” That story explored this world where a fictional movie with Vincent Price entitled “The King In Yellow” drives a fairly normal household insane. It was perfect.
Don is going to be in our anthology Songs of the Shattered World: The Broken Hymns of Hastur, which has a stated release date of April 1st, 2016 from Spectral Press. Simon Marshall Jones is a warrior, one of the finest publishers I’ve ever worked with. He took this project on very short notice and displayed a generosity one rarely sees.
Yeah, Joe Pulver put that collection together, A Season In Carcossa, I just remembered. I enjoy fiction and poetry that’s more about suggestion and less about an outgoing, look at the violence here, that kind of thing, though of course that has a place.
And Karl Edward Wagner, definitely! I love what he did for Howard, who I think had a beatifically manic case of the crazies. He’s still not appreciated enough (though of course some of that is his own fault.) Wagner was like the Roky Erikson of the KIY “mythos”.
Q: What is the significance of the actual King in Yellow himself to you? What does he mean, and why is he frightening?
To me, he represents that which has absolutely no context. An embodied obscenity that embosses SIN across everything, like Mucha. He’s like Keyzer Soze in a less corny, postmod movie. Also I associate him more with poetry than macabre fiction, and I’m primarily a poet.
Q: A year after the whole True Detective affair, what do you feel about the show in connection to The King in Yellow ; has the effect it has had on the Carcosa mythos been negative, positive, or somewhere in between?
I certainly would not have seen a Barnes and Nobles edition of The King In Yellow without True Detective. That made my day, just seeing it there like that. The thing about True Detective I loved was that it brought that Ligottian feel in a way I hadn’t seen before anywhere.
The thing is when a philosophy–and I’m mostly friends with antinatalists, though I happen to be a Roman Catholic–tries to attach itself to everything, some of the pure magic of horror is lost. And while I loved a lot of True Detective, I don’t think everything always has to point to the perceived worthlessness of existence. It gets old. When we insist that this is what that writer meant by this story, etc etc, and everyone falls in lockstep, that dangerous magic get sealed up. Funny, one might think, or God forbid a Catholic talk like that. We are old enough!
But, like my friend Mark Samuels (also in the anthology), I feel mysticism has a place that can never be annihilated. One might say nihilism needs mysticism, and the reverse. Plus, Machen, Blackwood and James, you know, weren’t atheists or antinatalists or anything like that.
I personally wouldn’t want St. Thomas Aquinas to be the philosophical lynchpin of everything I read in terms of theology, you know? But Thomas Ligotti wrote such a great book with the Conspiracy. Every word weighed, everything taken into the most minute consideration.
People posting antinatalist videos doesn’t bother me a bit, even on my YouTube channel.
Q: Conceivably, what is the impact you would like to have this anthology to have, both as poetry and as a contribution to the Yellow King canon?
I hope this will be a fallback to Aubrey Beardsley’s Yellow Book; that’s the goal. An authentic Yellow Book filled with some of the most talented Yellow poets you could imagine, decadent as Mario Praz would have had it.
Thinking about this even makes a Coldplay song sound good. I want it to be an ultra-refined treat for fans of poetry AND fans of the macabre, as I think Chambers was thinking more of poetry than prose when he wrote his stories—or the spirit of poetry.
Speaking of music, I’m surprised none of the champions of the KIY have discovered an acoustic/ambient group entitled “Thus Sayeth The King”; you can download their first album on Bandcamp for 10 bucks.