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October Obituaries: Category XIV – Robert W. Chambers

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In the Fond Memory of Robert W. Chambers, a King of Kings

26th May 1865 – 16th December 1933

“We had been speaking for some time in a dull and monotonous strain before I realized that we were discussing The King in Yellow. Oh the sin of writing such words — words which are clear as crystal, limpid and musical as bubbling springs, words which sparkle and glow like the poisoned diamonds of the Medicis! Oh the wickedness, the hopeless damnation of a soul who could fascinate and paralyze human creatures with such words — words understood by the ignorant and wise alike, words which are more precious than jewels, more soothing than Heavenly music, more awful than death itself.”

 Robert W. Chambers – The Yellow Sign (1895)

The great unknown, the things beyond the stars, the old gods of the earth. When it comes to authors of the absurd the name of H.P. Lovecraft is usually brought up as a craftsman extraordinaire and a visionary from beyond. Few however know of his predecessor, Robert W. Chambers, an author of the weird and together with Poe a great source of inspiration for the gentleman from Providence.

Robert William Chambers was born in Brooklyn New York 1865 and as son to a famous lawyer he had the opportunity for higher studies at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute as well as the Art Students’ League. His dabbling in the fine arts lead him to continue his education in Paris where he lived and worked between 1886-1893. After graduation he returned to the States and took some commissions as an artist selling his works to magazines such as Life, Truth and Vogue. However, the work as an artist might just not have been enough for the brilliance of this being’s fantasies. For reasons unknown he started writing weird short stories and in the year 1895 his most famous work, The King in Yellow, was released upon an unsuspecting world.

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The book contained ten short stories of weird fiction where four of them all hinted of a odd cosmic occurrence centering on a book as well as a figure called The King in Yellow. Other recurring things was the name Hastur, an arcane sigil called The Yellow Sign, and a lost spectral city called Carcosa. Chambers skillfully merged the stories together so that you never really got a full picture of any of the books’ mysteries yet you continually get a feeling that something huge, something cosmic, was taking place. The characters of the story The Repairer of Reputations set in the then futuristic New York anno 1920 discuss the supposed dynasty of Lost Carcosa and broods over the significance of the play. In The Yellow Sign a young artist and his model brood over the accursed book The King in Yellow and get haunted by a strange man asking for a Yellow Sign. Throughout the book there are quite a few clues about what Act I of The King in Yellow contains, however Act II is only described in its mind-shattering properties sending the reader into an insanity so profound that they never recover.

Chambers was quite a busy writer for the rest of his life but when it came to weird fiction he never got another success like The King in Yellow. This was to become the magnum opus of this artistically gifted visionary who went above and beyond in his quest to capture the truly bizarre and strange. The legacy of Chambers lives on to this day and the mythos around The King in Yellow has gained a life of its own. In 2012 a book named A Season in Carcosa was released by the Miscatonic Press containing the next wave of short stories inspired by Chambers mythology and in the so called Lovecraftian lore The King in Yellow has gotten a strong place in the mythos along with the city of Carcosa. August Derleth went so far as to adopt the name Hastur into a great old one and a rival of famed Cthulhu while Chambers on the other hand had borrowed both the name Hastur and the city of Carcosa from Ambrose Bierce books An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Haita the Shepherd where Hastur was portrayed as a benevolent god of shepherds.

Lovecraft wrote a letter to fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith claiming that “Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans – equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them.” Ironically enough Lovecraft himself have never been a good writer of text (in my humble opinion) even though his own mind was blessed with a natural affinity for the weird and unknown. Chambers on the other hand did know how to entangle the reader in books that ironically enough is filled to the brim with half-glimpsed secrets and spectral mysteries. Chambers was a visionary when it comes to tales of eldritch horror and in a way his tales live on through the workings of Lovecraft and his ilk. The name Hastur and the Cult of the Yellow Sign in the Cthulhu Mythos have become the bread and butter of nerd culture around the globe and even the fabled book Necronomicon of Lovecraftian lore strongly resembles that of The King in Yellow, a text so utterly wrong that merely reading it brought terror and insanity to the reader.

So this bleak and chilly October I raise my glass to the departed, to his visions and to the dreams of Lost Carcosa. Even though it is just a dream, we have all glimpsed it. In the dank and forbidden corners of our very own streets we see a part of the unknown, for Carcosa is but a reflection of all the towns in the world, and one day, when the stars burn black in a yellow sky, there and then shall we all receive the blessing of the King.

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

– Cassilda’s Song. Excerpt from The King in Yellow

Written by Skarsnik

References:

Chambers, Robert W. (1885) The King in Yellow. F. Tennyson Neely
Chambers, Robert W. (2000) The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, Joshi, S. T.
ed. Chaosium.

Robert M. Price. Editor. (1993) The Hastur Cycle. Chaosium
Joseph S. Pulver Sr. Editor. (2012) A Season in Carcosa. Miscatonic River
Press.
Strange Aeons 3” (an issue dedicated to The King in Yellow, edited by Rick
Tillman and K.L. Young, Autumn 2010

The King in Yellow at SFF.net