H.P.Lovecraft, in a 1927 letter to Clark Ashton Smith, referred to Robert W. Chambers (1865 - 1933) as a “Fallen Titan - equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them”. Lovecraft's derision proved prophetic, and, today, if Chamber is remembered at all, it is as a failed author of "Weird" fiction.
The most recent (and perhaps only) modern critique of Chambers' work is S.T. Joshi’s The Yellow Sign and Others (2000) [later reprinted in his Evolution of the Weird Tale (2004)]. Mr. Joshi follows Lovecraft's lead and prefers to focus on the author’s flaws, portraying Chambers as a disappointing writer who never again achieved the heady horrific heights of his early work: “The career of Robert W. Chambers... is the sad tale of a man who... discovered popularity too quickly”. Together, Lovecraft and Joshi combine to paint a compellingly tragic picture of wasted talent.
This is neither accurate nor just.
Chambers wrote almost a hundred books: primarily romantic or historical fiction, but also children’s books, fishing guides, essays and contemporary "issue-based" literary novels, the latter probing such sensitive topics as adultery, alcoholism and divorce. A few (perhaps six) contained elements of the supernatural, but almost all his books were best-sellers. During his lifetime, Chambers was a literary sensation.
The King in Yellow (1895) demonstrated that Chambers could portray the unknowable Weird if he so wished – the collection remains one of the defining works of American horror. But Chambers consciously chose to write the knowable and relevant instead; to create commercially and for the masses. His output certainly varied in quality, and Mr. Joshi calls him "frustrating" with good reason. However to go on and label him "sad" is to impose the critics' own values on the author's decisions. Chambers wrote what he wanted to write, and made an excellent living by doing so - a rare combination allowed to very few writers, of his time or ours.
If, as a Weird influence, Chambers was a one-off, his legacy as a broader cultural figure still deserves serious reappraisal. As much as his friend (and occasional illustrator) Charles Dana Gibson, Chambers was responsible for the generation of a certain American ideal: square-jawed, noble, healthy East-coast blue-bloods, with a respect for the outdoors, self-discipline and financial ambition. Moreover, Chambers, as much as Edith Wharton or Henry James, created the romantic myth of the American aristocracy; a New World capitalist nobility that was the cultural and social peer of any lineage in Europe.
Moreover, a survey of Chambers’ non-Weird fiction also turns up many gems, including further instances of the psychological tension, lavish settings and decadent atmosphere that were all on display in The King in Yellow. One such example is “Marooned”. This story was first published in Barbarians (1917). Unlike his later war-related novels, Chambers eschews the epic for the personal in this collection of interlinked tales. Each story focuses on an individual triumph or tragedy, rather than the great sweep of the conflict.
“Marooned” is eerie and disturbing. It portrays Chambers’ traditionally square-jawed protagonists in a different light, depicting their slow degeneration into madness. Upon its publication, The New York Times called “Marooned” the “queerest and grimmest” of all the tales in Barbarians, and slated the author for writing something so “obviously improbable”.
Lovecraft would've liked it.
A slightly less stroppy version of this introduction appears in Lost Souls (published August 2012).