Thanks to True Detective, it seems like The King in Yellow is the most talked about eldritch entity of 2014 - a high honour indeed. Robert Chambers, the book's author, is one of my favourite authors, so I thought I'd share a few fun-facts and links to further reading. You too can be a Chambers hipster!
The first album was not better. The King in Yellow (1895) was Chambers' second book. His first, In the Quarter (1894) was a novel loosely based on Chambers' own experiences as an art student in Paris. (Chambers was an art student - and professional illustrator - before he was a writer. His fellow student included Charles Dana Gibson, who even wound up illustrating a few of Chambers' books.) In the Quarter is mercifully hard to find and, honestly, a bit poo. The King in Yellow, however, was an instant sensation.
Chambers wasn't a horror author. He wrote almost a hundred books, of which maybe 6 or 7 contained elements of the supernatural or bizarre. And only a couple of those were even intended to be 'spooky' in any way. The other ninety-odd books? Romances, historical thrillers, war novels, children's books, fishing manuals, you name it. (For reviews of a few of Chambers' other books, check out my slightly-stalled "Repairer of Reputations" project.)
He didn't regret it, either. Lovecraft famously abused Chambers as a "fallen Titan" - praising The King in Yellow and moaning that Chambers had turned his back on supernatural horror. Meanwhile, here's the house that writing three decades of best-selling fiction built. (25 bedrooms!) One of the reasons I like Chambers so much is that he was unrepentantly commercial, but that still didn't keep him from tackling hot topics such as adultery, alcoholism, the stock market crash or World War I. Chambers didn't write the books that Lovecraft wanted him to write; Chambers wrote the books he wanted to write. (More on this here.)
This isn't Chambers' first foray into modern popular culture. Discounting contemporary productions and adaptations, Chambers' work has popped up in a few strange places. Probably the best known (and least like True Detective) is the Aaron Spelling adaptation of The Tracer of Lost Persons. As "Mr. Keen", Chambers' romantic detective was a long-running radio serial. Spelling turned him into "The Finder of Lost Loves" in the mid-80s. This is a thing.
The King in Yellow is in the "The King in Yellow" in The King in Yellow. Helpful, right? The King in Yellow is a mysterious masked figure, referenced in "The King in Yellow". The latter is an 'underground' play that was banned after provoking riots, and can be found on the shelves of particularly Bohemian artists. The King in Yellow is the collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers. Several of those short stories contain fragments of "The King in Yellow", and several of those fragments contain references to The King in Yellow. Follow me? There is no actual "The King in Yellow", although a few have tried: James Blish's "More Light" (1970) is probably the best of all the Chambersian fanfic. I'm also particularly fond of The King in Yellow expansion for the Arkham Horror board game - it emphasises the countercultural grittiness (turn of the century, style) that Chambers intended.
This is also the most literal interpretation - The King in Yellow "himself" could also stand for, well, quite a few things. Take, for example, opium. Chambers wrote The King in Yellow following his experiences as an art student in Paris during one of its most decadent eras. Both opium (Thomas de Quincey's "the dark idol") and absinthe ("the green muse") were prevalent - especially amongst the city's population of Bohemian artists and poets. It isn't much of a reach to think that "The King in Yellow" - a play that inspires weird genius, but is also addictive, physically debilitating and sanity destroying - is a metaphor...
"The King in Yellow" only appears in four stories. Which is a bit depressing, really - think about it this way. Chambers wrote 100 books. He's remembered as a Weird author, which means we've already forgotten 94 of them. Of the remaining 6, we only remember 1 - The King in Yellow. And of that, we're really only talking about four stories: "The Repairer of Reputations", "The Mask", "In the Court of the Dragon" and "The Yellow Sign". The remaining stories in the collection are actually romantic and historical fragments - very depressing to horror-seekers.
The story you want is "The Repairer of Reputations". For a couple of reasons. "The Yellow Sign" is probably the one folks gravitate to most (given the title) - the creepy tale of a man haunted by a creepy church watchman who is creepy. But "The Repairer of Reputations"? That's a corker. Set in a subtly dystopian science fictional New York (seriously, the opening paragraphs are proper WTF), Hildred Castaigne, a young man, goes steadily insane believing that he is the lost heir of the "Empire of America".
His delusions are encouraged by a man named Wilde, the titular "Repairer of Reputations" - you go to him with a problem, however abstract, and he fixes it. Like a Mephistophelian PI. There's enough in here for a hundred novels, but Chambers keeps it focused on Hildred and his descent into madness. For fans of True Detective, this story is also the most explicit about "The King in Yellow" and its mythology.
The King in Yellow is a foxy, foxy book. Here's the famous Neely edition - ooooh. And the UK edition from Chatto & Windus, which was even foxier. And then Jack Gaughan revisited it in the 1960s with the Ace edition. All of these are based on Chambers' own art. Interestingly enough, none of those are the true first - that honour goes to the super-rare "Salamander" edition. Certainly the Neely is the most famous (and erroneously credited as the true first), but it is actually the second printing.
And don't buy it. The King in Yellow, in fact, all of Chambers' work, has been out of copyright for years. You can get your copy for free here. If you like it, you should also try: In Search of the Unknown (goofy Fortean naturalist stories), The Mystery of Choice (a collection of Weird short stories) or The Danger Mark (tragic romance, involves alcohol!).