A pre-Tolkien, pre-Lovecraft fantasist who spanned genres, styles, and formats: Chambers was a success during his lifetime, and a massive influence beyond it.
Chambers: Successful, forgotten
Chambers wrote over a hundred books. He churned them out quickly and on topical issues, for example, using the background of WWI or the stock market crash, or dealing with provocative topics like adultery, depression and alcoholism. His fiction spanned romance, literary drama, heavy-handed war fiction, children’s books, fishing manuals, and, the reason we’re talking about him: supernatural horror.
Chambers was a best-seller for his entire career. His books took off quickly and he did very, very well for himself. Here’s his house. Dude did alright. However, despite his popularity, the literary establishment hated him, and never took him seriously. This is one of the reasons that I’ve always liked him: he wasn't a snob, he was popular with readers (if not critics), and, despite his success, he was kind of an underdog.
Interestingly, Chambers went to art school with Charles Dana Gibson, one of the era's iconic illustrators and designers. The two remained friends, and Gibson later illustrated several of his books. It is hard to come up with a modern equivalent of this 'team-up' between two massively influential, but also incredibly mainstream, commercial and artistic partnership - imagine a long-running John Grisham/Rankin team-up or something.
"The King in Yellow"
Of all his books, Chambers is best known for something that was never actually written: "The King in Yellow".
"The King in Yellow" (punctuation is important here) is a fictional play; a haunting piece of theatre that will drive you mad. It appears in a handful of Chambers’ stories, and always in the background; a sort of creepy catalyst for strange and horrible things. It is found on the shelf of mad artists, in the theatres in strange dystopias; quoted by madmen and monks. But, aside from a a few passages, the play is never truly revealed. It both a brilliant golden thread - connecting stories throughout Chambers' universe - and a red herring: "The King in Yellow" itself never does anything; it is merely an excuse for people to act on their own darkest impulses.
"The King in Yellow" can be found in the first half of The King in Yellow (1895), Chambers’ second book. You can find the book on Project Gutenberg for free. The first half of the book is all horrory-Weird stuff, and a lot of fun. The second half is frothy period historical prose-poems, and... less fun. "The Repairer of Reputations" is easily the best story; a murder mystery set in an alternate history, with an unreliable, unstable protagonist.
H.P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon is now, of course, the most famous non-book in the supernatural fiction genre (I blame Bruce Campbell, as well as legion of ferocious Lovecraftian fan-scholars). Exactly how 'inspired' HPL was by Chambers is a point of contention. HPL's first published reference to the Necronomicon came in 1924, almost 30 years after The King in Yellow's publication (1895). That said, HPL claims not to have read The King in Yellow until after that point (1927). THAT said, it seems oddly implausible for someone as self-consciously erudite as HPL to have 'missed' The King in Yellow, given both the book's popularity, its subject matter, and Lovecraft's own vigorous reading habits. And THAT THAT said, it may not have mattered if HPL read it himself, as The King in Yellow was well-known enough to have 'filtered through' his cultural consciousness as an influence regardless. Given Lovecraft's predilection for Poe knock-offs and his Dunsany knock-offs, a bit of Chambers falling into the gooey mass of his subconscious doesn't seem all that unlikely. However, ALL THAT said, HPL scholars outnumber RWC scholars, so I suspect this negative is well and truly 'proven' for all practical purposes. IN CONCLUSION, even if this is all coincidentally parallel... RWC still got there first. Take that, Bembridge scholars.
As well being the basis for the Necronomicon (snap!), "The King in Yellow" went on to inspire everything from themed anthologies to the first season of True Detective to recent Irish lit-fic. Chambers is like hipster Lovecraft - and you can find references to his work in comics, music or stories that want something like the Necronomicon, but would rather be that tiny bit more obscure.
But wait, there’s more!
There are a few common themes throughout all of his books, including:
A lavish appreciation of nature. From fishing to paleontology, Chambers' characters always have an excuse to be outdoors, which gives him the excuse to indulge himself in glowing, and truly beautiful, descriptions of the natural world. Chambers is a little Kipling-esque in this sense: fond of naturalistic writing as a way of conveying a moral philosophy. There are noble savages, nymph-like virgins, rugged woodsmen a-plenty, and generally speaking, the closer someone is to nature = the more 'Good' they are.
A jingoistic sense of purpose. Another Kipling comparison: Chambers didn't shy away from politics, or populist philosophy. His books are pro-American, pro-colonial, pro-capitalist, and more than a little racist. Underpinning it all is a sense of Manifest Destiny: square-jawed, white-on-white Americans who are shouldering the burden of Progress. In the better books, this is in the background, or hidden behind actual character development, or just plain not there. In the not-better books, well, the problematic elements are wholly interwoven with the plot, and it is hard not to wince.
Visual artistry. Even at his most pulp, commercial, or simply forgettable, Chambers is an immensely visual writer, and will capture the atmosphere and feel of key scenes perfectly. It may not be every scene, and it may not be the book's most 'pivotal' moment. But Chambers' writing will invariably include a glimpse of his uniquely artistic literary skill - a reminder that, no matter how cheesy a book may be, we all know he could do better. They may be a distraught young woman captured in the hall; a rolling white skull; a massive geyser; a momentary madness; you name it - some fragment that's beautifully rendered. Watch out for these.
Chambers never really hit the same super-decadent, High Weird of The King in Yellow again, but there’s still plenty more fantasy to read:
The Mystery of Choice (1897) contains more conventional period horror stories, a little overwrought, but if you like people declaiming in misery, this could be your thing. “The Purple Emperor” - a tale of murder, jealousy and butterflies - is genuinely strong. Here it is.
In Search of the Unknown (1904) is a different kettle of fish. A series of loosely connected short stories, they all feature an overconfident (slightly horny) naturalist. Despite his skepticism, he’s always sent off by his boss in search of bizarre, mysterious sightings - dinosaurs, fish-people, you name it. Fortean adventures, but before Charles Fort. The adventures are fun and funny pieces, as he always tries to keep his cool and impress the girl (whilst being surrounded by, say, mammoths). Adventure!
The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906) is probably his second-most-famous work, as it inspired a radio drama and even an Aaron Spelling TV show!. ‘Mr Keen’ is a Holmes figure: he uses his immense deductive skills to find missing people. However, these are much sweeter, sappier stories - more about connecting star-crossed lovers than solving murders. Again, they’re fun and they’re silly - especially when Mr Keen starts connecting people across time. Fallen for an Egyptian Princess? No worries, he’ll sort you out!
The Dark Star (1916), which is not very good, is worth reading for the incredibly pulpy opening passages. In which a sentient, malevolent planet, Erlik, hurtles towards the Earth, with destruction in mind. Like Ego, mixed with The Fifth Element! But upon creating this (rather compelling) Lovecraftian absurdity... it has nothing to do with the rest of the book. Utterly bonkers. Check it out here.
The Slayer of Souls (1920) is basically a Fu Manchu-style adventure story, with a pan-Asian ‘Oriental League’ plotting the takeover of the Western world. It is reads like a very long, very racist, vintage newspaper comic. It is hilarious, although not intentionally so. YMMV.
Further reading and handy links
There are a few other fantasy-ish ones (Police!!! and The Dark Star, neither of which I’d recommend to my worst enemy), and also a lot of very enjoyable period romances, like The Danger Mark and Blue-Bird Weather, amongst them. Barbarians is a collection of WWI themed stories, including the very, very good “Marooned” (which I’ve reprinted a couple of times).
For Lovecraft fans, ‘Hastur’ is the Cthulhu Mythos entity associated with the King in Yellow. More about this charming fellow - and the connections between Lovecraft, Chambers and Ambrose Bierce - here. It is worth checking out ST Joshi's Evolution of the Weird Tale as well - I don't actually agree with all of his arguments, but it is an interesting presentation of Chambers' career through a Lovecraftian lens.
The King in Yellow is a really, really, really pretty book. Some pictures:
- The famous Neely edition
- Legendary SF artist Jack Gaughan revisited it for the Ace edition in the 1960s.
Robert W. Chambers on Pornokitsch
I’ve reviewed a lot of his books over the years:
- Blue-bird Weather
- The Danger Mark
- The Fighting Chance
- The Firing Line
- In Secret
- The Green Mouse
- The Hidden Children
- The Man They Hanged
- The Moonlit Way
- The Slayer of Souls
- The Tracer of Lost Persons
Politely rebutting some of the claims made about Chambers
Researching an early copy of In the Quarter
Molly Tanzer's "Grave Worms" is a unique take on the King in Yellow story (via Ayn Rand)