The King In Yellow (by Robert Chambers)

Of the initial four stories in the King In Yellow collection, the first- The Repairer of Reputations- is the most chilling. It is told in first-person, the story taking place in 1920, and describes an alternate, dystopian version of the United States. All power is vested in the executive branch of the federal government , and as such, the military is ever-present to assure/remind the citizens that “all is well.” Governmental programs and offices are gradually reaching into everyone’s lives, the most chilling being the encouragement of suicide, facilitated by the recently inaugurated Lethal Chamber- a stark white building in the center of the city, containing a room one can enter into where one is put to death (in a way never explained in the story).

The feeling I had, while reading this, was one of revulsion and fear. By the end I was relieved that things had not come out worse, yet was left wondering if things were worse than they seemed. The source of my misgiving lies squarely with the narrator. Any time one reads a story told in first-person, the strength of the tale relies on the credibility of the one telling it. In this case the narrator- a Mr. Castaigne- begins the tale sounding reasonable, as he describes the scene in New York, which is a microcosm of what the United States is like, now that it has become “enlightened and improved” thanks to the spreading encroachment of the Federal government.

The first intimation that Castaigne has issues comes when he tells us that he was institutionalized by a Dr. Archer, following a head injury the former suffered during a riding accident:

“I told him, smiling, that I would get even with him for his mistake, and he laughed heartily, and asked me to call once in a while. I did so, hoping for a chance to even up accounts, but he gave me none, and I told him I would wait.”

Castaigne then adds the following:

“The fall from my horse had fortunately left no evil results; on the contrary, it had changed my whole character for the better. From a lazy young man about town, I had become active, energetic, temperate, and, above all — oh, above all else — ambitious. There was only one thing which troubled me: I laughed at my own uneasiness, and yet it troubled me.”

As the story progresses, our guide reveals himself to be a man of taste, yet also one nasty piece of work- impatient, cruel, jealous- and in the end, possibly insane. And this is to be our narrator? His temperament reminds one of the fellow in The Tell Tale Heart- at first sounding reasonable, yet becoming more and more disturbed as a combination of guilt and hysteria lead the way to madness. The difference between the tales is two-fold; in Poe’s story, the man seems to at least have a conscience, while in the latter Castagine is “past feeling”, some unseen, powerful outside influence driving him, as if he is only partially in control of his emotions and actions. Then there’s the matter of scope. The murder of the old man in “Heart” is confined to a house. The plot and action in “Repairer” has national, even global ramifications- conspiracy on a grand scale.

The story thus set in a dystopian future, where no one is safe from outside influence, nationally or locally, and with a madman as our guide, all that follows is going to be disturbing, to say the least. Yet the full measure of Castaigne’s madness is in question.

As I worked my way through to the bitter, macabre end, I wondered what else it was that made the story so disturbing, and came up with the following:

Chambers set up this story to be self-referential- that is, the King In Yellow being the collection of stories that are referred to in this first story, as it also is in the next three tales. The trouble is that, according to the characters in the stories, reading any or all of The King In Yellow is rumored to drive its readers insane. The fact that I know this will not happen does little to hold off a certain level of uneasiness. I, as do the hapless folk in the stories, ignore the warnings, and like them, am unsettled by what I read.

The author uses a comparison-contrast technique. He starts out with a reasonable-sounding description of life, then inserts a troubling event or comments, followed by more descriptions of how nice everything looks in the city- then drops another unsettling, sinister thing in the reader’s path. This back and forth style adds tension and suspense, as well as a feeling of doom to the account.

Chambers also holds back information, much as Lovecraft, Hitchcok and others, letting us imagine for ourselves what is happening behind the closed doors of the Lethal Chamber, and what the crazy man in the attic- the appropriately named Mr. Wilde- is speaking about to Castaigne:

“We are now in communication with ten thousand men,” he muttered. “We can count on one hundred thousand within the first twenty-eight hours, and in forty-eight hours the State will rise en masse. The country follows the State, and the portion that will not, I mean California and the Northwest, might better never have been inhabited. I shall not send them the Yellow Sign.”

Is this the beginning of the end for all reasonable people? And is Mr. Wilde as powerful as he seems to be? After all, he has been generating income for “the “cause” by offering his services as “The Repairer of Reputations”. And he seems to have the ability to hypnotize or otherwise gain power over week-willed and dimwitted people, as evidenced later in the story.

There are elements of the absurd woven into the tale. For example, there is the description of Wilde himself:

“I thought I had never seen him so hideously fascinating. He had no ears. The artificial ones, which now stood out at an angle from the fine wire, were his one weakness. They were made of wax and painted a shell pink; but the rest of his face was yellow. He might better have revelled in the luxury of some artificial fingers for his left hand, which was absolutely fingerless, but it seemed to cause him no inconvenience, and he was satisfied with his wax ears. He was very small, scarcely higher than a child of ten, but his arms were magnificently developed, and his thighs as thick as any athlete’s. Still, the most remarkable thing about Mr. Wilde was that a man of his marvellous intelligence and knowledge should have such a head. It was flat and pointed, like the heads of many of those unfortunates whom people imprison in asylums for the weak-minded. Many called him insane, but I knew him to be as sane as I was.”

Between this and the ongoing battles that Wilde had with his vicious cat, I found myself laughing out loud. Yes, this was absurd. I had the right to at least snicker. Buit then I asked myself, Was I laughing because of the absurd nature of the narrative, or because it was poorly written- or because I was now getting into the spirit of things, thus falling under the spell the writer had intended for readers of The King In Yellow?

Then there are the admissions made by Castaigne himself about his fascination with Hawberk’s metal-working skills:

“…the music of the tinkling hammer had for me this strong fascination. I would sit for hours, listening and listening, and when a stray sunbeam struck the inlaid steel, the sensation it gave me was almost too keen to endure. My eyes would become fixed, dilating with a pleasure that stretched every nerve almost to breaking, until some movement of the old armorer cut off the ray of sunlight, then, still thrilling secretly, I leaned back and listened again to the sound of the polishing rag — swish! swish! — rubbing rust from the rivets.

And later, when Castaigne describes the golden crown he keeps in a timer-activated safe, we are not surprised. His obsession with the belief that he is the Destined One only validates one’s suspicion that the narrator is a little off, a brick short of a load.

But what if he is speaking the truth, as it relates to a plot to overthrow the government, in preparation for the horror that would be the ushering in of the Yellow King’s reign?

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