‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living god.’The King in Yellow is a book containing nine short stories, four of which are interrelated (and the subject of this review); they are, ‘The Repairer of Reputations,’ ‘The Mask,’ ‘In the Court of the Dragon,’ and ‘The Yellow Sign.’ The remaining five stories are (somewhat bizarrely) romances of a Francophile sort that are stale and wooden and worth very little of one’s time. The four stories mentioned above—the King in Yellow cycle, proper—are some of the most astoundingly original pieces of short fiction in all of American literature.A profound influence on the work of Lovecraft and other ‘mythos’ writers of the early 20th Century, The King in Yellow begins with one of the most elemental of Gothic premises: a book that poisons. The King in Yellow, you see, is actually not a collection of stories at all; it is a play within a collection of stories—a play entirely denounced by both pulpit and press: a play capable of opening the mind to truths of such wicked import that to look upon them once is to look upon the face of madness; and this play trickles through the skeleton of each narrative in the King in Yellow cycle: a constant and sweetly sinister miasma that corrupts body, mind, and the very ethers of soul and sanity.Through a quartet of stories, Robert W. Chambers—a man of remarkable, if briefly employed, vision—sustains a sense of dread only occasionally matched by the great talents he would inspire several decades later. Written in the fin de siècle period and gently touched by the influences of Bierce, Wilde, and Machen, Chambers’ near-revolutionary breed of cosmic terror is so bleak, atmospheric, and saturated with the cloak of doom that to dip into The King in Yellow is almost to taste the madness described therein; it is one of the most relentlessly disturbing works of fiction I have ever encountered. The fevered descent that Chambers has titled ‘The Repairer of Reputations’ is the most successful story in the cycle and opens it, establishing its necessary mythology and tone; in many ways it simultaneously foreshadows not only the horror work of Lovecraft and his ilk, but also the dystopian nightmares of Orwell and Huxley (and, in fact, the vision that reverberates throughout the entire King in Yellow cycle actually startles with its prophecy, as if the reader himself had fallen into the same insidious hypnosis that the play described therein is reputed to induce). The opening story is a brilliant piece of fiction in and of itself, with subtle hints throughout the tale suggesting its jarring and brutally ambiguous ending early on (but to describe any more would rob the story of its impact, so I’ll digress).The remainder of the cycle picks up where ‘The Repairer of Reputations’ leaves off, examining situations that occasionally make subtle reference to each other without ever explicitly crossing-over. ‘The Mask,’ which is the most accessible of the quartet, echoes Wilde with more insistence; ‘In the Court of the Dragon’ is terrifying and otherworldly stuff that waxes more sinister each time one returns to it. The closing story of the cycle, ‘The Yellow Sign,’ is the most popular with anthologists and was the most influential on later authors; it is one of the grimmest, most thoroughly desolate pieces of fiction I have ever read. Chambers’ prolific literary output has largely been forgotten (excepting this, his masterpiece): and perhaps this is rightly so, given most of his work’s insipid, commercial triviality. The menace he nourishes to such ‘notable heights of cosmic fear’ (to quote Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature) is largely missing from his other work (which can be sampled in several of the later, unrelated stories in The King in Yellow). But The King in Yellow is enough: there are so few works of such visionary genius in the canon of spectral literature that to define truly pioneering work is really quite easy—and Chambers’ genius ranks alongside Walpole, Poe, and Maturin for sheer originality and durability: for the King in Yellow cycle is intelligent, haunting, and exquisitely unnerving in a way that few ‘story cycles’ have maintained.A product of the same decade that spawned Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Turn of the Screw, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Salome, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Sorrows of Satan, and Trilby, The King in Yellow is part of that great fabric of decadent, brilliant, and eerily fresh fiction that we have called fin de siècle. While other works remain firm in their categorization, The King in Yellow is one of the few works of the 1890s to remain entirely unclassifiable: it is at once decadent and austere, anarchic and conventional, sagacious and utterly indolent. Above all else, though, it is profound beyond words: a kind of saturnine mirror of its own content, waiting to suffocate thought beneath the wings of some pythonic ‘Other.’ The King in Yellow is darkness—darkness and the gulf of nihility that broods beyond us: deep in the sky, where strange gods sleep. It will haunt you, certainly—but that breath of contagion is sweet; the empyrean heights to which it aspires—the heights that Lovecraft would shatter some time later—are as full of humbling gloom as that later luminary’s work, and just as insistent in the totality of their vision. Unlike Lovecraft, however, Chambers’ opus marvels in the sheer ambiguity of cosmic terror, never shedding a harsh light upon its subjects or delving too deeply into the complexity of mythology that the Lovecraftian throng would explore with such brilliance. But this is not a failing—if anything, the briefness and laconicism of the King in Yellow quartet is an important part of its beauty and overall success: it is the blueprint of an entire movement—a real-life parallel of the terrors posited within its pages.