The Yellow Sign

In which a New York artist and his new girlfriend choose the wrong reading material.

By Robert W. Chambers

First published in 1895

Available online at Project Gutenberg


For a brief period in early 2014, the Victorian-era genre fiction author Robert W. Chambers was hip again, perhaps more hip than he ever was.  This was due to the HBO TV series True Detective.

In the first season, the two main characters investigate a string of grisly crimes revolving around themes and plot incidents from Chambers’s 1895 book The King in Yellow, an anthology of linked stories dealing with a cursed play.

Many viewers became curious about Yellow,  and even the pop culture mavens at the Wall Street Journal paid attention:

“Yesterday on Amazon, “The King in Yellow,” shot up 71% over 24 hours to number seven on Amazon’s bestselling books list. The paperback version was published by Amazon’s CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform in September, 2013, and the company has seen the book on the Kindle bestseller list.”

[“True Detective’ References Boost ‘The King in Yellow’ Book,” 2/20/2014]

(Note to the writer of this piece: In the first graf of this article, you refer to The King in Yellow as “obscure.” You clearly don’t hang with my crowd, friend.)

The King in Yellow didn’t need Matthew McConaughey in order to achieve literary immortality; the book achieved that on its own. The authors who’ve acknowledged its influence form a distinguished group, one that includes HPL, James Blish, Karl Edward Wagner, and Lin Carter.

I suspect that The King in Yellow is a book that was simply too weird to die — weird, in this case, because it doesn’t function as expected. Taken as a whole, it’s disorientating. The stories lurch across genres and narrative tones, sometimes ranging from satire to romance within the same tale.

For example, take the initial story, “The Repairer of Reputations.” It’s a precursor to the satiric science fiction of the 1950’s a la Robert Sheckley or C. M. Kornbluth.  At the same time, it’s an effective horror tale involving a Poe-like unreliable narrator. The story is also an attack on racism, although many today might see it as racist itself, something that Chambers likely didn’t intend.

“The Yellow Sign” is the fourth story in The King in Yellow, and it’s a straightforward introduction to Chambers. The main character is a New York City artist who works frequently with a model he’s becoming attached to. The details are all very fin de siècle, and Chambers implies in an indirect way that Tessie the model is posing au naturel (this no doubt seemed steamy to Chambers’s more conservative readers).

In any case, all is going well for our protagonist, until he happens to look out of this studio window one day and sees someone he can’t identify:

“As I turned, my listless glance included the man below in the churchyard. His face was toward me now, and with a perfectly involuntary movement I bent to see it. At the same moment he raised his head and looked at me. Instantly I thought of a coffin-worm. Whatever it was about the man that repelled me I did not know, but the impression of a plump white grave-worm was so intense and nauseating that I must have shown it in my expression, for he turned his puffy face away with a movement which made me think of a disturbed grub in a chestnut.”

Our hero turns away and attempts to finish the painting that he’s been working on, but he finds it’s of no use: the tones come out all wrong, and he’d forced to scrape off what he’s done with a palette knife and start again.

It turns out that Tessie has seen the repulsive man as well, but in a recurring dream: he was the driver of a hearse that passed beneath her window, containing the artist, who was in the coffin but not dead.

After this, the repulsive man begins to reappear with greater frequency.  Then Thomas, the local bellboy, tells the artist about an altercation he had with man, a fight in which it became clear that his nemesis wasn’t human…

“The Yellow Sign” encapsulates the good and bad parts of The King in Yellow.  When the story is firing on all cylinders, it works extraordinarily well; there are moments, however, when Chambers missteps.

For example, the love affair between Tessie and the artist almost hijacks “The Yellow Sign,” causing the story to morph from an atmospheric horror piece into something out of a Harlequin Romance.  I certainly have nothing against the romance genre, but I do prefer it to keep to its own aisle of the bookstore, so to speak. As I mentioned earlier, this form of generic trespass is common throughout The King in Yellow, and it can be jarring.

Still, the horror predominates, and it’s the real thing; so much so, that the stories in The King in Yellow were being read — and inspiring TV show creators — 119 years after first publication. Not bad at all, Mr. Chambers.

To finish, I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from the cursed play itself, as presented in the second King in Yellow story (“The Mask”). Certainly this quote is the most famous thing that Chambers ever wrote:

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene 2.