The King in Yellow is a combination of fantasy and romance fiction; the fantasy pieces have won and maintained the works reputation. These stories have two central themes. One is the existence of a sinister, banned book, also known as The King in Yellow, that has the ability to morally corrupt or spiritually destroy all those who read it. The second theme is that the fictional book within Robert Chambers’ work is based on the almost unknown truth that there is an actual “King in Yellow” who comes from beyond the stars and whose unseen, baleful influence on human life is more pervasive than can be imagined.
Chambers’ premise is that an imperial dynasty has established itself on Earth, coming from the alien planet (or city) of Carcosa in the group of stars known as the Hyades in the constellation of Taurus. In that far-off place, “twin suns sink behind the lake,” “black stars rise in the night sky,” and “strange moons circle through the skies.” This is the original domain of the King in Yellow; somehow, Earth has become his concern.
In the opening four stories of the collection, Chambers explores the ramifications of these two themes and their premise. In “The Repairer of Reputations,” a highly strung young New Yorker, Hildred Castaigne, believes that his cousin, Louis Castaigne, is the legitimate heir to the “Imperial Dynasty of America.” Castaigne’s plot to kill his cousin Louis and his fiancée is thwarted, and he is carried off to an asylum for the criminally insane.
The Mask, the second story in the collection, introduces Boris Yvrain, a sculptor, and Jack Scott, a painter, two recurring figures in The King in Yellow. Yvrain has invented a liquid that transforms living matter into perfectly molded sculpture; unfortunately, it kills as it preserves. Now The King in Yellow (the fictional book within a book) works its strange effect on the characters. After reading the book, Genevieve, Boris Yvrain’s lover, steps into a pool of his strange liquid and becomes a statue. Boris kills himself. The narrator, Alec, takes over his dead friends Paris house, with the life-in-death statue of Genevieve, whom Alec also loves, secluded in a separate room. After a few months, Alec discovers that the ossifying liquid is only temporary in its effect. Genevieve recovers in time for a happy ending.
“The Court of the Dragon,” the third story in the collection, makes passing reference to Carcosa and The King in Yellow, but it is the fourth story, “The Yellow Sign,” that is the most extensive exploration of Chambers’ underlying premise. In this story, a painter and his young model are fascinated yet repulsed by the pasty, sluglike night watchman of a nearby church. The couple has nightmares of being carried through the city in a hearse and buried alive. The model finds a pin with a strange design in gold and presents it to her lover; she has given him the yellow sign and thus made the painter the property of the King in Yellow. Later, in a scene presented in dreamlike realism, the night watchman comes to claim the sign. After the struggle, it is discovered that the watchman had been dead for months, and the young painter himself lies dying at the end of the story. Such is the power of the King in Yellow.