Critical Overview

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Chambers, who began his professional career as an illustrator and who designed the cover of the first edition of The King in Yellow, studied art in New York and Paris. During the 1890s, he was a noted artist and worked for publications such as Life, Vogue, and Truth, but he soon turned to fiction writing. In addition to the classic fantasy collection The Maker of Moons (1896), Chambers wrote historical romances, including novels such as Cardigan (1901) and The Firing Line (1908), as well as works about New York City, such as The Fighting Chance (1906). He had an extended, eclectic, and highly successful career.

The King in Yellow is a significant work of science fiction and fantasy in its own right, and it also had considerable influence on the work of H. P. Lovecraft, who developed Chambers’ theme of extraterrestrial influence to its greatest degree. “Dim Carcosa,” the mythical setting located in the distant Hyades, is a precursor of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, in which malign creatures from beyond the stars exert a powerful, if largely unseen, influence on Earth and its inhabitants.

Lovecraft himself, in comments on The King in Yellow, wrote that “very genuine” is the strain of horror in Chambers’ early work, noting that it “really achieves notable heights of cosmic fear.” By singling out “The Yellow Sign” as the books most powerful story, Lovecraft clearly indicated that he had absorbed the collections salient point—that human lives (and deaths) could be only pawns in a larger, unseen struggle of which people are pitifully unaware.

As a work of alternate history, The King in Yellow is remarkable. Its opening story, “The Repairer of Reputations,” begins with a review of the United States in 1920, prosperous and expansive after a successful war with Germany. This largely accurate vision of future events is a source of the works continued success and power. Combined with largely indirect but insistent allusions to alien influence on earthly affairs, the historical alternatives presented by Chambers produce a strong sense of events that are strange, but strangely plausible, to the reader.