The King in Yellow

The King in Yellow

Infobox Book |
name = The King in Yellow
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = Cover of the first, 1895 edition of "The King in Yellow"
author = Robert W. Chambers
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Horror short stories
publisher = F.T. Neely
release_date = 1895
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Hardback)
pages = 316 pp
isbn = NA
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"The King in Yellow" is a collection of short stories written by Robert W. Chambers and published in 1895. The stories could be categorized as early horror fiction or Victorian Gothic fiction, but the work also touches on mythology, fantasy, mystery, science fiction and romance. The first four stories in the collection involve a fictional two-act play of the same title.


The first four stories are loosely connected by three main devices:

*A play in book form entitled "The King in Yellow"
*A mysterious and malevolent supernatural entity known as The King in Yellow
*An eerie symbol called "The Yellow Sign"

The color yellow signifies the decadent and aesthetic attitudes that were fashionable at the turn of the 19th century, typified by such publications as "The Yellow Book" [Price, "The Mythology of Hastur", "The Hastur Cycle", p. iii.] , a literary journal associated with Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. It has also been suggested that the color yellow represents quarantine — an allusion to decay, disease, and specifically mental illness. For instance, the famous short story "The Yellow Wallpaper", involving a bedridden woman's descent into madness, was published shortly before Chambers' book.

These stories are macabre in tone, centering on characters that are often artists or decadents.The first story "The Repairer of Reputations", is set in an imagined future 1920s America, whose history, being at odds with the knowledge of the reader, adds to the effect of its unreliable narrator. The next three are set in Paris at the same time.

The other stories in the book do not follow the macabre theme of the first four, and most are written in the romantic fiction style common to Chambers' later work. Some are linked to the preceding stories by their Parisien setting and artistic protagonists.

List of stories

The stories present in the book are:

* The Repairer of Reputations
* The Mask
* In the Court of the Dragon
* The Yellow Sign
* The Demoiselle d'Ys
* The Prophets' Paradise
* The Street of the Four Winds
* The Street of the First Shell
* The Street of Our Lady of the Fields
* Rue Barrée

The Play "The King in Yellow"

The fictional play "The King in Yellow" has two acts, and at least three characters: Cassilda, Camilla, and the King in Yellow. Chambers' story collection excerpts sections from the play to introduce the book as a whole, or individual stories. For example, "Cassilda's Song" comes from Act I, Scene 2 of the play:

:Along the shore the cloud waves break,:The twin suns sink beneath the lake,:The shadows lengthen::In Carcosa.

:Strange is the night where black stars rise,:And strange moons circle through the skies:But stranger still is::Lost Carcosa.

:Songs that the Hyades shall sing,:Where flap the tatters of the King,:Must die unheard in::Dim Carcosa.

:Song of my soul, my voice is dead;:Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed:Shall dry and die in::Lost Carcosa.

The short story "The Mask" is introduced by an excerpt from Act I, Scene 2d:

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

All of the excerpts come from Act I. The stories describe Act I as quite ordinary, but reading Act II drives the reader mad with the "irresistible" revealed truths. “The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.” Even seeing of the first page of the second act is enough to draw the reader in: “If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it [...] ” (“The Repairer of Reputations”).

Chambers usually gives only scattered hints of the contents of the full play, as in this extract from "The Repairer of Reputations":

He mentioned the establishment of the Dynasty in Carcosa, the lakes which connected Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades. He spoke of Cassilda and Camilla, and sounded the cloudy depths of Demhe, and the Lake of Hali. "The scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhtill forever," he muttered, but I do not believe Vance heard him. Then by degrees he led Vance along the ramifications of the Imperial family, to Uoht and Thale, from Naotalba and Phantom of Truth, to Aldones, and then tossing aside his manuscript and notes, he began the wonderful story of the Last King.

A similar passage occurs in "The Yellow Sign", in which two protagonists have read "The King in Yellow":

Night fell and the hours dragged on, but still we murmured to each other of the King and the Pallid Mask, and midnight sounded from the misty spires in the fog-wrapped city. We spoke of Hastur and of Cassilda, while outside the fog rolled against the blank window-panes as the cloud waves roll and break on the shores of Hali.


Chambers borrowed the names Carcosa, Hali and Hastur from Ambrose Bierce, specifically his short storiesAn Inhabitant of Carcosa” and “Haita the Shepherd”. There is no strong indication that Chambers was influenced beyond liking the names. For example, Hastur is a god of shepherds in “Haita the Shepherd”, but is implicitly a location in “The Repairer of Reputations”, listed alongside the Hyades and Aldebaran. [Chambers, Robert W., "The Yellow Sign and Other Stories", S. T. Joshi, editor; c. 2000, Chaosium, Inc.; p. xiv.]

Possible influences may include Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death". Its synopsis reminds of Chamber's fictional play: a masquerade is held by decadent members of the aristocracy. They isolate themselves from the outside world where the Red Death, a plague, reigns supreme. At the end of the masquerade, a stranger appears, wearing a bloodied shroud and a mask figuring a Red Death victim. When the shocked dancers try to unmask him, they find nothing but an empty shroud and a Mask; then they die from the plague, one by one. [Poe, E.A.,"The Masque of the Red Death" 1850 WORKS, p.344] In both stories, colors have an ominous importance and the strangers are both portents of death and destruction.

Other texts, especially from the symbolist writers, may have influenced Chambers as well: "Le Roi au masque d'or" (The king in the gold mask), a short story written by Marcel Schwob, a French novelist and a friend of Oscar Wilde was published in 1893 while Chambers was still studying in Paris. In this story, a king rules a city where all inhabitants are masked. One day a strange blind beggar come into his palace. After meeting with the beggar, the king, believing he's afflicted by leprosy, feels compelled to remove his mask; he then tears his own eyes out and leave his city. A beggar now, the former king heads toward the faraway "city of the wretched" but dies before the end of his journey [Schwob, Marcel, Le Roi au masque d'or" (French) in: French Gothic - ed. Les belles lettres - Paris, p. 303-315] .

It is also possible that the (in)famous play Salome by Oscar Wilde published in 1893, may have been another symbolist source of inspiration for the King in Yellow. As the fictional play, it has been originally written in French before being translated, then banned in Britain because of its scandalous reputation. Wilde's play, in one act, involves a queen, a princess, a king and an ominous prophet clad in camel's hair dress, Iokanaan, whose appearance may bring untold and terrible events [Wilde, Oscar, "Salomé", Librairie de l`art indépendant; Elkin Mathews & John Lane. Paris; London, p.7.] . The ominous language used, the drama, the feeling of unease and expectation evokes Chamber's play; on page 1 of the play, the moon is described as a "little princess who wears a yellow veil"; on pages 3 and 9, the young Syrian says: "How pale the princess is! Never have I seen her so pale." On page 16, the young Syrian is named by Salome: his name is Narraboth and he beseeches Salome to avoid looking at Iokannan and, finally, commits suicide [Wilde, Oscar, "Salomé", p.1, 3, 9, 16-24.] . It must be added that Marcel Schwob corrected the original french version of "Salomé" on behalf of Oscar Wilde.

Cthulhu Mythos

H.P. Lovecraft read "The King in Yellow" in early 1927 [Joshi & Schultz, “Chambers, Robert William”, "An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia", p. 38.] and included passing references to various things and places from the book — such as the Lake of Hali and the Yellow Sign — in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), [Pearsall, “Yellow Sign”, "The Lovecraft Lexicon", p. 436.] one of his seminal Cthulhu Mythos stories. Lovecraft borrowed Chambers' method of only vaguely referring to supernatural events, entities, and places, thereby allowing his readers to imagine the horror for themselves.

In the story, Lovecraft linked the Yellow Sign to Hastur, but from his brief (and only) mention it is not clear as to what Lovecraft meant Hastur to be. August Derleth developed Hastur into a Great Old One in his controversial reworking of Lovecraft's universe, elaborating on this connection in his own mythos stories. In the writings of Derleth and a few other latter-day Cthulhu Mythos authors, the King in Yellow is an avatar of Hastur, so named because of his appearance as a thin, floating man covered in tattered yellow robes.

In the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game published by Chaosium, the King In Yellow is an avatar of Hastur who uses his eponymous play to spread insanity among humans. He is described as a hunched figure clad in tattered, yellow rags, who wears a smooth and featureless "Pallid Mask." Removing the mask is a sanity-shattering experience; the King's face is described as "inhuman eyes in a suppurating sea of stubby maggot-like mouths; liquescent flesh, tumorous and gelid, floating and reforming."

Although none of the characters in Chambers' book describe the plot of the play, Kevin Ross fabricated a plot for the play within the Call of Cthulhu mythos. According to Ross' version, the play is set within the fantastical alien city, Yhtill, adjacent to Aldebaran. The plot centers on the members of the city's royal family and their struggle for the throne. Their normal lives are disturbed when they hear of a mysterious stranger who is carried to the city by winged demons (assumed to be byakhee), who openly wears the Yellow Sign and an eerie "Pallid Mask." At the same time, everyone begins seeing a mirage of a city on the other side of the Lake of Hali. The city's upper towers are hidden behind one of the planet's two moons.

The royal family question the stranger, who calls himself the Phantom of Truth, but he only gives cryptic answers and claims to be an emissary of the terrible mythical being known as the King in Yellow, or Last King. At a masked ball honoring the royal family, the Phantom of Truth reveals that his "Pallid Mask" is not a mask, but his true face. Outraged, the queen and high priest torture him to death, but learn nothing in the process. As the Phantom of Truth dies, the King in Yellow arrives from across the Lake of Hali, driving most of the population insane as the mirage-city across the lake vanishes. The King in Yellow informs the royal family that Yhtill has now become the city of Carcosa, under the rule of the King in Yellow. The play ends with the royal family awaiting their imminent doom.

Other appearances


* Some writers have attempted to write a full text for the fictional "The King in Yellow" [Cf. "The Hastur Cycle."] , including James Blish ("More Light" [1970] ), Lin Carter ("Tatters of the King" [written 1986] ), and Thom Ryng [2000] . [Cf. "The King in Yellow (Ryng)."]
* Karl Edward Wagner used it as a motif in his novella "The River of Night's Dreaming".
* Lawrence Watt-Evans adopted the name for the immortal high priest of Death in a series of novels: "The Lure of the Basilisk", "The Seven Altars of Dusarra", "The Sword of Bheleu", and "The Book of Silence", collectively known as "The Lords of Dûs".
* "The King in Yellow" is the name of a 1945 short story by Raymond Chandler. It is a crime story, in which the narrator has apparently read Chambers' book, and uses the phrase to describe one of the other characters.
* In Robert A. Heinlein's "The Number of the Beast", Zeb Carter mentions the King in Yellow's "world" as one to be avoided.
* Brian Keene's short story "The King", in: Yellow", recounts the story of a modern-day couple who attend a performance of the play. It was first published in "Fear of Gravity", and was reprinted in "A Walk on the Darkside" and "The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 16".
* The King in Yellow makes an appearance in the final volume of Grant Morrison's magnum opus, The Invisibles
* Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels contain references to Aldones, Camilla, Cassilda, Carcosa, the cloud Lake of Hali, Naotalba and Hastur. Though Hali is a city by a lake, the characters and places do not otherwise resemble Chambers' characters.
* Paul Edwin Zimmer's "Dark Border" series used a number of the names that feature in "The King in Yellow": Hastur, Hali, Carcosa.
* Robert Silverberg used the exchange between Camilla, Cassilda and the Stranger as the epigraph to his 1967 novel "Thorns".
*The author Stephen King, in his novel, "Thinner" (written under the pen-name Richard Bachman), includes a reference to the 'King in Yellow' as a "head shop" from which the protagonist's daughter buys an item.

Film and TV

* In 2001, director Aaron Vanek and writer John Tynes adapted much of the book's content into a film titled "The Yellow Sign". []
* John Carpenter's Masters of Horror episode Cigarette Burns follows Chamber's basic plot device about obscure media (in this case, a lost film) the viewing of which causes violent insanity.


* The song "E.T.I. (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence)" by Blue Öyster Cult contains the phrase "King in yellow, Queen in red" in its second verse.
*British black metal band Anaal Nathrakh have a song called The Yellow King on their 2006 album Eschaton, as well as a quotation from the book in the liner notes.
*Dutch extreme metal band Ancient Rites have a song "Dim Carcosa" on the album of the same name whose lyrics are very directly based on "Cassilda's song" from "The King in Yellow"


* Dungeon Magazine Issue 134 featured an adventure for 9th level characters by Matthew Hope called "And Madness Followed" which featured a bard who performed the play in increasingly larger communities, warping the populace into Far Realm horrors at each.
* "The King in Yellow" is the title of an expansion to the Lovecraft-themed Arkham Horror adventure board game, involving a troupe of actors who intend to perform the eponymous play. The King himself does not appear, but if the play is performed to its conclusion it drives the entire population of Arkham insane.
* "Tatters of the King" is a Chaosium produced Call of Cthulhu Campaign which features Hastur prominently.


*cite book | last=Joshi | first=S. T. | authorlink=S. T. Joshi | coauthors=David E. Schultz | title=An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia | location=Westport, CT | publisher=Greenwood Press | year=2001 | id=ISBN 0-313-31578-7
*cite book|title=The Lovecraft Lexicon|last=Pearsall|first=Anthony B.|year=2005|edition=1st edition|publisher=New Falcon Pub|location=Tempe, AZ|id=ISBN 1-56184-129-3
*cite book|title=The Hastur Cycle|edition=1st edition|first=Robert M. (ed.)|last=Price|month=October | year=1993|publisher=Chaosium|location=Oakland, CA|id=ISBN 1-56882-009-7
*cite book|title=The King in Yellow|edition=2nd edition|first=Thom|last=Ryng|month=April | year=2006|publisher=Armitage House|location=Seattle, WA|id=ISBN 1-4116-8576-8
*cite book|title=Fatal Experiments|first=Richard|last=Watts|coauthors=Penelope Love|publisher=Chaosium|year=1990|location=Oakland, CA|id=ISBN 0-933635-72-9
*cite book | last=Bleiler | first=Everett | authorlink=Everett F. Bleiler | title=The Checklist of Fantastic Literature | location=Chicago | publisher=Shasta Publishers | pages=74 | year=1948

External links

*gutenberg|no=8492|name=The King in Yellow
* [ Online copy of The King in Yellow]
* [ Another online copy]
* [ "The King in Yellow: An Introduction by Christophe Thill]
* [ Robert W. Chambers and the King in Yellow]
* [ a web comic containing the character]

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