The King in Yellow
From Tatters of the King
The Multiple Meanings of the Title
The title 'The King in Yellow' applies to several different things
1) A book of short stories by Robert W Chambers
2) A play, assumed to be fictional by most readers, referred to in several of Chambers' stories
3) An ill-defined supernatural entity that appears in the play and whose influence apparently bleeds through to the world of the stories
4) A real French play of which Talbot Estus owns a copy ('le Roi en Jeune'). It appears to predate Chambers' work. Nathaniel Browne has borrowed the book and is studying it. It is similar to, but not exactly the same as, Estus's play.
The most notable thing about the book is that Chambers wrote nothing remotely like it before or since. Chambers himself is still living, and is a successful writer of banal romances.
The Play within The Book
In Chambers' stories the play is infamous and was widely translated before its suppression. It was banned throughout the world because of its corrosive affect on the human soul.
Those characters who read the play The King in Yellow go mad or meet horrible dooms. As if to protect his own readers, Chambers quotes only brief passages of the play, like the extract from "Cassilda's Song... Act I, Scene 2", that introduces the first story in the collection:
- 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.
Such quotes only come from the first act, allowing Chambers to hint that the second act is far more disturbing: "The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect."
Otherwise, Chambers gives only scattered hints of the contents of the 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 scalloped 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, 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", after the two protagonists 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.
The King Himself
From the hints given in Chambers' work, the King In Yellow appears to inhabit the city of Carcosa, and to be a much-feared supernatural entity of great power.
The King in Yellow is apparently also known as 'The Living God' or 'the Last King'. His influence is able to extend from the play within the stories to effect the characters in the stories themselves, hence it is probably correct to say that the King exists as a character, or at least a power, in both the play and in the book of stories that refer to the play.
In the play Carcosa, or The Queen and the Stranger, The Stranger, also known as 'The Phantom of Truth' attempted to resist the King by the use of the 'Pallid Mask'. It seems this was unsuccessful. In addition, the King dwells in Carcosa and is feared by the inhabitants of Yhtill and Alar and appears as a tall figure in tattered yellow robes, bearing a smoking brand.
The Real Play
Le Roi en Jeune - a rare French play, playwright anonymous. Apparently the inspiration for Chambers' work and the direct source for Talbot Estus' work.
According to Nathaniel Browne, who has studied Estus's copy, the play is a deeper, more profound, yet also more complex and difficult to follow than the adaptation performed in London.
The 'Real' King
It appears that the King in Yellow is another name for an ancient pagan deity more commonly worshipped under the name Hastur. It is this entity which Montague Edwards and now Malcolm Quarrie appears to be trying to summon to Earth. Having seen the city of Carcosa and witnessed firsthand the reality of the Byakhee, the investigators are willing to accept the reality of the danger this entity poses.