Book Review: "The King in Yellow" by Robert W. Chambers (podcast)


A mastery of setting and mood, but a little aimless in navigating the swamps of weird fiction.

Chambers has a fluent style of writing that is easily digested by modern readers for a book that is this old. Many have noted that his writing is done well. This is true. Others also note that the story telling doesn’t quite match up to the level of the prose contained within these horror stories. At times, I felt this too.

It’s no secret that the “King in Yellow” is a play within a book (though one that is not fully fleshed out). The play is something of an early Necronomicon or “forbidden tome” that drives its readers to madness. Only a few of the stories in this collection actually have this element. Sometimes this device is more prominent and other times it feels almost tossed in as an after thought. Yet, it’s a sort of world-building element that does adds a little more credence to the overall arc for (some of) the short stories. Chambers gives a sparse few tidbits along the way to keep the reader intrigued and wanting more (perhaps too few).

These early “weird tales” which were significant enough to draw the attention and inspiration of HP Lovecraft, are done thoroughly. The details the author adds to his setting and to the natural world, in which the characters interact, are authentic and feel real. When the supernatural comes into play, the author holds back and leaves much to mystery (a technique that would also intrigue Lovecraft). This all adds to the other-worldly feel of the tales and helps to draw the reader in. I was constantly reminded of the feeling I get when listening to the archives of a science-fiction or horror tale from an old-tyme radio drama program (I believe Chambers even had one of his detective works adapted into a successful run in that medium). All this is done superbly. I could visualize the hunting dogs running through the bush or wild birds flitting through the air. The macabre, alternate universe of other-worldly beings crossing into our own world or living along side us was described just enough to maximize the creepiness.

That said, in a lot of the tales I felt a little short-changed at the end. You get all this good writing and the author drops necessary twists along the way, but at the end some of the stories just kind of fall flat—as if the author ran out of steam and simply decided to wrap things up to be done. In that sense, I wanted more. I’m not sure if Chambers other works are like this as he crossed into different genres and did not really take up weird fiction whole heartedly.

Even still, the author reaches deep enough into the bowels of the supernatural, and strikes enough of a chord that hardcore fans of this genre will want to check out these older works—especially the more renown ones. For a dark, quiet moment of singular horror, this author did indeed stare into the mouth of some horrible unseen part of the universe and bring back a few nameless terrors worth pondering.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: "No Deodorant In Outer Space". The podcast is available on iTunes, YouTube or our website (