I’ve been working on two T-shirt designs based on the 1895 edition of Robert W. Chambers King In Yellow. (The US edition published by F. Tennyson Neely.)
They are available at Cafepress.com / Cafepress.co.uk
My first The King in Yellow T-shirt design at Cafepress based on the cover image.
The King In Yellow T-shirt alternative design at Cafepress based on the book spine.
More of my Literary T-shirts
I’m under the spell of The King In Yellow, an exquisite suite of mysterious and enigmatic short stories written in 1895 by Robert W. Chambers. The stories are linked by the illicit banned play, The King in Yellow. The play itself, only hinted at with enigmatic quotes, never outlined, is said to be the supreme work of art too pure for the human mind to withstand – “Purest poison lurks in the very words of the text.” The stories relate the effect reading the play has on the characters’ sanity, causing madness or despair. Although the collection features ten stories, the forbidden play is only mentioned in the first four, “The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, “In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign”. They are by far the strongest stories in the collection, all strange and unsettling, and resounding in this reader’s mind long after the book has been closed.
The best of them, the opening story, “The Repairer of Reputations”, sketches out an alternative future America of the 1920s, one where a military government has segregated the nation, creating a separate Negro state and has halted Jewish immigration. Though there is a strong military presence, it is a time of peace and prosperity. Suicide has been legalized and is now state controlled, the story opening with the inauguration of the first Government Lethal Chamber.
During his convalescence from a horse riding accident, the narrator, Hildred Castaigne, read The King in Yellow play. He states, “I read it and re-read it and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet.” He is troubled by the play’s contents, he “cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask.” It is only through fantastically evocative summaries like these, that we, as readers, glimpse the play itself. Of the play itself, we only glimpse a few tantalizing poetic fragments, but do witness the affect the whole play has on the chararcters’ minds.
Castaigne’s character has drastically changed since the horse-riding accident and he now spends his time reclusively pouring over books and manuscripts, planning on becoming the king of something he calls the Imperial Dynasty of America. His friend, the deformed and mutilated dwarf, Mr. Wilde, verifies his claim on the throne, and traces the royal lineage to the lost Dynasty of Carcosa itself, confirming Castaigne as heir to The Last King. “Mr. Wilde explained the manuscript, using several volumes on Heraldry to substantiate the result of his researches. 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 Yhill forever,” he muttered… 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.” Mr. Wilde, the Repairer of Reputations of the title, is the head of a vast conspiracy that has secretly infiltrated all levels of society and has the ways and means to overthrow the US government and realize the new Imperial Dynasty, with Castaigne as king. But Castaigne’s cousin, Louis, stands before him in the line of succession, and so Castaigne plans to force him to abdicate.
It is with Louis’ perspective on the narrative that we start to question our narrator’s version of events. Louis clearly thinks Castaigne is mentally ill, that he has not recovered from the knock on the head from the horse-riding accident four years ago, nor his time in the mental hospital. Where Castaigne is beguiled by his bejeweled golden crown that he keeps in a massive safe, Louis sees only a cheap brass and paste crown kept in a biscuit box.
Suddenly not only is Castaigne’s objectivity as narrator being questioned, but the very reality of the story is under threat. Louis’ skeptical perception brings the fantastical eccentric elements of the story crashing down. From Louis’ perspective, the horse riding accident has affected Castaigne’s sanity. To Castaigne, it is the reading of the King In Yellow that has opened up his mind to a new order of reality. Castaigne is the ultimate unreliable narrator, compelling the reader to question just how much of his tale is to be believed. His actions and motives may be deranged but there is a case to be made that even the alternative future 1920s society is suspect, an aspect of his fantasizing, for no other story in the collection refers to it. So with the very setting of the story under question meaning has become slippery, with the reader trying to get a foothold in some solid omniscient perspective. By undermining the authority of the social setting, it’s as though the forbidden play itself has affected the text, corrupting its certainty with a vertiginous resistance to meaning, privileging the visions of the insane. The editor’s footnote that abruptly ends the tale, describing Castaigne’s death in the Asylum for Criminal Insane, is a necessary textual interjection, an omniscient authoritarian intrusion to ground the text within the safety of realism.