Le Roi en Jaune (The King in Yellow) by Thomas de Castigne
(‘translated’ by Simon Bucher-Jones)
Pantechnikon Press February 2015
Reviewed by Adrian Middleton
Some reviews are approached with trepidation. Especially when it has to be a spoiler-free review, and even more especially where you really like the book, but are doing so in spite, rather than because of its flaws.
So, if you want to know if I think you should read this book, check out the star rating. Understand that I am a big fan of the author’s work, and that this particular book is a paradox: the pleasure you derive from it is entirely subjective, and entirely dependent upon your perspective. The review is critical because that is it’s nature, not because it seeks to find fault.
Robert W Chambers was a writer with promise whose ideas were often startlingly clever, but whose prose never really elevated his reputation outside of his disjointed 1895 anthology, The King in Yellow. Something in this work stirred Lovecraft to capitalise upon its imagery – just as he himself had stolen Hastur and Hali and Carcosa from Ambrose Bierce. It is not, despite modern re-imaginings, a book of the Cthulhu mythos, but neither does it stand alone. Its use of broken glimpses through a longer narrative was unique at the time, with each short story adding to the mystery of the skewed alternate history Chambers was creating, leaving the reader uncertain of what the author intended. To me it was always a curate’s egg, inspiring curiosity but sidestepping satisfaction. From such frustrations come the natural desire to reconstruct and explain, and this is what Simon Bucher-Jones (Like Lin Carter and James Blish before him) has set out to do. I suppose, when I saw the references to The King in Yellow in Simon’s Doctor Who novel The Death of Art, I should have seen this book coming. I am jealous that he achieved this, and yet, paradoxically, I do not envy him.
The title, however, feels wrong. Le Roi en Jaune is the French translation of the original anthology’s title, and is in use as such. From a googling perspective it makes finding the book difficult, and also makes it harder to stand out from the crowd. That and the insufficient amount of yellow in what could have been an otherwise outstanding cover (it did, however, make me superimpose a mental image of a Gustav Klimt painting (Der Kuss) over those which was provided. Now THAT would have worked as a cover).
The Chambers book has inspired previous attempts at presenting the very same play. The french playwright Raymond Lefebre did so back in 1933. His version was based on the short story The Repairer of Reputations, which was part of chambers’ original anthology, and was eventually translated from French in 1958. Simon’s book, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders above that attempt… going one step further than Lefebre: he presents the pseudo-play and it’s translation side by side, along with supporting faux-scholarly notes that, irony aside, could almost persuade you that the play was real.
It is an interesting, if confusing, experiment. Now, I like experiments, but this one tries to be too many things at once, and in doing so has a high cool factor, but the end result feels somehow diminished by this. I was constantly asking myself the question: is this a vanity resource for a highly intelligent Call of Cthulhu GM?
Back in the day I would have loved a prop like this, and I’d even have paid top dollar. But as a role-player I’d also have wanted a companion piece; something that gives me the hooks and encounters I could introduce into my adventures. Things that give hidden meaning to the many fragments and vignettes contained within.
From a literary point of view, however, I have to ask myself “is this a play that drives men mad?” The answer (thank goodness) is no. No more than George Hay or Lin Carter or even Simon’s Necronomicons would have done. The difference here is that on some level this seems to be what the author hoped to achieve. And in part – through twists and nods – it does so, but the task, to write a book that drives men mad, is surely hampered by the things that Chambers already told us were contained within. That the first act was mundane, and that it’s significance doesn’t become apparent until the second act. What playwright would want to do that?
I think my difficulty with the book is that, as a reader of Chambers, I already had my own expectations, and just as I felt Lefebre had been wrong to base his attempt at writing the play upon The Repairer of Reputations, I didn’t feel that imbuing the play with a Shakespearian structure gave it the right atmosphere. And therein lay my problem: the reader’s expectations set the bar too high. At the very idea of this book I was looking for something that would feel like it had been written by a contemporary of Victor Hugo or Edgar Allen Poe or Guy de Maupassant, but that would somehow include skewed Jungian archetypes, Nietzchean madness, post-Gothic imagery and a proto-Brechtian sense of verfremdungseffekt (of being distanced from reality). All that and vague hints of mythos-inspired cosmic alienness to boot. There were certainly flashes of these (we also have the avant garde element that connects the play – through the character of Pere Ubu – to King Turd (Ubi Roi), an equally surreal play by Alfred Jarry that was released at almost the same time as the original anthology); but ultimately my satisfaction came from witnessing the attempt (and its detail) rather than from embracing the content.
Another factor is Chambers himself: an average writer who stumbled upon a concept so enduring that even his own prose failed to capture it. Anyone who follows him is held back by those limitations and is swimming against the tide.
That said, Le Roi en Jaune is cool. As cool as a bow tie. I’m jealous of Simon’s achievement, and the end result is as unique a literary curiosity as the book upon which it is based.
UPDATE: It is perhaps remiss of me not to have mentioned the cleverness of the James Blish version in More Light (1970), which I seem to recall implying the descent of man from a black-skinned race which, in the nineteenth century would certain have driven men mad, but not so much nowadays (Perhaps he was inspired by the purported origins of the Nation of Islam?).