The King In Yellow by Robert W Chambers and illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard (graphic novel review).

The original ‘The King In Yellow’ was published in 1895 as a collection of ten short stories, of which the first four are loosely connected examples of weird fiction. They share a number of motifs, including references to a play, the eponymous ‘The King In Yellow’, that causes anyone to read the second act to go mad. Whether the play is simply a drama of curious power or somehow connected to a supernatural entity of the same name is unclear and perhaps was never intended to be consistent.

But, over the years, these stories have been seen as early examples of the sort of shared universe H.P. Lovecraft created for his stories. Indeed, later authors, including August Derleth, even went so far as to include ‘The King In Yellow’ as an entity within the Cthulhu Mythos he was busily creating as the effective executor of Lovecraft’s literary estate.

Putting that aside, the first four stories of the ‘The King In Yellow’ are certainly important examples of weird fiction and rightly regarded by the likes of S.T. Joshi as classics. I.N.J. Culbard has skilfully adapted them into the graphic novel format, nailing its fin de siècle atmosphere without feeling stuffy or slow. The stories are not told in quite the same order as in the original collection though, with the third story, ‘The Yellow Sign’, swapping places with ‘In The Court Of The Dragon’ as the final one in Culbard’s collection. Arguably, what this does is give the four stories as presented a more linear feeling, with the final panels of ‘In The Court Of The Dragon’ ending the collection on a psychedelic note, apparently delivering the protagonist into the arms of the King in Yellow.

But let us take each story in turn. The first is ‘The Repairer Of Reputations’, is set in an alternate reality America, militaristic and imperialistic after the fashion of the old European empires. Culbard sets the weirdness up at once, opening the story at the inauguration of the nation’s first Lethal Chamber, apparently some sort of state-run euthanasia device built within a magnificent circular building rather like a Roman temple. The central protagonist is Hildred Castaigne, who comes across a strange man called Wilde with a small body, huge head and prosthetic ears. Wilde is the repairer of reputations, one to whom those who have lost their social standing turn to.

While all of this seems straightforward enough, we have no real idea how much of this is true. The original 1895 version of Chambers has the story set in 1920, but doesn’t quite play it straight and instead only mentions a particular year, 1919, towards the end of his adaptation. At the very end, we have a final page that’s explicitly set in 1895, but this time involves a book and various personal effects belong to a mental patient, apparently the same Castaigne, being handed over to a friend. Is everything we see in ‘The Repairer Of Reputations’ therefore simply the delusions of a sick mind?

Certainly, the idea of a completely unreliable narrator is something Chambers wanted from this story and taken on its own merits, Culbard’s version perhaps just simplifies that into something that works better as a graphic novel. Where Culbard stretches things a bit is how the book featured at the end of ‘The Repairer Of Reputations’ now crops up in the next story in the collection, ‘The Mask’. This isn’t unwarranted, mind you, the Parisian sculptor, Boris, who features in ‘The Mask’ is presumably meant to be the young sculptor, Boris Yvain, whose death is mentioned in ‘The Repairer Of Reputations’.

What Culbard is doing then is creating a more explicit sense of a shared universe with not just common motifs but common objects being passed between them. Set in Paris, the main story concerns an artist who has found a way to turn living tissue into solid stone, starting with flowers and fish. Eventually, his model, Geneviève, comes across to the book and, being already unwell in her madness, seems to use the petrifying liquid on herself.

Of the four stories in this collection, ‘The Mask’ is probably the one where Culbard strays least from the original, but the ‘tattered mantle’ of the King in Yellow is revealed more openly as a metaphor, perhaps, of a world in decay. By the time we get to ‘The Yellow Sign’, this is made obvious in the opening scene. The protagonist, the artist Scott, is painting his model, Tessie, but, despite his best efforts, the portrait comes out in sickly shades of green. It seems that they have a shared experience of sorts: Tessie haunted in her dreams and Scott hounded in reality but a same, strange-looking man driving a horse-drawn hearse.

Scott now owns the ‘The King In Yellow’ book that Castaigne had, passed on to Boris Yvain. When Scott finds Tessie in his library and tries to get her to stop reaching for the book, it becomes clear that in fact it is too late. They have both already read the play. Again, Culbard somewhat tweaks the ending to clarify its ambiguity: Scott wakes up in a hospital, the book lying open on his bedsheets.

Finally, we reach ‘In The Court Of The Dragon’, which Culbard chooses to provide a sort of resolution to the entire sequence. He does this by having the unnamed protagonist of the original being the artist Scott from ‘The Yellow Sign’. The location switches to Paris (as it is in the Chambers version) which means that while the events of ‘The Yellow Sign’ might well be set in the US from Scott’s perspective, that may only be in his imagination.

Regardless, the events of this story form more of a sequence of experiences: a church service, the overwhelming music created by the organ player, an apparent pursuit through the streets of Paris and, finally, Scott’s encounter with the King in Yellow. But given this may all be in the mind of a lunatic, just how much of this are we to take at face value?

Culbard’s take on these four stories is certainly worthwhile and he does a really good job of making them readable. Whether he completely nails the subtle details of the originals is hard to say. There’s a lot going on in the Chambers stories and they do need a bit of re-reading to become even adequately resolved. Indeed, it’s likely Chambers didn’t want us to feel like we understood what was going on and even if there was a bit of a shared universe here, a strictly linear retelling of the four tales may be oversimplifying them.

Still, there’s a lot here to like and, while Chambers isn’t as well known today as Lovecraft, his influence on popular culture is significant, with the King in Yellow motif having been recently revitalised as a key plot element in HBO’s ‘True Detective’ series. In short, while the Culbard adaptations of Lovecraft stories are good but don’t really bring anything new to the table, his adaptation of ‘The King In Yellow’ deserve to make Chambers’ stories much more familiar to fans of weird fiction and do it skilfully and imaginatively.

Neale Monks

February 2021

(pub: SelfMadeHero, 2020. 144 page pocket-sized paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-91059-394-3)

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