Friday, 26 December 2014

Review: The King in Yellow

What is it about nineteenth century genre fiction that's just sweeties to me? 

I was browsing in the sizeable horror section of my local indie bookstore (LOVE being able to type those words) and I come across a volume with a cool cover and a title that immediately has me humming this:

So, I pick up this book and flips it over it's a "blend of horror, science fiction, romance and lyrical prose" (check), that it deals with a dangerous, forbidden book (check) and that it was a major influence on a certain Howard Philips Lovecraft (...check).

Well, good little shopper I am, I toddle over to the gentleman at the till and asked him if he would recommend it. His answer was that it was great (check), but that I should be warned, Chambers had been a fin de siècle artist in bohemian Paris, and his prose had never quite got... over... it....

That sound? That's me shouting, "Oh, JUST TAKE MY MONEY."

You can see from the cover it's already well loved.
And, seriously?

Sometimes you get that sense that a book was written just for you, like it was dropped into your pocket by the author with a little whisper in your ear to look at it when you get home, or like a kiss upon the cheek that someone has sent half-way across the globe and through a hundred years of time just for it to brush against you, here, now.

This is a book that whispers its horror, not one that screams it. A book that throws shade into subtle and unsettling patterns. Yes, Chamber's prose is rather soaring at times, his pace not modern, but for me that is a long way from a criticism. Uneasy, beautiful, haunting, he is not so committed to otherworldly awfulness to prevent him giving a few whispers of hope, of reconciliation. There are even moments of humour (I've never laughed so much about a cactus.) I shan't harp on about the Carcosa mythos, because many words have been expended upon that by others and justly so. Besides, what made more impression upon me was the way Chambers captured the the soft tragedy of the folk tradition, the way that the volume is like a piece of music that continues playing in your head long after you have finished it.

And I found myself asking if we had adopted lost Carcosa, rather than dread Cthulhu as our rallying cry, if the forbidden text that haunted us were the chilling, seductive King in Yellow, rather than the cold, instructional Necronomicon, would geek culture have taken something of a different path?

Because Chambers' narrators are not generally anaemic, neurotic young men descending into madness from terror of the unknowable, but full, even healthy, personalities who brush against strangeness, madness and despair, whether it be supernatural or otherwise. There are no simplistic absolutes here, no sense of false, cringing lights in the Universe's uncaring abyss, but a seething, unsettling place of questionable moralities, violence, tenderness, politics, sex. Faced with the Other, Chamber's narrators will empathise even while they exploit. What's more, Chambers was not bound by his genre. His supernatural is not a thing apart, howling in its madness. The madness is within us, as is the love, the hope, and the evil. Beyond all this he moved, writing of the future and the past, the real and the impossible while speaking of the same things - power, innocence, knowledge and loss.


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