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The King in Yellow is a rather surreal collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers published in 1895. The stories are scattered all over the map between horror and romance, but all generally have ties to France as a setting, the later ones moving more and more into romance and increasingly starring artists. A common thread is a fictional play also called The King in Yellow, the reading of which either drives people mad or leads them to a dark fate.
Due to the publishing date, it's in the public domain in most countries and readable online.
H.P. Lovecraft cited this book as an influence, and it's the direct source of Hastur's name. According to Lovecraft's friend and fellow writer August Derleth, the actual performance of The King in Yellow is a summoning ritual for an Eldritch Abomination.
Several authors have crafted facsimiles of the "real" text of Chambers fictional play, including playwright Thom Ryng's 1999 version, which premiered at the Capitol Theater in Olympia WA and has seen two printings from Armitage press.
This work contains examples of:
- All First Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: Taken to a rather odd extreme when it turns out that the narrator of The Yellow Sign has been fatally wounded and is writing his account as he is dying.
- Bright Is Not Good: Hastur.
- Brown Note: The eponymous fictional play. Don't read it! Also the Yellow Sign, which seems to leave the viewer susceptible to some kind of mind control if they've already read The King in Yellow.
- Cats Are Mean: The title character of The Repairer of Reputations not only almost lives in fear of his, but also seems to enjoy it.
- Crap Saccharine World: In "The Repairer of Reputations," the narrator waxes lyrical about how glorious and Utopian America has become. But all the while he describes an America that is gradually becoming more xenophobic, more militeristic, more imperial, less democratic, and more given to sweeping its problems under the rug. Everything is orderly, pretty, and colorful, but very dark currents are moving beneath the surface.
- Defictionalization: As mentioned above, some people have published their own versions of the eponymous play. So far it seems that none of them has ended the world yet.
- Driven to Suicide: "The Repairer of Reputations," "The Mask"
- During the War: "The Street of the First Shell"
- Eldritch Location: The lost city of Carcosa, located somewhere in the Hyades, "where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali. . ."
- Genre Blind: Almost every story, somebody picks up a copy of The King In Yellow and reads it, even though they should know, both from the genre and from in-universe sources, that the book is horrific and should never be read, no matter how artistic it is. Despite this, everyone keeps a copy on their shelf where anybody can read it and go insane.
- One character even mentions seeing it in bookstores. . .
- Humanoid Abomination: This is one of the texts Lovecraft was inspired by, after all. Notably, the King In Yellow himself is (seemingly) absent from the actual book, but he is the one that made the play named after him. Book covers (and many depictions, before and after the internet arrived) generally depict him as a humanish being wearing bright yellow robes.
- Love Triangle: "The Mask"
- Mad God: The King in Yellow him/her/itself or as an inversion by making everyone crazy via the play.
- Masquerade Ball: "The Mask": Implied to occur in the play. "I wear no mask."
- Metafictional Title: The King in Yellow, the book, is named after The King in Yellow, the play.
- Mind Screw: "In the Court of the Dragon"; "The Prophets' Paradise"; even the opening poem.
- Not a Mask: Played straight.
Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed, it's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
- Schmuck Bait: Why are people still reading The King in Yellow when everyone knows that doing so will drive you crazy?
- Shout-Out: Chambers took the names for the enigmatic locations Hastur and Carcosa from two of Ambrose Bierce's short stories.
- Taken for Granite: "The Mask"
- Time Travel: "The Demoiselle d'Ys"
- Twenty Minutes Into the Future: Chambers' utopian, reformed United States in the far-off year of our Lord... 1920.
- It's implied that this date and everything relating to it is just product of the protagonist's delusion, though.
- The Undead: "The Yellow Sign"
- Unobtainium: "The Mask": A newly discovered element tentatively placed in the Incredibly Awesome group.
- Unreliable Narrator: "The Repairer of Reputations"
In 1999, playwright Thom Ryng wrote a production-length facsimile of the "real" King in Yellow based on Chambers' short stories (and following the rough plot laid out by Kevin Ross in the Call of Cthulhu RPG). Set on the world of Hastur, the play centers on the last generation of a dying, world-spanning Imperial dynasty; Queen Cassilda must find choose a royal heir before she dies, but one of her kids is an empty-headed socialite, one has joined the Religion of Evil, and the last is a hothead who is too young to be crowned.
Meanwhile, her brother plots to assume the throne for himself, the Sinister Minister High Priest undermines her family's power with the common folk, and as if that wasn't enough, a mysterious phantom city appears, bringing with it a dark messenger and all manner of unsettling omens. And then It Got Worse.
Thom Ryng's play "The King in Yellow" uses the following tropes:
- Anachronism Stew: The play is supposed to be over a hundred years old, but its vocabulary is inappropriate for Third Republic-era France and the stage directions involve technical references impossible in that period. Justified in that this is supposedly Ryng's "modern English translation" of the text.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: Although some are just Jerkass, or hopelessly naive.
- The Atoner: Thale, eventually.
- The Blank: The Stranger in Pallid Mask aka the Phantom of Truth, whose equivalent haunts the protagonists in "The Mask". He is a living corpse whose face is white smooth like a mask.
- Blind Seer: Actually, eyeless altogether.
- Break the Cutie: Camilla.
- Break the Haughty: Aldones, Naotalba.
- Call Back: Across multiple texts. Ryng uses all of the lines and passages quoted in Chambers' short stories, here found in their "original" context.
- Cassandra Truth: If you pay attention, you'll see that the Stranger actually tells the characters everything they need to know.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Bremchas, The Fool.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Cassilda tortures the Stranger for the entirety(!) of Act 2, Scene 1.
- Corrupt Church: The Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign.
- Determinator: Cassilda.
- The Dragon: Alar to Aldones. The Phantom of Truth to the King In Yellow.
- Eldritch Abomination: The King in Yellow, probably.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The Stranger says his name is "truth", and indeed, he always tells the truth, although rarely do the other characters correctly interpret what he says.
- Evil Chancellor: Aldones.
- The Evil Prince: Also Aldones. As Cassilda's brother, he needs to get all three of her children out of the way in order to be king after her.
- Evil Uncle: Aldones seems to hit all of the tropes that begin with "evil."
- External Retcon: Ryng manages to compromise between the original, extremely ambigiously used name Hastur, which may refer to place just as well as a person, and August Derleth's rather liberal interpretation that Hastur is simply the King in Yellow's true name by making Hastur the name of the planet on which the play is set on, and in the end have the King declare "We are Hastur" to indicate that his presence has overwhelmed the entire world.
- Fictional Document: Ryng's first edition claimed to be a translation of the "original French play." Of course, there is no original play, in this world at least...
- The Fool: Bremchas, a drunken (and possibly insane) guardsman who might be the only character who really understands what's going on in the play.
- Go Mad From the Revelation: Camilla.
- Guns vs. Swords: Only the royal family are allowed to carry swords, as a symbol of rank. The guards all carry muskets.
- Humanoid Abomination: The Stranger.
- It Got Worse: "Don't you see? I've found the Yellow Sign!"
- "I wear no mask."
- Jackass Genie: In the last scene, the King in Yellow answers the surviving characters prayers, but always in ways that pointedly do not profit them.
- MacGuffin: The Yellow Sign.
- Masquerade Ball: Act 1, Scene 2.
- Mind Screw
- Oh Crap: When Cassilda sees the fabled city of Carcosa appear, she knows her dynasty is at an end.
- The Ophelia: Camilla.
- Poor Communication Kills: If anyone had told Cassilda that her son had been imprisoned, a lot of tragedies could have been averted.
- Popular Is Dumb: Camilla is the centerpiece of Yhtill's social scene, but apparently not all that bright.
- Prophecies Are Always Right.
- Religion of Evil: Played with. It's not clear whether the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign are actually evil or whether they simply have a Jerkass leader.
- Royal Blood: The members of the royal family seem to have absolute power in the city, regardless of their actual title.
- Royally Screwed-Up
- Sinister Minister: High Priest Naotalba.
- Sins of Our Fathers: Apparently everything that goes awry in Yhtill is because the first king murdered the old prophet twelve generations ago.
- Standard Royal Court
- Succession Crisis: If Cassilda doesn't name an heir, this may happen. Aldones tries to set one off intentionally.
- Those Two Guys: Bicree and Bremchas.
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: Aldones wants to return the empire to its glory days for the sake of his father's memory.
- The Undead: At the end of the play, the King in Yellow overruns the imperial city with an army of the dead.
- Upperclass Twit: Uoth, Cassilda's hot-headed youngest son.
- Vestigial Empire: Ythill apparently once covered a better part of the planet, but a dozen rulers later it's rare for anyone to even leave the capital city.
- Villainous Breakdown: Aldones loses it at the end.
- When the Planets Align: Cited almost verbatim.
- You Can't Fight Fate: Cassilda spends the entire play trying to avert the ancient prophecies, but of course everything she does just makes it worse.
- Chambers himself got it from a short story by Ambrose Bierce, "Haïta the Shepherd", in which it's just a shepherd's god