The King in Yellow, by R. W. Chambers
I'd never heard of this book until a couple of months ago, when I saw it mentioned in some article about a film (what film? what article? who knows?), which claimed that lots of filmmakers like to drop allusions to The King in Yellow, and called it a sort of underground cult favorite. Clearly this called for investigation! I'd never heard of this book, so what is it? What's it about? What's so great about it?
The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories published in 1895. The first five or six are weird tales, most of which contain some allusion to a fictional play titled "The King in Yellow," which, if read all the way through, will send the reader mad. The last four stories are set in Paris: three about bohemian art students, and one about the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
H. P. Lovecraft liked the stories. He took some style pointers from Chambers and dropped many allusions to The King in Yellow into his stories, thus ensuring the 'underground cult favorite' status it now has. The play must be one of the more famous fictional works of literature, along with The Higher Common Sense and the actual Hitchhiker's Guide.
The weird tales are the sort of thing I quite like: strange and atmospheric, but weird and unsettling rather than horrifying. I thought they were pretty great. The bohemian art students stories were fine, and quite good in spots, but almost skippable. Not quite skippable, (you'd want to pick up some of the details) but almost.
"The Restorer of Reputations" is the first tale and the strangest. Set in a future 1920 America that sounds on the dystopian side, the narrator plots to become the rightful heir to the royal line. This story contains the most information about the play that will take away your sanity, and calls for a lot of questioning of everything you've read so far.
We also get:
an artist who has developed a chemical that will turn any living thing to beautiful marble;
a man terrified of the watchman to the churchyard next door;
and a ghost (or time-travel?) romance.
There is a free Kindle copy on Amazon, which is what I read. I think the first digital copy I tried was from Google or archive.org, someplace anyway, but the OCR was too badly screwed up; it was just about unreadable.