Nov 11, 2017

Otherland Speculative Fiction Book Club

Not So Maddening

The reaction to Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow at the OBC might be described as lukewarm at best; no one really loved it but no one really disliked it either. Maybe because of the present hype about this evil, mysterious entity (that was presumably instigated by it being mentioned in the first season of the great crime series "True Detective") the expectations were a little higher than they should be - which is fatal for any book.

The King in Yellow consists of ten short stories that focus on mainly decadent, avantgarde characters who either live in Paris or in New York and usually study art - five of the stories involve the sinister presence called the King in Yellow or the play with the same name which drives its readers mad. Although it is a very powerful concept that can in a metaphorical sense show the impact of literature on readers, Chambers just doesn't carry out this theme as effective as he maybe might have. He always merely hints at the uncanny nature of things without elaborating them, which of course can be used to achieve a vigorous impression - but not here. This being said, this book is a whooping 122 years old and in a cultural environment in which the horror genre wasn't as drained and washed-out as in our present day, it must have been received with more enthusiasm than the amount of excitement we in the Otherland book club have experienced. Still, even in our horror engulfed times the yellow king perfectly works in some respects.

Take the first story, "The Repairer of Reputations", as an example. It is without doubt the most striking and cleverly structured short story of the whole book. This retro-futuristic story is set in the 1920's (Chambers wrote The King in Yellow in 1895, mind you) and follows the tale of the young Hildred Castaigne who has trouble coping with reality after an accident. During his convalescence he reads the play of madness and with the encouragement of Mister Wilde, a peculiar, disfigured old man who likes to engage in intense fights with his crazy cat, he becomes convinced that he is to be the next king of the United States, leading him to make plans in order to eliminate the threat that his cousin Louis poses as the first successor to the throne. Until a certain point the story makes perfect sense and I personally really sank into the illusion that Castaigne depicts. About halfway of the story (cue: biscuit box) I realized that he didn't recover from his illness at all and everything he has been describing was the delusions of an insane mind! Or was it not? That's exactly the kind of game Chambers plays here - he makes use of his unreliable narrator until the very last sentence of the story, leaving the reader with nothing but questions in their minds; kind of maddening isn't it?

Apart from the first story there were genuinely frightening moments dispersed here and there which carried the gloomy atmosphere of the book in general. These were kind of spoiled for me by the last three stories which were basically romances. So I don't really know how to feel about his book, maybe our discussion was just lacking some super fans to explain the fascination with the yellow king, Carcosa and the like... Even the voting resulted in a perfect tie; the same number of people for abstention, approval and rejection. Kind of spooky in retrospect - maybe the schemes of a neutral entity were at work, who knows.

As for future book club discussions, here are the books for the next three months:

December 8, 2017 - The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

January 12th, 2018 - Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

February 9, 2018 - I am Legend by Richard Matheson

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