The Roadshow More Traveled, Pt. II: The King In Yellow

Before I continue with our visit to the Antiques Roadshow, I offer to the reader a rather largish nugget of background:

I first met The King in Yellow in the early 1980s in Alpha, Wisconsin, though it was only an acquaintance. The end of a pleasant vacation at Huntley’s Few Acres, my grandparents’ wonderful home (of which I am crazily nostalgic even though I was only ever there on a handful of occasions), found me leaving the environs with a brace of boxes in my possession. My granny had thrust into my hands numerous volumes of antique books that had passed down through various members of her family. Since I was nuts about books in general, she decided to send me back to Alaska with a couple of boxes full of them.

One of these books was a copy of Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, much fabled by my mother as a book (along with the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley), that would get read to the family. It was also one of the few books in the batch – outside of some Twain, Zane Grey and the Hardy Boys – which I recognized. Amongst the unrecognizable in the lot was a book by Robert W. Chambers, a gorgeously adorned, small but plump volume from 1895 called The King in Yellow.

It sat undisturbed on my bookshelves for about a decade, without my really knowing what wonders there were to behold inside its slightly moldered pages. The key to its treasures lie somewhere else, in another book altogether, Lovecraft, a splendid and meticulous biography of H.P. Lovecraft by L. Sprague de Camp, which I happened to stumble upon at a garage sale which I had accidentally stopped by just because I happened to be in the neighborhood on another matter. Destiny? Fate? Who knows? But it all seems slightly ominous given the books and their subjects of which we are speaking. Whether it be unseen force, divine providence or sheer coincidence behind this ladder of discoveries, causing me to climb ever higher into a musky, beshadowed attic of weird literary connection, it hardly matters. All I know is that the book mentions Robert W. Chambers as an influence on Lovecraft, a writer of whom I had been most enamored since a teen. (I was more than just slightly less enamored of ol' H.P. once I discovered what a reprehensibly racist shithead he was, but I still enjoy his writing.) Supposedly, after Lovecraft read Chambers’ more macabre stories, especially The Yellow Sign, one of the tales in The King In Yellow, he was intrigued enough to begin reflexively incorporating (some would say stealing) some of the names in Chambers' work into his own, as well as experimenting with some of Chambers' narrative concepts.

Even at this point, having only fleetingly glanced at the cover years earlier and then having stored away the book, I had to think a while about Robert W. Chambers. "Where had I seen that name before? It is so very familiar to me," I mused for numerous weeks. (Mind you, this is long before the internet made such research an instant task.) A search at the local library revealed nothing at all to me, as there were no books on the shelves (or in the card cabinet) bearing Chambers’ name. Since I worked for a bookstore chain, I consulted our Books in Print volumes within one of our satellite locations, and managed to discover that Mr. Chambers was the author of The King in Yellow, though the book itself was not currently in print then. But at last I knew! I had read his name in my very own reserves! It was in that monstrous pile of old books from Wisconsin!

Following a quick and successful scan of my own bookshelves, I found myself suddenly immersed in the then nearly 90-year old volume, carefully turning the pages as timidly as one could possibly turn the pages of a book while one was filled with longing to race unfettered by concerns over the decrepit state of said pages. A mysterious, all-knowing agent with missing ears and fingers who gets attacked constantly by his feral pet cat, a possible future (in the 1920s) where suicide is not only legal but endorsed through the construction of public gas chambers, and the aforementioned malignant text, which is only hinted at through the course and connected tissue of the opening quartet of stories – these wonders and more await the reader of The King In Yellow. Also awaiting those that enter this realm are stories later in the book which are more draggingly romantic than the darker tales which begin it, so its discovery is not thoroughly engaging. But at its best, it’s enough to make one wish, once one reads further into Chambers’ oeuvre, that he had stuck with his short fantastical career. That he was influenced by Poe, Bierce and Wilde, just as he further jolted Lovecraft, is readily apparent, and I was glad to move my one overlooked copy over to a shelf crammed with my favorite titles. Truthfully, The King In Yellow has remained by my bedside since I moved to California, though to reduce wear on the ancient text, I have replaced it with a more recently published collection for reading purposes.

A swift peek at the internet revealed to me a handful of copies of this same printing and vintage available for purchase at various out-of-print book sites, and the price range often fell into the $1000-1250 range for a very good copy. Despite my library, I was really not adept in the details of book collecting, so I couldn’t really say where my copy resided on the ever so very testy chart of condition. This question became the second part of my reason in taking the copy to the Antiques Roadshow on Saturday.

[To be continued on Sunday…]

Comments

1895? Is that when your copy was published? That binding is absolutely gorgeous. I'll have to remember to look for this as soon as I finish The World of Jeeves.
Rik Tod said…
Yes, 1895. And while the picture that I show is a shot that I found on the internet of someone else's copy, mine looks just like that.

Well, mine's shinier. And it has a couple of tiny wormholes along the top edge of the front cover. And a trio of them on the spine edge of the back cover. So, it's simultaneously in better and worse shape. It's still completely readable, which I did a couple of times very carefully, though as I stated, I have replaced it for future perusals with a new version.

By the way, if you are interested, The King in Yellow and most of Chambers' other work is available for completely legal (all of his books are long out of copyright), free download at Project Gutenberg. Should save you some coin.

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