A play that drives anyone who reads it insane? How delightful! Add a spooky Victorian gothic atmosphere and language that's positively zippy for its era, and it's no wonder Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow — a collection of short stories centering on the aforementioned play — has kept popping up in the culture for well over a century. Writers who've been influenced by Chambers' work include Robert Heinlein, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. It was even referenced on HBO's True Detective last year.
The author who probably owes the most to Chambers' little book is H.P. Lovecraft. Like Chambers, Lovecraft yearned for a voluptuous, formless horror rooted in existential dread. Chambers' King in Yellow is the more successful (because non-tentacular) precursor to Lovecraft's Cthulu. He's a being who makes the reader shudder not because of how he looks or what he does, but because he inspires such eloquently expressed terror in the characters who encounter him.
That's why it's strange to find the King himself right smack on the cover of I.N.J. Culbard's graphic adaptation. There shouldn't be any need to depict him at all, much less put him right up front — and looking like a sallow, bloodied Jawa, no less.
The King is much scarier when alluded to by characters like Hildred Castaigne, Chambers' most unnerving creation. Hildred has read the play and now believes he's the predestined emperor of America and beyond. He must be insane — but if he is, why is the mysterious Mr. Wilde aiding him? "The ambition of Caesar and of Napoleon pales before that which could not rest until it had seized the minds of men and controlled even their unborn thoughts," Mr. Wilde says. Is he speaking of the King in Yellow, of himself — or perhaps of the author?
A book that's so deeply in love with language and the unseen doesn't leave very much for an illustrator to work with. Culbard's style is well-suited to this difficulty — it's defined as much by what it doesn't show as by what it does. Instead of laying on the Victorian gingerbread, Culbard creates spare, almost modernist tableaux. The characters look as timeless and relatable as their old-timey garb will allow.
In another act of minimalism, Culbard often leaves the pupils out of the characters' eyes. It results in some surprising, and uncanny, effects. Somehow, an omission that makes Hildred Castaigne look mad lends innocence to Tessie, an artist's model. And though a pallid night watchman does have pupils, they don't make him any less grotesque. "I could never forget that face. So white a-and soft!" Tessie cries. "It looked as if it had been dead a long time."
Tessie and the artist she loves are a winning pair. In the original, he's a louche fellow who's incapable of returning her love. Here, though, he's nicer. That – mild spoilers ahead — makes their downfall all the more poignant when, out of curiosity, each reads the play. "The sin ... That anyone should ever have written such words. Words as clear as crystal and musical as bubbling springs," Tessie says. "Oh, the wickedness, the hopeless damnation of a soul who could fascinate and paralyze human creatures with such words," answers Mr. Scott.
As for what those words actually describe, this adaptation doesn't reveal much — but then, neither does the original. There's a place, "lost Carcosa," that might be heaven or hell. A woman, Cassilda, mourns something or someone. And that's about it. How, then, is the idea of this maddening play so seductively eerie? Maybe every reader shares Chambers' yearning to some small extent. Maybe all readers wish words could work miracles, or at least that they had the power to deeply, irrevocably transform someone's mind. Oh, wait! They do.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.