Dover Book

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   Never heard of Robert W. Chambers? He was extremely prolific, but the problem was, he wrote mostly junk. And even worse, he had a promising career in art. In the Introduction to the Dover edition, E. F. Bleiler calls him "the shopgirl Scheherazade." HA! I get the impression he was similar to the writers of Harlequin Romances today, catering to the low-level literary bunch. According to Wikipedia, H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most well-known writers of "weird fiction" said of him, "Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans—equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them." The Introductions also points out that during the last decade of the nineteenth century, "some forgotten impulse drove several unexpected persons into brief association with supernatural fiction." Chambers was one of them, and so were a number of others whose works I have reviewed on this site. Bleiler also says that Chambers' books are now very rare, and that's good.

This rejection of Chambers is as it should be, for he wrote very consciously for his present, and wrote to the level where he could make the most money. He had no illusion about the quality or permanency of his writing, and candidly admitted that he was more interested in collecting antique furniture and restoring his ancestral home in the Appalachians than in literary reputation.

   Well at least he was honest, but I began to wonder if I really wanted to read this book, even though it is considered his best. But as it turns out, I really liked it, but there is a bit of confusion. First of all, Dover does this frequently and I get very annoyed. If they are going to reprint a book, then they should reprint the whole thing. The first five stories are from the 1895 story collection of the same title, but there are five other stories that were not included. Instead Dover added seven other stories from other collections. They are all good, and fortunately I have found all the complete story collections as free eBooks.
   Chambers' style must have been to write ambiguously! If you read this book, do not waste your time trying to find the story entitled "The King in Yellow," as the book title implies. It is not there, and it does not exist! It was not until I began reading that I understood I had, in fact, wasted time . . . . The King in Yellow is a play—well, not a real play, but a fictitious one, which flits in and out of the stories. According to Wikipedia, it is a "forbidden play which induces despair or madness in those who read it." I found myself mumbling, "Dim Carcosa," during this past week that I read this book, which is part of a line from the play. I began to worry about myself. I realize that Chambers was creating a certain atmosphere that wandered through these stories, all tied to this horrible being and place, which had an effect on the characters. It made me giggle. And by the way, the whole Carcosa thing comes from Ambrose Bierce. I've reviewed one of his books on this site, but not the one containing Carcosa. Chambers was also influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. It is a shame he didn't take his work more seriously and produce more works like the ones found in this collection. They actually take a while to read, but are worth it. Incidentally, Project Gutenberg has two pages of eBooks by Chambers to download for free. I have downloaded all the collections, three of which are on that page. The range of dates for the stories found here is from 1895-1904. This present book is a republication of Dover's 1970 edition.
   I want to just say a few more things about Chambers, then I will go on to the stories. He was born in New York, but studied art in Paris, and a number of his stories are set in France, particularly Kerselec, Bretagne (Brittany), where the people speak Breton (a Celtic language). But if I didn't know he was American, I would have guessed he was British. His writing, to me, seems more European than American.
   Another point is that all of these stories have some sort of romantic activity going on, either with the narrator, and they are all in the first person, and always a male, or with another character. And the third point is that, truly, I agree with Lovecraft's remark quoted above, because this man had the talent to write excellent works. Most of the stories take place outdoors, and the description of the scenery, plants, sky, water—it is all really above average, and quite amazing. Many of the stories follow a pattern, and the narrator usually is going someplace late at night, so descriptions of sunsets, stars, shadows, etc. are a common thread between them. And as I mentioned above, there is always that sense of ambiguity like, what is he talking about, and as the story moves along, the missing pieces are revealed. Mostly. There is also that sense that, the characters are discussing a person or thing, or whatever, and it is assumed everyone knows what they are talking about, but we do not. That especially includes the whole King in Yellow play, where you just can't wait to look it up online to see if it was really a play, which it was not. But that feeling of hanging in the air and being left out of something that everyone else knows is also a common thread between the stories.
   And last, there is a fluidity between realities running through all these stories, which includes time travel, lots of supernatural and paranormal occurrences, which is the basis for these "weird" stories category, and also weird stuff going on in peoples' minds, sane and insane. In many cases, it is the narrator who is the last to admit something out of the ordinary has happened.
   And having said all that, I will now move on to the stories. Since there were so many, I will not review them all, but pick a few so you get the idea on what it's all about and whether you want to read it, and you should.
   In The Repairer of Reputations, is one of the five from the original The King in Yellow, and is one of the two stories where the main character(s) are bizarrely affected by the play. Here we have a man, Hildred Castaigne, who had fallen off his horse and sustained head injuries that required his admission to an asylum for a period of time. It takes place in the future, 1920, in New York. Note that many of the characters were given French names even when the story is set in America.
   He is now released, having been "cured," but maintains that he was never insane to begin with. Wrong on both accounts, because he was and still is. His cousin, Louis Castaigne, is a respected military man, who is engaged to the daughter of Old Hawberk, the armorer, named Constance. Hildred plots revenge on his doctor for putting him in an asylum, and plots to do away with his cousin (and Constance), whom he believes is trying to steal the kingship from him, which is rightfully his. He has the help of a boarder, Mr. Wilde, who lives above Hawberk's shop. Mr. Wilde knows lots of secret things and has a cat that he fights with. Hildred enters after they have been fighting:

Half a dozen new scratches covered his nose and cheeks, and the silver wires which supported his artificial ears had become displaced. I thought I had never seen him so hideously fascinating. He had no ears. The artificial ones, which now stood out at an angle from the fine wire, were his one weakness. They were made of wax and painted a shell pink, but the rest of his face was yellow. He might better have revelled in the luxury of some artificial fingers for his left hand, which was absolutely fingerless, but it seemed to cause him no inconvenience, and he was satisfied with his wax ears. He was very small, scarcely higher than a child of ten, but his arms were magnificently developed, and his thighs as thick as any athlete's. Still, the most remarkable thing about Wilde was that a man of his marvelous intelligence and knowledge should have such a head. It was flat and pointed, like the heads of many of those unfortunates whom people imprison in asylums for the weak-minded. Many called him insane but I knew him to be as sane as I was.

   Hmm. Anyways, another important feature of this story is that many problems of the world had been or were being solved, such as war, bigotry and intolerance. Cities were cleaned up, beautiful buildings were constructed and prosperity reigned. AND, the new Government Lethal Chamber was established on Washington Square in NYC, where people could enter to legally commit suicide if they wished! Or at least that is what the narrator tells us but we can't believe anything he says..
   OK, so, moving on, my favorite story in this collection was The Demoiselle d'Ys. For some reason Dover rearranged the order of stories, which should not have happened, because the first four contain materials from the fictional play, the King in Yellow. This story should have been number five. It takes place in Kerselec, Brittany, as explained above. Before I figured this out, I would have thought he was describing some place in the British Isles, because of the moors and bogs. But I guess Brittany is just a short jump across the ocean. Here, a man named Philip goes wandering across the moors, despite a warning that people have been known to get lost and never return. The main characters never take good advice here, it seems. Anyways, he is lost, cold and starving when he finds himself in the company of a beautiful lady who is a falconer and dressed strange. She invites him to her home, which is ancient. She lives alone with only the company of the other falconers and servants. In fact, she has never seen anyone else in her life. Philip is fed and goes to sleep because he is exhausted. He wakes up to find his clothes being laundered, and in their place are, em, period clothing. He hoped his own clothing will be returned because he can't imagine walking out into the regular world in sixteenth-century apparel. It ends up not being an issue . . . .
   Not all of the stories have tragic endings, and one of the others that I really liked was The Mask, also from the original The King in Yellow. Set also in France, this time Paris, two artists are close friends, but the woman they love, Geneviève, has chosen Boris.
   Boris, however, has more than art and love on his mind. He has discovered a solution that turns living beings into marble. He experiments with local creatures including Geneviève's goldfish and a white rabbit. And he also has the pool filled with this solution. So you can kinda guess what's gonna happen.
   There is another story, The Maker of Moons, from the 1896 collection of stories by the same name, in which a group of criminals discover how to make gold. Barris, from the Secret Service, goes on a hunting trip with two other men, the narrator and Pierpont. Barris, of course, is hunting the Goldmakers, and Pierpont joins him. Roy, however, is more interested in hunting game, but ends up finding a woman and falls in love. There are lots of men who fall head-over-heels in love with the wrong women in this collection!
   Anyways, this is the longest story in the whole book, and is quite complicated. It involved a race of Chinese sorcerers, who are part of the gold-making ring, and has one of those perplexing conclusions where you are not totally sure what just happened. Some of the stories have very conclusive endings. And there is lots and lots of game hunting and killing of animals here, which of course I abhor.
   This collection is available in text and HTML from Gutenberg Australia, but must be converted to read on Nook or Kindle. But that is easy to do with Calibre, and I share directions for doing that on my site. Download the text option.
   From The Mystery of Choice, 1897, comes The Messenger, which also takes place in Kerselec. The narrator is an American married to a Breton, Lys, who, like all the locals is superstitious. Some diggers have found a mass burial of 38 skulls, all Englishmen who invaded Bretagne in 1760. But there should be one more skull. The mayor, Le Bihan, refuses to allow any more digging because it is the skull of the traitor, known as the Black Priest, who was branded with an arrow mark on his forehead before he was beheaded. He placed a curse on anyone who would disturb his remains. Unfortunately, Dick finds it without trying and, not knowing it is the skull, he kicks it into the pit and it rolls right back up again, though he will not admit what he saw. His wife is a descendent of Marie Trevec, whom the priest forced to confess all she knew about the fort, including the password, and it is her family in particular that has been cursed. This one is really a good story, and features the Death's Head Moth, pictured below. Project Gutenberg has this collection available.
   The last three stories, from the 1904 collection, are all humorous, and feature the same main character, who works at the new Zoological Gardens in Bronx Park, and they all feature the discovery of animals that are extinct, which get sort of lost before they ever make it to the Zoological Gardens! My favorite of these was The Harbor-Master, in which a reclusive old man who was a Harvard graduate, has discovered a pair of Great Auks, and offers them, with their chicks, to the Gardens for a rather steep price. These are available from Project Gutenberg in the collection In Search of the Unknown.
   In all, I really enjoyed these stories, and if you like weird, supernatural, and creepy tales, this one's for you. I don't necessarily recommend the Dover edition, especially since all the stories are available in their original collections, which includes numerous other stories, as free eBooks. Below is the Death's Head Moth.

Death's Head Moth

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