Well. Maybe you won’t have bad dreams, but I did. I think I did. I was reading The King in Yellow a couple of weeks ago, and holy snot. For several days while I was working though this book, I woke up from dreams which, if not nightmares, and if not bad dreams exactly, were certainly unnerving enough to wake me up and make me glad I wasn’t asleep any more. Not that I remember them, anyway.
So what, I hear you asking, you imaginary reader, is The King in Yellow? It’s a few things all wrapped up like an onion. The outer layer, and the only real one, is the book itself. It’s the name of a collection of short stories by Robert Chambers from 1895. Four of these stories include an element called The King in Yellow, which is a play that DRIVES PEOPLE MAD!!!! Of course, the play is made-up by Robert Chambers, just like he made up the characters and the things that happen.
Finally, the main character of the play these short story characters read is a made-up dude called The King in Yellow whose kingdom is a realm of insanity so powerful that people (in short stories) who read a play about it GO MAD!!!!! So the dude is fictional for the characters in the short stories… except MAYBE NOT!!! And people who are real people (like I am, and no fooling), who read the short stories have bad dreams after reading about the people in the short stories even 115 years after the book comes out. So maybe IT’S ALL ACTUALLY REAL!!! There was an edition which came out in the 1920’s with an introduction by H.P. Lovecraft, which is how I stumbled across it. (This is the only book with a Lovecraft connection in my local public library’s regional interlibrary loan area.)
It’s a pretty good book. However, it increasingly slacks off the horror after the first four tales. These are the only ones in the collection directly related to the play. There are a couple of stories where elements hinted at in the previous stories come into play, but they aren’t directly concerned with The King in Yellow. And then, finally, are a few stories where characters with similar lives to the characters of the earlier stories and in similar locations have perfectly ordinary short stories happen to them and the only connection to The King in Yellow are some names and general descriptions. These last stories are only unsettling due to their proximity to the others in the collection. I kept waiting for something creepy to happen, but it never really did in these later stories.
The first story in the collection takes place in the 1920’s, so, having been written in the 1880’s, it has to count as speculative fiction*. And the main character GOES MAD!!!!! But it’s unclear when, exactly, this happens. Which is unsettling in its own right. Did it happen during the story? Did the story chronicle the descent? Was he mad before the story began? Ohhhh…… booga booga! Most of the other stories in the book are more firmly grounded, which is to say they are more or less contemporary with when they were written. The major characters are artsy types, and in their own 20’s, so they are young and full of passions and maybe not a lot of good sense. And then they GO MAD!!!!! Or maybe just go hungry. Or maybe get caught up in the Austrian siege of Paris and aren’t sure what to do about possible spies in their midst.
And there’s one good straight-ahead ghost story, too.
*Edit: I suppose, given everything I’ve observed about this book so far, there’s no doubt it qualifies as speculative fiction. I probably should have said something else. Science fiction might not be it, though. (SM, Jan. 3, 2019.)