(Once again, I apologise to those following my blog through Goodreads, who will end up seeing this twice.)
This is a review I should have written a long time ago. Simon Bucher-Jones, a writer I admire very much, sent me – more than a year ago – a preview copy of his book The King In Yellow, and I have shamefully neglected to say anything about it up to now.
This is not, to be clear, because I dislike the book – I nominated Simon’s similar Charles Dickens’ Martian Notes for the Best Novel Hugo this year, and only didn’t do so for The King In Yellow because I wasn’t sure of its precise publication date (I think it may have been very late 2014 rather than early 2015) – rather the opposite. I’ve been wanting to give Simon’s book a proper, good, review, and frankly for much of the last year I was in no fit state to do so. I kept waiting to be in a better writing mood, or to be less tired, so I could actually do the job properly. But the best is the enemy of the good, and frankly it’s much better to have a review out there than to have it be the perfect review.
Now, as so often, a disclaimer. Simon is a friend of mine, and a supporter of my writing, and he sent me my copy of this book for free. But as is so often the case, we became friends precisely because I like Simon’s writing, and so I don’t think I’m being unduly biased here.
The King In Yellow is a scholarly edition, in French and English, of a play by the French playwright Thomas de Castigne. Up until Bucher-Jones’ edition, the only evidence that we had that this play even existed was in the work of the same name by the American scholar Robert Chambers, widely regarded as a piece of pulp fiction until Bucher-Jones’ rediscovery of the text. Chambers’ book recounts the lives of several people who were affected by reading the text itself, driven mad by its revelations about the nature of the universe and the Yellow King. The play itself is deemed to have caused their madness, and to be unreadable without causing such insanity. Later, the play was influential in the tormenting of Sir John Babcock by the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley – a persecution which took the combined genius of James Joyce and Albert Einstein to uncover – and one can see clear relationships between the events depicted in the play and those discussed by the American journalist Howard Philips Lovecraft in later years.
…Or at least, that’s the kind of thing one is meant to say in this kind of review. Of course, there’s no real truth in Chambers’ account. No such play could possibly exist. The very idea is foolish. Of course. Keep telling yourself that and maybe you’ll sleep tonight.
Apart from a brief endnote, Simon’s book presents itself quite seriously as a work of scholarship – the French of Castigne’s “original” text on one page, an English translation facing, annotated with thirty-four footnotes, and some historical notes on the text, its provenance, and its original performance. The play itself is written in very convincing blank verse, and while I can’t judge the quality of the French, my GCSE-level understanding suggests that it works both as verse and as narrative about as well as the (excellent) English “translation”.
Possibly the closest comparison I can make to the book is Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula. Both books involve recreating fin-de-siecle decadence, and creating a world out of elements of other pulp fictions – in this case, however, Simon combines the influence of Lovecraft and his imitators (who were of course working in a tradition based partly on Chambers’ book) with Chambers’ romantic/decadent contemporaries – Wilde and Jarry both figure heavily in the annotations, and their influence is clearly felt in the text itself. But there are also passing mentions of the actor Merridith Merridew and a 1973 biopic about him, as well as to more consensus-reality figures like Liane de Pougy or Mme Curie.
The result is an artefact that seems to come to us from a slightly different reality, one in which Hastur and Carcosa have meanings far greater than the mere horror fiction they are in this world.
The book isn’t perfect – my copy has a few minor typographical oddities and some idiosyncratic punctuation at points, though no more so than many other self-published books I’ve recommended before – but it’s about as good a job as one could do of reconstructing, from the textual hints in Chambers’ book and scattered references in later stories inspired by Chambers, something that is very, very close to the play described. Obviously, it won’t send you mad when read in the English, but as I’m monolingual I’ll make no claims for the French. Caveat lector.
In a truly just world, Simon Bucher-Jones would be regarded as one of our great authors – he’s certainly one of the very best writers working today in terms of fecundity of ideas. Unfortunately, for some reason, self-published annotated plays based on 19th-century horror fiction don’t tend to become bestsellers, any more than the Doctor Who and Faction Paradox fiction which has been much of Simon’s output thus far. He’s writing for a niche audience, and he knows it.
Nonetheless, it’s a niche that could comfortably expand to accommodate several more readers, and I suspect that anyone who likes my more outlandish blog posts will find this very much to their taste, as will anyone who loves macabre fiction.
And so my child is born,
After the passing of requisite time,
After exquisite tearing of the womb,
After the world has drowned within the Lake,
And all is silent under the black stars.
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