SelfMadeHero, p/b, 144pp, full colour, £14.99
Reviewed by Jay Eales
Following on the heels of his Lovecraft adaptations: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Shadow Out of Time, The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath and the British Fantasy Award winning At the Mountains of Madness, INJ Culbard turns his attention to one of Lovecraft’s inspirations. Robert Chambers published The King in Yellow in 1895; a collection of ten stories. The first four otherwise unconnected stories make reference to a play, also named The King in Yellow. Culbard narrows his focus to concentrate on just these stories, weaving them together into a single narrative. This makes for a much more cohesive work, and for me, a more satisfying read as a result.
Like many, I imagine, although I had heard of The King in Yellow, it wasn’t until it was referenced heavily in the HBO show True Detective that I actively sought it out. The conceit of a play, which when read, drives you insane, is a nice one; inspiring many imitators over the years.
Culbard has a great feel for this material, and has carved out a niche as the go-to guy for ‘impossible to adapt’ books. In concentrating on the four stories that specifically reference The King in Yellow, stories that in prose have very little to connect each other, beyond references to the play, seem as though they were always intended to link. The first story (The Repairer of Reputations) is ostensibly a science fiction story, set (in the prose version) in 1920 – remember, Chambers wrote it in 1895 – but his protagonist is the most unreliable of narrators. There’s an interesting game to be played reading the story from Hildred Castaigne’s perspective, and everyone else’s. In one memorable scene, Hildred is modelling an ostentatious crown and cape emblazoned with the Yellow Sign, and we see him lock the crown away in a safe, but his cousin Louis comments “You sure it’s wise to just leave it in that biscuit box?”
The stylised art suits the mood tremendously well, and even though the book is closed, I can still feel Castaigne’s unblinking eyes staring out at me, and the mysterious man in the graveyard from the third story demanding the Yellow Sign. I’m shuddering even now. Culbard transposes the third and fourth stories (In the Court of the Dragon and The Yellow Mark), serving the story by building up to the final meeting with the King in Yellow, in all his cosmic and unholy glory. Unfortunately, for me at least, this final chapter is the weakest link. Chock full of mood, but it remains elusive and slight, missing the depth of the earlier chapters. Either that, or it relies heavily upon the reader to find their own meaning. Despite this, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book.