Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories—and some on his friends, too.
Today we’re looking at Robert W. Chambers’s “The Repairer of Reputations,” first published in 1895 in his short story collection The King in Yellow—not to be confused with the play, “The King in Yellow.” We hope.
This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa, where black stars hang in the heavens, where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali, and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth—a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow.
Summary: 1920: America’s a colonial power, having squelched Germany’s attempt to annex Samoa, and then repelled the German invasion of America itself. The military’s grown formidable; the coasts are fortified; Indian scouts form a new cavalry. Formation of the independent negro state of Suanee has solved that racial difficulty, while immigration’s been curtailed. Foreign-born Jews have been excluded; simultaneously, a Congress of Religions has abolished bigotry and intolerance. Centralization of power in the executive branch brings prosperity, while (alas) much of Europe succumbs to Russian anarchy.
In New York, a “sudden craving for decency” remakes the city, effacing the architecture of less civilized ages. One April day, narrator Hildred Castaigne witnesses the opening of a Government Lethal Chamber in Washington Square. Suicide’s now legal; the despairing may remove themselves from healthy society via this neoclassical temple of painless death.
Hildred next visits the shop of Hawberk, armorer, whose daughter Constance loves Hildred’s soldier cousin Louis. Hildred enjoys the sound of hammer on metal, but he’s come to see Wilde, the cripple upstairs. Hawberk calls Wilde a lunatic, a word Hildred resents since he sustained a head injury and was wrongly confined to an asylum. Since his accident Hildred has read “The King in Yellow,” a play that strikes the “supreme note of art,” but is said to drive readers mad. Widely banned, it continues to spread like “an infectious disease.”
Hildred defends Wilde as a superlative historian. For example, Wilde knows lost accessories to a famous armor suit lie in a certain New York garret. He also knows Hawberk’s really the disappeared Marquis of Avonshire.
Hawberk, looking panicked, denies his nobility. Hildred goes up to Wilde’s apartment. The man is tiny but muscular, with a misshapen head, false wax ears, and a fingerless left hand. He keeps a cat whose vicious attacks seems to delight him. Wilde is, ahem, eccentric. So is his career, for he repairs damaged reputations via some mysterious hold he has over employees of all classes. He pays little, but they fear him.
Wilde has a manuscript called “The Imperial Dynasty of America,” which lists Louis Castaigne as future ruler after the advent of the King in Yellow. Hildred’s second in line, and must therefore get rid of his cousin, and of Constance who might bear Louis’s heirs. His ambition exceeds Napoleon’s, for he’ll be royal servant to the King, who’ll control even the unborn thoughts of men.
At home, Hildred opens a safe and admires the diamond-studded diadem that will be his crown. From his window he watches a man dash into the Lethal Chamber. Then he sees Louis walking with other officers and strolls out to meet him. Louis is disturbed to hear that Hildred’s visited Wilde again, but drops the subject when they meet Hawberk and Constance, who walk with them in the new North River parks. They observe the impressive naval fleet; when Louis goes off with Constance, Hawberk admits Wilde was right—Hawberk found those missing accessories exactly where Wilde said they were. He offers to share their worth with Wilde, but Hildred haughtily replies that neither he nor Wilde will need money when they’ve secured the prosperity and happiness of a whole hemisphere! When Hawberk suggests he spend some time in the country, Hildred resents the implication that his mind’s unsound.
Louis visits Hildred one day while he’s trying on his crown. Louis tells Hildred to put that brass tinsel back in its biscuit box! He’s come to announce his marriage to Constance the next day! Hildred congratulates Louis and asks to meet him in Washington Square that night.
The time’s come for action. Hildred goes to Wilde, carrying his crown and kingly robes marked with the Yellow Sign. Vance is there, one of Wilde’s clients who blubbers about the King in Yellow having maddened him. Together Wilde and Hildred convince him to aid in executing Hawberk and Constance, and arm him with a knife.
Hildred meets Louis before the Lethal Chamber and makes him read the Imperial Dynasty manuscript. He claims he’s already killed the doctor who tried to libel him with insanity. Now only Louis, Constance and Hawberk stand between Hildred and the throne! No, wait, only Louis, because Vance runs into the Lethal Chamber, having obviously finished the ordered executions.
Hildred runs for Hawberk’s shop, Louis pursuing. While Louis pounds on Hawberk’s door, Hildred runs upstairs. He proclaims himself King, but there’s no one to hear. Wilde’s cat has finally torn out his throat. Hildred kills her and watches his master die. Police arrive to subdue him; behind them are Louis, Hawberk and Constance, unharmed.
He shrieks that they’ve robbed him of throne and empire, but woe unto them who wear the King in Yellow’s crown!
(An “editor’s note” follows: Hildred has died in the Asylum for the Criminally Insane.)
“Don’t mock madmen; their madness lasts longer than ours….that’s the only difference.”
What’s Cyclopean: Chambers isn’t much for elaborate adjectival contortions, but he makes up for it with rich and evocative names: Carcosa, Demi and Haldi, Uoht and Thale, Naotalba and Phantom of Truth and Aldones and the Mystery of the Hyades. They roll gracefully off the tongue—though the tongue may later regret speaking their dread names.
The Degenerate Dutch: Well, of course you’ve got to exclude foreign-born Jews, sayeth our narrator. For self-preservation, you know. But bigotry and intolerance have totally been laid in their graves. Getting rid of the foreigners and their pesky restaurants, of course, makes room for the Government Lethal Chamber. Surely a coincidence, that.
Mythos Making: Lovecraft took up Carcosa for the Mythos canon—as who would not, having glimpsed the wonder and horror of its twin suns? And the King himself may lurk in the background, unannounced for the sake of everyone’s sanity, in the Dreamlands.
Libronomicon: The Necronomicon may thoroughly alarm its readers, and its prose is at best self-consciously melodramatic. But “human nature cannot bear the strain nor thrive on the words” of The King in Yellow, a play which strikes the “supreme note of art.” (Though Lovecraft suggests that the fictional play was inspired by rumors about the real book.)
Madness Takes Its Toll: If a doctor mistakenly places you in an asylum after a head injury and incidental reading of The King in Yellow, you must of course seek vengeance.
This is my first read of Chambers’ classic, and the opening segment did not fill me with hope for the rest of the story. My ancestors are such a threat to the country, yes, thank you—I can see why Howard is so impressed, but I think I’ll be rooting for the monster of the week.
But then I start to notice that this perfect, blissful future America seems to have a lot of militarism that the narrator takes for granted. Perhaps that first section is intended to be read with a doubtful eye—maybe? This would certainly be a more palatable story if the narrator wasn’t intended as reliable.
Then there’s the architectural updating of New York and Chicago, complete with getting rid of the trains—Chambers was a Brooklyn native and doesn’t seem to have had Lovecraft’s horror of the place. I don’t think any real New Yorker could write seriously and approvingly about breaking the ethnic restaurant scene, even in 1895.
“It is believed that the community will be benefited by the removal of such people from their midst.” And yes, what we have here is not so much unthinking bigotry as extraordinarily sharp satire. Sharp enough to cut without you even noticing until you’ve bled out.
Ultimately, this may be the alien-free story I’ve enjoyed the most from the reread. I don’t creep easily, but lord, this thing is creepy! Not only the brain-breaking play, but the mundane details of politics and everyday life. And everyday death: the gentility of the Lethal Chamber, and the government’s gentle willingness to back the nasty insinuations that depression whispers in the night. Keeping a murderous cat, or reading a life-destroying play, seem almost redundant. Perhaps that’s the point.
And then there’s Hildred, so very elegantly unreliable. The moment when the “diadem” is revealed to be delusional, and yet something real is definitely going on…
Or… frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what actually is going on. What can we count on, through the filter of Hildred’s King-touched ambitions? The play, certainly and ironically. It exists, and it’s a brown note (obligatory warning for TV Tropes link). The Lethal Chamber, too, seems nastily real. And behind it, the militarized dystopia that Hildred never acknowledges.
But is the King real? Yellow-faced Wilde seems to serve him—but Hildred serves the creature without ever meeting him, and Wilde might do the same. Perhaps all the play’s readers orbit a vacuum. Or perhaps the King’s empire is a sort of perverse micronation, real to the degree his subjects make it real.
Wilde’s role as Repairer of Reputations is also pretty ambiguous. We see only one of his clients, another King-reader who seems as out of touch with reality as Hildred. If his reputation were either damaged or repaired, would he even know? Wilde’s other clients, like the ten thousand loyal subjects ready to rise in Hildred’s coup, may be merely notes on a ledger.
But then there’s Wilde’s uncanny knowledge—indisputably confirmed by other witnesses. He wouldn’t be nearly so terrifying if he could be dismissed as a complete charlatan.
So much more to say, but I’ll limit myself to asking one final, alarming question that’s still bothering me days later. Plays are normally intended to be performed. Anyone who’s both appreciated Shakespeare on stage, and read him in the classroom, knows that the reading experience is a pale shadow of actually sitting in a darkened theater watching the acts unfold. So what happens to people who see The King in Yellow live?
And what effect does it have on those who act in it? Breaking a leg might be a mercy.
Unreliable narrator much? Or, maybe, worse, not so much?
At first I thought “The Repairer of Reputations” was alternate history based on World War I, but then I noticed its date of publication—1895! That makes it more of a “prescient” history, or maybe a near-future dystopia? A central question is how much, if any, of Hildred’s observations are factual within the context of the story. Put another way, how much does he make up or misinterpret in his grandiose paranoia? All of it? None of it? Something in between?
The story’s told in Hildred’s twisted and twisting point-of-view. We don’t know until the last paragraph that the story’s probably a document he wrote while incarcerated in an asylum, for the material has an unnamed “editor.” My sense is that we should assume Hildred’s account is all his own, unaltered by the editor, who may just be a device for letting us know Hildred has died in the asylum.
Teasing out all the clues to the internal “veracity” of the tale would take more study than I’ve given it. I’m going with a historical background that’s basically true rather than the delusional construct of the narrator. Hildred describes what for him seems a utopia of American exceptionalism: growing military power, secure and far-flung colonies, centralized power, urban renewal, religious tolerance and prosperity, hints of eugenics in the exclusion of undesirable immigrants and the new policy of letting the mentally ill remove themselves from the national gene pool. The description of the Lethal Chamber opening, complete with marching troops and Governor’s speech, seems overelaborate for mere delusion, and Constance later says she noticed the troops. Overall it seems we can trust statements of the “sane” characters, as reported by Hildred. Other examples include all the warships in the North River, which everyone notices, and the “biggie clue” to Hildred’s instability—how Louis sees the “crown” as tinselly brass, the “safe” as a biscuit box.
Does Chambers share Hildred’s enthusiasm for the new America? I’m thinking no, or at least, not entirely—this vision of the future is not wish fulfillment for the author, though it may be to some extent for the narrator. Chambers does some deft juxtapositioning in the opening paragraphs. One moment Hildred lauds the death of bigotry and intolerance brought about by a “Congress of Religions;” another, he gloats that immigration and naturalization laws have been much tightened. Foreign-born Jews are right out. The ultimate in segregation has put the black population in its own independent state. The millennium has arrived! Um, except for most of Europe, upon which Russian anarchy has swooped, vulture-like. But hey, self-preservation comes first! Isolationism, baby, with a beefed-up military to preserve it.
And the Government Lethal Chambers? Act of mercy or potential killing boxes for any “despairing” enough to oppose the new order? Oops, John Smith was found dead in the Washington Square Chamber. Poor guy, all his silly antigovernment articles must have been a sign of incipient suicidal madness!
Not that I’m paranoid or anything, like Hildred. Yet as the epigraph tells us, madmen are just like us, only they’re mad for longer. Maybe practice makes perfect, and long-term madmen come to see more than the sane? Such as the truth encapsulated in “The King in Yellow”?
Everybody thinks Hildred is crazy except Wilde, who’s also held to be crazy. But Chambers goes to some lengths to show us Wilde’s no mere lunatic. He DOES know the seemingly unknowable, such as where those lost armor accessories are. Is his claim that Hawberk’s the Marquis of Avonshire just babbling? Sure, Avonshire’s a fictional place in our world, but the world of the story? And what are we to make of Hawberk and Constance’s strong reactions to the claim? What about Hawberk’s name? A hauberk is a mail shirt—pretty convenient for “Hawberk” to be the real name of an armorer.
Wow, barely scratched the surface as space dwindles. Last thought: “The King in Yellow” is, in story context, a real play that causes real madness in readers. This notion’s supported by how Louis speaks of the dreaded book. Something’s going on here, but is the King-inspired madness a shared mania or divine inspiration too intense for human endurance? Is the King coming, and do trends in America prepare for His advent?
The cat. No time for her, but she’s an interesting touch. Ill-tempered feral? A projection of Wilde’s lunacy? A familiar sent by the King and on occasion expressing the King’s displeasure?
We’ve got quite the puzzle box here.
Next week, we cover two short Dreamlandish pieces: “Memory” and “Polaris.” By the list we’re working from, these are the last of our original Lovecraft stories that aren’t collaborations or juvenilia! We’ll follow up with the “Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnet cycle—and from there, start a deeper dive into Howard’s influencers and influencees, interspersed with the aforementioned collaborations and early fragments. Thanks to all our readers and commenters—this has been a remarkable journey so far, and promises to continue with all the squamousness and rugosity anyone could ask for.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.