The King in Yellow was originally a collection of 10 loosely connected stories (or perhaps not loosely connected stories but rather obliquely conjoined epistles within shouting distance of each other thanks to mysterious sigils and motifs) by Robert W Chambers published in 1895. The collection was felt to be a huge influence on Lovecraft – which is where INJ Culbard comes in, the one man Lovecraft graphic novel machine responsible for the likes of The Shadow Out of Time, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and At the Mountains of Madness, amongst others. Culbard has taken four of the 10 and created this latest iteration of The King in Yellow (The King in Yellow, you should know, being one of those cultier works that draws reworkings, adaptations and all manner of reinterpretations).
So. So. Things to know up front. “The King in Yellow” is a play that certain characters in the stories are aware of, or afraid of, because it is known to obsess or drive mad those who are sucked into its maw. There is also a sign, a sigil [see left], handed from character to character, in some of the stories, in a way that suggests the sigil also has unnatural powers, able to corrupt and distort the will of individuals, arresting their minds and forcing them to undertake all manner of no good. Sometimes the events of one story are recounted in another in a way that suggests characters move in a similar orbit. In point of fact, these connections are the things that often make the most sense in the book.
Because the fact is it isn’t always easy to tell just what is happening, to work out what the significance of what you are seeing or reading is. Now: we’ve been here before with Culbard – the aforementioned Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, for instance. As a reader we don’t need to know what is going on all the time. Or even at all. The fact that The King in Yellow is a book of short stories, however, serves to break up the flow of things in a way that is challenging. And for challenging, read – at times – confusing. Part of this may arise from the fact Culbard has only chosen four of the 10 stories in the collection to adapt; perhaps there is a further collection waiting in the wings; perhaps this collection will make greater sense in the future; perhaps the reader is best off engaging with the original collection before setting a toe in these waters. It’s hard to say.
Challenge aside, there are moments – many moments – in which Culbard affects strange and intriguing effects, terrible dreams of falling and pursuit married with the long shadow cast by the strange play itself (characters falling from windows or pursued by tall strangers with piercing eyes and the ability to shift through metal). Elsewhere, cats doggedly attack small, odd men with vast ambitions, Left Bank intellectuals discourse in a way that recalls GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, artists construct brave new art from a brand new element – and in every direction madness lies. All told, it doesn’t feel like the best book Culbard has ever approached but the shortcomings at this point feel more on the part of your humble reviewer than on the book itself. Is it clear – or am I not looking hard enough? That, ladies and gentlemen, is the million dollar question.
Any Cop?: A strange one, to be sure, a curio, an oddity, a box of hard to comprehend delights.