Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Chambers, Robert W

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(1865-1933) US artist who in 1894 turned to a highly successful writing career, producing over 70 books, notably The King in Yellow (coll 1895; cut vt The Mask 1929), whose first four stories are linked Supernatural Fictions. This highly influential work features an eponymous fictional Book, a verse-play which drives its readers into madness and even suicide. Behind this book RWC creates a mythology linked to a shadowy personification of Death – drawn in part from the writings of Ambrose Bierce – which suggests that readers must pass through an Initiation to enter the land of Carcosa, which is either a Secondary World or somewhere perceivable (see Perception) through higher consciousness. This novel likely suggested to Cleveland Moffett (1863-1926) his enigmatic The Mysterious Card (1896 Black Cat; fixup 1912), and certainly influenced many writers of RWC's and the next generation, especially H P Lovecraft. James Blish ingeniously reconstructed the fictional play in "More Light" (in Alchemy and Academe ed Anne McCaffrey 1970). A fragment of another play, believed to be inspired by RWC's work, was found among the papers of Charles Vaughan (1902-1966) and was published as The King in Yellow (1975).

Nothing RWC wrote thereafter came close to equalling The King in Yellow in either mystery or power. His supernatural writings remain his strongest. He was intrigued by the power of humankind over death, usually through the deployment of Black Magic; this notion recurs in "The Maker of Moons" (1896 English Illustrated Magazine; in The Maker of Moons coll 1896; 1954 chap) and The Slayer of Souls (1920), both of which involve Oriental sorcery, and "The Messenger" (in The Mystery of Choice coll 1897). "The Key to Grief" (also in The Mystery of Choice) is a Posthumous Fantasy modelled on Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1891). RWC also became fascinated with the potential survival of extinct or Mythical Creatures, and used this as a plot device for a series of light romantic adventures assembled as In Search of the Unknown (coll 1904) and Police!!! (coll 1915), which collections together constitute the best of his work; from these books E F Bleiler made an informed selection, The King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories (coll 1970). Some later society novels contain elements of the fantastic; e.g., The Gay Rebellion (1913), depicting an alternate feminist present, and The Green Mouse (1908-1909 Saturday Evening Post; 1910) which, with the later The Talkers (1923), is an uninspired derivative of the Svengali motif. RCW's only other intriguing work is The Tracer of Lost Persons (coll of linked stories 1906), in which a detective's methods sometimes verge on the preternatural (see Occult Detectives). [MA]

other works: The Tree of Heaven (coll 1907); Some Ladies in Haste (1908); Quick Action (1914) and its sequel Athalie (1915).

Robert William Chambers


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.