Le Roi en Jaune (The King In Yellow)
Medium: book
Year: 2015
Publisher: Pantechnikon Books
Country: UK
Language: English, French [as the original text]
Writer: Thomas De Castigne, Simon Bucher-Jones
ISBN: 9781326116910
Url: http://www.lulu.com/shop/thomas-de-castigne/le-roi-en-jaune-the-king-in-yellow/hardcover/product-21985569.html
Url: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24529547-le-roi-en-jaune
Website category: British
Review date: 18 January 2015
It's different. It's a fictional non-fiction book, that becomes ten times as interesting because of the actual non-fiction section at the end. It fails, but valiantly and interestingly at a task beyond the ability of mortals. Nothing but credit is due to Mr Bucher-Jones.
It's also going to be impossible to discuss this book without spoiling the nature of what it is. Yes, that's a spoiler. In doing so, I'm violating the author's wish, as expressed in The True and Secret History, so anyone likely to buy this should probably stop reading after this paragraph. In short, it's very clever and trying to do something abstruse, which hasn't been attempted quite like this before.
Oh, and in the interests of full disclosure, I also saw an earlier draft. I think the final version's a significant improvement. (Super-briefly, I'm also in it.)
Okay, spoiler time.
The King in Yellow is a famous 1895 anthology by Robert W. Chambers, containing several macabre stories with mentions of a fictional stage play of the same name. Just reading this play will drive you to despair or madness. This is reminiscent of Lovecraft (although HPL was only five years old when it was published) and there's cross-pollination between Chambers and the Lovecraft mythos, not least via Ambrose Bierce. Anyway, Chambers doesn't give us the full text of the play, although he does mention snippets... and because the anthology has since become highly esteemed, there have been other authors since who've tried to write this forbidden play.
It's an impossible task, though. It can't be done. Furthermore, if some anti-miracle made it happen, it would be unpublishable. The questions that should be asked are:
(a) How close does it get? Is it scary? Even if it didn't shatter my sanity, might it perhaps have cracked it a bit?
(b) How much has the author cheated? Are we being shown the actual text, or just the text at one remove, e.g. Chambers, Blish. There's nothing wrong with doing so, of course, and it's probably the only way to do the idea full justice. However if the author's declared objective is to write a full text for the play, then to judge the results properly one needs access to said text, unfiltered.
(c) How convincing is it as an 1890s stage play, as described by Chambers? Of course an author might have chosen for effect to include deliberate anachronisms and inconsistencies, but is it something that could have been written and staged in that era?
Considering this particular attempt, I think it's delicate in its degree of success at (a) but going all-out for (b) and (c). Is it actually scary? Is it horror? Eventually, yes, I think, but in an impressionistic and slightly rarefied way that's more about undermining different levels of reality, not excluding the play's own sense of narrative. There are horrific elements, but presented in a tokenistic way. On reflection, I think there's something about the piece that I'd like to see performed live. If the actors can find a reality in the story of Cassilda and her suitors, then I think there could be value in stretching that with the stranger developments in the second half.
On the page, Act Two can feel random and disorientating, although of course that's deliberate and underlined by "Note on: the construction of the second Act". In performance, it might be possible to do something with that.
I think it's a compliment to be saying that of a stage play.
It wouldn't have the effect Chambers describes, of course, unless perhaps your audience had been taking light hallucinogens. It would probably feel a bit arty and you'd need a strong production (actors, lighting, sound, etc.). However Act One takes things slowly enough that it should be able to lure in the audience and get us involved in Cassilda's story. There's a plot development in it that's a shock, even though it's a simple real-world event and theoretically negligible compared with all the supernatural and narrative-breaking stuff that's coming.
Other points... I liked Ubu, noting that he's not being written as Alfred Jarry's Ubu. (That's an observation, not a criticism.) The play's form is Shakespearian and Ubu's the Fool, pretty much exactly as vulgar as Shakespeare's. I'm also intrigued by the "construction of the second Act" appendix, which makes me want to go through and reread for the different permutations.
So that's the play. Ironically, though, that's only half of this book. The other half is the academia (some faux, some not) that's surrounding it.
It's been translated into French, which is ostensibly the original from which Mr Bucher-Jones is translating into English. Both versions are presented side by side, on facing pages. (This probably sounds pointless, but it's oddly cool even if you're not reading the French pages at all.) There's a detailed academic introduction, like an Arden edition of Shakespeare, written by Mr Bucher-Jones at one remove as, effectively, a fictional character called Simon Bucher-Jones. (The fictional version is overly dogmatic in his assertions and capable of unworldly errors, e.g. mentioning "Shaun Connery".) All this is interesting and gives the play context and resonance, but best of all is the afterword, in which the real Mr Bucher-Jones stands up. This is just fantastic. I loved seeing the author's analysis of Chambers's original work, its historical context and subsequent writers' attempts at a King in Yellow.
It's unique. You have to give it that. I don't think I've ever seen anything in this form before, as an Arden annotated analysis of a simultaneous translation of a French text into iambic pentameter. Pleasingly scholarly. The blank verse in itself is worth the price of admission. The author's set himself an impossible task with the play itself and I think he's quite a long way from horrors that would drive the reader mad, but what he does achieve is worth performing and, I think, of interest.