The term ‘weird fiction’ has been applied (and mis-applied) to a multitude of works over the years, and its admirers can be found through all areas of geekdom. Some weave qualities of the inexplicable through their own original creations to produce that peculiar blend of imbalance and hysteria, while others do their best to draw attention to classic source materials via adaptation and homage. These adaptations are not always successful in their own right but they keep the flame of inspiration alive. You may not have read the original story but I’ll bet you’ve heard of The Call of Cthulhu. In recent years the artist I.N.J. Culbard has produced some wonderful graphic-novelisations of H.P. Lovecraft’s back catalogue through Self Made Hero (along with original works like the brilliant Deadbeats.) Now he turns his attention to Robert W. Chambers’ classic, The King in Yellow – for my money one of the finest examples of weird fiction to be found.
Chambers’ King in Yellow was a short story collection that mingled ‘real’ stories of love and heartbreak in bohemian Paris with weirder tales of madness and the supernatural. They were linked by a fictional play called The King in Yellow – a piece so powerful it had never been performed; said to drive anyone unfortunate enough to read it utterly insane. Like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, the book is both incredibly rare yet seems to turn up all over the place, infecting the lives of the innocent and heralding the arrival of the titular entity of unspeakable dread. Thankfully Culbard makes the sensible choice to focus on these weirder tales, leaving the more bohemian stuff to one side. That leaves us with The Repairer of Reputations, The Mask, The Yellow Sign, and In the Court of the Dragon.
If you have seen his work before, you will be familiar with Culbard’s artistic style. He remains true to it here, and there is little deviation between stories. Indeed, this adaptation feels much more ‘of a piece’ than the original, thanks to this consistency. The art has a European feel with clear, clean line-work and a limited palette of colour, used in blocks (save for flesh, which tends to have a couple of tones to help bring it to life.) There’s a pleasing eye for ‘real’ human forms depicted, running the full gamut of body types, hair and (gasp) facial hair. Though slightly cartoonish in design (with a bizarre aversion to putting pupils in the eyes), the darkness of the plots and the weight of the characters’ emotions are more than ably portrayed. The world quickly sucks you in and the city – with its grand decadence and sordid corners – becomes all too real, despite only appearing in brief and sketchy glimpses throughout.
The Repairer of Reputations is the strongest piece – a startling and uncanny story that leaves the reader questioning everything they just read. In it, we are introduced us to Hildred; a taut and haughty man with a Destiny, a renowned cousin, a copy of The King in Yellow, and an unrequited love. There are strong hints throughout that this is an alternative timeline, feeling at once an historical piece with overtones of a dystopian future. The ‘Repairer’ is a peculiar character who manipulates lives, but does he deal in facts or merely encourage delusions? The Mask introduces several new characters: an artistic set with a slightly incestuous relationship. The sculptor, Boris, now has possession of The King in Yellow; and also a liquid that can turn living tissue into marble. His obsession grows, and with it his own doom. The Yellow Sign is perhaps the most famous of Chambers’ stories – and is a truly nightmarish vignette. Jack Scott is a painter, falling in love with his model, Tessie. She dreams of him in a coffin, carried away by a dough-faced man. She finds a brooch of unusual design and gives it to him. Soon dreams cross over to reality and the man stands under their window gazing in, demanding to know about the Yellow Sign. Madness blossoms.
The final piece is even slighter and even more surreal. In it, Jack Scott flees towards his final destiny, pursued by the sinister forces of the tattered King in Yellow. It is worth noting that the character in Chambers’ version of In the Court of the Dragon remains unnamed. Culbard uses Scott to bring unity to the piece – even going so far as to weave him into The Repairer of Reputations in (what I believe to be) a wholly invented scene – and the ploy works wonderfully. The weirder a tale is, the more important it is for elements of normality, of familiarity to stand in firm counterpoint. Jack provides us with that fixed point of sanity, of external contemplation. Thus, his eventual toppling becomes our own. The final image of the book is both glorious and devastating to behold.
If you are new to Self Made Hero’s literary adaptations, I might recommend starting with something a little easier to grasp. Their Lovecraft anthologies are a great place to take your first tentative dip. Fans of Culbard’s earlier work will certainly get a kick out of this, but I suspect it will not be quite as satisfying. To be fair that is more likely to be down to the source material than his sterling adaptation. It may leave you scratching your head as to what the effing hell has just happened, but that is, in many respects, the very essence of Weird. Sit back, pick up the book and enjoy it for what it is. You can go nuts later.
GS Rating: 4/5
GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak