[The following is an updated reprint of a column which originally appeared in the July 28, 2005, issue of Hellnotes.]
Robert W. Chambers achieved his greatest success during his lifetime by writing romantic and historical novels, which were extremely popular at the time but are now largely forgotten. He is remembered today for his horror and fantasy fiction, especially for The King in Yellow, a collection of weird stories based around a fictitious play of that name. He was a prolific writer, having published approximately 100 books as well as numerous shorter pieces.
Robert William Chambers was born on May 26, 1865, in Brooklyn, New York. His father, William P. Chambers, was a famous lawyer, and his mother, Caroline Boughton Chambers, was a direct descendant of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. His brother, Walter Boughton Chambers, was a well-known architect.
Chambers started out as an artist rather than a writer. He studied at the Art Students League of New York, where he made friends with Charles Dana Gibson, who would later gain fame as an illustrator. The following year, Chambers traveled to Paris to continue his studies at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts and the Academie Julian. His work was displayed at the Paris Salon, which is the official art exhibit of the Academie des Beaux-Arts. When Chambers returned to New York City in 1893, he started selling illustrations to such magazines as Life, Truth, and Vogue.
However, for reasons that are not clear, he soon turned to writing. His first novel, In the Quarter, a melodrama of student life in Paris, was written in 1887 and was published anonymously in 1894. The King in Yellow appeared in 1895. The success of this collection prompted Chambers to drop art as a career and concentrate on writing.
The King in Yellow contains the following weird stories: “The Repairer of Reputations,” “The Mask,” “In the Court of the Dragon,” “The Yellow Sign,” “The Demoiselle D’Ys,” and “The Prophets’ Paradise.” A common theme of these stories, which are otherwise unrelated, is that those who read the titular play suffer madness or some sort of tragedy. This collection also contains non-horror stories about student life in Paris.
In 1898, he married Elsa Vaughn Moller. They had a son, Robert, who also became a writer. Chambers kept an office in New York City, the address of which was unknown even to his family, where he could write without distraction. The family lived in New York City and were active members of society. They spent the summers at Broadalbin, their 800-acre estate in the Adirondack Mountains. There, Chambers would relax by fishing, hunting, riding horses, and collecting butterflies.
For the next few years, he wrote historical novels and fantastic fiction. Examples of the former are The Red Republic (1895), Lorraine (1896), and Ashes of Empire (1897), which, with The Maids of Paradise (1903), centered around the Franco-Prussian War. In 1906, Chambers turned his pen to contemporary society, using his experiences as a socialite, with six novels, from The Fighting Chance (1906) to The Streets of Ascalon (1912).
In addition to The King in Yellow, his horror writing includes selected stories in the collections The Maker of Moons (1896), The Mystery of Choice (1897), and The Tree of Heaven (1907); all the stories in the collections In Search of the Unknown (1904) and Police!!! (1915); parts of the episodic novel The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906); and the novel The Slayer of Souls (1920), which S.T. Joshi considers “the nadir of his career.”
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Chambers achieved popularity and best-seller status through his romantic and historical fiction. This led to one of the most successful literary careers of the period. His success was spurred by the Women’s Movement, which led women to join the workforce and earn a disposable income, which they spent on books, including his historical and romance novels. These books created an image of Americans of the time, including the working woman, who, for a short time, were called Chambers Girls. Most of these novels were illustrated by Gibson, and, due to his merchandising skills, these females were soon called Gibson Girls. It was said that while Gibson gave an image to turn-of-the-century working women, Chambers gave them a voice.
Chambers also wrote detective fiction; magazine articles on the military, hunting, fishing, and natural history; ballads; children’s tales; and plays, including a couple that were produced in New York: The Witch of Ellangowan (1897) and Iole (1913). Besides the Franco-Prussian War novels, he also wrote series of novels based on the American Revolution, World War I, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the French and Indian Wars. After 1924, Chambers devoted himself exclusively to historical fiction. During his lifetime, at least 26 movies based on his books were produced, from The Reckoning (1908) through Operator 13 (1934).
Chambers started his literary career almost on a whim and did not spend time learning the writer’s craft, so his work varied in quality. Since his early novels were best-sellers, and the uncritical public accepted whatever he wrote, he felt he didn’t need to learn the craft in order to succeed. But the writing that came to him naturally wasn’t necessarily received with critical acclaim. Though H.P. Lovecraft considers “The Yellow Sign” one of his favorite stories, he wrote in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith: “Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans—equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them.” Frederic Taber Cooper commented, “So much of Chambers’s work exasperates, because we feel that he might so easily have made it better.” Chambers himself admitted that his fiction was not great literature.
Chambers died on December 16, 1933, in New York City following abdominal surgery for an intestinal ailment. He was buried at Broadalbin.
Available from Chaosium, Inc., is The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, which is a complete collection of Chambers’ weird short fiction. Ash-Tree Press published a two-volume collection, Out of the Dark, which contain 22 supernatural tales (now out of print). The King in Yellow and some other books can be found in on-line and neighborhood bookstores.