Reviewed by Andrew Byers
Robert W. Chambers is probably best known for his creation of the extremely influential story “The King in Yellow,” which, borrowing concepts from Ambrose Bierce, introduced the dread being Hastur, the doomed city Carcosa, and the eponymous madness-inducing play. Indeed, Chambers’ work has enjoyed recent prominence in the first season of HBO’s “True Detective” series. Most contemporary readers of Chambers, myself included, probably don’t understand just how prolific Chambers was, or the full breadth of his work. From the perspective of Chambers’ modern fans who may be more interested in his weird fiction output, it is a shame – but entirely understandable – that Chambers eventually abandoned the weird tale for much more lucrative romances and adventure stories and novels to ultimately become one of the best-selling popular authors of his day. Nevertheless, there are still a great many of Chambers’ lesser-known stories of interest to horror fans. Stark House Press has released an omnibus edition of one of Chambers’ novels (THE SLAYER OF SOULS) and most of a collection of short stories (THE MAKER OF MOONS) that contain supernatural or weird elements.
Before getting to the stories at hand, on the off-chance that you’re not already familiar with Chambers, Lovecraft has this to say about him in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”:
“Very genuine, though not without the typical mannered extravagance of the eighteen-nineties, is the strain of horror in the early work of Robert W. Chambers….THE KING IN YELLOW, a series of vaguely connected short stories having as a background a monstrous and suppressed book whose perusal brings fright, madness, and spectral tragedy, really achieves notable heights of cosmic fear in spite of uneven interest and a somewhat trivial and affected cultivation of the Gallic studio atmosphere made popular by Du Maurier’s TRILBY. The most powerful of its tales, perhaps, is “The Yellow Sign”, in which is introduced a silent and terrible churchyard watchman with a face like a puffy grave-worm’s. A boy, describing a tussle he has had with this creature, shivers and sickens as he relates a certain detail. ‘Well, sir, it’s Gawd’s truth that when I ’it ’im ’e grabbed me wrists, sir, and when I twisted ’is soft, mushy fist one of ’is fingers come off in me ’and.’ An artist, who after seeing him has shared with another a strange dream of a nocturnal hearse, is shocked by the voice with which the watchman accosts him. The fellow emits a muttering sound that fills the head like thick oily smoke from a fat-rendering vat or an odour of noisome decay. What he mumbles is merely this: ‘Have you found the Yellow Sign?’”
The first half of this collection is the novel THE SLAYER OF SOULS. It’s a tale straight out of the pulp fiction of the era: Tressa Norne, a young American woman was raised and trained by the Yezidee, a cult of Asiatic black magicians and psychic assassins with plans to take over the world. The young woman, and the Secret Service agent assigned to protect her and with whom she falls in love, are all that stand in the way of their nefarious plot. The action is rapid and brutal, with liberal use of psychic and occult forces as well as more mundane means of dispensing death.
The book’s second half is comprised of short stories drawn from Chambers’ THE MAKER OF MOONS collection. The eponymous story “The Maker of Moons” kicks things off with a story drawn from Chinese mythology (this story is linked with the next two: “The Silent Land” and “Black Water”). The narrator meets and falls in love with a mysterious woman named Ysonde, who he initially thinks may be a phantom or product of his imagination. She hails from Yian, a place that lies far away and can, perhaps, be accessed from a gateway that lies in the heart of China. The narrator also encounters Ysonde’s stepfather Yue Lao, the “old man under the moon,” and god of marriage and love in traditional Chinese folklore. Here, Yue Lao is the leader of the Kuen-Yuin, a band of Chinese sorcerers, and has corrupted the Xin (spirits, also from Chinese mythology), transforming them into monsters. Chambers’ prose is poetic and enchanting, producing dream-like tableaus.
I enjoyed this collection of Chambers’ work, and mostly recommend it, but with a few caveats: the stories are very much products of their time, and come off more than a little dated. They reward slow, careful reading by a patient reader who is content to allow Chambers the leisure to lead him or her along on a meandering path at times. That slowness of pace meant that my mind tended to drift at times and I had to force myself back to concentrate on the story at hand. I should also note that, with regard to the occasionally dated themes, both THE SLAYER OF SOULS and the eponymous tale “The Maker of Moons” are part of the Yellow Peril genre (think Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu if you haven’t read any Yellow Peril literature yet), so they are very much products of their time and a particular kind of paranoia about Asian dominance of the world. If that’s not your thing, than give this omnibus a pass.