The Ring in Yellow
One of the most powerfully eerie horror movies I have seen is The Ring. I was fortunate to see it one afternoon when not another soul was present in the theatre. When it was done, I rose to my feet and said one word: “Damn.” The depiction of someone literally scared to death was the most effective and the most horrifying I had ever seen. And that was just the beginning.
When I returned home, my daughter Victoria asked me what I thought of it. I told her how impressive the movie was, but I said I didn’t know if I’d want to expose myself to it again. But she was curious, and I soon agreed to take her to see it. I was glad I did. Later Victoria told me that The Ring was so frightening to her that it actually purged her of minor but persistent frights that used to plague her when she would hear little noises in the house at night. After she saw The Ring, no more of that. Wow!
I saw the sequel which had its strong points but was inevitably disappointing. I also read the whole trilogy by Koji Suzuki and was amazed! At the end of the first book I thought I knew what was going on, only to have the rug yanked out from under me when I read the second book. Same thing when I read the third. What an imagination!
What does any of this rambling have to do with the theme of this issue, Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow? Much in every way, for it suddenly dawned on me just a few minutes ago how strikingly similar is The King to The Ring. Specifically “The Yellow Sign.” Both involve an artist of Bohemian habits and his female companion. But the main thing is the premise: The play The King in Yellow has a peculiar potency to drive every reader to despair and suicide. The untitled, unlabeled videocassette in The Ring has much the same effect, only worse. The film is almost an update, a modernization of Chambers’s classic tale. Samarra (Saduko in the book) is equivalent to the squishy maggot-man who delivers the Yellow Sign to the hapless readers of the soul-damning play.
Did Koji Suzuki have Chambers in mind? I doubt it. Did Chambers have in mind Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”? Less improbable, though there are striking similarities there, too. (They inspired my own tale, “The Mask of the Yellow Death.”) Did Lovecraft get the idea for the Necronomicon from the King in Yellow? Some have suggested so, but I think that hypothesis has failed. But these dread tomes are fungible (that does mean the same thing as “interchangeable,” right? Naturally I want to use “fungible” because of the similarity to “fungi.”), as witness the substitution of The King in Yellow (the fictive play, not the Chambers book) for Huysmans’ Against the Grain in my collaboration with the mighty talented Roger Johnson, “In Memoriam” in the anthology Rehearsal for Oblivion. (Sorry for the obnoxious self-promotion.)
I’m sure you can come up with other parallels to the premise of “The King in Yellow.” Probably M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes” as well as the rather different adaptation Night f the Demon would qualify, for instance. I think it is significant that the great power of the common premise of these various works is measured by the fact that its shared use is not immediately evident. It functions as a common underlying genotype, yet fleshes itself out in very different phenotypes.
Robert M. Price is an American theologian and writer. He teaches philosophy and religion at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary, is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, and the author of a number of books on theology and the historicity of Jesus, including Deconstructing Jesus (2000), The Reason Driven Life (2006), Jesus is Dead (2007), Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis in Biblical Authority (2009), The Case Against the Case for Christ (2010), and The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul (2012).
A former Baptist minister, he was the editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism from 1994 until it ceased publication in 2003, and has written extensively about the Cthulhu Mythos, a “shared universe” created by the writer H. P. Lovecraft.
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