The Novels of Robert W. Chambers

Here is a brief summary of some of the novels of Robert W. Chambers (1865--1933), author of The King in Yellow and many other books. I add entries for titles as I find them and have time to read them.

Some of these books have been reprinted by my own Sattre Press and I may do others.

Also, since these works are in the public domain, when I publish a print version I also make the original text available online. In this way, I hope the books will survive me.

Your comments, suggestions and corrections are always welcome: please e-mail Bill McClain.

Other links:

In the Quarter

1894. His first novel is a tale of doomed love set in the Latin Quarter of Paris, suggestive of La Bohème or the 2001 Moulin Rouge film.

As a first novel it is pretty well done, although characteristically melodramatic in spots. As I worked on editing and typesetting it I came to like it very much. There are many vivid scenes that should not be missed: student painters jammed into the atelier on a hot day, street riots, a fabulous masked ball, the mad street urchin, and the long interlude hunting and fishing at a lodge in the German Alps.

Several characters also appear in The King in Yellow: Braith, Elliot, Clifford, others. Perhaps there is even a glimpse of Rue Barrée.

I was startled to find rather raw anti-semitic content. Further, I think these were the author's own sentiments, at least at the time. I struggled with the decision whether to reprint the book (there are types of publicity I don't need) but in the end chose to do it. It is part of history and should not lost. I decided not to add a introduction discussing the matter; the book is what it is and stands or falls as such.

The printed edition is available from Sattre Press, and the original text is online. The cover of the printed book is a detail of An Academy of Painting by Randolphe Julian, circa 1875. Chambers attended Julian's school, and it, along with the École des Beaux Arts, is often featured in his stories.

The attentive scholar may notice that I have often adjusted the punctuation in the transcription of this book. I have tried not to change the author's meaning, but the original punctuation was very bad. I wonder if typesetters of the period inserted extra commas to make the text justify better?

The King in Yellow

1895. His masterpiece. An unforgettable short story collection divided between a horror theme about a book that drives the reader mad, and French stories of the Quarter. The latter fit together with the author's other early work, and indeed several characters previously appeared in In the Quarter.

I keep a Sattre Press edition in print. I haven't put the text online because other versions already exist; for example, here at Litrix.

The Red Republic

1895. "A Romance of the Commune." I knew next to nothing of the Paris Commune of 1871 before reading this novel, which the author claims is historically accurate, apart from the romance story within it.

The story occurs just a few months after "The Street of the First Shell" in The King in Yellow. After the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War there was a communist insurrection in Paris and a short-lived Reign of Terror in the spring of 1871. The story is exciting (if perhaps a bit too long) and has plenty of fighting, escaping, jumping over walls and wearing disguises; in this sense it is a adventure-romance in the mode of The Prisoner of Zenda, although quite a bit more scary in that the background is based in reality, and quite bloody.

This makes for a strange combination: a lovers' romance intermingled with the anti-romantic details of a gruesome civil war.



The Tree of Heaven

1907. Short stories connected only by a device in the first one, where a character predicts the fates of his dinner companions, each of whom has his own story. Some are "weird tales", others are comic, all have romantic plots. The more serious stories have, as a unifying theme, the need for forgiveness between men and women.

There are several striking eerie passages in the book, but they are just undeveloped fragments.

One comic story is called "The Swastika" (a charm said to be "five thousand times more powerful than a rabbit's foot"). Innocent at the time, it strikes us oddly today. You also see it in Kipling's books printed before the Nazis.

The Firing Line


The Danger Mark


Ailsa Paige


The Common Law

1911. A good romance plot of two difficult people, an artist and his model, but it is too long and has many tedious lectures about the nature of Art and Love. The characters speak like philosophers. Still, I found the opening oddly erotic (Valerie, the model, has never posed nude and doesn't want to admit it) and the finish comes back with a twist that I didn't expect.

[A second opinion: my wife liked it. "A good romance."]

There are echoes of his first book, In the Quarter: the artist is torn between an "acceptable" and an "unacceptable" woman, and there is a party where the unacceptable woman throws flowers to the crowd.

The great moral dilemma is: marriage or living in sin? It is fascinating to see how a previous era grapples with the issue. It is still worth pondering the author's thoughts on "common law" marriage. This is Rita, another model:

That is the only law -- if it is truly a law -- that a woman must ignore. All others it is best for her to observe. And if the laws of marriage are merely man-made or divine, I do not know. There is a din in the world today which drowns the voices preaching old beliefs ... and a girl is deafened by the clamour ... And I don't know.

[...] if a man breaks a man-made law -- founded, we believe, on a divine commandment -- he suffers only in a spiritual and moral sense... And with us it may be more than that. For women, at least, hell is on earth.

[...] The chances are uneven; the odds are unfair. If a man really loves a woman, how can he hazard her in a game of chance that is not square?

The book is dedicated to Charles Dana Gibson, who provides many fine illustrations. My copy also has photos from from an early silent film version; the book was filmed three times before 1932.

The book was a 1911 best-seller.

The Streets of Ascalon

1912. The first third of this Society novel is pretty tough sledding. Neither the characters nor their situations are interesting. Then, after some reversals of fortune, the story markedly improves and I had no trouble getting to the end.

The condition of Strelsa's marriage is described as "unspeakable", "a nightmare of violence, cruelty and depravity unutterable." What are we to make of that, given the book's date? Her husband had been a drunk, said to be vicious, rich, dissipated. Something sexual, but what?

Quarren's work on his new gallery and his art restoration efforts are particularly vivid episodes. As is the drug addiction of another character.

There is only one passage relevant to the Chamber's Anti-Semitism Watch:

A few Jews came -- representing the extreme types of the most wonderful race of people in the world -- one tall, handsome, immaculate young man whose cultivated accent, charming manners, and quiet bearing challenged exception -- and one or two representing the other extreme, loud, restless, aggressive, and as impertinent as they dared be, discussing the canvases in noisy voices and with callous manners verging always on the offensive.

These evinced a disposition for cash deals and bargain-wrangling, discouraged good-naturedly by Quarren who referred them to the catalogue; and presently they took themselves off.

I notice an early use of the word "flapper": a female dancer, more popular in the 1920s. The connotation seems to be of a young bird, specifically a chicken.

Collecting airplanes had already become a rich man's hobby.

Chambers takes a comical poke at radical politics.

Many Charles Dana Gibson illustrations.

The title refers to a passage from the Second Book of Samuel; a city of the Philistines.

The Hidden Children


The Girl Philippa


The Crimson Tide


In Secret

1919. A wartime romance assembled from a jumble of styles. It starts out as a light-hearted spy caper, the sort of thing that ten years later might have been developed into a series: the Miss Evelyn Erith Mysteries. She lives in a mansion, has a chauffeur and a butler, has a talent for cryptography and works for the government reading other people's mail. Her boss is becoming interested in her, but he drops out after the first few chapters, never to be seen again.

When the hero arrives the story takes a serious turn into fighting alcoholism. Then a stint at his estate in Scotland, followed by a long grim period fighting the war as secret agents in the forests of neutral Switzerland. We never find out if the American eagle made it back to England, or how they got out of the underground works.

To Chambers, at this time, the Germans are truly subhuman entities, bestial creatures who deserve to be snuffed out en masse, preferably by gassing them, soldiers and civilians both, in their underground installations. This is all a bit distateful.

We also have the difficult, masochistic relations between the protagonists: in love, living together in the wilderness, hunted and always close to death, but unwilling to express their love and fearful of physical affection. Chambers stretches this dark romance well past the point of reasonable human endurance.

Apart from all that he has vivid accounts of the wilderness, the strange episode with the eagle, and a rather bizarre dream sequence while on ship in the Atlantic.

The book was a 1919 best-seller.

Bill McClain (