THE DEEP ONES: "In the Court of the Dragon" by Robert W. Chambers
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"In the Court of the Dragon" by Robert W. Chambers
Discussion begins on January 10, 2018.
First published in The King in Yellow (1895)
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
The King in Yellow
The Yellow Sign and Other Stories: The Complete Weird Tales of Robert W. Chambers
Online for me, as is my standard.
That first link under MISCELLANY is a must, including perhaps a few of the links leading from it. I don't think there are spoilers, but to be safe perhaps best left for afterward.
I had this one confused in my memory with some other story from The King in Yellow, and it's even better than I remembered. I mean, the whole thing is sort of a non sequitur standing on its own, but if you've got the jauniste lore in the background, it's really effective.
Quite by accident, my most recent play of Arkham Horror: The Card Game was very strongly rooted in this story: my daughter and I played the Phantom of Truth scenario which put us in Paris, where we eventually succumbed to the Organist enemy introduced there, and the "spires of Carcosa" rose as our sanity declined.
I enjoyed this fairly brief vignette. The line near the end, "...now I knew while my body sat safe in the cheerful little church, he had been hunting my soul in the Court of the Dragon", is really striking. I also enjoyed the evocation of Parisian landmarks and streets, from the Bois de Boulogne to the Court of the Dragon itself.
Similarly to "The Repairer of Reputations", this story raises the question how much of what the narrator relates is real. Much of the story is a dream, of course; but the narrator believes it to be somehow real anyway: "I knew while my body sat safe in the cheerful little church, he had been hunting my soul in the Court of the Dragon." Conversely, what about the end - actual transportation to Carcosa or hallucination?
Yes, it's a visionary experience, and thus "realer than real." The contemptuous woman in the church thinks the speaker has been sleeping, but I think he has been jolted into a fugal fantasy by his contact with the organist.
The final paragraph:
Death and the awful abode of lost souls, whither my weakness long ago had sent him, had changed him for every other eye but mine. And now I heard his voice, rising, swelling, thundering through the flaring light, and as I fell, the radiance increasing, increasing, poured over me in waves of flame. Then I sank into the depths, and I heard the King in Yellow whispering to my soul: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!”The referent of the pronoun "him" is, I think, the organist, who is now revealed to be the King in Yellow himself. The quote of Hebrews 10:31 seems to evoke the demiurge of Carcosa (whoever that might be!).
What do you suppose is "my weakness" mentioned here by the speaker? Perhaps it is reading in occult and forbidden texts, such as The King in Yellow (note also: "I had read of such things happening, too, but not in works on architecture.") But I don't see how that could have sent the organist/King to "Death and the awful abode of lost souls." Or is the weakness a trust in the safety and comfort of Christian religion?
I too wondered what the weakness was supposed to be: it reads like the narrator has somehow failed the King, who is now meting out punishment. A few paragraphs before he* says "I had recognized him almost from the first", which doesn't jive very well with his earlier confusion that a stranger should hate him so. Maybe he's assuming the identity of some Carcosan who failed the King? I admit I'm reading this in the light of pastiches where our-world characters are drawn into the Carcosan drama.
* I'm taking the narrator to be male, but there seems to be only circumstantial evidence for this in the first person text. A woman of the late nineteenth century** would be very unlikely to be a middle-aged student living alone in Paris, frex.
** The story doesn't strictly speaking date itself either, but the church was built not much over a hundred years ago in the eighteenth century, and "The Yellow Sign" appears to date itself and "The Repairer of Reputations" to roughly the time of writing, despite the chronological ideas of the narrator of the latter. It's surely natural to take all four as roughly contemporary.
I also found this brief tale effective and evocative, despite the questions it raises as to how much is imagined and how much is "realer than real". The answer depends, I think, more upon the reader than the text. I am inclined toward the visionary reading and the impact of the story consequently is all the more horrifying.
>6 paradoxosalpha: What do you suppose is "my weakness" mentioned here by the speaker?
I wondered about that, even a few lines earlier in the text. I find the key paragraph to come just before that passage quoted by paradoxosalpha:
That which gave him the power over me came back out of oblivion, where I had hoped to keep it. For I knew him now. Death and the awful abode of lost souls, whither my weakness long ago had sent him — they had changed him for every other eye, but not for mine.
I do like the idea the "weakness" is the narrator's Christian faith.
A question often put to our Weird tales is a propos here: just how is the narrator writing this? Unaccountable though the story is, it's more effective for being written this way, and I easily leave aside the question of provenance.
Maybe the organist is some kind of symbolic doppelganger. I half expected that to be the case, but it works better without a direct explanation. The Coulthart link above calls this the "weakest" of the King in Yellow stories. Its Wikipedia entry calls it the "most mysterious".
paradoxosalpha already supplied the source of the closing line, naming it as from Hebrews 10:31.
I note here two other instances.
The epigraph concerns Omar Khayyam, and the lines are identified by Edward FitzGerald as originating not in the Rubaiyat proper but "a notice prefixed to the (Calcutta) MS", and "supposed ... to have arisen from a Dream, in which Omar's mother asked about his future fate". It's difficult to parse, but I think FitzGerald translates the Tetrastich, and it is these lines which Chambers chooses for the epigraph.
The other instance is from a sonnet which marks the shift in the narrator's focus, from the activity of the Mass to an unprecedented "desire to mock". The three lines from a sonnet are:
The skirts of St. Paul has reached.
Interestingly, these few lines actually are a sonnet quoted in another poem, and they are the only lines of that sonnet quoted. The sonnet itself is mocked by Robert Browning in his poem "Up at a Villa -- Down in the City". (I found this discussion of Browning's poem of interest, and link it here for my own reference.)
I suspect that the odd thesis of the sermon in the church is not irrelevant to the action and outcome of the story:
“Nothing can really harm the soul,” he went on, in, his coolest, clearest tones, “because ——”The "lower end of the church" could be a figure for the depths of the speaker's mind, where the organist (or whatever he represents) has been admitted. The invulnerability of the soul seems flatly contradicted by the end of the story, and this whole arrangement lends a little support to my notion that the speaker's "weakness" is his Christian sentiment and a jejune belief that the benevolent power of God will protect him from infernal powers. Going a step further, one might posit that the Christian deity is not a "living God" but the power that presides over Carcosa is.
Yes, this one is a puzzler.
To me, this 1895 story seems to be an inside-out echo of Ambrose's Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" from 1890. Rather than a fantasy of escape into life in the few seconds between a man's fall and a noose snapping his neck, a vision in current time, here the narrator has a vision of future death. In both visions, there is flight by the protagonist to a familiar home.
I got the sense of some repressed memory of the narrator, some memory of a grave sin. "There began to dawn in me a sense of responsibility for something long forgotten. It began to seem as if I deserved that which he threatened; it reached a long way back -- a long, long way back. It had lain dormant all these years ...
And we hear the narrator say when he first came to the Court of the Dagon it was long ago and he was "not alone". Did the narrator kill a relative, friend, lover?
I don't know what to make of the narrator saying "I was worn out by three nights of physical suffering and mental trouble". I think three is chosen for symbolic significance, but of what? The three days and nights of Christ in his tomb with the narrator being, in a sense, resurrected to a new world where he gets to meet a "living god"?
Nor do I think it an accident that we hear of a dragon, frequent symbol of Satan though this is no simple-minded tale of Satanic menace.
As a pure aside, I liked the narrator, denying the reality of instrumental music having anything "more than melody and harmony".
And, as a matter of pure speculation, I wonder if Chambers was doing a dark riff on Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven" from 1893.
>11 paradoxosalpha: Going a step further, one might posit that the Christian deity is not a "living God" but the power that presides over Carcosa is.
Alternatively, the Christian god is not benevolent as the narrator and the Monseigneur believe. This would fit well with the epigraph.
I just lost a post, so quicker version: very much liked the prose in this story, especially the first third and its description of the Church of St. Barnabé (architecture and "the labyrinth of sounds"). I anticipated from this beginning that the plot would be restricted to the Church itself, and was faintly surprised when the narrator "leaves" to wander Paris.
There was something Jamesian in the careful observations, too, particularly in that passage when he notices the malevolent organist "passing along the gallery the same way" (when there had been no time for him to return to the organ room before walking again down the passage).
I read this in The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, edited by S T Joshi. Joshi's introduction which doesn't spare Chambers for the lack of quality control across the entirety of his literary career, has worried me a bit. I don't really understand what this story is about, the "world building" behind the King in Yellow, the relation of the narrator to the sinister organist, the connection between Carcosa and both of them, and so on. Joshi has made me worry that there is less to this story than there seems - that's it's largely effect.
That's not a final opinion, though. I'm still mulling over this story.
One stray observation - that discussion of the nave near the start of the story - that in medieval churches the nave is less sacred than other parts of the church structure, and in some cases might not be blessed at all - it seems like the set-up for an antiquarian M. R James-type tale, only to subvert it and throw it away. It seems a wry, even post-modern moment (and I can't decide if the fact that Chambers wrote this when James had barely got going, makes it more or less post-modern).
I very much felt that MR James effect! The focus on the church layout and terminology (chancel, gallery, nave, vespers) was a large part of my expectation for a tale set entirely within the Church.
Reading Chambers's entire Carcosan oeuvre would be a small task, in addition to this one there's just three other stories:
"The Repairer of Reputations"
"The Yellow Sign"
Reading them will explain some things from this story, though by no means all - plenty in the quartet will remain mysterious, hinted at rather than explained. For me, that's part of the appeal.
Thanks for the encouragement. I've read "The Mask" now, so I have read all four stories, although "The Repairer of Reputations" and "The Yellow Sign" were some time ago.
I'm going to attempt a close (re-)reading of "In the Court of the Dragon" in light of the comments here, and armed with the knowledge that there isn't a great deal of explanation in the other stories (I thought there might be, when the Joseph Pulver story"Chasing Shadows" came up as a selection in 2016. Now, I'd suggest that the demi-monde earthbound settings of Chambers stories had been transplanted to Carcosa in that story (and maybe also in other continuations/extrapolations? - see the link to a "King in Yellow" entry on Wikipedia via Chambers' own entry in >1 KentonSem:).
On a Chambersian front, I just posted a review of A Season in Carcosa, a collection Carcosan stories by latter-day authors. Looking at paradoxosalpha's review of same, I see we both name "MS Found in a Chicago Hotel Room" and "Whose Hearts Are Pure Gold" among our favorites.
Unlike him, I didn't read the collection with any excess speed: I bought it back in 2012, and have been reading the occasional story or three since, finishing the last few today.
Thanks for the heads-up. Those two stories were notable. The one you remarked as the bottom of the pile I can't even recall, though maybe it's just a matter of matching the title to the content.
I might tackle another one of these latter-day Carcosan anthologies soon. I recently acquired a copy of Cassilda's Song.
I've got Cassilda's Song lying about in the TBR pile too, so we may one day end up with parallel reviews of that one too.
I read down to post 13 but want to read Owl Creek on my Kobo/ebook before getting to the rest. I will collect a few thoughts until then.
I cannot begin to imagine what the author was thinking as he composed this story. I can only reflect on my own impressions and experience for a lens into it, like a fly on the wall... I see but don't know.
1. It made me grin stem to stern, finding nothing ominous, going in knowing it was a dream, re: A Twilight discussion.
2. I liked the use of music as a 'negative' or disconcerting factor, when normally it is fine-tuned to a ridiculous degree, to inspire awe in the congregation and a sense of wholesome jubilance in the sacred experience. The initial hunt observation set the tone rather than a lullaby or exaltation.
3. The hunter was not looking at him when seated on the bench outside which fostered an idea of paranoia. The figure caught up then overtook him. He passed him in the crowd coming toward him. The photo of the court and balcony with dragon support was not at all as I'd visualized it.
4. I must be a simpleton but I saw weakness as sin. He felt guilt for something in his past which he had either confessed and still carried in his depths, or something in his earlier life he should have sought penance for but did not. Perhaps at the time it happened he felt in the right, but as he aged, there was a shift in perspective. My first thought was a tie in to the 'I was young then and not alone' comment about his arrival at the court.
5. I assumed it was a man, also; with a woman alone on the streets of Paris after Vespers inviting a whole new slew of fears, not just the organist.
6. The narrator seemed to be extremely logical (architect) and well-mannered, who would not intentionally disrespect anyone inside or outside the church. The fact that he enjoyed the solace of the place is not unusual or impious. He hoped for health restoration after a 3-day literary bender. We've all been there, non? I saw no lapse into mockery until he was in snooze mode. And as priests often note, dreams themselves are not sinful, our subsequent actions may be...
7. I loved the opening lines with the Fear of God clarity mixed with the 'fear vs. mourning' element. Where is Thomas Aquinas when I need him? He could suss out the faith vs. reason comment at the same time. =)
8. The story is called Court of the Dragon not St.Barnabas. The face-off against the darkness of mining fossilized memories. Every soul matters. Those already lost had their chance. Perhaps he hopes Purgatory is where his lost love is?
More in store once research accomplished. I know nothing about this yellow monarch!
PS - I recall being confused about mortal vs. venial sin as a kid learning the Butler Catechism (my dad's), worried that some serious action would rocket me to Hell without me knowing why. It wasn't until much later that I understood what I knew. The culpibility factor of full knowledge and consent. This guy might be grappling with the same issues before he yanks his head out of the sand. Hello Mr. Ostrich! Maybe the organist personifies mortal sin. He fears final Judgement if his soul cannot be purified adequately before death.
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