Apr 25

The Repairer of Reputations


Wow, what a great double episode about a fantastic story! (And I'm very happy about the hints that your planning to do more of the King in Yellow stories.) I have a lot of thoughts, so I'll try to gather some of them all here.


First of all, Hildred Castaigne: what an interesting protagonist. My first reaction is that he fits well into the types of characters we already discussed with relation to The Frolic and The Insanity of Jones. Has he really had some kind of world-shattering revelation, or is he actually insane? Once again, we have the ambiguity that allows for us to read the story either way. On the surface, I think we're supposed to read it that Hildred is insane: he's already had some problems following his accident and now is relapsing under the influence of The King in Yellow and Mr Wilde. The main clue here is the way Louis dismisses Hildred's tiara and safe. The reader is more inclined to take Louis's dismissal at face value than to accept that Hildred has some kind of secret crown gifted to him by a mysterious entity, and it's a shame we don't get an external opinion on the robes he's wearing at the end to bolster this. If, on the other hand, we want to argue that Hildred has had some kind of revelation, we could point to the fact that the King in Yellow is also described as a king in tatters/tattered king, in which case a trinket kept in a biscuit box would be an appropriate symbol of authority for his chosen representative. The other clue here is in Hawberk's reaction to Hildred's suggestion that he is the exiled Marquis of Avonshire, which absolutely might hint that he knows more than he's letting on. But ultimately I think the way the story is written suggests that we are supposed to read Hildred as insane and not take his perspective at face value (though how much of the story that extends to is an open question).


Based on him being the titular 'repairer of reputations', I actually think Mr Wilde is the central character and crucial to understanding what's going on. We get so little about him that it's hard to say anything for certain (even if this adds to the ambiguous nature of the story): we don't even get a proper explanation of what a 'repairer of reputations' is! Based on Hawberk's reaction to the sign that Wilde puts up, the 'real-world' explanation is that it's just something nonsensical made up by a madman (if Hawberk is just a normal person and not actually the Marquis of Avonshire). The implication is that, as you pointed out in the recap episode, it's some kind of anti-blackmailer, which still doesn't make a whole lot of sense.


What I think is actually going on here is that Hildred and Mr Wilde are not only involved in some kind of revelation/delusion that they share with each other, but that Wilde has drawn a whole bunch of other people into it too (presumably by facilitating their reading of the play The King in Yellow). His clients (the people whose reputations he is supposed to be repairing) aren't who he claims they are. Like Hildred, Wilde has given these people new, important identities in order to give the revelation/delusion a grander scope beyond the mundanity of the lives they all lead. Wilde has convinced Hildred that he is vital to Hildred's mission to take what is rightfully his; with the others, Wilde has convinced them he is the only one who can repair their reputations and made them terrified of the consequences (not just financial) of crossing him. They are all completely cowed to Wilde as the dominant personality within the shared revelation/delusion, except Hildred, who retains some autonomy/authority as the Wilde's chosen heir of the imperial title.


So, it is a shared revelation or a shared delusion? It depends what we make of the other central element: the play The King in Yellow. Is it just a play that drives people insane, or is it the tool of some sort of malign entity that reveals something of the true nature of the universe to those who read it? This and the nature of the documents concerning the Imperial Dynasty of America are part of the ambiguity of the story. It's possible that Wilde is just using these to manipulate people because he has some kind of extreme god complex. But then again, Louis reads the Imperial documents and, even though he dismisses them, there is an implication he sees something there that disturbs him beyond just the ramblings of a madman. Glenn made a good case for there being something fundamentally wrong with Mr Wilde, physically as well as mentally. The cat could be another clue here. Lovecraft uses cats to suggest paranormal/supernatural goings on in his writings, and Chambers could be doing something similar here: is the cat's hatred of Wilde not just a result of his teasing it, but that it knows who/what he really is? It does kill him at the crux of the conspiracy coming to fruition after all. But then why was he keeping the cat in the first place? Nevertheless, we have the possibility that Mr Wilde is some kind of prophet of the King in Yellow (the entity rather than the play).


I already said that I think we are supposed to read Hildred as insane, and I feel like that's the case for Wilde as well: he's insane himself but also manipulating other insane people into sharing some kind of delusion. There are definitely enough clues and ambiguities to suggest the opposite reading though, and I really like the idea that the King in Yellow uses lowly people and things (the 'insane' Mr Wilde, worthless trinkets) to achieve his goals. What those goals are is kind of the big hole in the story if we want argue for the revelation reading though. Beyond just driving people insane, what is the King really trying to achieve? Was this actually an attempt to overthrow the American government and establish the Imperial Dynasty on its throne (eventually leading to the conquest of the world)? If so, it seems a bit feeble to have been stopped so easily. Or is the King just an inter-dimensional anarchist? If so, why target Hildred?


Right, last thing (for now): the world building. I actually really liked this element of the story. I mean, I didn't like the world that Chambers built as such, but I appreciate the effort of setting the scene. (Maybe like Glenn I just have too much of a fondness for world-building RPG books.) I admit that when I read the story I took this straightforwardly as a reflection of what Chambers himself thought would make America a better country (with all that that's a damning indictment of his own political beliefs, from a modern perspective). But I think you made some really convincing arguments that he might actually be parodying that kind of nationalism. I'm not sure about the joke names - I thought they were just an Anglophone author trying to make up some generic sounding foreign names to be honest: the brandy link is intriguing though (and Hawberk is just way too on the nose). Going beyond just this story, it's clear from the others in the series that Chambers had a real fondness for French artistic culture (although there's probably an element of parody there too), so I'm sure he's not trying to claim that getting rid of all foreign influence in America would be a good thing. I also haven't read anything else by Chambers, though, so I can't say anything conclusive.


Actual last thing. On the subject of names, I just want to touch on Avonshire, since Glenn was so dismissive of it. It's absolutely not a nonsense name, and I don't think Chambers was using it as such. The Avon is a real river in England (yes, it's one of our many geographical features that has a name that just means the same thing in two languages), so there are three possibilities for Avonshire. 1) Hildred has a very poor knowledge of English geography. 2) England has had a reorganisation of the counties in this fictional version of 1920 (not impossible, reorganisations happened in 1888, 1972 and 1997), and Avonshire is now a county (presumably) in the West Midlands. 3) Avonshire is part of a secret hidden world, like the Imperial Dynasty of America, and the Marquis of Avonshire is somehow involved in whatever's going on (whether the current holder of the title wants to be or not). The fact that neither Louis nor Hildred can marry the daughter of the Marquis is also intriguing: the ostensible goal is to conquer the world, so why not marry a foreigner? There must be even more layers to this than what the story tells us.


As usual, more ambiguities and questions than answers, but that's the way we like it!

Apr 25Edited: Apr 25

Wow, we really dropped the ball on the title of the story, but you've picked it up an run with it. Seeing Wilde as the title character and therefore central to the story really opens it up. To my mind this reinforces the possibility that Mr. Wilde is truly an agent of the King in Yellow -- a supernatural being of some sort -- and that he has an agenda. Pointing to the cat here is also excellent, and your subtle advice to pay more attention to cats is well taken. This is an awesome catch and has me wanting to revisit the story immediately.


I stand by my reading of Avonshire as a nonsense name on two counts. First (and I'm happy to be corrected on this) "shires" are all named after the city of which they are the hinterland. Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, and so on. I don't think there is a single one of them named after a river, which makes sense because rivers cross through all sorts of other boundaries. Second, there is not a river Avon in England, but five distinct rivers with that name precisely because it is just a generic word (we can think of Beorn here) so if it is the area around the river Avon we would have to ask which river Avon -- Shakespeare's or one of the other ones?


Finally, I suspect that you are right about the nature of the silly names. It is quite plausible -- likely, even -- that Chambers is making of German and Germans rather than winking at the reader and that it's really part of his dislike for (some) non-Americans. This is the question I'm most looking forward to thinking more about as we dig deeper into the collection and into some of Chambers's other stories.


Oh yes, also, this does indeed feel like "The Insanity of Jones" and "The Frolic." I'm not sure how we wound up with so many insanity stories in our first batch, but something might be wrong with our twenty-sided die.

Apr 26

You are probably right about Avonshire, although I don't think our readings are mutually exclusive - after all, there are a lot of things about this story that are nonsensical but worth unpacking. You're certainly right about the way shires are named (following historical naming conventions). But rivers don't always cross through boundaries, they can also form them (such as the River Waveney forming most of the boundary between Norfolk and Suffolk (the inhabitants of which are the 'folk' North and South of the river)). That doesn't necessarily support my reading of course, because it would be very odd for an area to be named explicitly after one of its boundary features - as far as I'm aware that isn't a thing.


Counties named after rivers may not be a thing in England, but in France there are both regions and departments that contain rivers in their names (I'm not sure which is the closer equivalent of the English county to be completely honest), so there is a precedent, even if not a particularly strong one (but we should bear in mind Chambers's fondness for France here).


As for "which Avon?", I confess that my mind immediately went to the one associated with Shakespeare, but I'd be willing to bet that's the one most people would have in mind, especially if they're not English (and apparently even if they are). So I stand by my reading that if Chambers intended Avonshire to be a 'real' county in his version of the 1920s, it would probably be in the West Midlands. But actually I prefer the reading that the Marquis of Avonshire is part of a secret hierarchy, the English/British equivalent of whoever the Imperial Dynasty of America's aristocracy are. So Avonshire doesn't have to be a 'real' county as such because as far as 99% of people are aware it doesn't even exist. That leaves the question of the area of the marquis's jurisdiction open, but we don't even know within the context of the story if he's real or just a figment of Wilde's/Hildred's delusion, so I'm ok with that.


So fine, I concede that Avonshire is a nonsense name if we read it literally in the context of the real world, but that's hardly what we're dealing with here. I mean, there's probably more important elements of the story that we could be discussing instead. Like the cat for example!


For what it's worth, I actually think it's good that we've had so many insanity stories. It's great to see these parallels and think about what they mean in the genre of weird fiction. It's a very different kind of insanity than we find in Lovecraft, too, where the odd things tend to be more externally verifiable (i.e., even if the narrator goes insane at the end, we're not necessarily given any reason to doubt that they genuinely encountered Deep Ones/Cthulhu/whatever).

@Karanthir There's an entire article to be written about the imaginary names in this story.

I have a question. Could the character of Mr. Wilde be a reference to Oscar Wilde who would have been scandalous at the time. He was sentenced to jail in 1895 for homosexuality. The description of the characters would be in line with a Victorian/ Puritan take on homosexuality. Also the corrupting play would seem to play into this idea.

Yes, this is an interesting idea. Many of the themes in Chambers's collection The King in Yellow appear also in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, including masks, which will show up in the next Chambers story. I really have no idea how much Chambers comments on homosexuality in his other works, which are mostly in the romance genre, but given the topicality of "The Repairer of Reputations," I can see Chambers being interested in Wilde and his trial.

Two great podcast episodes indeed! As a not-American (but Dutchman) it was a real revelation to me how to interpret the first part of the story, the world building (namely as a dystopian parody - I think you're right in that).


(Totally besides: in The Netherlands there really is a socio-political discussion about how far we can go with facilitating suicide (and euthanasia), but of course here it is not about how to get rid of 'inferior' people as is in this story.)


Daniel Falch already asked the question I had in mind about a possible reference to Oscar Wilde, so that one's settled.


Concerning the madnesses in the other stories (The Frolic and especially The Insanity of Jones), I think the madness in this story is of a totally different kind, if we look to the intention of the author. Here it hasn't to do with the psychological insights of insanity, I think, but as a means to mirror the insanity of nationalism (a la KKK), made sarcastically clear at the beginning of the story.

I like to quote Karanthir here:

'Beyond just driving people insane, what is the King really trying to achieve? Was this actually an attempt to overthrow the American government and establish the Imperial Dynasty on its throne (eventually leading to the conquest of the world)? If so, it seems a bit feeble to have been stopped so easily. Or is the King just an inter-dimensional anarchist? If so, why target Hildred?'

Maybe Chambers wants to show us that the 'sect' of extreme nationalists is just as insane a group of people as the insane 'Sarcosan royalists' (whatever that is) lead (or misused) by the King in Yellow. I don't think the KiY is an anarchist, but in a way a symbol of the insanity of a leader and his group, guiding people into the madness of a extremist idea. The taboo on the play mirrors the taboo on the truth that systems like nationalism or following/serving a nationalist (or maybe fascist) leader will end into disaster.


But if we are to read this tale solely as a sort of doubled-up dystopia of political madness, then we don't appreciate the tale as it is in other aspects, then it won't be a weird story after all (because we have then 'solved' the tale, and weird tales aren't to be solved).

Chambers' world building in the first part is clean and clear, but his other one, the one about Carcosa and the other places ('just as insane') isn't build but only hinted at and suggested. That makes the Carcosan world mysterious, it makes the King in Yellow, the 'pallid Mask' eerie, unknown, weird (is he an alien, is this about other dimensions?). And even if this is 'made up', the play exists and is feared. The fear of the unknown, of the things that are 'above' us, to which we have no hold, that are more powerfull than we are - that is weird fiction.

I haven't read the other stories of the King in Yellow yet, but I presume that the weird element of Carcosa and the King, or at least the hints at it - and of course the maddening play itself - will make all these stories weird fiction, not political dystopia.


Cassilda's song about desparacy and lonely grief would be the central theme of the book, according to the podcast - but if this is so (and I assume it is), then maybe we have to look at this aspect in this tale a bit more: here the desperacy and lonely grief lies within the suicidials - but are they suicidal because of the nationalist system or because they read The King in Yellow (or maybe the combination of the two)? And it lies also within the play itself. Carcosa is also full of grief: is this also some form of mirroring or something different? Just some questions, I don't have the answer.


Quote Karanthir: ' As usual, more ambiguities and questions than answers, but that's the way we like it!'


May 13

Some excellent points! And since you quoted me I will provide a short response.


I actually quite like the idea of the King in Yellow and the Sarcosan Royalists (yes, I'm borrowing that label) reflecting the madness of the extreme nationalism at work in the world building section of the story. I have no idea if that's what Chambers intended but it seems like a perfectly valid meta reading of the story (what with 'death of the author' and all that).


I think that is also the key to not necessarily 'solving' the story - separating us as the audience from the internal universe within the story. For us there could be a mirror between two kinds of 'madness' (the political madness of the nationalists and the insanity of Hildred and Wilde), whereas to the inhabitants of the world Chambers has created, the King in Yellow and Carcosa et al are real threats to the sanity of individuals and the stability of society. Of course, as you say, they are only 'real' in a sense because they remain unknown (and unknowable by humans?).


Fear of the unknown is so important to weird fiction, but (for me at least), part of the fun is enjoying the eerie and mysterious elements of the story for what they are, but also trying to find 'rational' explanations as part of the meta-reading - the story as external to itself. So, for my part, when I come up with 'explanations' of the weird elements (shared delusions or whatever), it is certainly not meant to denigrate the weirdness of the tales. It's more just as post-modern thought experiment.


Very minor spoiler alert: Chambers does not touch the world building in the rest of the stories, and they remain very much weird tales rather than political dystopias. Although that begs the question of why he put so much effort into the world building in this story. I suppose the suicide booths are an important element in a way. I'm not sure about the rest though. Maybe this suggests that Chambers did intend for Hildred's plot to be a mirror for the nationalist politics.

Thanks for the response! Again, all of it interesting to me.

You are right when you say that weird fiction is less 'weird' (or denigrated) when the reader tries to rationalize the story. Indeed, the atmosphere of the eerie and mystery, the fear of the unknown still keeps lingering in tales like these, whatever the explanation. Mystery of course inherently gives rise to looking for an answer.

Maybe McDorman and/or Budda have ideas about why this specific tale has this world building thing, as opposed to the other tales?

I'm very curious about the rest of The King in Yellow (it's just, I read too many books next to each other, a very irritating habit - but I will read the rest of it soon).

I won't to spoil too much, but the stories in the collection don't all take place in the same speculative setting -- itself kind of a strange feature of the collection.


And thank you for reminding us not to lose sight of the epigram at the beginning of the collection. I think it's likely that we'll do "The Mask" later this year, and we'll have to keep that in mind.

Sep 4Edited: Sep 4

I'm listening to these podcasts out of order, so I will jump back to this one. As usual, great job. My take on the world-building aspects of this unusual future is that it is, after all, told from the viewpoint of an insane man, and is itself suspect in terms of its reality. Even the timeframe, set in the near future from the time it is written, is as suspect as the other details Hildred relates. I haven't read the other stories in the volume, but my understanding is that the political setting and future setting for the 1st story is not carried through to the others. Oddly enough, while writing this there was a commercial on TV for a company that restores people's reputations - it sounds like they will search the internet to remove offensive statements and promote positive stories about the client, and suppress negative search results. So becoming a Restorer of Reputations could be a thing now. I understand there are references to the King in Yellow in the 1st season of the HBO series "True Detective", I'm going to have to watch that.

Wow, a new career possibility for me. But that sounds like it's straight out of a Philip K. Dick nightmare.


Yes, this speculative setting is not carried through to the other stories -- though some of them take place in another imaginary future. I'm really looking forward to getting to some of those other stories and then eventually to talking about the collection as a whole, because it's rather a strange beast.


I loved the first season of True Detective, but it is fairly disturbing, so tread cautiously.

@G.L. McDorman I had to deal with a lot of people who suffered from mental delusions, some quite severe, on my old job. Oddly, I never heard from anyone who claimed to be living in a different year in the future or past (although one man claimed to be a time traveler from the future). Temporal delusions, if that is what Hildred is suffering, would seem to be very rare.

I read this story a few years ago and the following take on it did not occur to me, but it seemed very obvious this time (but in another few years, I might think this was the most ludicrous reading ever). I guess reading a lot of Gene Wolfe has trained me to look for all the missing pieces (whether they are there or not) in the off-hand mentioned details. So...


Hildred says of the author of The King in Yellow, “I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth.” I can see an artist who had achieved such a thing as believing it impossible to ever top it and so deciding to kill themselves.


After he had written The King in Yellow, attempted suicide, failed, and spent four years recovering, Hildred wrote the long future alternate history introduction. His version of reality is distorted (as all of our views are to one extent or another) and includes the suicide booths and social and government acceptance of suicide because his suicide attempt is what lead to him being labeled “insane.”


The author of the King in Yellow shot himself, but Hildred says he survived. “Someone” shot Hildred's “horse” in the head and Hildred had pains in the back of his head and neck for years. Hildred didn't fall from a horse, but that is what he purports had happened. Everyone knows the truth though. Hawberk responds to Hildred mentioning his fall with, “Ah, yes, your fall,” and looks away. I could almost hear his eyes rolling.


Governor's speech says lethal chambers are for “that class of human creatures from whose desponding ranks new victims of self-destruction fall daily.”


Hildred is not in love or obsessed with Constance. He is obsessed with the sound of metal on metal, which is probably meant to evoke the sound of the click of the hammer of the pistol that he shot himself with. He cares not for Hawberk and Constance at all, except in that Constance might marry his cousin and produce an heir. It is the threat to his own future legitimacy as King that he is concerned with.


Hildred's version of 1895-1920 shows that 1) he is creative enough to have been a writer before his failed suicide and 2) that he has thought through some political issues enough that he believes he can bring about world prosperity as King. Reading the story as a love triangle does not do justice to Hildred's grandiose nature.


And keep in mind that Hildred's version of 1895-1920 was written by a man who wrote a play which drives others mad and then shot himself in the head and is now but a shadow of his former self.



Oh, wow, it hadn't occurred to me at all that Hildred is the author of The King in Yellow, but I do think it makes sense of all the "facts" (subjective as they are) and certainly adds a level of terrifying creepiness to the story. I wonder, then, if this will fit with all the stories in the collection? It'll be fun to find out!

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