An Inhabitant of Carcosa

 

Ambrose Bierce, "An Inhabitant of Carcosa," in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (E. L. G. Steele: 1891).


There is a common view that when writing The King in Yellow, Robert W. Chambers simply borrowed a few names that he liked from Ambrose Bierce, and that is where the influence stops. For example, Chambers uses the names "Carcosa", "Hali," and "Hastur," all of which were first in the Bierce. The consensus is that the use of those names doesn't signal any deeper connection to Beirce's work. That view is worth reconsidering, particularly in light of the story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa." I hope that interpretations of The King in Yellow benefit by recognizing a deeper connection and the influence that Bierce's work had on Chambers and the King in Yellow mythos.

    I'll mention two general ways that these story connect. First, Chambers adopts some of Bierce's eerie visual descriptions of the Carcosan environment, and second, the themes and threads that Bierce explores in "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" are repeated and expanded on in the Chambers: the story is shot through with themes of madness, hallucination, death, degeneration, and alternative histories.

    The story begins with Robardin lost in the lengthening shadows of his own thoughts. He is thinking about death and the words of Hali. Hali claims that the body and the soul are distinct and that this distinction opens up the possibility of different kinds of death. Suddenly, Robardin is pulled out of his thoughts: 

"I noted not whither I strayed until a sudden chill wind striking my face revived in me a sense of my surroundings" ("An Inhabitant of Carcosa," Bierce).

It is telling that Chambers picks up on this scene at the end of "In the Court of the Dragon" when the protagonist there is contemplating death and feeling like his body had been in a different place than his soul: 

"... and 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. ... The people faded away, the arches, the vaulted roof vanished. I raised my seared eyes to the fathomless glare, and I saw the black stars hanging in the heavens: and the wet winds from the Lake of Hali chilled my face" (The King in Yellow, Chambers). 

    Visually, Bierce's story evokes images of an eerie and dreamlike landscape. He paints a picture of living inside a photographic negative. Everything is gray, desolate, and off. The descriptions make it feel like Robardin, the protagonist, inhabits a world with an inverted grayscale palette. As he wanders, he sees two nocturnal creatures (an owl and a lynx) and comes across a man with a lit torch; none notice him. Robardin pieces together this evidence and concludes that it is night; however, somehow, he does not perceive the darkness. He is taken aback when he looks past the clouds and into the sky. He sees black stars hanging in the heavens and all of this in the absence of darkness! 

"Looking upward I saw through a sudden rift in the clouds Aldebaran and the Hyades! In all this there was a hint of night--the lynx, the man with the torch, the owl. Yet I saw--I saw even the stars in absence of darkness ("An Inhabitant of Carcosa," Bierce).  

Reinforcing this provocative and bizarre perception of night without darkness is a man carrying a blazing torch with a long trail of black smoke. The man is described in terms that brings to mind primitive humans, which, given Robardin's later discovery that ages have past, suggests degeneration or, potentially, an alternate history. 

    In trying to figure out where he is at, Robardin considers several hypothesis. Remembering that he had been sick, he considers that he might have, in some type of delirium, wandered away from his sick bed. Alternatively, he could still be in his bed and currently hallucinating. These are all themes picked up by Chambers in the stories of The King in Yellow. From Hildred Castaigne ("Repairer of Reputations") to Jack Scott (in both "The Mask" and "The Yellow Sign") to the protagonist of "In The Court of The Dragon," the reader finds these characters in similar states to Robardin. But it is Philip from "The Demoiselle D'Ys" that is most like Robardin. Philip too is lost in the moors and the reader is left wondering the same thing as Robardin wonders about himself. Is Philip dreaming? Hallucinating? Sick from the snake bite? And just like Robardin, Philip later discovers the ruins of the place he had recently stayed and a tombstone suggesting that the events of his life happened long ago. 

    In the end, Robardin discovers his own ancient tombstone and realizes that he is surrounded by the ruins of Carcosa. This picture of Carcosa and the notion that death is not peaceful oblivion but instead quite frightful, proves interesting when it makes contact with Ligotti's philosophical skepticism and the views of Rustin Cohle in True Detective. For the philosophical pessimist, immortality would be an awful thing. When death is seen as the only escape from the abomination of existence, and then you take that respite away, the pessimism becomes hopeless.


Comments

  1. Excellent observations! Yes, Joseph Pulver, Sr. also noted that Chambers’ Carcosa seems inspired by Bierce’s in that interview on YouTube. I must revisit the original!

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