Robert W. Chambers’ work, the King in Yellow, presents a mysterious figure of terrifying power and portent whose maddening influence is imparted through a play. This figure is the titular King in Yellow.
While a feature of a late Victorian work, the character of the King in Yellow bears a number of features and associations in common with a much more ancient figure, that of the ancient Greek god Dionysus. The King in Yellow is Dionysus, or at least one side of Dionysus.
Dionysus, as a god, had many associations, importantly associations with fertility, wine, madness, and theatre. And what is the crux of the King in Yellow’s power and influence in the world? But a play. While Dionysus was the Greek god of theatre in general, and indeed the arts more broadly, he was especially associated with masked theatre, in which identity and recognition could be played with. Indeed, the simplest representation, or invocation, of Dionysus was a mask and a cloak placed over a pillar.
Dionysus was also associated with death and disruption*. Unlike the other Greek gods, who resided on Mount Olympus, Dionysus was an itinerant god who travelled, in the mortal world, from city to city seeking to establish worship of himself, with troubling results. Much of this trouble and misunderstanding, and the resulting death and chaos, stemmed from Dionysus’ tendency to arrive in a place new unrecognised, that is, as a stranger. Ultimately his worship was widespread, his mythology fragmented.
A further association is with water. In one story of Dionysus, the god descended to the bottom of a bottomless lake (Alcyonian) to reach the underworld and rescue Semele.
The appearance of Dionysus is typically given as either an old man, wearing heavy robes, or as a young man, with pale skin. The derived, or constructed, appearance of the King in Yellow typically presents a figure with heavy, tattered, robes and a pale face. Dionysus typically carried a staff (thyrsus), or, as Iacchus, a torch; see Chamber’s illustrations for the King in Yellow.
Finally, Dionysus was associated with the bull, and especially the horns of the bull. For the ancient Greeks the celestial embodiment of the bull was the constellation Taurus. And what stars make up the horns of Taurus? But Aldebaran and the Hyades; the Hyades named for the nymphs who, in some accounts, raised the infant Dionysus.
* This is, in a large part, derived from the story of his parents and his birth; a tragedy of love, disguise, a terrible promise, and human fragility in the face of a divine revelation.
In Ambrose Bierce's short story, An Inhabitant of Carcosa (in which the city of Carcosa is first mentioned), the protagonist, Hoseib Alar Robardin, gives an account of the state of Carcosa in a time long after his own. Carcosa has become the merest ruin; nature has regained dominion over not just the material structure of the city, but over the social structure too. Civilisation, with its laws, customs, and creeds, embodied in the city of Carcosa, has given way to nature. Nature has triumphed over the city. In this desolate ruin Robardin directly encounters two beings; a wild cat and a wild man, half clad in skins, bearing a torch.
Dionysus was a nature god. His worship took place outside of cities, in woods and forests. His followers and, in some depictions, Dionysus himself would half clad themselves in animal skins. Wild cats were also associated with the god. Did civilisation, in the city of Carcosa, fall to Dionysus, in the person of the King in Yellow? Did Robardin awake, so many centuries later, to the triumph of Dionysus? The ruins roamed by the Dionysian figures and Dionysian familiars, the entire scene, in Beirce's vision of Carcosa, under the gaze of those stars of Taurus, Aldebaran and the Hyades.
Nature has triumphed over the city. The Dionysian has triumphed over the Apollonian .