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It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.

The magical book is a recurring trope in fantasy and horror fiction. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story are two sides of the same coin, both describing a powerful tome that can contain whole worlds (the one a gateway to madness, the other escape from the cruelties of the ‘real world’). It is possible that this symbol of a book that is far more than a book is a reaction to the cultural perception of the Christian Bible, which is said to contain the word of God Himself – and is therefore far more than just a book. In recent years the trope has become almost a cliché. Everything from The Care Bears Movie to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (and even Nicholas Gurewitch’s wicked Perry Bible Fellowship) have riffed on the notion of an ageless book that has magical properties. Before any of these, however, there was Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow.

The titular book is never fully described, yet carries a dire reputation. Chambers features it within several stories in this collection, with the fateful encounter between a protagonist and The King in Yellow acting as a catalyst for the onset of madness. The title refers to a malevolent god, described as wearing a ‘Pallid Mask’ whose realm borders our own. The publication of the book is seen as an initial sortie, a sign of an inevitable assault on our world itself.

As an ex-patriate American art student in Paris, Chambers became enamoured with the Bohemian lifestyle of his fellow students. The protagonists of his stories are therefore also often artists and Americans, speaking French with a degree of fluency afforded to the well-educated upper class, but also vulnerable to flights of fancy that lead to the disintegration of reason.

Interestingly the first story of the collection, The Repairer of Reputations, is set in a projected future 1920’s New York. America has instituted tighter immigration controls, Europe is under the sway of Russia and legalised Lethal Chambers have been opened (is one of Sarah Palin’s advisors a Robert Chambers fan?). The protagonist Castaigne is a young man who after suffering a fall from a horse was committed to an asylum, mistakenly he believes. There, fittingly, he encounters a copy of The King in Yellow. Following his release he encounters a fellow devotee, Mr Wilde, who explains how his own future and that of the American nation itself, is bound to the vision of the book.

With each following story Chambers quotes from the opening chapter of The King in Yellow, revealing little of its content beyond names and places described featured out of context. The seeming innocuousness of such references – Carcosa, the Lake of Hali, the Pallid Mask, Hastur – disguises the true danger of reading the book, after which madness, and oftentimes death, is the inevitable result.

The Mask and The Yellow Sign both feature Americans abroad in Europe, enjoying the pursuit of artistic ideals. However, the stories end very differently, with the former’s protagonists enduring much suffering, but eventually discovering a curious kind of happiness. The latter, however, is a ghoulish tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Unlike in Lovecraft’s fiction, with its indiscriminate Outer Gods crushing the sanity of unwary explorers, Chambers seems to be suggesting that the King in Yellow subjugates with his dreadful yoke only those who deserve to be damned. Retreating to holy ground, such as a church, or hiding indoors provides no sanctuary from his touch.

The remaining stories are divided between more traditional ghost stories such as The Demoiselle d’Ys and romances, as well as a story of a besieged Paris in a future Franco-Prussian conflict. Chambers consistently writes with a beautifully descriptive manner, typical of his training as an artist.

A milestone in American horror fiction.

Midnight Kiss is a densely plotted, cleverly written and beautifully drawn tale of mayhem and mystery in fairyland. These fairies, however, use some pretty heavy artillery and most of them make the Hitler gang look like a teddy bear’s picnic. Add fabulous references to a Land of Oz fighting a vicious civil war, a bunch of fabulous creatures being hunted for their hearts and minds (literally) and you have one of the richest, most original, engaging and fast-moving graphic stories of the new century.

The above quote is taken from Michael Moorcock’s introduction to this comic book collection. I chose it as this fulsome praise convinced me to buy the book. Moorcock was approached by Lee for permission to use his dimension-hopping anti-hero Jerry Cornelius for this book. One of the most popular of Moorcock’s creations, one that he has in the past allowed other New Worlds authors such as M. John Harrison to use, Cornelius is a devious, dimension-hopping anarchist, perfectly suited for Lee’s story of a multiverse of fantasy realms. Given that this book had Moorcock’s stamp of approval, I bought it without hesitation.

The story begins with a boy named William being confronted by a gang of gun-toting Unseelie Fae, mistaken by him for vampires. Moments before he is captured, Matthew Sable and Nightmare De’Lacey arrive and decimate the heavily armed fairies. The mystically empowered duo explain to William that he is what they call a ‘rational’, someone who believes that one world and reality exist. Sable explains that millennia ago an event called the shattering occurred, with each realm of faerie separated into different dimensions. What normal humans, rationals, assume are fictional worlds or fantasies are actually each unique threads within the multiverse.

William has become the target of a conspiracy to create a demonic demiurge due to his own mysterious parentage. A series of assassinations are being carried out against different creatures of fantasy across a number of worlds. Now that William is under the protection of Sable, two murderers for hire called Jonny Cool and The Flickman, are contracted to recover him. They slaughter their way through several dimensions in pursuit of their quary. A third story thread concerns a police investigator known as Einhorn trying to discover what is behind the series of murders relating to the conspiracy. Each of the protagonists are drawn to the Land of Oz, torn apart by a civil war between the forces of the evil Scarecrow and President Dorothy Gale.

I am sorry to report that I found this to be a bleak and dispiriting story. Despite the warm introduction from Moorcock, Midnight Kiss resembles a derivative, grim ‘n’ gritty take on Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. The excellent blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics recently proposed a dark take on Robin Hood for satirical purposes. Wouldn’t you know it, the Sherwood Forest archer appears here, consumed with feelings of revenge towards Matthew Sable (for reasons too silly to go into). Our heroes use their magical abilities to sprout dayglo guns and swords from their arms, slaughtering their opponents with impunity. At times I was confused as to what distinguished them from blood-thirsty antagonists Jonny Cool and The Flickman. Of course the break-neck twist in the final issue addresses just that ambiguity with groan-worthy results. Poor William is also just another derivative messiah-child, being dragged along in a state of constant confusion until the plot demands that he suddenly assert himself.

As to Jerry Cornelius’ role in the proceedings, well he’s basically a bag-man. His ability to cross dimensions is here employed to run errands on Sable’s behalf. I found this especially amusing as Moorcock cites Lee as having ‘got’, Cornelius’ function as a character. Tony Lee’s afterword mentions that other writers had misused the character in the past, without consulting his creator. I assume this is a reference to Grant Morrison’s attempt in his seminal book The Invisibles, there named Gideon Stargrove. Ironically I thought the unauthorised use of the Cornelius concept was far more successful than the fully approved one in Midnight Kiss.

Ryan Stegman’s art may suit the material, blood clotting on the panels and breasts thrusting outwards, but once again it reminded me of the bad old days. If you look at the cover image below you will notice a huge robot. Yes, that’s The Tin Man.

A huge disappointment.

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