I have never read Robert W. Chambers' original work which INJ Culbard is adapting in his new graphic novel The King in Yellow from Selfmade Hero/Abrams which I picked up at San Diego Comic-Con. I've been waiting for the book for some time because I am curious about pulp literature, aware from exploring the edges of Lovecraftian lore about The King in Yellow, and probably the biggest factor, I am a fan of Culbard's previous works, including many literary adaptations. Over the past winter, I reviewed The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and was mesmerized by it–my conclusion about that book was that Culbard had really stretched his wings as an artist in taking us visually into realms never portrayed so widely before. He seemed to break the prose barrier and really strike at the potential of comics to find news ways to communicate nearly inexpressible experiences to the reader.
Culbard's The King in Yellow is, in many ways, an extremely different book than Kadath. I think that is, in part, down to the source material, but I suspect that it's also about how Culbard chose to approach the subject matter. In Kaddath, we "see" everything in the mysterious realms of spiritual realities through which a central character passes, and there are many marvels, terrible and wonderful, to experience. In The King in Yellow, we are dealing with the hidden, secret, but powerfully effective personality of a play that, once read, seems to "infect" its readers and spread mayhem and destruction in their lives. It's as if in Culbard's Kaddath, we are exploring the realm of giants, and in The King in Yellow, we are observing the impact of virulent microbes in terrifying ways. Which is to say that this new graphic novel is constructed entirely around suggestion and effect, and even language, rather than in visual revelations of terror that are more direct.
That makes me stop and wonder what kind of comic artist would willing take on a project like this. So, putting myself in a comic artist's shoes, I'm approaching a work that's notoriously problematic for interpretation, consists of several interlocking stories with only marginally related characters, and in some ways doesn't have an obvious "point" to make other than to leave you feeling really freaked out. But, as many of you may know, the original story by Chambers has spread with its own virulent abilities, worming its way into so many tiny crevices of pop culture that it's becoming inescapable. It's easy to see why Culbard was interested in The King in Yellow as a storyteller, but harder to see why he'd set himself such a task– conveying as directly as possible the horror of absent but adjacent realities. Well, the challenge of trying to do such a thing must have been part of the allure, and Culbard pursues that challenge through 141 pages relentlessly.
Just to make sure we're all on the same page here, I'll explain that there's a published play making its ways through the households of several once student friends, from one to the other, and wherever it goes, tragedy seems to follow. Tragedy connected to madness and suicide. The first story that we encounter, however, is for me the most hair-raising, because you see more deeply into the madness of Hildred Castaigne. It's a madness with a method that keeps you guessing. Is it madness when it's the logic of another reality impinging on our own? You're introduced to a great deal of inhuman-seeming logic and imperatives that will carry you through the rest of the book. Culbard has several visual methods for keeping you uneasy in the work and suggesting things that are not visually present. The most pronounced one is probably the use of large, variously colored flat irises in his characters. Hildred's big, pale green eyes are hugely unsettling. It's the vacant miles-long stare of deep madness or far distant realities creeping in. Culbard manages to suggest that all the hideous, chaotic and implacable things about some other reality are as near as the backs of Hildred's eyes just through his use of silent close-ups.
Then there's the use of the book, which appears propped on bookshelves, dropped on floors, flopped on couches, the more menacing if it's open, and the most menacing if a hand is anywhere near it. It's a strange tension for the reader, wanting to desperately know what's in the book but dreading it, and seeing it like a calling card of destruction lying around. It's amazing how much dread becomes invested in the appearance of the book as a kind of super-human object moving through the fragile human world.
Though there are many other methods for creating dread in the story, the last one I'll mention is the use of language, but I'll include music and sound in that category. Because the dangerous book is a play, it's written in poetic meter and there's a sing-song quality to the lines that we do hear, as read aloud by characters, and an interaction of sound thematically as we reach a bigger revelation later in the story. As in the original Chambers story, as far as I understand, the repetition of certain phrases is very important, and Culbard finds ways of doing that to take you deeper into a sense of their power over the narrative. He prints, arguable the most important excerpt of the play, "Cassilda's Song", at the very beginning of Part I of the graphic novel in full, and we'll also hear those phrases repeated over and over in fragments by characters in the story. There's also the symbol known as "the Yellow Sign" that will recur visually in the story, and we become "trained" as readers to react each time we see the words or the symbol with a sense of invasion, an awareness that something is on the edge of the story's reality and ready to break through. At one point in the narrative, there's even an intense visual use of musical notation to re-enforce this sense of breaking through and experiencing something from beyond normal reality.
The King in Yellow would never have been an easy story to adapt, which is why this book from INJ Culbard is momentous. It's a different kind of science in prose to suggest without revealing than it is in the visual world of comics. In Kadath, the artist broke free into monumental visual expression of unseen realities–here he has to, by definition of the story, keep everything under lock and key. How wonderful that he has firmly kept to the spirit of the original story by doing so and therefore has not diminished the mythos of the mystery-driven story in the least. What he has done is convinced us that everything we don't see in the story is quite real in its own way and that we, as readers, can "feel" things on the edges of our perception the same way that the characters do, and be just as befuddled by those sensations. It's as unnerving and persistent as the sensation of a lost limb, that sense that Carcosa is present in the story, unseen, and we see the King in Yellow like a ghost in all the faces of the characters even more impressively than we would have if he had been somehow visibly present throughout.
The King in Yellow is available for sale on June 30th.
Also make sure to look out for INJ Culbard in an interview about the return of Wild's End in the upcoming issue #18 of Bleeding Cool Magazine!