Robert William Chambers was an American artist turned fiction writer, celebrated for his influential book The King in Yellow (1895). This collection of short stories, interlaced with a mysterious forbidden play, is acclaimed for its significant impact on the supernatural horror and weird fiction genres.
Chambers was born in Brooklyn, New York, into a prosperous family. His father, William P. Chambers, was a notable lawyer.
A graduate of Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Chambers studied art at the Art Students' League. Notably, Charles Dana Gibson, the renowned illustrator, was his contemporary. Chambers's artistic pursuits took him to Paris, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian, achieving the honour of having his work displayed at the Salon.
Despite early success in illustration with works published in Life, Truth, and Vogue magazines, Chambers shifted his focus to writing. His first novel, In the Quarter, written in 1887 in Munich, was followed by his best-known work, The King in Yellow (1895), an American supernatural novel considered a classic.
The book comprises nine short stories and a sequence of poems, with the first few stories rooted in supernatural horror and weird fiction, gradually transitioning to lighter, romantic tales. The horror stories, especially, have been highly esteemed by critics like E. F. Bleiler and T. E. D. Klein, and have influenced notable writers such as H. P. Lovecraft.
The King in Yellow features a recurring motif of a play that induces madness in its readers, exploring themes of cosmic horror and forbidden knowledge. Chambers's work is noted for its unique blend of the macabre with romantic elements, a style that has influenced and shaped the horror genre.
Beyond The King in Yellow, Chambers wrote additional weird fiction, including The Maker of Moons, The Mystery of Choice, and The Tree of Heaven, though none matched the acclaim of his 1895 masterpiece.
His literary repertoire also includes historical fiction set during significant periods, such as the Franco-Prussian War and the American Civil War, with novels like The Red Republic, Lorraine, and Cardigan.
In his later years, Chambers turned to writing romantic fiction and historical novels, some achieving best-seller status, though they also sparked controversy for their portrayal of relationships and morality. His work during World War I reflected a return to his earlier weird style, with stories like Marooned in Barbarians (1917).
Chambers married Elsa Vaughn Moller in 1898, and they had one son, Robert Edward Stuart Chambers. He spent his later years in Broadalbin, New York, where some of his novels touch upon colonial life.
Robert William Chambers passed away on December 16, 1933.