Monday, June 29, 2015

The Yellow Nineties [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I'm loving the second season of Penny Dreadful, which is set in that glorious decade known as "The Yellow Nineties." I doubt many horror fans understand the significance of the color yellow in turn-of-the-century horror. We've all heard of The King in Yellow because Lovecraft praises Robert W Chambers as: "very genuine, though not without the typical mannered extravagance of the eighteen-nineties." We also know HPL appreciated Arthur Machen: "Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal." He even points out Oscar Wilde's masterpiece: "Oscar Wilde may likewise be given a place amongst weird writers, both for certain of his exquisite fairy tales, and for his vivid Picture of Dorian Gray." So what happened in the 1890s that was so important? And why yellow?

To understand this you have to know that the Victorian world was crumbling, slowly, but surely. Technology like the rail system gave us the need for magazines, something to read on the train, but it also opened many doors that the Victorians feared. Doors like women's rights, workers' rights, looser sexual practices, more foreigners in England as trade expanded, and new ideas around aesthetics. Technology and commerce came from Germany and America, while artistic and sexual ideas came from France. Here's where the yellow comes in.

French novels of an explicit nature were sold in yellow wrappers, the color version of the letters XXX today. Vincent van Gogh painted a still life called "Parisian Novels" displaying a pile of yellow-covered books. This should not be surprising, for Impressionism in painting, like Naturalism in writing, were the enemies of Victorian bourgeois Romanticism. These radical approaches, along with the Pessimism of Oscar Wilde and the Fin-de-Siecle school (whose ideals included perversity, artificially, egotism, and curiosity) under Aubrey Beardsley, also attacked traditional forms, but from different angles. The Old School was under attack on many fronts and the banner of the enemy was yellow.

The men who led the charge in England along with Beardsley were American editor Henry Harland and John Lane, co-founder of the Bodley Head publishing house. Together they created The Yellow Book, a magazine of supposed illicit nature that has a reputation that is much bigger than its actual contents. The publication ran from April 1894 to April 1897 (the complete run is in PDF). Beardsley was "let go" partway through the run,but the contents are pretty uniform despite this. John Lane was willing to exploit the title's supposed evil reputation to sell copies, but he never really allowed Beardsley to go wild. Lane had to peruse every Bearsdley illustration for hidden naughtiness. The artist defied his critics (especially in Punch) by publishing three images in the third issue, two under pseudonyms. The critics attacked the drawing with his name on it, but praised the other two.

So where does horror come in? The Yellow Book published no great amount of horror stories, though it did publish works by authors who have written in the genre, such as Henry James, AC Benson, HB Marriott Watson, R Murray Gilchrist, John Buchan, Vernon Lee, WB Yeats, as well as fantasy writers E Nesbit, Max Beerbohm, Richard Garnett, and Kenneth Grahame. Perhaps the most strongly identified was Oscar Wilde, who never appeared in the magazine at all. Wilde had published his horror/art thesis, The Picture of Dorian Gray five years earlier. At his trial in 1895, he appeared in court holding a yellow book and many thought it was the magazine of that name. But it was actually a French novel. He was released in 1897 before becoming an exile on the Continent, living under the name "Sebastian Melmoth," after the Gothic character.

1895 was a most important year for horror. John Lane published Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan," which was both a high-water mark for horror fiction as well as a mini-sensation when critics tore at it for its sexual content. It established Machen, but also tied him to the "Yellow Nineties." In America, in the same year, Robert W Chambers published The King in Yellow, a collection of weird stories and sketches from his travels to Paris. One story in particular resonated with horror fans, "The Yellow Sign" (there's that color again!) and would inspire HPL in creating his Cthulhu Mythos. The King in Yellow is supposedly a play that shows up in the different stories. The play is so terrifying and bizarre that it drives readers mad. Can there be much doubt that The Yellow Book played some part in Chambers' creation?

The tempests of the 1890s passed along with much of the Victorian Age as the Boer War, then World War I, smashed expected norms to pieces. The Jazz Age found HP Lovecraft and his friends writing horror tales for amateur magazines, and just a little later, for the pulps. The Cthulhu Mythos acquired the classics of the past from these Yellow Nineties authors along with others like Algernon Blackwood, HG Wells, and Lord Dunsany. HPL gave us the yellow-wrapped priests of Leng as well as the terrible book filled with cursed knowledge. I should think, if credit was due, The Necronomicon would come in a yellow wrapper.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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