As published in The King in Yellow (Heathen Edition):

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers (Heathen Edition)

What is a Heathen Edition? And why are you holding one now?

It happened like this: True Detective.


To how many people did that show introduce The King in Yellow? Its resurgence in 2014 points to one figure: a lot. Myself included. And thinking at the time of my perceived duty as part of the Now Generation, I immediately sought out and downloaded an eBook and tried to dig in. Then promptly gagged.

Does that need context?

I’m a book guy.

Meaning, I like to actually hold a book in my hands while I read it. I like to touch it, split open its covers, breathe in its fragrance, gingerly flip its pages, gaze upon its flaps and its folds, admire its typography, see an actualized meter of reading progress as I insert, then reinsert the bookmark further, yet further still––

Sounds intimate, right? Well, why shouldn’t it be? If the book is good, anyway. But they’re not all good, are they? And most aren’t designed well either. A tragedy, to be sure, because I absolutely judge a book by its cover. Because a well-designed cover means a well-designed book. And a well-designed book is a pleasure to read. While a well-designed good book is an absolute pleasure to read — and I wish I could experience absolute pleasure while reading far more often.

Isn’t intimacy a tenet of good design?

I’m a self-taught graphic designer, so what do I know?

I do know that I’m not a Kindle guy. Or an iPad guy. Or any e-reader, really. I tried, but I just can’t read books on a digital screen. The tactile response just isn’t the same, is it? And most eBook design? Blech.

I also know that I’m not an audiobook guy. I just can’t. My brother can, though.

When I approached him with this crazy Heathen idea he perked up, “We can make audiobooks?”

“Stop it with the audiobooks,” I said.

“I’m human too,” he said.

Or that’s how I interpreted the expletives. See, I listen.

Then he started listening to Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens narrated by Eddie Izzard himself, and I said, “Hang on a minute…”

We might try audiobooks.

So, yeah: book guy. We all have our vices. But I did try. I tried to not be a book guy. I tried to read The King in Yellow on my iPad — no less than six times over the course of two years before finally giving up, disgusted by its inability to ever present itself as anything other than an ugly, improperly formatted EPUB generated from a plain text file by some fool out there somewhere.

A couple taps and swipes later and I was browsing the “real” book selection at Amazon (because I live in that part of the country where a road trip to the nearest brick-and-mortar bookstore becomes a thing). Honestly, if a Penguin version would have been available, especially a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, the story would end here. But there wasn’t a Penguin version available. Or a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. Or any version from any major publisher (I’ll get back to this). Because it’s currently what year of what century?

So I previewed some other versions and, because I like the illusion of being an empowered consumer, read their reviews. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that many of the small mom-and-pop book publishers had created their version of the book using that same terrible source file from which my eBook had been generated. I mean, they get points for initiative, man, because they’re out there hustling for that dollar — but then they lose all those points because they couldn’t be bothered to proofread and/or fix the formatting errors. Bad hustle!

“Son, if you want something done right, then you have to do it yourself,” my grandfather would say. And that’s the short version of how you came to be holding Heathen Edition #1 in your hands (the longer version requires ingestion of coffee or alcohol or both).

You’re holding the “real” book that I wanted to purchase that day when I gave up on the eBook, except better, I think, because in the many months that it’s taken to get this Heathen publishing venture to finally set sail, we patiently impatient Heathens have had plenty of time to think about how to make our books a more pleasurable read and, possibly, a little different than most other books in the process.

To start, we like well-designed books with well-designed covers that aren’t too big or too small, with roomy margins, and footnotes to explain the stuff that we immediately want to be more intelligent about (re: Now Generation; also, shout-out to Norton Critical Editions for their footnote game!). And while I mostly despise eBooks, one thing I actually do like about them is always knowing how many pages are left in a chapter because who likes to math, really? So, we’re trying this “new” thing with our books that denotes in the bottom margin of the rectos on which page the current chapter ends. Yes, math still required, but minimal. It’s something that I’ve never seen in a printed book before, so I fully expect armed resistance. However, a wise author somewhere once said (paraphrased), “You should only ever write a book for just one person,” and I think that sentiment holds true for most creative endeavors. So, while I didn’t write this book, I did design it for an audience of one: me. And I absolutely hate fumbling through the pages of a book to figure out where a chapter ends, exactly, in order to calculate if I can finish reading it before I have to go do that thing or sleep or wipe. It’s something that I’ve longed for in printed books — and once I took a stab at it, I realized why it’s never been done: figuring out how to present the information in such a way that it’s always there but never in the way has most certainly been an interesting challenge. Perhaps I succeeded? I have no idea what to call this “invention.” “You did what?” seems a bit confrontational. I like “rectometer,” though, because it forces a grin to tug at my cheeks.

Listen, thinking this is a really terrible idea has led to some of my best mistakes. . .

So, let’s talk text: my brother and I have had long conversations about how to approach this aspect of the book (all of the books, really), and we’ve agreed upon three principles:

• Strive for purity.
• Lean toward readability.
• Never sacrifice meaning.

So, we’ve used the original 1895 F. Tennyson Neely text for our edition of The King in Yellow, cross-referenced with two additional print editions: 1902 Harper & Brothers and 1962 Ace Books. Various spelling discrepancies between the three editions (chiefly British versus American spellings) were inconsistent and perplexing enough that we opted to go with American spellings throughout the entirety of our text (except a quote or two), with additional nips and tucks for readability, but only if our edits did not forsake the author’s original intention or connotation. I mean, I get that a “lawn-mower” was such a new concept that it needed a hyphen in 1895, but now you trip over thirty just glancing at The Home Depot, so I’m fairly certain that no one, today, will miss that hyphen. Or some of the others. If you do, then I have some advice for you: it’s like my grandfather would say. . .

Worth the hassle? Yes, absolutely. The King in Yellow is a fantastic read. Chambers’ “weird” stories really are as great as everyone praises them to be. Even at 122-years-old, they hardly show their age and still manage to induce terror.

“The Repairer of Reputations” is exactly the right story with which to begin this book because upon its conclusion, gobsmacked with the realization that at some point recently our unreliable narrator had completely lost his goddamn mind, you’re left trying to pinpoint: when did the madness begin? This question seems to expertly set the stage for routine exploration throughout the other nine stories, no matter that their genres segue from weird to horror to a twinge of sci-fi before settling comfortably into romance, culminating with the melancholic yet understated “Rue Barrée.” A story that seems to get panned far more than it should as one of Chambers’ more tedious Paris romances (certainly not as tedious as “The Street of Our Lady of the Fields”), its placement at the end of this book, I’ve realized, is not without exacting purpose because its final sentence so succinctly (albeit indirectly) answers the lingering question threaded through all the stories: How does madness begin? Chambers ends his masterpiece book having finally arrived at the simple, tragic answer: the heart breaks.

It is my sincere hope that you will enjoy this book at least as much as I have enjoyed reading, designing, and re-reading (and re-reading) it.

Sheridan Cleland
November 2017

P.S. (Getting back to re: versions from major publishers) At the time of this writing, Pushkin Press has just made available a hardcover “Deluxe Edition” of The King in Yellow — and it’s gorgeous. I know because I purchased a copy. It won’t be released in the United States until February 2018, but it’s currently available in the UK and I just couldn’t help myself.

I’m telling you, it’s gorgeous! One caveat, though: it only features four of the ten stories. It seems they’ve chosen to only use the stories that directly mention the King in Yellow character or play. So, while it is gorgeous, it is also incomplete. But, if you opt for their version instead of ours I most certainly won’t be disappointed. Theirs, ours, it doesn’t matter: we’re just happy that you read. #literaturepositive (Except maybe don’t encourage the bad hustlers, okay?)

P.P.S. One last thing, the Heathen name has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with cats. C’est vrai!