Department of Literature
Robert W. Chambers




Lovecraft was always proud to say he was influenced by the great writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. He was less likely to admit it but the lesser writers of his youth had an equal or greater influence. One of these was Robert W. Chambers, a painter turned author who published his greatest work of horror when Lovecraft was only five. But it was reprinted numerous times within his life and HPL spoke of it fondly. In a way, Chambers betrayed Lovecraft by giving up horror and becoming on of the most successful writers of popular fictions of the first two decades of the twentieth century. 

Though fame in his lifetime came from his succession of best-selling "shop-girl" society romances and historical novels, Robert William Chambers (1865-1933) is perhaps best remembered today for his horror and fantasy stories. In his day, his historical and romance novels earned him the title "the Shopgirl Scheherazade" and "the barker of the New York society side show."  H. L. Menken called him "the Boudoir Balzac." But even within his lifetime the audience for such books fell away with the new literature of the twenties and thirties and the coming of the second world war. 

Robert William Chambers was born in Brooklyn on May 26, 1865, to William P. Chambers (1827 - 1911), a famous lawyer, and Caroline Chambers (née Boughton), a direct descendant of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.  It was a family of wealth and social standing and the children were expected to excel.  Robert's brother was Walter Boughton Chambers, the world famous architect.

Chambers was educated at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. There, and at his grandfather's estate in the Adirondacks, he discovered in his love of nature and outdoor sportsmanship a talent for drawing. 

At twenty, he studied painting at the Art Students' League in New York where he became friends with another student, Charles Dana Gibson, later to gain fame as a magazine and book illustrator.  There is a legend that the young Chambers and Gibson took sketches to the editor of Life, then a humor  magazine, looking for their first job. The editor accepted Chambers's work and turned down Gibson so scornfully that Gibson resolved never to submit a drawing again.  

At 21, in 1886, he went to Paris for seven years to study at the École des Beaux Arts and, later, the Julien Academy. He studied under Cormon, Lefebvre, Boulanger, Collin, and Doucet. He first exhibited in the Paris salon in 1889. He returned to New York in 1893 and began selling illustrations to Life, Truth, Vogue, and other magazines. 

Chambers published his first book, In the Quarter (1894), a melodrmatic tale of student life in Paris published as an anonymous volume. He had originally written it in Munich in 1887. It appeared in an anonymous edition.  One critic said "it might yield a libretto for another 'La Bohême.'" Its success was enough to inspire a second work and it was the second literary work that really took off and changed the young man's life.  It even encouraged his publisher to re-release In the Quarter with the author's name and reference to the second work.

In 1895, Chambers published a remarkable collection of ten eerie short stories, The King in Yellow. It appeared during a period when a lot of people unlikely to writer horror stories did so. Perhaps inspired by success of Ambrose Bierce, the rise of spiritualism, or the impending turn of a century which often creates emotional and spritual uncertainty, architect Ralph Adams Cram wrote his collection of ghost stories entitled Black Spirits and White (1895), historical novelist F. Marion Crawford wrote "The Upper Berth" (1894), humorist W. W. Jacobs wrote the horrific story "The Monkey's Paw," Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw, and children's book author Mrs. Nesbit wrote Grim Tales (1893). 

The King in Yellow is the most striking of all collected horror story works in that the title refers to a fictional play which becomes in integral part of a number of stories which are otherwise unrelated. The play "The King in Yellow" to which the title refers is said to drive those who read it insane. The first four stories, "The Repairer of Reputations," "The Mask," "In the Court of the Dragon," and "The Yellow Sign," concern people who have come across copies of the rare and banned play. Horrific tragedy strikes all who remain sane after reading it. The middle two tales are a classic ghost story and a poetic, mystical trifle. The last four tales harken back to Chambers's first novel, revolving around the Paris student art scene but all involve some small, eerie twist. 

In his treatise The Supernatural in Literature Lovecraft wrote of Chambers's work: "Very genuine, though not without the typical mannered extravagance of the eighteen-nineties, is the strain of horror in the early work of Robert W. Chambers, since renowned for products of a very different quality. The King in Yellow, a series of vaguely connected short stories having as a background a monstrous and suppressed book whose perusal brings fright, madness and spectral tragedy, really achieves notable heights of cosmic fear in spite of uneven interest and a somewhat trivial and affected cultivation of the Gallic studio atmosphere made popular by Du Maurier's Trilby." 

And the collection has been recognized for its value. The King in Yellow has often been repeatedly reprinted and anthologized to the present day. 

This this success, Chambers dropped his artistic career and turned to writing.  The Woman's Movement and the typewriter were changing the social structure of America as young women entered the workplace, sought respectability in business, and earned there own disposable income.  A great deal of this income would go toward the purchase of Chambers novels.  Chambers spoke to the romantic and social needs of these women.  For the next few years he alternated between fantastic fiction - The Maker of Moons (1896), The Mystery of Choice (1897) - and historical novels - The Red Republic, 1894; Lorraine, 1896; Ashes of Empire, 1897.  This series of four romances centered around the Franco-Prussian War (including  The Maids of Paradise, 1903) was began at the same time he was writing The King in Yellow.  As with his later historical novels, these all have young American as their heroes. In Ashes of Empire a group of dashing young Americans assist the Empress Eugénia to escape, hat and all, from Paris. 

After the Franco-Prussian novels,  he tackled the American Revolution with his most famous novel, Cardigan, 1901 followed by The Maid-at-Arms, 1902; The Hidden Children, 1914; The Little Red Foot, 1921. 

In reaching this young audience Chambers helped create the image of young Americans in the new century.  The working woman was for a short time called "the Chambers Girl."  This was quickly supplanted by Chambers's friend Charles Dana Gibson, who illustrated the majority of the Chambers society novels, used his own merchandising skills to promote "the Gibson Girl."  It was often said that while Gibson helped create a visual look for the newly emerging, turn-of-the-century working woman, Chambers, in his society novels, gave her a voice. 

On July 12, 1898, Chambers married Elsa Vaughn Moller (1882 - 1939).  They had a son, Robert Edward Stuart Chambers (later calling himself Robert Husted Chambers) who also gained some fame as an author.[1]  At a New York office, whose address was unknown even to his family, Robert W. Chambers wrote from ten to six.  The family split their time between New York and a luxurious house in Broadalbin, New York at the foot of the Adirondack Mountains.  Fishing and hunting were his relaxations. The novelist was a well set-up man, with square shoulders and chin and a gray mustache. His manner was cordial and genial.  Robert and Elsie were active members of New York society as can be seen by Elsie's 1910 gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art of The Old Mill (Vieux Moulin) [ca. 1892] by American impressionist Theodore Robinson (1852-1896)

[1] Note.  Robert Husted Chambers: The change to "Husted" may have come from one of his father's novels: the 1902 novel The Maids-at-Arms was dedicated to Miss Katharine Husted.  As a young boy around 1912 Lena Dalkeith dedicated her book "Stories from Roman History" to him and a Robert Husted Chambers short story Captain Sebastien appeared in the December 1922. 

A New York socialite himself, in 1906 Chambers turned to contemporary society with six novels beginning with The Fighting Chance (1906) and concluding with The Streets of Ascalon (1912) and including four others. These took on topical subjects like love and the class and monetary obstacles of marriage, the dangers of alcohol, and the guestion of divorce. In these novels, usually illustrated by Charles Dana Gibson, Chambers showed the weakness he, and Gibson, had in understanding the emergence of the independent woman. This did not stop women from flocking to read his novels but a later critic could remark that "despite the vogue for the Chambers heroine at the time, she was markedly less convincing than his men." 

Throughout his career, Chambers would often return to horror, often mixing it delightfully with mystery and action in the vein of Sax Rohmer. Some of the best include In Search of the Unknown (1904) and The Slayer of Souls (1920). 

In his first twenty years as a popular writer, Robert W. Chambers produced forty-five volumes, “veering in accordance with the breeze of popular demand.” According to some estimates, Chambers was one of the most successful literary careers of his period, his later novels selling well and a handful achieving best-seller status. Many of his works were also serialized in magazines.

The period of 1915-1919 had its quota of war novels. 

In 1924 he returned to historical fiction, with the same easy fluency but small critical acclaim, although magazines continued to pay high prices for his serials. 

A critic said of his historical novels that they, "exhibited his ability to handle crowds, invent exciting incident, and exercise his painter's dexterity in painting vivid landscapes." A typical example of his descriptive powers can be found in a passage from "The White Shadow" (The Mystery of Choice): 

Then the daily repeated miracle of the coming of dawn was wrought before our eyes. The heavens glowed in rainbow tints; the shredded mist rising along the river was touched with purple and gold, and acres of meadow and pasture dripped precious stones. Shreds of the fading night-mist drifted among the tree tops, now tipped with fire, while in the forest depths faint sparkles came from some lost ray of morning light falling on wet leaves. Then of a sudden upshot the sun, and against it, black and gigantic, a peasant towered, leaning upon his spade.
And Chambers knew how to write for his audience. "I write the sort of stories," says Chambers, quoted in Authors Today and Yesterday, "which at the moment it amuses me to write; I trust to luck that it may also amuse the public." And they liked it. He was a top selling author of genre novels, often on the best seller list, and increasingly wealthy from his craft.  An enclopedia of the time said, that "despite his years, Mr. Chambers already ranks among the foremost writers of romantic fiction. His style has been compared to Anthony Hope, but although both these brilliant writers deal with the same class of subjects and characters Mr. Chambers discovers an individuality and originality which sufficiently differentiate him from any others of his school." 

"I have always liked to change, to experiment--just as I used to like to change my medium in painting, aquarelle, oil, charcoal, wast, etc," he said and proved it by alternating between novels, short stories, poems, magazine articles of natural history, military subjects, and hunting and fishing, and novels. For the actress Ada Rehan he wrote a play, The Witch of Ellangowan, it is said, in one weeks' time. It was produced at Daly's Theatre in New York city during the spring of 1897. His musical comedy Iole, made from his novel of that title, was produced in New York in 1913. His historical novels, already covering the Franco-Prussian War and the American Revolution, went on to include a series on World War One, the War of 1812, The Civil War, and the French and Indian Wars. He even wrote a novel about Captain Kidd, The Man they Hanged. His 1906 novel The Tracer of Lost Persons provided the basis for the long-running radio series "Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons" from which many television series took inspiration. 

But like many popular novelists, Chambers became increasingly a man of leisure, pounding out his novels to pay for his real pleasures. In town he was a popular club man, a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and belonged to a wide number of clubs: the Century Club (like his father before him), the Metropolitan Club, the Authors' Club (New York), Triple Island, Broadalbin Game, Union, Saratoga Golf, Rockwood Hall, and the Calumet Club of New York among others. 

Authors Today and Yesterday says: "During the winter months Chambers lives in New York City and has an office, the location of which not even his family knows. Here he writes daily from ten to six, secure from distraction. He says his stories have the most erratic way of developing. 'Sometimes I begin with the last chapter, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes I lay out an elaborate skeleton. The despair of my publisher is this uncertainty of working method. I have sometimes written thirty thousand words, waited two weeks to decide what should happen next, and torn up the whole thirty thousand to get rid of the dilemma. It was much easier for me to do that than to doctor the manuscript.'" 

His work in town was a seasonal affair. Every summer, Chambers and his family would retreat to the family estate in Broadalbin, New York, in the foothills of the Adirondacks. The house, built early in the nineteenth century by his grandfather, Dr. William Chambers, was rebuilt for him by his brother, Walter Boughton Chambers, the architect. Chambers and his wife filled the house with Chinese and Japanese antiques, medieval armor, and rare rugs. On the eight hundred acres Chambers could pursue his love of nature, hunting with his dog, fishing, collecting butterflies, and riding horses. He was, rare for his time, an ecologist, an avid planter of trees (20,000 it is said).

After 1924, Chambers devoted himself exclusively to historical subject. Though a good deal of his audience had deserted him, he continued to write with the same "easy fluency but to small critical acclaim, although magazines continued to pay high prices for his serials." Chambers died in New York City on December 16, 1933 following abdominal surgery

Chambers had 14 of his works turned into movies in his lifetime. One of his books, The Common Law, was filmed three times. Chambers has always traveled with the rich and powerful, we see that in his books. That he knew Rupert Hughes, the uncle of Howard Hughes, is a fact. Rupert Hughes wrote the 1933 introduction to the memorial re-issue of The King in Yellow

Ultimately, after his death his critics looked down on his body of work.  H.P. Lovecraft said of him in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, "Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans - equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them." Frederic Taber Cooper commented, "So much of Chambers's work exasperates, because we feel that he might so easily have made it better."  As a writer he exhibited his ability to handle crowds, invent exciting incident, and exercise his painter’s dexterity in painting vivid landscapes.

It is an interesting contrast between Chambers and Lovecraft. While Lovecraft thought highly of Chambers's early horror stories and abhorred the later work as selling out, Robert W. Chambers is almost exactly the writer Lovecraft dreamed of being: the Gentleman Writer. Lovecraft repeatedly spoke of his desire to be able to live comfortably, write as he pleased while living off the profits of that writing, and pursuing the gentlemanly pleasures of sport, scienific knowledge, and collecting. He aspired to be a Lord Dunsany. Though Chambers did not have a title, he had more in common with Dunsany than Lovecraft in everything but dedication of horror and fantasy. 

But Lovecraft also hated dogs, sloppy writing, and romantic plot lines. Chambers loved hunting dogs, a beautiful and often half-naked woman in his plot lines, and didn't seem to mind a bit if the critics thought he was too flowery in his description (often excellent but extended). It is a tragedy that his lurid and gory serialized story The Slayer of Souls was printed in book form without removing the repetitive updating of plot line every few chapters. But he lived a full and happy life. That seemed to be what he was after. And he has left the world with a dozen or more brilliant novels and tales out of his vast production of over seventy works. For who is there who can write passages describing fear and desolation as well today as Chambers in "The Repairer of Reputations": 

     "This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, where the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali; and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow."

  This is an original victorian cabinet photo of actress Mabel Ballin (1885-1958). It measures 4 1/4" x 5 1/4" and is in very nice condition. Mabel was married to director Hugo Ballin.

From Blue Book of the Screen (1923) MABEL BALLIN'S first public appearance was not in a theater, but upon the platform of a Salvation Army ball, where, at the tender age of six, she played upon a tambourine. She had been reared by a grandmother, whose life was devoted to missionary work in tenements, as resident superintendent. Mabel Ballin was born in a Spruce street house at Philadelphia. Her mother survived but two years thereafter, and the little one became the ward of her grandparent, who was endowed with early Victorian characteristics. Work among the worst element of Philadelphia was never ceasing; visitors from the outside world were few. It was in this atmosphere of endeavor that Mabel Ballin was raised. When she was older she was troubled to discover that the family exchequer was feeble. She had been forced to make her own hats and various articles of wear. Therefore she willingly became apprentice to a dressmaker. A wealthy customer became fond of the girl and paid her tuition in a school of industrial art, where the pupil attended evenings to learn illustrating. At seventeen she became a surreptitious theater attendant, and all thought of an art career vanished. She secretly interviewed theatrical managements and, finding no encouragement, went to New York in answer to an advertisement during her grandmother's absence. She there found a "hit" in a musical comedy called "Bankers and Brokers." After this engagement she met Hugo Ballin, a young artist who had achieved considerable fame. This began a friendship which culminated into something more beautiful later. The young actress went away with Frank Daniels' company, appearing in "Sergeant Brue," "The Tattooed Man" and "The Hoyden." Robert W. Chambers, the novelist, became interested in the growing friendship between maid and man, and became a matchmaker. It was in Mr. Chambers' Connecticut home that the two were married in brown October. The war came on and, as the market for paintings sagged, Mr. Ballin accepted an offer as art director for one of the leading studios. Mrs. Ballin determined to uphold her end of the finances and went to work for Vitagraph, again the actress. She worked for eighteen directors, when Mr. Ballin formed his own producing organization. Since then she has acted only for hubby. Some of their productions have been "Pagan Love," "East Lynne," "The Journey's End," "Jane Eyre," "Married People" and Thackeray's "Vanity Fair."

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