This is part of a collection of linked short stories that spawned the ‘King in Yellow’ lore that has been an inspiration for fantasy and horror writers for more than a hundred years. There is something very innovative about the collection’s form, and this particular story is weirdly prescient. It is speculative science fiction, set in a fascist vision of America in the 1920s (as imagined in 1895!). It’s hard to know where the story’s politics lie – the narrator describes approvingly the (genocidal) steps taken to consolidate the new American Empire, yet he is explicitly represented as a miniature Napoleon and lunatic. At the centre of the new, neoclassical New York, built over what once were multicultural neighbourhoods, stands the temple-like Lethal Chamber, into which the lowest members of society are encouraged to enter and end their miserable lives. The narrator schemes to marshal an army of people enlisted by means of blackmail (ie, corrupted by their secrets) to restore his place on the American imperial throne. His scheme is directed by the mysterious King in Yellow, an evil demigod who manifests as a consequence of the consumption of evil literature. This concept has stuck with me.
First published in The King in Yellow, F Tennyson Neely, 1895. Available to read online in various places, including Project Gutenberg