The King in Yellow (1895), a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, concerns a fictional closet play itself entitled The King in Yellow, which drives all its readers mad. Chambers was hyperbolizing the decadence of the Yellow Nineties—a nameless “yellow book” turns up in the hands of Dorian Gray. But the very idea of inventing portentous titles for fictional books caught on with the next generation of horror writers—particularly H. P. Lovecraft, to whom we owe such evocative titles as the Book of Eibon and Von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, besides the most famous of all titles without books, the terrible Al-`Azif of the mad Arab `Abd ul-Alhazred—better known by the title of its Greek translation, Necronomicon—which has the unique distinction, among imaginary books, of having been written several times over.
From Lovecraft and others the game of titles without books was picked up by Borges, who not only invented unwritten books (like The Garden of Forking Paths) but reviewed some of them—like The Approach to Mu`tasim. Through Borges the game entered the mainstream of literature. (Of course there were forerunners—Thomas Browne (in Musaeum Clausum), Thomas Urquhart (in Logopandecteision), Laurence Sterne (in Tristram Shandy)—but all traditions have their forerunners.) Its numerous players were formerly catalogued by a website called The Invisible Library—a casualty of the recent disappearance of GeoCities, now itself only a title. The Wikipedia has its own list, including science fiction’s famous reference works—the Encyclopedia Galactica of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in Douglas Adam’s homonymous series.
The art of titling books, we see, is distinct from the art of writing books. Some authors think up titles first, write books second; but good titles, besides inspiring an author, can compel a reader’s interest on their own, even without a book to read. Look over a list of fictional books and consider how fully the atmosphere, genre, and contents of an entire book can be suggested by nothing more than a title and a name. Certainly real books deserve as much attention. And the game of imaginary books may be a useful exercise for the writers of real ones. Short stories gave writers plenty of opportunities to practice the art of the title; but most books these days are titled by someone who has only ever invented a handful of titles. Imaginary books are a chance to practice. And it gives a standard to judge titles by: if this book did not exist, what title would suffice to suggest it?
Author: Paul M. Rodriguez – email@example.com
German-speaking readers might feel offended by the ungrammatical Unausprechlichen Kulten. That’s not a typo, however. Lovecraft had help producing that title, and the help was, you might say, not altogether competent. Grammatical equivalents would be Von Unausprechlichen Kulten or Unausprechliche Kulten.