Robert W. Chambers’ The Maker of Moons: A Two-Minute Analysis of the Classic Weird Tale
Aside from the “King in Yellow” mythos, Chambers most notable contribution to weird fiction is the following story. “The Maker of Moons” is typical of the majority of Chambers’ weird fiction in that it collates a variety of genres into a marketable pop hit that is at parts forgettable and at others blazingly original. “The Maker of Moons” is seemingly equal parts horror story, romance, mystical fantasy, spy/detective story, farcical comedy (in the style of P. G. Wodehouse), and science fiction. However, the story is primarily grounded in the regrettable genre of Yellow Peril fiction: anti-Chinese suspense novels that highlighted the threat that insidious Chinese sorcerers, aristocrats, and super villains posed to unsuspecting Western culture. These criminal masterminds infiltrated American and European society covertly, often with plots to upend the Western economy, enslave white women, or cause wars between rival Christian countries. The stories were, like Chambers’ “Maker of Moons,” a blending of several genres: horror, spy fiction, fantasy, suspense, romance, and detective stories. The most notable example of this is Sax Rohmer’s “Fu Manchu” series, which followed the exploits of Nyland Smith and Dr. Petrie in their fight to prevent the eponymous super villain from conquering Western society. “The Maker of Moons” starts out like a typical spy story, then takes a turn for romance, and then lands squarely in yellow peril when a sinister Chinese face is seen peering through some branches in rural New York, but as the story plows on – and it is a remarkably good story, I might add, in spite of its racism and clunky plot missteps – we recognize the unmistakable prefiguration of H. P. Lovecraft. “The Maker of Moons” was a profound influence on Lovecraft, especially on two of his most famous masterpieces, “The Call of Cthulhu” and – more obviously – “The Whisperer in the Darkness.”
In fact, before you have read the first three pages you will encounter the impossible-to-miss prototype for Lovecraft’s crablike Mi-go, and by the end of the story you will encounter a formless and “nameless” monster of truly Lovecraftian proportions. “The Maker of Moons” may have revoltingly racist undertones, but its namesake and mythological basis is founded in Chinese mythology, namely the god of marriage and so-called “Moon Maker” Yue-Laou, a cupid-like deity who takes the shape of a bent, old man always seen standing under the moon, who acts as a supernatural matchmaker – binding intended lovers together by the waist with a silk rope. This is a benevolent guardian of romance – the perfect character for one of Chambers’ sappy love stories – but our sometimes wayward writer makes the uncharacteristic decision to blend such a sentimental figure with a heavy dose of vague malevolence and sinister ambiguity: this Maker of Moons ties his lovers together by their throats and leers at them from the shadows with a glower.
Chambers introduces here yet another mythical kingdom – one which obviously influenced Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle – in the vein of Ys, Atlantis, Xanadu, or Shangri-La: the other dimensional realm of Yian, a paradise accessible in China, but belonging to an otherworldly dimension of space. Like Lovecraft’s dream world kingdoms, this one is both alluring and somehow sinister, like a poisonous flower. It is a world where the music of silver bells fills the air, and a river flows through it which is spanned by a thousand bridges, a world where lilies gibber and quiver, where the intoxicating perfume of flowers fills the air. And yet it is a goblin-haunted realm where headless dogs flush out prey, hellish, hairy, yellow scorpion-like gremlins swarm, and the great, faceless, bloated, wormlike demon, Xin, casts its shadow over the lilies and causes men to lose their minds. Largely influenced by Edgar Allan Poe – particularly the fable “Silence” – Chambers’ multi-layered adventure-romance-thriller-fantasy-horror story acted as a bridge from 19th century weird fiction to the 20th century’s brand, and while it – like nearly all of Chambers’ works – is weighed down by flaws, it is a fascinating story and one which deserves far more attention from readers and critics alike.
A fascinating, almost intoxicating fantasy, “The Maker of Moons” is largely considered Chambers’ most notable, non-Carcosan masterpiece. It was an obvious influence on Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” as well as the Fu Manchu series of novels. When our playboy protagonist notices a strange, crablike insect – a goggle-eyed cretin with yellow hair and a scorpion tail – crawling out of his friend’s pocket, he is introduced to a world of intrigue, espionage, weird horrors, and cosmic madness that shuttles him from aimless bachelordom to high adventure and horror. What follows is a fascinating mashup of genres: spy novel, murder mystery, crime thriller, conspiracy theory, science fiction, Lovecraftian cosmicism, romantic fantasy, Poe-esque love-tragedy, and time-wormy escapade. Briefly put, what if a the Chinese demi-god, the Maker of Moons, escaped from an alternate dimension and set up a counterfeiting operation in the New York mountains — one with global domination as its aim? A stranger, more twisty plot has rarely been conceived.
Roy, our protagonist, opens the story with a declaration that he desires to reveal all he knows of the insidious Yue-Laou and the Xin. Proceeding with the story, he describes how he encountered his friend Godfrey at a jewelers where he is admiring an intricately crafted golden snake which Godfrey claims was found in upstate New York in the Cardinal Woods. Lost in conversation, Roy suddenly notices the aforementioned scorpion-like creature scuttle into Godfrey’s pocket. As if lost in a Kafka play, Roy is stunned by Godfrey’s casual disinterest in the otherworldly monster — which he claims to have been found with the golden snake — and the conversation ends as they are joined by Barris, a government agent. Tying these stories together, Barris informs them that Chinese alchemists have found the secret to producing gold from crude matter, and are working on a plot to destroy the world economy from the wilds of upstate New York. Intrigued, the three depart New York City together for the Cardinal Woods near Starlit Lake, where the golden snake and alien crab/scorpion/caterpillar were discovered. Barris heads off into the woods (seeking the leaders of the conspiring alchemists) while Roy heads out on a hunt.
There, by Starlit Lake, he encounters an enchanting woman named Ysonde, who claims to be visiting from the otherworldly city of Yian, and is drawn to him because of a crescent-shaped birthmark on his forehead which she recognizes from her homeland. She is surrounded by intricate sculptures of her making, and Roy wonders if she made the gold snake. He finds himself entranced by their conversation, but when she suddenly disappears, he chalks it up to a hallucination and continues hunting. Later, Barris confirms that he has made in-roads into his investigation, and Roy tells him that he saw an out-of place Chinese man in flowing robes while on his hunt. The next day Roy meets Ysonde again and learns more details of the fantastical city of Yian. After this fleeting encounter he mentions the city to Barris who – after much prodding – confesses that he has heard of the place: a city “where the great river winds under the thousand bridges – where the gardens are sweet scented, and the air is filled with the music of silver bells … across the seven oceans and the river which is longer than from the earth to the moon…” Yian, as it turns out, is the base of the alchemists and their leader, Yue-Laou, the Chinese sorcerer known as the Maker of Moons. In fact, as Barris admits, he once resided in Yian and fell in love with one of its residents before she was taken from him.
Roy, who suspects that Ysonde may be the elder Barris’ love child, seeks her in the woods that night. The elements seem disturbed: animals flee in herds from the surrounding woods, driven by a ravenous horde of the yellow, crablike monsters, who seem to be poisoning the air and heralding the arrival of great evil. Terrified, Roy and Ysonde finally meet — evading both the panicked woodland creatures and the scuttling crabs of Yian — where she warns him of the approaching pack of headless Yeth-hounds (the hellish spirits of murdered children). Overwhelmed by the horrors around him, Roy suddenly notices that the sky has become flooded with rising moons which seem to be rising from the Starlit Lake. They find the Maker of Moons creating the glowing satelites by blowing them off of a glowing sphere in his bony hand, causing the tides to surge and the world to spin into chaos. Locked in an embrace, the lovers are horrified as Yue-Laou summons the Lovecraftian monster Xin – a mind-crushing precursor to Cthulhu, a shapeless, worm-like mass – but is interrupted by Barris, who empties his pistol into the Maker of Moons just before he is attacked by Xin. Suddenly, Roy awakens from his memories with Ysonde bending over him at his writing desk, chiding him for writing such silliness, and causing us to wonder if she is being sarcastic, if Roy made it all up, or if he is insane.
The story’s plot is filled with fascinating cliffhangers, unanswered questions, and clues to deeper meanings and broader webs. Perhaps most notable is its controversial ending, which has led many if not most readers to conclude that the whole story was a fantasy written about a normal man and his normal wife – a little roleplaying exercise, maybe. Most scholars completely disagree, and so do I – in my opinion, at least, there are three far more appealing options which make far more sense: Ysonde has either entirely forgotten her past and is therefore an unreliable character, or we are led to believe that Roy is unsure of the veracity of his experiences and is the sole witness to the wonders he saw, leaving him unable to decide whether his impressions were genuine or not. I find absolutely no reason to believe that he is writing a fun little romance during a boring afternoon. He genuinely believes what he has seen, and his friends are unquestionably downstairs with guns ready to sally forth into the woods. The only question we now have is: did Roy hallucinate what he saw, or was it genuine, and has Ysonde thus had her memory erased in the process of being married to him through the machinations of the Maker of Moons.
There is also a third theory, I should mention, that views this moment as Ysonde trying to gaslight her husband in an attempt to prevent his certainly doomed expedition. This interpretation is also perfectly valid. With its dreamlike atmosphere, story of strange love, and the ambiguous motives of its characters, “The Maker of Moons” has a clear lineage to Edgar Allan Poe, specifically his stories “The Gold Bug” and “Silence” and the poem “Ulalume.” Like “The Gold-Bug,” the adventure begins when a gold-seeming creature is discovered in the woods of Eastern America, followed by a puzzling discovery (Poe’s is a treasure map, Chambers’ is Ysonde) that redirects the aimless protagonists efforts, and concluding with a group of friends heading out to the woods on a treasure hunt. “Ulalume” and “Silence” are manifested here in the unique imagery and language that Chambers uses: gibbering, pulsing lilies, the placename “Weir,” the motif of crying out the name of a lover and being led on a dazed nocturnal hike to discover her in the countryside, the disturbing presence of the full moon, the unsettling gaze of a lynx, and the ambiguous reality of a lover.
Once Chambers had put his own spin on these motifs, pairing them with tropes from horror, cryptozoology, romance, fantasy, and spy and detective fiction (all liberally coated with yellow peril), the story found new life when it was discovered by H. P. Lovecraft. “The Maker of Moons” was fantastically influential to some of Lovecraft’s most highly regarded stories, particularly “The Call of Cthulhu” (an ancient, pagan cult practices hideous rites under the noses of the general public in the American woodlands; they are worshipping an other-dimensional god who dwells in an alien city which can be accessed on earth), the Dream Cycle (including “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “The White Ship,” “The Silver Key,” and “The Strange High House in the Mist,” all of which reference Yian-like worlds that have a blended nature: both impossibly beautiful and alluring and vaguely sinister and forbidding; the dream cycle even includes a Xin-like monster called the Dohle (“Below him the ground was festering with gigantic Dholes, and even as he looked, one reared up several hundred feet and leveled a bleached, viscous end at him”)), and most tellingly of all, “The Whisperer in the Darkness” (a loner in the woodlands of northeastern America comes into contact with bristly, crablike aliens who have a plan that may or may not include dominating the earth, but which certainly is sinister towards human beings; he reports this to a young friend before he seems to be killed, and the friend is forced into action when newspaper reports seem to confirm the story).
By itself “The Maker of Moons is a memorable and unique weird tale. It has weaknesses, slow parts, untidy explanations, and elements that we can’t help but wish Chambers had expanded on, but it is also one of the first American stories to effectively hint at the existence of alternate dimensions and to effectively suggest the immenseness of its horrors and fantasies without going into too much detail. Like Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” we know just enough about Yian and the Xin and the Yeth Hounds to be completely engaged, but – also like Bierce – Chambers demonstrates rare self-restraint by offering us glimpses but without any clear views. The actual motives behind Yue-Laou, the actual nature of Ysonde (is she really good or was her strange way of being bound to Roy by the throat an intentionally sinister coupling), the actual significance of Roy’s birth mark, the actual fate of Barris, the actual motives of the alchemists, its actual relationship to the Kuen-Yuin, and the actual meaning of Ysonde’s final words are all left up to our imagination. In this way Chambers is a tantalizing writer, and “The Maker of Moons,” in spite of its flaws, is in many ways comparable to “The King in Yellow.”
And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Chambers’ best weird fiction HERE!