One of the biggest surprises to come from the first seven episodes of HBO's True Detective doesn't occur onscreen; it comes with the revelation that the wildly popular show references Robert W. Chambers' obscure short-story collection The King in Yellow.
While investigating the ritual murder of a young woman in rural Louisiana, the show's detectives keep uncovering allusions to an entity called The Yellow King that presides over a place called Carcosa, where black stars shine. At first blush, it seems like the usual creepazoid blather that cop dramas use to convince the audience that this isn't your garden-variety homicidal maniac, but incarnate evil with a capital "E."
After Episode 4, Michael Hughes, on the blog iO9, revealed True Detective's link to The King in Yellow and declared, "Knowing this book is key to understanding the dark mystery at the heart of this series."
Maybe, maybe not, but in Episode 5, when the monstrous Reggie Ledoux came stumbling out of the gates of meth wrapped in a My Little Pony towel and covered with jailhouse ink, muttering, "Black stars" and "You're in Carcosa now," a million viewers went scuttling to their search engines to look up Chambers' The King in Yellow to find out what the hell he was talking about. And I was one of them.
Originally published in 1895, the book is in the public domain, and I was able to download it via the Kindle app for free. I didn't have to wait long to visit Carcosa. The book opens with a poem that references its "twin suns" and "black stars" and "strange moons."
This was familiar territory for me. When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of pulp-fantasy writers like Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, and H.P. Lovecraft, who was heavily influenced by Chambers. (Carcosa originated with the American author Ambrose Bierce.) In the idiom of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, where I got my first exposure to Lovecraft, I had plenty of experience points, but The King in Yellow surpassed my expectations.
In Chambers' "The Repairer of Reputations," a man injured after a fall from a horse addresses a grievance with a doctor whom the man believes misdiagnosed him. After a clunky multi-page accounting of historical events that establishes how this world differs from the one Chambers' readers live in, the story takes off. The prose is direct, the dialog sharp. The lugubrious scene setting that marks Lovecraft's work is nowhere to be found.
While recuperating, the narrator reads a book called "The King in Yellow," a book so disturbing that it "spread like an infectious disease from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced literary anarchists."
Apparently, those who read The King in Yellow went stark raving mad. I won't spoil the ending, but as the story progresses, the narrator's actions become increasingly erratic, and it ends in violence, bloodshed and madness.
"The King in Yellow" is referenced in several other stories. In "The Mask," the narrator reads only the first few pages but is haunted by visions of Carcosa. "In the Court of the Dragon," a man seeks the solace of church after "three nights of physical suffering and mental trouble" brought on by reading the book and suffers a nervous breakdown. A similar fate awaits Tessie, an artist's model in "The Yellow Sign," who stumbles upon The King in Yellow in the apartment of a painter.
An element of the supernatural hangs over the stories like black stars over Carcosa. These elements do a marvelous job of distracting the reader from the fact that none of the narrators can be believed. It matters less that their sanity has been compromised than the fact that their accounting of events is highly suspect. If you've been paying attention to True Detective, you know that the detectives' unreliability is crucial to the how the story-within-the-story unfolds.
"The King in Yellow" is a symbol for knowledge so terrible that it cannot be unlearned. What I found most interesting about "The Yellow Sign" is that the artist didn't realize he owned a copy of the dreadful book. It sat on his shelf in his own house, ticking like a time bomb.
Could this be the key to understanding True Detective? Will the revelation of secrets lurking in the detectives' disordered houses be the catalyst that propels them over the edge of reason?
Maybe, maybe not—but thanks to Chambers' weird little book, we're all in Carcosa now.