True Detective (2014) and The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers (1895)
After watching the HBO series, True Detective, I felt deprived of some secret knowledge. I understand many of the references from the show, such as the Green Man, I grasped the Male vs. Female power and City vs. Nature, but what eluded me was the references to Carcosa and The King in Yellow. The answer came from Robert W. Chambers 1895 collection of short stories, The King in Yellow. My interest in this book was solidified when it came to my attention that this was one of the influences on H.P. Lovecraft. There will eventually be spoilers, for both The King in Yellow as well as for True Detective.
The book is comprised of ten short stories. The first four all have a horror feeling to them while referencing the King in Yellow. The following two felt like sci-fi / fantasy love stories. The last four all felt like they were about living in Paris during World War I. Due to how the book was comprised, starting with horror moving to science fiction / fantasy and then ending in stories that were, more or less, about love during a time of war, it gave the last four a very surreal feeling. I am sure if I read those four without the context of the first six, they would have had an entirely different tone.
Chambers’ writing style definitely focussed on what he knew. His stories generally focus on an American in his prime studying abroad, specifically Paris. The protagonist is wealthy and pursues art in some fashion, such as sculpting or painting. Not surprisingly, this coincides with events in his own real life.
As a lover of horror and seeing the development of Cosmic Horror, I really enjoyed the first four stories. While far from the cosmic-horror that HP Lovecraft would write, it definitely laid the groundwork for developing mythos. There is a lot happening in the background of the stories, specifically with The King in Yellow, a play that is never fully written, but anyone who seems to read the full thing goes mad. Not necessarily stark-raving-mad shipped to an asylum mad (although, definitely not out of the question), but more of an obsessive mad. It’s not necessarily supernatural, but has the intonation that more is at play than our normal comprehension. Chambers’ horror would be that a door always opens, even if you fully latch it, it swings open again. Maybe there is something more to it, but maybe its a shoddy built house. In comparison, Lovecraft would have that swinging door potentially be something natural, but by the end of the story we have traveled into a new plane of existence.
In terms of True Detective, the biggest thing is their meeting The King in Yellow. The two protagonists meet the villain, a man who lives in “Carcosa.” After their encounter with him, the two go a little bit mad. Their current selves vs. their past selves are incredibly different, but one can see where either would be tipped in that direction. The villain of True Detective feels like he could have fit into the short story “The Repairer of Reputations,” being specifically an ugly individual with odd appetites, but a potentially incredibly intelligent character who has used his position to influence others and remain himself invisible. There is a madness and dream of grandeur about the character.
While reading the short stories didn’t further illuminate anything for me in either True Detective nor Lovecraft’s works, the stories were still interesting. The first four definitely painted a fowl world, while the last four tried to paint a world during war for me that is equally beyond my concept. They were entertaining and quickly read. As a horror and fantasy fan, I can see the groundwork for a lot of future works laid here. None of the stories were specifically that great, but I can see where many great authors used these stories to develop much greater concepts and even genres.