'True Detective' & Robert W Chambers' The King In Yellow

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#1
There's a new series on HBO making a bit of a stir at the moment, True Detective. A creepy series with lots of Fortean elements. Plus, mention of a book of weird stories by, late 19th century writer, Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow.
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/26/king-in-yellow-true-detectives-hbo-weird-fiction

Who or what is The King in Yellow? Ask the True Detectives

The hit HBO crime drama is tantalising fans with references to Robert W Chambers' 1895 short story collection, an early classic of the weird fiction genre

theguardian.com, David Barnett. 26 February 2014


An 1895 collection of fantastic short stories is enjoying a resurgence thanks to the hit new HBO series True Detective.

Although considered something of a classic by genre fans, The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers is hardly a household name – or at least it wasn't until the dark crime series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, which premiered in the UK on Sky Atlantic on Saturday, began to drop subtle hints about the book's involvement in the TV narrative.

The series opener showed detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson), investigating the ritualised murder of a young woman, Dora Lange, in 1995 Louisiana, as well as their older selves being interviewed by police investigating what appears to be a similar killing in 2012. There weren't many clues in that first episode, save for a reference to "the king" during a prison cell interview, but subsequent instalments already aired in the States offer much stronger links.

The diary of the first murder victim is examined in episode two and quotes whole chunks of The King in Yellow. How it fits into the overarching story is already the subject of much internet debate. But what is The King in Yellow anyway?

As well as being the title of Chambers' book, The King in Yellow is also the name of a fictional play which is referred to throughout the 10 short stories that make up the volume. The stories are best described as "weird fiction" – very readable and with a surprisingly contemporary voice considering their Victorian origins, along with a dreamlike fin de siècle quality. Not all of the stories are built around the King in Yellow, but it casts a long, otherworldly shadow over the book.

Chambers sprinkles around quotes from his made-up play as occasional epigraphs, but only from Act I – and with good reason. According to the lore of the interconnected stories, The King in Yellow is a cursed text that lures readers in with a fairly normal first act … and then drives them insane with Act II.

Perhaps the best story in the collection is the first one, The Repairer of Reputations. It is set in a then-future America of 1920, thriving after a (prescient) war with Germany. This future features government-approved lethal chambers for those who want to end it all. The narrator, Castaigne, reads the text of The King in Yellow and falls in with a man named Wilde, who takes fees from the desperate to "repair their reputations". Wilde might be building a revolutionary army of these fallen men, or it might be a delusion brought on by Castaigne reading the play. Castaigne says:

"I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the firelight. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet."
Born in Brooklyn in 1865, Chambers wrote widely, his oeuvre encompassing romantic fiction and adventure novels. But it is The King in Yellow for which he is remembered, and which places him alongside the likes of Ambrose Bierce and HP Lovecraft in the "weird fiction" pantheon. Indeed, the fabled city of Carcosa, over which Chambers' King in Yellow rules, was borrowed from an 1891 Bierce short story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa". Chambers also used Bierce's supernatural entities Hali and Hastur, which later found their way into Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories.

The King in Yellow has been referenced by Neil Gaiman, in his short story "I, Cthulhu", and in the comics writer Grant Morrison's millennial magnum opus The Invisibles. But it is True Detective which has ignited the most fresh interest in Chambers' book. The free Kindle version of the book on Amazon has been galloping up the charts since the series aired, and the UK publisher Gollancz rushed out a 99p ebook last week, packaging The King in Yellow together with Ambrose Bierce's original short and an encyclopedia entry on Chambers.

Quite how The King in Yellow relates to the ritual murder of Dora Lange in True Detectives remains to be seen – though one would guess that The Yellow King referred to in the series is the perpetrator of the murders. There are, of course, plenty of theories. The author Michael M Hughes, writing (in a spoilery post for those who haven't seen beyond episode one) at Io9.com, suggests: "I'll go out on a limb and say the season will continue with detectives Cohle and Hart edging closer to the abyss of what Lovecraft termed 'cosmic fear'."

Vanity Fair also has a heap of theories as to the meaning of True Detective's Yellow King, and posits a five-strong secret society responsible for the ritual killings, among many other (again spoilery) ideas. MTV plaintively wails: "Who the hell is the Yellow King?" but feels confident in suggesting that it's "highly unlikely that there is anything supernatural about him".

I haven't seen enough to have any proper theories of my own yet, other than to say: can it be coincidence that the horrific killing investigated by Cohle and Hart in 1995 took place exactly a century after the publication of Robert W Chambers' book?
Full links at link.

Influenced by Ambrose Bierce and an influence in turn on M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft.

The King in Yellow for the e-reader: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8492
 
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#2
I bought a copy of The King in Yellow in Edinburgh some years ago. I'm no aficionado of weird fiction so I can't really say how it rates against Lovecraft and the like, and I think I've mixed up some of the stories with those of Gerald Kersh (I found a rare collection of his more speculative stuff at the same time.)

Anyway, what I can say is that the title The King in Yellow has always given me the shivers - I have absolutely no idea why.

I'm looking forward to seeing the series as McConaughey and Harrelson are two of my favourite American actors - to me they represent that old-school of steady, unfussy, unpretentious and workmanlike technicians in whose relatively underexposed careers are often hidden absolute gems: I thought McConaughey was superb in Mud and although I don't think Rampart was a great film I think Harrelson was fantastic - both those guys have Oscars in them.

(Incidentally with reference to the above mentioned Gerald Kersh, his collection Nightshade and Damnations - also often referenced by writers in the field of speculative and horror fiction - has recently been republished. And Kersh is always worth reading, whatever the genre.)
 

GNC

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#3
The McConnaissance has been really interesting to watch, all of a sudden he decided he didn't want to be Mr Lightweight Rom-Com anymore and he was now a proper actor with some range: look at Magic Mike and Killer Joe and you'll see a performer in full command of his talent (oo-er). I wasn't so keen on Mud, but had no problem with him in it, and I'm interested to see True Detective but will probably have to wait for the box set.
 

Pinlight_Duke

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#4
True Detective is absolutely outstanding. I came here to see if anyone wanted to discuss theories and some of the occult elements of the show. I've just finished watching the penultimate episode (7th) and while I feel we're closer to the truth, it's also apparent that the truth might be rather open to interpretation. I believe there will be no "real" answers in the final episode.

Over on Reddit people are going mad with theories and pointing out clues and easter eggs hidden all over the show. If you've got an eye for that kind of thing you'll see the show is filled with hidden messages, clues, and so on. I won't mention any of them here because it doesn't seem as if anyone's been watching it, which rather surprises me because it's Fortean as hell AND it's a tightly-scripted, fantastically-acted, and beautifully shot series. You guys have really got to watch this.

It takes place in rural Louisiana and I used to live in New Orleans. Louisiana is truly a strange, wonderful, and often eerie and frightening place, completely unlike anywhere else in the world, what with its mashup of cultures, languages, and unique history.
 
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#5
True Detective was outstanding TV.... I was mildly disappointed by the villain, but I can't really say why without dishing up some serious spoilers, and this series is definitely worth a 9 hour binge.

I loved that the clues were there all along, and that makes a re-watch just as enjoyable. Woody Harrelson and Matthew Mcconaughey were painfully good. It was way too short in the end.
 
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#6
sweetnessbentdouble said:
True Detective was outstanding TV.... I was mildly disappointed by the villain, but I can't really say why without dishing up some serious spoilers, and this series is definitely worth a 9 hour binge.

I loved that the clues were there all along, and that makes a re-watch just as enjoyable. Woody Harrelson and Matthew Mcconaughey were painfully good. It was way too short in the end.
+1
 

GNC

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#7
Looks like you're either a True Detective person or a Fargo person... I was the latter. Would it kill a movie or TV show to have a cheerful atheist just once?
 

Naughty_Felid

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#8
Spookdaddy said:
I bought a copy of The King in Yellow in Edinburgh some years ago. I'm no aficionado of weird fiction so I can't really say how it rates against Lovecraft and the like, and I think I've mixed up some of the stories with those of Gerald Kersh (I found a rare collection of his more speculative stuff at the same time.)

Anyway, what I can say is that the title The King in Yellow has always given me the shivers - I have absolutely no idea why.

I'm looking forward to seeing the series as McConaughey and Harrelson are two of my favourite American actors - to me they represent that old-school of steady, unfussy, unpretentious and workmanlike technicians in whose relatively underexposed careers are often hidden absolute gems: I thought McConaughey was superb in Mud and although I don't think Rampart was a great film I think Harrelson was fantastic - both those guys have Oscars in them.

(Incidentally with reference to the above mentioned Gerald Kersh, his collection Nightshade and Damnations - also often referenced by writers in the field of speculative and horror fiction - has recently been republished. And Kersh is always worth reading, whatever the genre.)
Chambers is a better writer than Lovecraft, (but that's not difficult), The Yellow Sign and In the Court of the Dragon are as good if not better than stories from Blackwood and Machen and get close to M R James.

It's a pity he turned his back on horror and spent most of his career writing romance instead.
 

Ringo

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#9
gncxx said:
Looks like you're either a True Detective person or a Fargo person... I was the latter. Would it kill a movie or TV show to have a cheerful atheist just once?
I loved both.

True Detective was outstanding and I wish I hadn't seen it so that I could watch it for the first time again. And the title music by The Handsome Family is perfectly chosen. I didn't know that there are easter eggs and clues everywhere. I guessed who the villian was but only shortly before it was revealed. I'll have to check the boards and see what speculation is out there.

Frago too was amazing. The cast did an excellent job but I must admit that I had a hard job with Martin Freeman after being so familiar with his other stuff.
 

GNC

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#10
You'll be glad to know a season 2 of True Detective is in the works, then. For me, I was really bored, it was like someone set out to create David Icke's favourite detective show from scratch and unfortunately succeeded. Only bit that woke me up was when that lady took her top off. I thought the theme tune sounded just like Road to Hell by Chris Rea.

On the other hand, better news for me is Fargo is also getting a second season, going back into the past to investigate what happened to Keith Carradine's character. Should be good!
 

Xanatic_

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#11
True Detective did nothing for a few episodes, then built up a lot that it never delivered on- I also wish I hadn´t seen it, but for rather different reasons than Ringo.
 

Anome

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#12
I'm willing to believe that the open threads from series 1 will be picked up, possibly much later, so I don't know if the ending of series 1 was disappointing or not.

Plot points aside, the series was certainly well made and acted. It's good to see Woody Harrelson get a decent role for a change. He's a much better actor than he's usually given credit for.
 

GNC

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#13
Woody was a better Larry Flynt than Larry himself.
 
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