Storytelling: True Detective and The King in Yellow

If you are not already watching my new television obsession True Detective, what are you doing here? Go watch and then we’ll talk. True Detective is an anthology series written by the novelist Nic Pizzolatto.¹ It is an eerie and unsettling look at two detectives who are tracking a potential serial killer in 1995 and are recounting the events separately during a mysterious police inquiry in 2012.

True Detective. Episode 5. Photo from HBO.

Detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) looks a little fleshier with a little less hair in the more recent year, but an even more interesting draw is Det. Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), who went from a brooding, introvert who takes a sketch pad to crime scenes so he can visually document what he sees to a gaunt, long-haired alcoholic in the “manic street preacher” genre.² There are elements of the uncanny that give me an uneasy feeling when watching. The show was shot in southern Louisiana, portraying that haunted beauty that only the American South can capture (they’ve won my hearts over with Spanish moss and the 24-hour chirping of hidden insects).

But less about television and more about books. Like previously mentioned the show was created and written by a novelist. Nic Pizzolatto recently revealed that he includes inspiration from the 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. The King in Yellow itself is full of the eerie and unsettling. The stories are painted with broad strokes of the macabre, which horror fans are sure to appreciate. Because of all of the hoopla on the internet about the book and episode five’s Sunday airing (Amazon reports that the 119 year old book’s sales shot up 71% over night), I figured I would write a little about it and my favorite story from the collection.

The stories’ locations oscillate between New York City and Paris, with some of the stories mentioning an unholy play called The King in Yellow that will drive a reader insane. Snippets of the play are scattered throughout the collection and characters often make mention of it or the Yellow King, a character from the play.

artwork by ZlayerOne

Not only is “The Repairer of Reputations” my favorite, it is also the first, giving the collection a strong opening. The story takes place in the close-future from the book’s publication–1920–and is told from the POV of Hildred Castaigne. We learn that Hildred fell from his horse four years earlier and was sent to an insane asylum for treatment. From the start, the story leads us into a skewed version of 1920 New York City: there has been a “repeal of the laws prohibiting suicide…when the first Government Lethal Chamber was opened on Washington Square.”

As the story progresses, the reader gets the impression that Hildred is no longer the out-going youth he once was, but now has become obsessed with this dastardly censored text called The King in Yellow, which drives men insane, and often visits with one Mr. Wilde, who is a “repairer of reputations” (blackmail and scandal!). Hildred’s narration becomes more delusional as he becomes further engrossed with the play. He often thinks of the characters and their plights, attributing them to his own life,

I remembered Camilla’s agonized scream and the awful words echoing through the dim streets of Carcosa. They were the last lines in the first act, and I dared not think of what followed–dared not…

As Hildred’s first-person narration becomes more outlandish and his behavior can easily be categorized as most bizarre, his reliability is of course doubted. Once his unreliability comes into question, the reader will doubt the details Hildred earlier revealed. Like Hildred in “The Repairer of Reputations,” Dets. Cohle and Hart are not as they first appear and their reliability can certainly be questioned. How the viewer/reader sees events and details are extremely important to both Chambers and Pizzolatto.

Robert W. Chambers

The fictional play within the book and the loosely fitted connection it has throughout a chunk of the stories has inspired authors including HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, Raymond Chandler and many others. Also, it is clear that Chambers himself was inspired by great horror writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, even taking the latter’s name for Carcosa, a fictional city, and utilizing it heavily throughout The King in Yellow. Chambers’ two motifs, the Yellow King and the Yellow Sign, are clearly interpreted in True Detective (don’t worry–no spoilers from me) and Pizzolatto loves including images and lines from the fictional play within the book,

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

*The King in Yellow is available for free in the public domain through Zola BooksProject Gutenberg and Feedbooks.

***

Further information…
  1. And with music coordinated by T Bone Burnett!
  2. Love New York magazine’s approval matrix noting that True Detective should win the Best Toupee Emmy.
  3. Try doing a Google image search for the book; lots of fan art that looks like it should be on a Led Zeppelin album cover.
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4 comments

    1. Oooh, I do hope you enjoy the book! I really like the show and to me, it definitely feels like it is written by a novelist who has a good grasp on storytelling. The most recent episode (ep 5) really blew everything up, in regards to reliability and narration. Maybe, you’ll give it a second chance!

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