Short Story

May is Short Story Month

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May is Short Story Month. For a long time, short stories got the boot. They used to be so part of the reading conscious, but in the past decades, collections were overlooked for novels. However, they are making a comeback. Short Story Month is sponsored by storyaday.org and is hoping to encourage more consumption of short stories beyond just the month of May.

In the coming month, I hope to include more short fiction. I have some books and lone short stories already lined up. I’ve just finished one forthcoming collection, too. Because May is also Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, I am aiming to include writers who fit this criteria as well. So, let’s get our #shortreads on! Below are some past posts to get a jump on it. Are you reading any gripping short stories? If so, please tell me in the comment section.

+ “The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey
+ “The Skull” by Philip K. Dick
“The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers
+ “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
+ and more.

I leave you with this quote from Neil Gaiman regarding short stories:

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” 

The End of the End of Everything by Dale Bailey

end of the end of everything

 The last time Ben and Lois Devine saw Veronica Glass, the noted mutilation artist, was at a suicide party in Cerulean Cliffs, an artist’s colony far beyond their means.

If you’re unfamiliar with artist/writer gatherings, the good ones usually include loads of booze, that one über-pretentious person, personal crises and looming entropy. This is all captured in Dale Bailey’s novelette/short story, “The End of the End of Everything.”

Ben and Lois Devine are invited by their close friend to an artists’ colony during the summertime. Ben is a poet, who readily admits that he is mediocre, but squeaks by doing the MFA circuit. He’s had a few publications, but doesn’t expect people to know him or his work.

They are unaware that the daily evening parties are actually suicide parties where guests mingle at a Gatsbyesque grotesque soiree not short on small talk, overly long readings of writers’ works, and finally, with the suicide of one of the guests. Their deaths are quite brutal, but somehow Dale Bailey has made them a work of art that exceeds their own assumed pedestrian output. The idea of art for art’s sake is repeated throughout, a rhetorical device that becomes even more realized when Ben meets the “mutilation artist,” Veronica Glass (her name, alone, invokes an image of an unreal and severe individual).

Anytime she bumps into him, Veronica continues to ask Ben how he will end his life. The poet is reluctant to the whole idea, even with the impending “ruin” that seems to be swallowing up the world around them. The term is used to elicit images of a battered world, but also to isolate the artists’ colony even more. Every day, ruin seems to roll closer, dispatching anyone who goes into it. The world feels suffocated. It’s almost as if the colony, which is aptly named Cerulean Cliffs, hangs on the edge of where earth meets the sky with any wrong misstep sending you over and into the abyss.

Somehow Bailey is able to write a story that feels more like a painting. The entire time, I felt like I was staring closely at a canvas, observing the individual brushstrokes and captivated at how they appear like textured expressions making up a whole. Even when Ben sees in person the type of art Veronica Glass creates, I couldn’t look away even though imagining it reminded me of all the layers of my own skin and the complicated system that lies beneath.

This is one of those stories that I hope to come back to again, so I can take in the rich and destructive world Dale Bailey has created. Part of me would like to see this as a novel, but I wonder if in doing so would negate the overwhelming feeling of anxiety and the richness of this grotesque situation.

***

“The End of the End of Everything” is available for free on Tor.com and can also be acquired as an e-book for .99 cents. As always, I am delighted by the publisher’s chosen artwork. Perhaps, it is odd of me to say that I want a blown up version of it, because of the subject matter, but New York-based Hong Kong artist Victo Ngai’s cover art is phenomenal.

short story may

Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

sleep donation

Summer is slowly creeping its head out and isn’t it time to put the old dusty tomes away and reach for something fun? (The answer is yes, by the way). A new publisher called Atavist Books just released Karen Russell’s newest novella, Sleep Donation. This publisher seems a little different and Russell’s book is its inaugural release. There’s an interesting article in PW about Atavist Books.

Known for her mingling of magical realism in her fiction, Karen Russell doesn’t disappoint as she tries her hand at a story that is toeing the line with sci-fi. We’re somewhere in the near future where an international Insomnia Crisis is widespread. People are literally going out of their minds as their weary eyes might potentially pop out of their heads. At first, I definitely got a sense that here is a metaphor for our over-worked, under-rested, highly anxious society addicted to the various lit screen devices that are available, but it’s more than just that. It’s really a story and one that is gripping.

We can see a little bit of our own world in the plot, but Russell sprinkles in lovely detail. As the insomnia crisis spirals out of control, healthy sleepers are asked to donate their sleep for the afflicted. Similarly to donating blood, they are given a questionnaire to fill out and tick off if they have experienced any of the “contagious nightmares”:

Abomination, horned
Ambulance, frozen yellow siren
Anthill, no queen
Ants, flesh-eating
etc.

I was waiting to read my repetitive nightmare–teeth following out–alas, that didn’t make the abbreviated list. It is with these details that make the novella so bold and in Karen Russell style, the humor is still held even when the terrible is running rampant. I briefly mentioned this novella in last week’s post: An Amateur’s Field Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Although, the sleepless are not explicitly labelled “zombies,” I kept having the image of gaunt half-humans with their eyes sunken in with an unquenchable thirst for brains sleep.

Sleep Donation was such a fun read. I’m looking forward to future publications from Atavist Books (they plan to publish one book a month). The novella was priced just right too ($3.99), so you can’t go wrong. Time to get a hop on the summer fun.

Short Film Adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery

Last week’s post about the new Shirley Jackson story that was just posthumously published had me thinking about this short film adaptation of her story, “The Lottery.” I couldn’t recall if I had actually ever seen it and with some minimal internet sleuthing I’ve found it. The short film also features an incredibly young Ed Begley Jr. in his first film role (he plays Jack Watson). Enjoy!

Additional Reading … Interesting article from Shirley Jackon’s biographer detailing the hundreds of hate letters she received after this story was published. Also, the biographer touches on the perplexed feelings some readers had. The New Yorker also has a digitized version of the story from the 1948 issue it first appeared in.

[PART 1]

*

[PART 2]

The Skull by Philip K. Dick

TheSkullPKD

The 1952 short story, “The Skull” by Philip K. Dick, opens with some of the best lines in fiction,

Conger agreed to kill a stranger he had never seen. But he would make no mistakes because he had the stranger’s skull under his arm.

If that doesn’t draw you in, what will? “The Skull” is set a couple of centuries in the future (where we also live on Mars, of course) and a violent criminal named Conger is recruited to go back in time to dispose of the nameless man officials have concluded is the Founder of all of their problems. In this future world, the ominously lone religious institution called The Church holds the skeleton of the Founder and is ready to give over the skull to Conger so he can make a positive identification of the man who they have very little information about. All they have to go on was that he spoke a few sentences in a small town in Colorado in December 1960, which ignited The Movement, a thorn in the side of the authority. The Movement preaches that the greater technology applied to war will be the downfall of man and that with each new war breeds another more cataclysmic war. The authority needs the elusive Founder taken out before he is even able to speak those mysterious words in 1960 Colorado.

To enjoy anything to do with time travel, I think one must forget about dwelling on the fundamentals and paradoxes. Dick even makes a comment in the story that “[t]here’s some philosophical doubt as to whether one can alter the past.”  So don’t even bother with it and enjoy the story.

Of course, it couldn’t be as simple as the authority is making it out to be for Conger. The moment he arrives in the small town outside of Denver, the people know he’s an outsider (he is sporting a beard in a place where all men are clean-shaven) and because Dick is known for his paranoia, the Red scare is on many of the minds in the town (he was writing this in the 1950s). Conger tries to blend in while also trying to find this man whose name and appearance he knows nothing of.

Like he is known to do, Dick is commenting on a few things with this story: the Communist scare, religion, and war, just to name a few. The story is entirely compelling from beginning to end and when Conger is given a strange stare by a resident of the Colorado town, the reader is never sure what is going on in his or her mind. Will he be ratted out as a Red (he does have one of those big beards like that fella Marx–noted by one man) or is something even stranger afoot with locating the unnamed Founder?

“The Skull” is available for Free in the public domain: Feedbooks | Project Gutenberg

**I stumbled across this article from 2011 on i09.com featuring “10 Great Philip K. Dick Stories That Hollywood Hasn’t Filmed Yet” — which confirmed my long-held perplexity over the lack of film adaptation of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

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The Man in the Woods by Shirley Jackson

Although, passing away in 1965, the exquisite author Shirley Jackson still persists as one of our great 20th Century American writers. Even after her death, she leaves us with many unpublished works. Her adult children have been wading through all of her papers and unpublished stories have been found. Last year, the New Yorker magazine ran a previously unknown story called, “Paranoia.” With this week’s issue, a story taking root in mythology and fairy tale was published. This new Shirley Jackson story is called, “The Man in the Woods.” It is also available to read in its entirety online.

themaninwoods

Admittedly, the story reads like an early draft. It is indeed short and the ending is lacking the hard resonance that Jackson’s other works released during her lifetime have. The final sentences give a glimpse, however, to the tone and path she wanted to take. With that all said, “The Man in the Woods” doesn’t disappoint.

It is a short story that unleashes a lingering terror from the first page. Shirley Jackson was always wonderful at making the reader feel on edge without being blunt. Christopher is compelled to start walking into the woods out of the mere fact that he has nothing better to do. He is joined by a nameless cat who Christopher playfully asks, “Where we going, fellow? Any ideas?” As he continues on into the woods, Christopher finds himself at a crossroads, not sure which path to take. Jackson sets up a story that feels very familiar in the realm of fairy tales (well, the kind of fairy tales that really are horror stories with grim outcomes and any notion of “fairy” is wholly misleading). Christopher comes upon a small stone cottage where a trio of mysterious people live. The occupants are strange with their speech and they are not completely able to pick up on the humor in casual conversation.

Regardless of the draft quality of the story, I am still delighted by Jackson’s ability to construct a foreboding environment. She clearly is taking a cue from fairy tales and folk myths (one character’s name is possibly Circe; what this tells the reader about her, though, can be debated). It is this enigmatic quality of the narrative that is the big draw.

When you’re done taking a peek, the New Yorker also included an interview with Shirley Jackson’s son about discovering her unpublished stories and other topics.

An Amateur’s Field Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Has anyone else noticed the newish zombie trend slowly permeating through our books, movies, and television? Perhaps, this is just a backlash from the fatigue we all have from sexy teenage vampires. My interest in zombies has never been particularly high, but I can’t help but notice some of the more recent offerings. These aren’t your run of the mill Romero zombie tales.

I am no expert (hence the amateur status given to this post), but I thought I would share my run-ins that have bucked my previously held opinion of zombie fare.* The creators have tried to upend the standard lore of zombies and produce something new. For me, it all began with The Returned, a recent French television series.

zombies - 1They aren’t mumbling, half-wits motivated solely for brains. No, the revenants of this small French town return as if nothing has happened even though some have been deceased for decades. They want to return to their normal lives, but with every new episode, stranger behavior and occurrences unfold. There are clearly secrets buried within the living, too. The Returned is a television adaptation of a 2004 French film called They Came Back (French: Les Revenants), which seethes with the uncanny and eerie. This slow burning film makes you feel completely off-kilter. The returned are not quite what the living expected and the business of what to do with this sudden inflation of undeceased residents is a perplexing burden. Let’s not mention all of the not sleeping and midnight meetups by the undead who seem to be planning something. Both of these zombie servings offer a different picture, which include complex emotions and simmering questions.

zombies - 2

It’s often noted that the 2002 British thriller, 28 Days Later, was the zombie film that reignited interest in the living dead. It took me ages to finally see it (due to my aforementioned disinterest in zombies), but when I did, I was impressed. It definitely was akin to those 1968 zombies, but it did do something different–the zombies were not slow walking  groaners. They were fast and strong making the post-apocalypse landscape even more terrifying. But we’ve moved on a little from these serious creepfests…

The genre has seen its own comedic interpretations with the fantastic Shaun of the Dead (that bar scene with Queen playing always gets me) or the slapstick horror of the New Zealand zombie flick, Black Sheep, which centers around the genetically mutated sheep that have secretly been created on the outskirts of a family farm by scientists looking to birth savage carnivores instead of docile grazers. Has anyone else seen this? I feel like I’m the only one. Shall I tempt you with the trailer? Also, we cannot forget Zombieland, a film that sees gun-toting Woody Harrelson driven to find a Twinkie in a zombie-filled world.

But this new zombie is flashing its teeth in writing as well. Isaac Marion’s debut novel, Warm Bodies, is narrated by R who isn’t your mamma’s zombie. Marion is writing from a zombie point of view–something which often is not a feature. R spends his days very slowly walking around a former airport with his other zombie cohorts in post-apocalyptic Seattle. He is bored, can’t remember his name, and on a recent hunt for brains, he meets Julie, a member of the living. R has a deep inner monologue and can relive memories of those whose brains he’s devoured. As the book goes on, R starts to become more human-like. He can string more than a couple of syllables together and his body movements are less restricted. Warm Bodies has been labelled a zombie romance, which it is, but it was also enjoyable to read as a new take on the zombie genre. There is also a 2013 film adaptation that is fun to watch as R goes through his zombie existential crisis.

Of course, there is horror maestro Joe Hill’s short story, “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead.” Honestly, I was skeptical at first because the entire story is written in a succession of Tweets by a teenage girl on a road trip with her family, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was a real joyride. The 140 character Oulipian constraint makes for some side-splitting moments. The whole time, the girl is tweeting her family’s car ride even when they make a wrong turn leading them to the Circus of the Dead–a circus manned by zombie entertainment. Even when her own brother is turned, she can’t help but be surly and she remains tweeting till the very undead end.

TYME2WASTE He’s not very good at being a zombie. He isn’t even trying to walk slow. He’s really going after the ringmistress. 9:04 PM – 2 Mar from Tweetie

zombies 3

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

Zombie stories and resurrections have been around for centuries. The mindless brain-centric menace can trace its roots to West Africa and Haiti where many myths and stories shape our present day zombie. The mainstreaming of the word began in the late 1920s and exploded with the release of the 1932 Bela Lugosi picture, White Zombie, based on William Seabrook’s book (note: his Wikipedia page states, “[W]as an American Lost Generation occultistexplorer, traveller, cannibal, and journalist.” Maybe, one of the best entry openings on the site?).  

I proffer that zombies became more than just the living dead with Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. We can argue that the creatures are really more like vampires, but this is my blog, so I win. They’re zombies. In his 1954 novel, Matheson popularized the notion of a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by an unknown contagion. This is really a must-read even outside of the zombie wheelhouse. (Let’s all just agree to forgo the recent film adaptation for the sole reason that the filmmakers totally throw out the idea of what “I am Legend” means in the book). Matheson’s excellent book won’t be the last to elicit a dwindling world where war, disease, and other man-made epidemics will be our downfall.

Newer zombies are regularly shown as staying awake all night long. Their inability to sleep and their weary-eyed restlessness is often highlighted. Even in Karen Russell’s new novella, Sleep Donation, which is not strictly a zombie piece, compares the insomniacs to zombies. They are rendered insane by the sleeplessness and an epidemic is raging through the world. A cause is not given, but it is obviously a metaphor for society’s anxieties (also, commenting on the fact that with every progressing day, we are less likely to pull ourselves away from our various screen devices that have been show to interfere with sleep).

Even in the horror-comedy schlock fest, Jennifer’s Body, a bit of commentary is going on. Although, Jennifer is not explicitly labeled a zombie (more a demon), she comes back to life to wreak havoc on the high school boys who objectified her. It is a ridiculous and absurd film that is pretty great and it tries to tap into the portrayal of women in slasher flicks (the execution can be questioned at times, but still admirable, for lack of a better word). Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “As a movie about a flesh-eating cheerleader, it’s better than it has to be.” It is a suitable addition to a genre that is already highly saturated with male voices.

zombies - 4

Supernatural works are often stand-ins for society’s very real fears and worries. Letting go and grief seem to be apparent themes in The Returned and They Came Back, and we are seeing it again in the new US television series Resurrection (based on the 2012 novel, The Returned, which has nothing to do with the two French works, but also deals with long-dead people returning to a small town. Read the Slate article to clear everything up). Also, in all three, the revenants are unable to sleep, denoting them as the other and keeping from the very human function that visits us every night. I have not read Jason Mott’s novel, but I’m curious if anyone else has an opinion on it.

Our new zombies are often having existential crises. They keep their heads high and ruminate on their fates. Sometimes the world is destroyed by a disease, but many times this is not the case. R doesn’t remember how he lost his sense of self. Did this new, distracted world just think itself into zombieism? Many iterations don’t sleep. They can be found walking aimlessly and unblinking with plenty of time to think. They seem harmless at first, but when more come, the true monster shows its face. They might not always be guttural, fleshy cannibalistic heaps anymore. As readers and watchers of these new zombies, we often become enthralled by this different approach to the genre. The stories are evolving with our own present world, for the good and the bad. Our anxieties are being manifested in post-apocalyptic worlds filled with modern creatures. No matter what, though, zombies are always a human creation. They are mutating and overcoming us until we must send in Brad Pitt to rid of us of our World War Z.

Now, I am off to watch Cockneys vs. Zombies to add to my zombie arsenal. Do you have any to add? They are certainly plenty of zombie films, but are there any more works of fiction that are just begging to be read? Does anyone else notice that many vampire books are written by women, but zombies seem to be the playing field of men?


* Sorry Walking Dead fans. From the one random episode I watched last year, this series solidified my previous held disinterest in Zombies and their ability to bore with me the main focus being on walking back and forth slowly.

Appendix

1. Images [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]
2. Zombies are such a trend now that there are zombie-themed apps, including a jogging “adventure,” called Zombies, Run!
3.  A short list of zombie films starring Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price.
4. Many thanks to Helen for recommending the television series The ReturnedThe TV series airs on Sundance Channel and can also be binge watched (recommended) on Netflix. They Came Back can be watched for free in its entirety on Hulu. Although, I recommend finding the DVD for the extra “making of” documentary.
5. Never utter these words during a zombie apocalypse.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

 

This week’s topic for the Weekly Photo Challenge is “Street Life”: a place reveals itself on its streets, from pedestrians strolling during lunch time, to performers entertaining tourists on sidewalks, to the bustle of local markets, and more….

A few years ago, I used to work up in Harlem on 125th Street. It is an area that is very busy, yet, also abandoned. There wasn’t much going on outside of my office building except the big construction pit on the north side of the street, the daytime mugging I once saw, and Bill Murray in a baseball cap standing outside the office. It is a strange intersection of bustling and abandonment, an active ruin. One summer, I decided to take my camera with me. I wanted to document the city streets and the people who pounded the pavement on 125th Street, which is also home to the Cotton Club. It is an area of greys and steel, but also one of bright colors in unexpected places.

**Of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without a recommended reading list at the bottom. This is a literature blog (I hope!).

Harlem, 125th Street

Cotton Club

Harlem, 125th Street

Recommended Reading List for Harlem, 125th Street
  • Jazz by Toni Morrison; Harlem in the 1920s + jazz music
  • Invisible by Paul Auster; about ten blocks south of the Cotton Club, a tragic event takes place to snowball all of the novel’s characters
  • Open City by Teju Cole; roaming the streets of Manhattan
  • Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney; 1980s hedonistic NYC told in second-person
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolffe; racial tensions run high in 1980s NYC
  • Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger; we could argue over who the true phony is, but regardless this book captures Manhattan streets of the 194/50s

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The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie by Thomas Disch

robotic alien

Down and out sci-fi/fantasy writer Rudy Steiner is approached by his agent Mal Blitzberg, who offers him the chance to write a UFO abduction book. The fact that it is April 1st isn’t lost on Rudy, but he soon believes that Mal isn’t playing a joke on him. Apparently, previous books presented as true life alien abductions have gone over well and sold many copies. An editor at Knopf, Janet Cruse, is eager to have Rudy write the next big thing. What does he have to lose? He’s overweight, perpetually in AA, three months into a wicked writer’s block, and a frivolous lawsuit is all that Rudy has going on.

With the help of editor Janet Cruse, Rudy writes about the completely “true” alien abduction of his imaginary daughter, Bunny. The fact that Rudy has no children to speak of is not a problem; Janet will take care of everything.

“Oh, I think you’d always have written it, Rudy. The only difference now is that you’ll sign your name to it.”
“You think I’m shameless.”
She nodded.
She was right.

And who can pass over a Knopf payday? Everything seems so perfect–an easy gig for a writer fallen on tough times–but while he’s halfway through writing the manuscript, the real truth begins to unravel. Janet Cruse isn’t representing who she first says she is, the mysterious and imagined Bunny Steiner, blonde curls and all, is starting to pop up on television interviews, and there is a vengeful cult called The People who have their hands deeper in these events that one should feel comfortable with.

When he starts to become aware that not everything is okay, Rudy awakens in the middle of the night and has “an obscure sense that something terrible had just happened to him but he didn’t know what.”  For a short story, so many unsettling things are happening in “The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie.” There is the obvious lie snowballing into something completely out of the control of the protagonist and the even more uncomfortable UFO cult that is more prominent than Rudy is first led to believe (aside: The People are an interesting example of strange UFO cults that were featured on the 5 o’clock news in the 1990s and the ones that still persevere today like Raëlism and Scientology).

Although, Thomas Disch’s story first appeared in April 1992 (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine), there is an element that rings so relevant to some of today’s publishing schemes and the desires of the book reading public. When Rudy is first presented with the idea by Janet Cruse of writing the true tale alien abduction, she tells him,  “Strieber’s book shows that the audience is there, and Hopkins’s book shows that anyone can tell essentially the same story.” She is referencing recent releases that had captivated readers and made a killing for the publishers (whether they are truthful or not isn’t relevant). Why not jump on the bandwagon is her initial pitch to Rudy. This feels entirely in line with the recent smorgasbord of dystopian youth novels that are invading bookshelves. You can’t go on the internet without reading about some new post-apocalyptic trilogy’s breakdown of a not-so-distant future society (and just a few years ago, you couldn’t go two feet without bumping into some teenager vampire romance). Even in Disch’s story, when a publisher sees a lucrative venue, they’ll milk it till it’s bone dry.

“The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie” is not a science fiction story onto itself. True, the protagonist is a sci-fi writer and he’s penning an alien abduction book, but the story is completely set in reality with the horror and anxiety coming from very real, albeit, bizarre sources. As Disch stacks one more bit of the strange on top of another, the reader will be hooked until the final page.

Further Information…
  • Thomas Disch (1940-2008) was extremely prolific. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, and poetry.
  • On TheMillions.com, David Auerbach writes of Disch: “He was as fine a prose stylist as his genres had seen, but he also possessed a nightmarish imagination that combined J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic despair and Philip K. Dick’s nightmares.” You can read the complete article here.
  • Update: This story pops up in a few anthologies. I read it in Decades of Science Fiction (ISBN13: 9780844259956).

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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.

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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.