The Impact of 'The King in Yellow' on the 'True Detective' Season Finale
For the past eight weeks, fans have set aside time to indulge themselves with the dark, winding story of HBO's True Detective. As police partners Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) unravel cases over the course of 17 years, viewers picked up fresh clues and stories related to the serial killer who ties them together. Every half-focused photograph hanging on a minor character's wall was fodder for deeper meaning. Even the way Hart's daughter provocatively arranged her Barbie dolls in a circle on the floor had us suspecting some major foreshadowing. Both hints and red herrings of ritual-based cults, child abduction scandals, and serial murder littered the bayou landscape… until last night.
With the gathering of super-sleuth Internet communities (such as /r/truedetective on Reddit) and the ability to freeze-frame every scene, it's no wonder the fan community exploded with theory after theory. A major catalyst for said suspicions? "Weird fiction." Creator Nic Pizzolatto (an author in his own right) was inspired by lesser-known tomes—many Victorian—that teased a madness to the gritty realism. Characters whispered of the "King in Yellow" and of the city of "Carcosa." When io9 connected these utterances to Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow, the tension amped up further. The King in Yellow, like "Hastur" from H.P. Lovecraft's writing? Would we be seeing Cthulhu in the final episode?!
In the end, most of the iconography was indoctrination of a megalomaniac serial killer, aesthetic choices to paint the Southern landscape as something sinister beyond the existing crimes. The weirdness that inspired the story was there to set an uneasy mood, supernatural inspiring the natural. Our killer had crafted his own world, his "Carcosa," a rural oasis of twig sculptures, charcoal star drawings smeared on decrepit walls, and human sacrifices—one even propped and painted in turmeric, crowned as the King in Yellow.
As you digest the finale, give these eerie tales a read (or revisit them) to unpack just how these stories impacted Pizzolatto's vision.
Clues occasionally popped up throughout the series: notebooks scrawled with poetic lines, horrified interviewees fearfully whispering about "the king in yellow"—all these references, and the verse itself, comes directly from Chambers' obscure collection of short stories. Originally published in 1895, this collection is named after a fictional play by the same title, which recurs as a motif throughout the book. The King in Yellow play (inside The King in Yellow book) is said to be forbidden and induces despair or madness in those who read it.
In the end, the madness of the book itself, and the hunt for a "king in yellow" mirrored Rust and Marty's hunt through obscure evidence and barely-helpful accounts as they tried to track down their killer. Zola Books has a (less-madness-inducing) free ebook version available of this weird collection, including illustration plates by Robert W. Chambers himself.
Before Chambers ever took up the pen, Ambrose Bierce introduced the fictional city of Carcosa in his short story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa": A mysterious and ancient city, it's only ever spoken about in the past. (A great fit for True Detective, which deals with multiple timelines and is constantly looking backwards.) The city's strange descriptions, which appear in verse in Chambers' book, make it seem as if Carcosa is located on another planet, or possibly even in another universe.
In the finale, our detective duo chases their killer through a maze of old brick and abandoned tunnels inhabited by occult sculptures, weird effigies, and wrapped mummies tied to branches. This dizzying chase echoes the mysterious Carcosa referenced through the series, culminating in a showdown with the killer in a room backed by a skeleton crowned in yellow.
As inspiration goes—Lovecraft might be the one who came out on top with all this creepy imagery. His famous Cthulhu mythos transformed Bierce/Chambers' "King in Yellow" into a horrifying deity called Hastur, with tentacles lurking under his golden robes. Read the story "The Whisperer in Darkness" for eerie references to this figure of insanity.
Lovecraftian madness, which often has dedicating investigators losing their minds with the prolonged hunt for the occult, provides an interesting parallel for the realism of True Detective. As our two detectives follow a trail of government conspiracy, ritual murder, child abduction, and meth labs, they become more and more unhinged trying to uncover the truth.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Pizzolatto talked candidly about his readings of Thomas Ligotti's work, and how it inspired his own:
"I read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race and found it incredibly powerful writing. For me as a reader, it was less impactful as philosophy than as one writer's ultimate confessional: an absolute horror story, where the self is the monster. In episode one [of True Detective] there are two lines in particular (and it would have been nothing to re-word them) that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers. Which, of course, you got."
As a writer who crafts both fictional horrors and philosophical texts, Ligotti's inspiration on True Detective's harsh bayou landscape and Cohle's musings are unmistakable.
For proof that Pizzolatto has tread this ground before, look no further than his 2011 novel: Galveston is another dark tale of Southern crime, with refugees going on a run from New Orleans (sound familiar?) to Galveston, Texas. Even Pizzolatto's love for splitting timelines to slowly reveal a full story is present here. Fans of the visceral True Detective will find many parallels between this novel and the show. The moody violence and Southern atmosphere that burst on the television screen come to life with the same fervor in these pages.
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