True Detective’s Literary Backbone: THE KING IN YELLOW (Part 1)

~post by Joe T. 

(Warning: very minor spoilers below)

So, if you’re anything like some of us at BookPeople, you might just be currently obsessed with the newest HBO drama, True Detective. The series, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, is an eight episode police procedural that involves a ritual murder and the resulting investigation to find out “whodunnit.” Without getting too deep into spoilers, as the episodes have progressed, there have been tantalizing references to a “yellow king”, a location known as Carcosa, and perhaps even a cult of sorts that is involved with the dark events that occur within the show.

As astute and informed viewers might have noticed, or as Michael Hughes of the website IO9 pointed out in his essay, The One Literary Reference You Must Know To Appreciate True Detective, those references come not from the mind of creator Nick Pizzolatto, but are in fact from a collection of stories published over a hundred years ago called The King In Yellow.

Originally written in 1895 by Robert W. Chambers, the collection includes the story The Yellow Sign which H. P. Lovecraft described as, “one of the greatest weird tales ever written.” Both that story and The Repairer of Reputations include oblique references to a play called The King In Yellow, which, if read, will cause the reader to decline into moral turpitude and progressively go insane.

Composed during the “Yellow 90’s,” the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign, the book is part and parcel of the literary decadent movement spearheaded by Oscar Wilde and his infamous play, Salome. Yellow was used to celebrate the “decadence” that marked the lives of the artists of the time and was symbolically tied to the free sex and homosexuality that were morally and legally frowned upon by the society and authorities of the period. Though Chambers eventually went on to fame and fortune as the Sydney Sheldon of his day, it is only this first book with its subtle, existential dread and creeping horror that is remembered today.

In an interesting sidenote, Raymond Chandler wrote a short story featuring his famed private detective Philip Marlowe called The King In Yellow. Investigating the death of a jazz musician clad in yellow silk pajamas, Marlowe describes the dead body as reminding him of a book he once read. Whilst most likely Chandler was just referring to the book by Chambers, I like to think that the reason for Marlowe’s blasted cynicism and world-weariness originates from his once having read the blasphemous play The King In Yellow. Like H. P. Lovecraft, I have had a lifelong love for this book by Robert W. Chambers and was beyond excited and intrigued when his cosmology was being referenced in this new fantastic television show. I am truly stoked that the wide world is being made aware of his work.


4 thoughts on “True Detective’s Literary Backbone: THE KING IN YELLOW (Part 1)

  1. Philip Marlowe does not appear in that particular Chandler story. The detective is named Steve Grayce.

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