Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The King in Yellow

Currently reading for the first time The King in Yellow by American writer Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933) originally published in 1895.  A very strange collection of well-written short stories that fit into the category of 'weird fiction' and were influential on the likes of H P Lovecraft, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman.  This was prompted by watching the dvd of the tv series True Detective (season 1 not 2, which was a totally different beast and was critically considered a failure) wherein mention of the title of the book is clearly made in episode two and on subsequent occasions.  In fact The King in Yellow is a play, a forbidden text that sends its readers insane: the first act is perfectly conventional, leading the unwary into the second in which madness lies.  It is the acknowledged precursor of Lovecraft's fictional grimoire the Necronomicon written by 'Mad Arab' Abdul Alhazred - many invented versions of this cursed text have since been published (one which I own by George Hay who, I have since discovered, was a resident of Hastings Old Town, see here).  Perhaps the appalling video tape recording of a ritual that appears in the penultimate episode is the equivalent of the King in Yellow's play, as anyone who views it seems to be a changed person (although not insane).

Reference to the book (and the city of Carcosa) in True Detective made me think that the series would become a kind of X-Files type occult thriller, even descending into Lovecraftian insanity, but that didn't really happen and the connection with Chambers' book wasn't made clear.  Carcosa could well have been the name given by the cult to the atmospheric abandoned fort in the final episode.   There were a couple of 'supernatural' occurrences that would not have been part of a normal cop show (such as the spiral shape made by a flock of birds and the weird vortex that appears in the spooky subterranean chamber at the climax).  The creepy stick and skull altar in this chamber was decorated with yellow rags.  I was glad it was on dvd: I frequently had to replay parts of Matthew McConaughey's dialogue, as his slurred Southern accent rendered it almost unintelligible, although his performance is spellbinding.  I imagine the explanation could be that the murderous pagan animal-headed cult at the centre of the mystery based its ceremonies in some way on the King in Yellow - perhaps in an echo of occult groups such as the Typhonian Order using the work of Lovecraft, Richard 'Beetle' Marsh and Sax Rohmer as a basis for rituals.  Nietzsche's theory of Eternal Recurrence also gets an airing.  There is an excellent analysis of the King in Yellow references here.  The other peculiarly resonant motif is the repeated mention of Black Stars - did the recently departed David Bowie watch this series, or is it purely coincidental?

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