What are the connections between The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers and the HBO Show True Detective? 

Expert Answers
Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth ... it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. (Chambers, "The Repairer of Reputations" in The King in Yellow)

Both True Detective (2014) and The King in Yellow  (1895) are "tales of madness," to borrow the words of True Detective writer, Nic Pizzolatto. He and Chambers--whose short stories in the collection The King in Yellow, which is the same title as the fictional play that courses its way through the short stories, provide allusions and pivotal plot elements for True Detective--both address the idea, expressed in Chambers' opening short story "The Repairer of Reputations," that human nature has limits of endurance for the darkness that is the strain, that is the poison, of humans' souls.

In Episode 3, the allusions to The King in Yellow begin with reference to "the Yellow King" made by a prisoner being interrogated by Matthew McConaughey's character, Detective Rust Cohle. The prisoner intimates that Cohle and his partner, Detective Marty Hart, Woody Harrelson's character, made a gross error in an earlier investigation in 1995 and that the person whom they should have captured but didn't is called "the Yellow King," which is key information that no one outside of the investigators themselves could have known about. In Chambers' mythology, The King in Yellow is the fictional play that drives people mad while giving them irresistible pleasure of an unexplained, unrevealed type. In True Detective, the personal quest for Cohle and Hart is to find a way to live with their "Haunted Houses" in a world where "time is a flat circle" that repeats round and round so that "you'll do this again," according to the creepy "priest" whom Cohle has kneeled down at gunpoint.

I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. ("The Repairer of Reputations")

Hart confidentially asks Cohle at one point, "Do you ever think you might be a bad man?" [Chole replies, "The world needs bad men."], thus he ties one theme of True Detective to a theme of The King in Yellow. Hart is a police detective who, by definition, is then a "good man" who enforces law and order, two "goods" of civilized, enlightened society. He is also a family man who wants to "mow [his] own lawn," to protect his home and his wife and daughters. Yet, there is a feeling that things are upside-down for him, that he has to "get [his] head right," especially after the event that spurs his bewailed shriek: "You have blown up my life!" The beginning of Chambers' collection, The King in Yellow, offers an epigraph that quotes "Cassilda's Song in 'The King in Yellow,' Act i, Scene 2" from the fictional play-within-a-story called The King in Yellow. The song speaks of the "lost" land of "Carcosa" where the clouds form the ground level ocean of the unearthly place and send waves that break on the shore under "two suns" and plural "moons." Carcosa is an upside-down world where tears that are "unshed" yet "dry" and also "die" under "black stars" that "rise" in "the skies." The poetic persona of the song is an external observer of the state of things in Carcosa with an external point of view, (who nonetheless has an internal experience in Carcosa with "tears unshed" that "dry and die"): "Where flap the tatters of the King / ... in / Dim Carcosa." The King of Carcosa is dead and missing and his tent walls, his home walls, "flap" in "tattered" condition.

Pizzolatto uses True Detective to examine the nature of human's souls and the "internality" of their human experience in a life that has "two suns" shining light on every experience: the internal experience of every individual and the external experience of the same event of every observer. Pizzolatto also examines the circularity of time and experience since every external observer, experiencing connective externality, is also an internal participant, experiencing insular internality: "time is a flat circle" (True Detective); "The twin suns sink beneath the lake" and "shadows lengthen," shadows of humanity or inhumanity lengthen (The King in Yellow). The theme that unfolds as Hart and Chole work on a serial killer case in 1995, 2002, and 2012, is one that Chambers addresses and introduces in "The Repairer of Reputations": What is humankind (or maybe just "man," since Hart and Chole are men who may or may not be "good" men")? And what is the human soul capable of and capable of enduring? Since "The Repairer of Reputations" opens in the aftermath of a successful, though fictional war, between the U.S. and Germany, in which Germany invaded American soil, "the subsequent ridiculous plight of General Von Gartenlaube's forces in the State of New Jersey," it is possible that the rising tensions between nations lay behind Chambers' thoughts in the same way that rising tensions between lawfulness and lawlessness in today's world has set the stage for Pizzolatto's thoughts as expressed in True Detective.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa. (Cassilda's Song)

  • Paraphrase:
  • Die thou unsung, song of my soul; my voice is dead. Thou shalt be like tears unshed that dry and die in lost Carcosa.
M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The connections between the show and the collection of supernatural and detective-type short stories The Yellow King are rampant. This is because the writer of the show, Nic Pizzolatto, is a novelist in his own right who happens to be a fanatic of the supernatural "King". He used his creative license to add references of the novel in the show throughout the first five episodes, beginning in episode 2, and most saliently mentioned in Ep. 5. As an interesting side note, it is important to add that the collection of stories, which were published in 1895, became Amazon.com's best seller as of a week ago, during that period of the program reaching the number 4 position. Today, tons of blogs are feverishly dedicated to point out all the references of The Yellow King made on the show. If you ever need any more references between "King" and True Detective, sub-read it at Reddit.

Ep. 2, which breaks the main plot of the show, the murder victim was a woman, Dora Lange, who kept a journal where she cites  "black stars falling", which is one of the motifs in King. There is also the mention of a place, "Carcosa", which is originally referenced to in the stories.

Song of my soul,

my voice is dead,

Die thou, unsung,

as tears unshed

Shall dry and die in

Lost Carcosa

Carcosa is a fictional place featured in The King in Yellow. This is a play featured within The Yellow King. The mythology of The King in Yellow is that it has the capacity of driving an audience to insanity. However, the show uses the name "The Yellow King" as a nickname for the cunning, and seemingly somewhat supernatural, twisted killer that they are trying to catch.

It is in episode 5 "Who the __ is the Yellow King" that we enter fully into the connection between the book and the show. From then on, a whole audience of "easter eggers" continuously posts online what they feel are references to the book from the most obvious to the most extremely subtle.

Read the study guide:
The King in Yellow

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question
Additional Links