Thursday, 6 March 2014

Why fans of the TV cop drama "True Detective" might find it useful to read 1895's "The King in Yellow"

I first read the American writer Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 collection of macabre short stories The King in Yellow two years ago, having downloaded it to my new Kindle. I’d just finished William Hope Hodgson’s distinctly creepy series of pre-First World War stories featuring Carnacki the Ghost-Hunter (basically small-scale templates for Dennis Wheatley’s later supernatural thrillers) and was casting about for other examples of vintage weirness. I wasn’t expecting much from The King in Yellow – if it was that good, I reasoned, I’d have heard of it by now. Which just goes to show how wrong you can be.

The opening story, “The Repairer of Reputations”, is wonderfully, indescribably bizarre. It’s set in New York 25 years in the future (i.e. 1920). A militarily triumphant America has developed an enormous standing army organised along Prussian lines (dragoons still prance about on horseback); all power has been centralised, Blacks have been given their own independent state (Suanee); foreign-born Jews have been banned from entering the country (“as a measure of self-preservation”); Russia has “stooped and bound” Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium, which had fallen into anarchy; and the authorities, having rationalised major cities with parks and street-widening schemes and classical architecture, have set up the first Government Lethal Chamber on Washington Square, where anyone can elect to have themselves painlessly euthanized. Yes, it’s a fascist wonderland! Oddly (and sadly) this extraordinary scenario is described at the start – approvingly, it seems – only to play no further part in the story or the rest of the collection.

The story involes Hildred Castaigne, a young man of independent means who has spent time in a lunatic asylum as the result of a head injury caused by falling from his horse; a play – The King in Yellow – which has been banned around the world because it drives anyone who reads it mad; and Mr. Wilde, a hideously deformed character who wears false ears made of wax, has lost most of his fingers, is constantly under threat of attack from his homicidal cat, and earns his living as a “Repairer of Reputations”. Wilde has convinced Hildred that he is the heir of the “Last King” of the Imperial Dynasty of America (don’t ask), but he’ll have to kill his debonair dragoon cousin Louis (and various other people) in order to fulfil his destiny. Hildred keeps a crown in a time-lock safe in his apartment, which he takes out once a day to place on his head (the safe is revealed to be a biscuit tin and the crown to be made of brass)…

I won’t go on: it really is as splendidly bonkers as it sounds, but so well written that there isn’t the slightest hint of incoherence.

The next three stories represent rather more standard supernatural fare (“Well, sir, it’s Gawd’s truth that when I ‘it ‘im ‘e grabbed me wrists, sir, and when I twisted ‘is soft, mushy fist one of ‘is fingers come off in me ‘and”), but they all contain allusions to the play, The King in Yellow ('Then I sank into the depths, and I heard the King in Yellow whispering to my soul: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!”') and to something called The Yellow Sign (“We talked on, unmindful of the gathering shadows, and she was begging me to throw away the clasp of black onyx quaintly inlaid with what we now knew to be the Yellow Sign.”)

In a way, the collection is maddening, because we want more of everything – I would have been delighted if the first story had formed the basis of a 350-page novel, and the sudden disappearance of all reference to the play and the Yellow Sign half-way through is enormously disappointing. But the very fact that nothing is explained, that nothing is elaborated on, that the stories contain little but hints and allusions that glint and flash and then are gone may be exactly why so many writers and musicians have plundered the book for symbols and imagery and phrases over the years – all the way from H.P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler to Blue Oyster Cult, Stephen King and, most recently, the current American TV drama series True Detective, where Detective Rust Cohle reads this in the journal of a ritualistically slaughtered young former prostitute:
I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow moving through the forest. The King's children are marked. They became his angels.
SPOILER ALERT: If, like me, you’re only on the second episode of the series, I suggest you read this excellent article about the role played by The King in Yellow in True Detective cautiously, because it refers to events we’re not yet aware of. But – whether you’re following the series or not, and if you’re not averse to a modicum of mind-bending weirdness, I thoroughly recommend that you download the book from either Amazon (here) or Project Gutenberg (here).

Here, as a foretaste, are the only lines from the imaginary play quoted by Robert Chambers:

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa. 
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa. 
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa. 
Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed it's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!
I would have ended this article with a snide remark about British television's apparent inability to produce anything remotely as intriguing, atmospheric or gripping as True Detective, but I'm currently enjoying BBC Two's admittedly more prosaic Line of Duty far too much.

I'll leave you with the unmistakable tones of The Handsome Family performing True Detective's terrific theme song, "Far From Any Road":

1 comment:

  1. Line of Duty. Denton is Innocent OK! We will win.