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A Year of Reading, Week Fourteen

Books read (all or part of) this week:
Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

You know Carcosa?

This post may start out being about a TV show, but bear with me. If you’ve seen the recent HBO series True Detective – which I would heartily encourage you to check out if not – you may have caught vague references to “black stars over Carcosa” and the “Yellow King.” Really, you didn’t have to be paying that close attention to catch the Yellow King stuff – finding the meaning behind it all is another thing. 

In the series mythos, Carcosa is referenced throughout – in vague, spooky snippets – as two detectives in rural Louisiana try to solve a series of gruesome murders over the course of more than a decade. At one point, when they track down who they believe at the time to be the killer – a one Reggie Ledoux – he tells Matthew McConaughey’s character, Rustin Cohle, “It’s time, isn’t it? The black star. Black stars rise. I know what happens next. I saw you in my dream. You’re in Carcosa now, with me. He sees you. You’ll do this again. Time is a flat circle.

Then, while interviewing an old woman later on down the line, Cohle shows her drawings related to the case & she replies – in a chilling, terrifying voice – “You know Carcosa?” and “Rejoice! Death is not the end!” There are also repeated references to a “Yellow King” – the meaning of which is as baffling to the detectives as it is to the viewer. Is this King the killer? Is he someone at the center of a wide-sweeping conspiracy of kidnapping and murder amongst Louisiana power players? Or is it referring to something much darker & way more sinister than we can even comprehend? In the finale, Cohle hallucinates(?) the black stars above Carcosa and finds a multi-headed human skeleton wrapped in yellow & sporting antlers in an insanely creepy underground warren. Mommy, it give me bad dreams.

I won’t pretend to understand all the references in the series, which leaves much of this unanswered and vague (which is half the fun) but it did pique my interest and lead me back to the source: Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 book of short stories, The King in Yellow. (See, there’s the book tie-in for this post.) 

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is

Lost Carcosa.

Chambers’ freaky classic was a strong influence on horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who incorporated elements of the Carcosa world into his Cthulhu mythos. (He also wrote the introduction to presumably an early-1930’s edition and the current Wildside Press version.) Chambers’ collection of short stories are all linked together by a play called “The King in Yellow” – a dramatic work that induces insanity in all who read it, yet which has an inescapable gravitational pull over all who come in its orbit, compelling them to read against their better judgment. In the opening tale, “The Repairer of Reputations,” our narrator – young Hildred Castaigne, whose personality has been already been altered due to a head injury after falling off a horse – descends further into insanity after reading “The King in Yellow.” The deeper we fall with Castaigne into his madness, he is revealed to be quite unreliable as a narrator. Convinced that he needs to get his cousin Louis to renounce the claim on the throne of Carcosa so that he himself may become the rightful King in Yellow, his madness envelops him like a black cloak. His murderous attempts are thwarted, he believes Louis to be the usurper of the throne, and he is sent back to the asylum, shrieking “Woe! woe to you who are crowned with the crown of the King in Yellow!” (Another sinister element to this story is that in this future society that Chambers imagines, suicide is legal and the government has created Lethal Chambers for people to enter and off themselves in. Just a fun fact.)

I particularly like the idea of this play that forces people to read it, despite the fact that they know full well that it will bring about their insanity. It feels much like our modern phenomenon of binge watching television shows like, say, True Detective. There’s a certain degree of insanity that goes along with such behavior, as those of us who’ve partaken can attest. And I find it admirable that TD creator Nic Pizzolatto was able to dig up the mythology of an obscure 120-year-old story collection to become the root of his script. (Again proving that Hollywood is nothing without the literary world.) I’ve read three of the stories in Chambers’ collection so far & I’ve yet to go insane, thankfully – at least as far as I can tell. They’re chilling and scary in a not-that-scary Victorian sort of way – they invoke more of a sense of unease, rather than genuine fear. It’s more the suggestion that reading this book will make the reader go crazy that gives you pause…


2 comments on “A Year of Reading, Week Fourteen

  1. Ray Kolb
    April 7, 2014

    I really enjoyed True Detective and it's interesting to find out there was some literary ancestory to the Yellow King. Thanks, Seth.

  2. Seth Marko
    April 11, 2014

    Sure thing, Ray. It's definitely a Victorian-style reading experience, but it really informs & enhances the whole True Detective thing, to me at least.

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