Warning: This contains spoilers for up to episode 5. Read at your own risk.
Recently io9’s Michael H. Hughes wrote an article on the connection True Detective has to the weird fiction collection The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. Called “The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate True Detective”, it filled in the one piece missing that, like any good detective story, illuminated everything I couldn’t place place in a the show.
On its surface True Detective plays like a very carefully made detective drama about a ritualistic killing in Louisiana in 1995. Without knowledge of The King in Yellow mythos, it starts to look like the cause is a meth dealer’s crazy religious delusions. A cult seems tangentially involved but if you don’t know the reference, the show makes sure to keep you focused on the single suspect. I pride myself on my knowledge of weird fiction, but had never heard of The King in Yellow; a series of short stories centering around a two act play. In the story, only a few lines from the first act are ever repeated. It is said that the second act will cause the reader to go insane with strange truths about the universe. The nature of the play is largely unknown except it involves three characters; two women and The Stranger, and it talks about the King in Yellow and his connection to a lost city called Carcosa, which can be tentatively compared to R’lyeh. Hughes article looks at all the references, direct and otherwise, to The King in Yellow present in True Detective. Suddenly that sinister atmosphere makes sense. It’s pulling heavily from weird fiction. But now there is a new question; how supernatural is True Detective going to get?
Five episodes in, there have only been a few moments of overt unnatural occurrences. Most of them can be attributed to drug use, though to be clear that doesn’t make them untrue. The show’s tone though feels like it is building to something big. As if something huge was sliding under the seams. So are we watching a show that is going to be weird fiction, or is it simply a fan borrowing that existential dread for a modern audience? There are three categories we can look for clues in. There are direct references, there are physical symbols or hints, and there is the filming style, in theory taking place outside the realm of the characters.
The direct references seem obvious. These are anytime a character talks about Carcosa, such as Reggie’s talk of the Yellow King and seeing Cohl in Carcosa. Reggie’s old cellmate says he spoke about going to Carcosa. In Dora’s journal she has quotes from the play written down. Now this is important. It may seem like a little thing, but what she quotes is from the play. What anybody says seems to be from the play. More telling, when the detectives ask about the King, it is a foreign concept. There is no mention of it being from a book written by Chambers. Since these detectives are so thorough, I think it is a safe conclusion that we are in a universe where the play exists but not the short story collection. The play is a real thing here. So we have already stepped into the threshold of weird fiction. Whether it is a play that drives you mad or even in the same form as a play, it exists.
This still leaves room for it to be simply a cult though. There could be a group of enthusiasts that simply follow a book containing these passages. One of the most ominous things is when Dora says she closes her eyes and sees The Yellow King. She has only seen him in her mind. Though it would be foolish to ignore that when they found her, she was blindfolded. The Yellow King was a only a concept until the last episode, when a suspect tells Cohl he’s seen the King. He might be lying, but this is the first we have heard of a non-follower encountering him physically. One further step out, we have Cohl’s philosophizing in the present. In episode five he talks about time as viewed in the fourth dimension. Of note is that he when he refers to time being seen, he say ‘they’. He uses the pronoun ‘they’ for what is watching time. Cohl has also witnessed a few things preternaturally. If we ignore the ones that could be drug induced, that still leaves us to deal with the scene where he sees the little girl who is missing by the side of the road before they ever find out she is missing as well as finding that first painting in the school house.
Next there are the symbols that show up in the world of the show. Hughes’s article talks about the big ones. Black stars have now shown up not only on one of the witnesses, but in the school house as well. The spiral of birds is unreliable, as Cohl potentially could have imagined it. What is not imagined is the spiral that can be seen in Hart’s house, drawn by one of his children. It could be attributed to a fun touch by the art department, but in a show where details and clues are so important, that seems irresponsible and unlikely. Especially if the scene where Hart finds his daughter posing her dolls in a circle similar to an orgy is taken into account. This is echoed by Cohl’s tin can cut outs in the present day interrogation. These symbols appear to be showing up by way of an outside force. Somehow the signs of the Yellow King are working their way into the world beyond the case. I would bring up the Devil Nests, but those could be made by anyone, and seem to function mostly as a calling card after the fact. A creepy touch, but not unusual.
Finally there is the film language being used. Hughes talks about the presence of yellow light. Most of the past seems to have been toned yellow, even if there is no yellow light. Cohl talks about the town being a shadow of a memory in the first episode. The town does look worn, like it is forgotten. And often in the background, we are not treated to Louisianan’s lush greenery. There are strange factories and power plants sending dark clouds into the air. They are distant, and murky, but look like old cities. The characters constantly have what looks like Carcosa sitting in the background. Even the filming style, an interview recounting strange events, is a hallmark of weird fiction.
The hard part with all of this, is this could just as easily be nuanced film making as it could point to the supernatural. Elements to enhance mood and bring unease. But with every episode it feels like all these elements are less random and instead have meaning. In the first episode Cohl brings up that the little girl’s file says her being listed as missing was an error. This isn’t brought up again until episode five, when Cohl begins to look through old files and sees dozens of people listed as being erroneously reported missing. The skill of this show is they are keeping it from going either way. As far as I’m concerned we are already in supernatural territory once we realize we are in a world where the Chambers book doesn’t exist. I’m excited to see where it goes regardless. From the looks of things, there are three possibilities. One, this is the work of a single man who has a devoted following that the detectives thought they caught, but are realizing they didn’t. Two, while one man is functioning as cult leader, the King in Yellow has many followers. They are everywhere and this is why you see hints of them all over the place. They saturate the landscape and are well hidden. This might explain Cohl’s attitude. Everything is pointless because there is no stopping them, they are the institution. And then there is option three; that there is something out there called the King in Yellow. It has many followers that worship it, and causes a mad devotion to many that encounter it. It wields a power that draws poor and rich alike. And while it has many followers, its will reaches even farther. So, let’s see where the path goes.
Read all of Micheal H. Hughes article “The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate True Detective” for the whole story.
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