A collection of strange art nouveau stories by American author Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow has gone virtually unread for most of the past century. The first half of the book is made up of four supernatural weird tales that are unrelated to one another except by one strange link: a fictional play, also called The King in Yellow, which drives anyone who reads it past the first act completely insane.
Although The King in Yellow has been an obscure reference indeed for most of the last hundred years, it was truly ahead of its time. It is one of the first fictional meta-books, a literary device that has been used since by authors as diverse as Agatha Christie, Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft, and Vladimir Nabokov.
Now, in 2014, this meta-book has suddenly become the key to the mystery at the center of HBO’s breakout new show, True Detective–a viral resurgence that has caused Chambers’s book (with the help of an article on popular science-fiction blog io9) to catapult to the top of the Amazon bestseller lists. What makes this all the more surprising is that, so far, The King in Yellow remains as unseen in True Detective as it was in Chambers’s work: something tantalizingly hinted at and lurking beyond the margins but never revealed.
That’s another way the The King in Yellow was ahead of its time. It also happens to echo the best principles of great modern modern design: It’s what isn’t there that makes it so appealing.
Created by crime writer Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective is a gritty, existential neo-noir that has made numerous references to King in Yellow over the course of its first season. Set in the Louisiana bayou, the show features homicide detectives Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) as they hunt for a serial killer known as the Yellow King. References to Chambers’s body of work are everywhere, from symbols drawn on murder victims and characters directly quoting from the book. In the first episode of the series, Cohle and Hart even meet a character connected to the Yellow King who has since had an indeterminate “cerebral event”; a notebook found in his house has lines from The King in Yellow written inside.
Such is the phenomenon of True Detective that these oblique references have helped make The King in Yellow a surprise literary phenomenon. Over a century after it was first published, Chambers’s book peaked at No. 7 on Amazon’s list of bestselling books last week. The Wall Street Journal has written articles about the link between True Detective and The King in Yellow. Even President Obama knows at least a little bit about The King in Yellow now. He’s reportedly a True Detective fan.
In short, The King in Yellow has gone viral. But why? It’s all due to the powerful creative draw of the weird mythos, stories which create, in the words of H.P. Lovecraft, a shared literary universe defined by an “unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces” and “the daemons of unplumbed space.” And that effect is very definitely by design.
Born in Brooklyn in 1865, Robert W. Chambers was a Paris-educated writer with dozens of novels and short story collections to his credit. Although he dabbled in many genres of fiction during his life–finding his greatest contemporary success in romantic fiction–Chambers is best remembered for his supernatural stories, particularly The King in Yellow.
In True Detective, the Yellow King is the implied source of a series of grisly murders and other macabre happenings in the Louisiana bayou. In Chambers’s stories, though, The King in Yellow is the title of a legendary play that, once read to the second act, breaks open the sanity of men with “irresistible” revealed truths, and thus may make them more prone to experiencing supernatural events, and possible mind control by the King in Yellow himself through the use of a symbol called the Yellow Sign.
Although Chambers never lets the reader glimpse more than a few snatches of The King In Yellow, all of which are taken from the first act, his stories imply that the play itself may be similar in plot to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Like Poe’s story, The King In Yellow seems to be about a masquerade amongst decadent members of the nobility who are visited by a horrifying being–who may or may not be the titular Yellow King–who is wearing no mask. Even more bizarrely, the setting of the play is Carcosa, a cursed city on an alien world.
From a modern perspective, what is most notable about Chambers’s King in Yellow work is not necessarily the literary merit of the stories themselves. H.P. Lovecraft–who was heavily inspired by Chambers’ work–called the author a “fallen titan” who was “equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them.” The best of the King in Yellow stories is the “The Repairer of Reputations,” one of the great examples of an unreliable narrator in weird fiction; otherwise, the rest are fairly disposable.
Even so, for one thing, The King in Yellow was seminal. Twenty-seven years before H.P. Lovecraft created the Necronomicon, his own legendary grimoire revealing “irresistible” truths about the cosmos to those brave enough to read them, Chambers had created what may be the first real fictional meta-book. Authors may have made up fake book titles before Chambers but none had gone to such lengths to make a fake book seem real. By just dropping a few references to The King in Yellow into his stories, Chambers created not only a shared literary universe for his tales but something that any writer could reference to build upon the mythos of the Yellow King. It was a sleeping virus, one that True Detective has finally brought back to life.
According to S.T. Joshi, a literary critic and leading academic figure in the study of the weird tale, by referencing The King in Yellow, True Detective is tapping into the power of an idea that has been growing for over a century.
“With The King in Yellow, Chambers makes these fugitive links between otherwise unrelated stories,” Joshi says. “It’s the very indirectness of the way he references The King in Yellow, these little drops of the hat, that has caused later writers to be so fascinated by what he explicitly left unsaid.”
This is what makes the mythos, as a literary device, so powerful. It’s a fertile ground for other artists to create. “Authors like Chambers were restrained in defining every detail of the universes they created, while taking pains to suggest that there is just so much more happening beneath the surface,” Joshi says. “It is this absence of definition that allows other authors to fill in the blanks, to reinterpret the themes and ideas of these works for new audiences.”
This is why True Detective is so fascinated with the Yellow King. While Chambers may have only ever written down a dozen lines of his mythical play itself, the idea of The King in Yellow exploits our existential fears about the nature of sanity, agency, and our own place in an inconceivably vast universe that ultimately cares nothing for us.
About writers like Chambers, True Detective show runner Nic Pizzolatto told Arkham Digest:
Their fictional visions of cosmic despair were articulating the same things as certain nihilist and pessimist philosophers, but with more poetry and art and vision . . . It’s important for us to confront the potential of the true abyss.
Perhaps more than the specific plot details of the stories themselves, it is this abyss that the protagonists of True Detective are actually investigating. When you look into Cohle’s eyes–the show’s walking embodiment of unspoken, nihilistic despair–you see reflected there the soul of a man who has read The King in Yellow, not as a paperback but as it is written upon the pages of our modern life. Like in Chambers’s stories, whether there is an actual Yellow King at the bottom of that abyss is almost beside the point.
The King in Yellow is Fast Company’s Hot Pick this week. Download a free copy at Zola Books, which just reissued the short-story collection as an ebook for iPad and iPhone. Look for more of our book recommendations here.