Are you watching HBO’s newest hit True Detective? My guess is probably, since Episode 1, “The Long Bright Dark,” racked up the most viewers for an HBO premiere since Boardwalk Empire debuted in 2010. Billed as a gritty crime drama, True Detective follows Woody Harrelson’s Detective Martin Hart and Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle (in a performance signaling that we are in the height of the McConaissance) as the pair attempt to catch a serial killer in the heart of Louisiana.
But look closer. The tone of the pilot was more Hannibal than NYPD Blue and the tableau created by the serial killer on the loose is reminiscent of Colin Hanks’ villain Travis Marshall from Season 6 of Dexter. Then Episode 2 gave us our most subtle, but telling, horror reference yet: a nod to Robert W. Chambers’ collection of short stories titled “The Yellow King.”
Many savvy viewers on the interwebs noticed the words “The Yellow King” scrawled in victim Dora’s diary, as well as text from the actual play called “The King In Yellow.” In Chambers’ stories the play itself is referenced but never fully revealed. We the reader only get a few lines and verses here and there through the eyes of the characters in the stories. Unfortunately for those characters, once they read “The King in Yellow,” murder, visions and insanity are usually not far behind.
Only four of the short stories in Chambers’ collection make mention of The Yellow King or could even be considered horror stories. I have read two of them: “The Repairer of Reputations” and “In the Court of the Dragon.” “The Repairer of Reputations” features the character of Hildred Castaigne, who feels like an unreliable narrator straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe tale. Castaigne mentions having been injured as a soldier and his outlook on life changing after he was thrown from his horse a few years prior to meeting him in the story. He also mentions that he had been institutionalized. Those watching True Detective could draw parallels between Det. Cohle and his back story which we learned about in Episode 2 and was conveniently titled “Seeing Things.” “In the Court of the Dragon” is filled with frightening religious imagery and takes place in a church, which is where we left Det. Cole and Hart at the end of Episode 2.
In addition to True Detective scribe and series creator Nic Pizzolatto being a fan of “The Yellow King,” so was noted horror author H.P. Lovecraft. In a lot of ways, one could argue that McConaughey’s Cohle is a rather Lovecraftian character in his isolation, fragile state of mind and ability to relate to the world in a way that others cannot.
Since we’re only two episodes in, it’s hard to say how much or how little Chambers or Lovecraft will have to do with True Detective, but something tells me that the first appearance of The Yellow King is just the tip of the tentacle.