Such Carcosa, Very Yellow: A Review of The King In Yellow

I first heard about The King In Yellow from a review of True Detective that mentioned the book was basically required reading for viewing the show. I’d been interested in seeing True Detective since I first saw the ads and trailer for it because there is really nothing I like more than a good bleak noir story. Unfortunately I don’t have HBO, so I have yet to see the show, but in preparation for the day when I have that opportunity, I decided to read up on the companion book.

The King In Yellow is a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers. It served as a major piece of inspiration for the legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. However, what some of you may not know (and I certainly didn’t until I did some research) is that both Chambers and Lovecraft were highly influenced by the work of Ambrose Bierce, most specifically his short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” from the collection Can Such Things Be?

This story provides the first mention of the legendary city of Carcosa as well as the philosopher Hali, which figures largely (or is at least often mentioned) in both Chambers’ and Lovecraft’s stories. Bierce’s story “Haita the Shepherd” is also the first time that the god Hastur is mentioned in literature. In the story he is an agrarian god, but Hastur, also mentioned in Chambers’ work, has evolved to become a major god in the Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos.

The first for stories of The King In Yellow all feature a fictional play by the same name. We never see the play in its entirety, and we only ever get to read a couple of snippets from it. All that is known about the play is that the first act is rather bland but the second act drives those who read it insane. For that reason, it is banned in most countries. The characters in the stories all end up reading the play at some point, and it has some larger impact on their lives.

If what you’re looking for is some insight into the symbolism that appears in True Detective, then I believe you don’t have to read past the first four stories, as those are the ones that pertain to the Yellow King. I will say that these are not stories that are like any of our current pop literature. Those who are looking for the character or plot driven stories with overt symbolism or meaning might be disappointed. Not that the stories don’t have good character or plot development, but I think they lean more into the literary and symbolic than more modern fiction tends to. Personally I like this because it gives me the opportunity to research the stories, the influences of them, the possible meaning behind the symbols being used, and so forth. In short, it pleases the English major in me.

The second half of the collection features stories about American artists who have moved to Paris to go to school and practice their craft. Of course many of them end up fooling around with or falling in love with Parisian women and through these relationships learning more about themselves and the world. Many of these stories also have overlapping characters that appear repeatedly, which I like. It makes the little artistic community Chambers writes about feel more real, and we as readers get to see these characters in different scenarios and learn more about them than a singular short story would afford.

While I read the book for the first set of stories, I ended up finishing the whole thing, and I have to say that I enjoyed many of the later stories. These tales are also a bit more straight forward than the Yellow King tales, which I think require more study and literary analysis to really get the most out of. The stories about these artists are more about the characters and the discoveries that they make about themselves as they spend time in Paris, whether that be flitting about after women or (as in the story “The Street of the First Shell”) fighting alongside the French army to defend the city from invaders.

All-in-all I’m glad I took the time to read this book, and I’m excited to see True Detective whenever I get the opportunity. I feel like I have a better idea of what I’ll be viewing, now that I’ve read about Hastur, Hali, Camilla, Cassilda, the masked stranger, and the songs that Hyades shall sing in lost Carcosa.

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