This article contains spoilers.
Ne raillons pas les fous; leur folie dure plus longtemps que la nôtre … Voila toute la difference.
So begins The Repairer of Reputations, the opening story to Robert W Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a book first published in 1895. It recently shot up the Amazon bestseller list, as fans of HBO’s acclaimed television series True Detective consulted it to solve the mystery of a serial killer operating in Louisiana.
What does a stylish, contemporary police procedural, starring Matthew McConaughey (as Detective Rust Cohle) and Woody Harrelson (as Detective Marty Hart), have to do with a 120-year-old collection of horror stories and popular romances? The romances have Parisian painters leave their loves with but a kissed rose (Rue Barrée), or find love under bombardment by the Prussian Army (The Street of the First Shell).
“Do not sneer at the insane,” warns that story’s epigraph, “their madness lasts longer than ours … That is all the difference.”
True Detective fans were right to look for clues in the first four horror stories of Chambers’ collection. Set both in America and the Old World, they all refer to the fictional The King in Yellow, which reads as a regular play in the first act, and sends you insane in the second.
Images of a yellow king, masks, and the mythical Carcosa — a dark, scary place taken up and expanded by a later admirer of Chambers, H. P. Lovecraft – dot the cases of True Detective’s murdered women, whose bodies are left in meaningfully postured repose, and whose heads are adorned with a crown of antlers.
Perhaps The King in Yellow provides merely a ready-made mythos and a bunch of freaky images from which the series can draw. “Maybe when True Detective ends I’ll catch the connection, but as of now this book didn’t do a darn thing for me, True Detective or not,” complained Silvercloud, an Amazon reviewer.
The show has ended in the US, and in Australia, Foxtel aired the last of the eight-part drama on March 10. Rust (Matthew McConaughey) fearlessly ventured into the killer’s version of Carcosa, found the Yellow King, got stabbed in the process, but ultimately killed the killer.
Now, Silvercloud, we can make the connections. Mr Wilde in The Repairer of Reputations carries a ledger, just like Rust “the Taxman” Cohle. The confusion between dream and reality in Chambers’ The Yellow Sign appears when Rust has a vision of the universe before he is stabbed, and his confession to Marty: “I don’t sleep, I just dream.”
Errol Childress, the show’s serial killer, whispers to Rust to “Take off your mask” – even though he wasn’t wearing one – before stabbing him in the stomach. Chambers’ “The Mask” begins:
Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!
The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene 2.
As Twin Peaks, one of True Detective’s progenitors, taught us, there is more to the question of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” than its simple answer: the killer. Who? engages; why? lingers.
What Chambers’ book reveals, both in its utility for the makers of True Detective and its context of production, is how the American South, especially Louisiana, maps onto the gothic horror of Europe.
Louisiana has the fourth-highest rate of film and television production in the States (behind California, New York and Georgia). In addition to generous tax incentives, the state provides a readymade repertoire of fantasy, magic and evil contained in the earth. HBO’s vampires-are-real-and-they-are-among-us hit show, True Blood, is also set in Louisiana.
Along with David Simon’s New Orleans verité drama Treme, it appears HBO thinks that the truth is down there in the Bayou State, or, as it now calls itself, “Hollywood South.”
The publication of The King in Yellow coincided with the early work of Freud and his “discovery” of the unconscious, highlighting another continuity between Europe and America: profiling.
“Her body is a paraphilic love map” says Rust of Dora Kelly Lange’s corpse, which he explains as “an attachment of physical lust to fantasies and practices forbidden by society”. The King in Yellow provides image and structure to Errol Childress’ psychopathology, just as William Blake’s watercolours do for Francis Dolarhyde in the supreme example of the serial killer genre, Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon (1981), in which we first meet Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs infamy.
Rust spouts an anti-natalist philosophy found in the work of Nietzsche published in the late 1880s, a philosophy taken up by Chambers and Lovecraft. “The Government has seen fit to acknowledge,” writes Chambers in The King in Yellow of euthanasia centres set up in an imagined 1920s America:
the right of man to end an existence which may have become intolerable to him, through physical suffering or mental despair.
Rust’s special knowledge is one of the show’s main attractions – along with McConaughey’s attractiveness, and the way this is ravaged between the show’s multiple timelines. He even brings with him from his birthplace of Alaska a kind of Cthulic cold that gives him access to the secrets of the universe – even if these secrets and visions are caused by flashbacks from working as an undercover drugs officer.
The series becomes less beholden to its source material when its detectives become true. Marty administers an initial frontier justice by executing men they thought were the serial killers in the show’s earliest timeline. Some 17 years later, and no longer agents of the state, Rust and Marty go it alone, Western-style, against the backdrop of the exotic “authenticity” of Louisiana’s swamps, marshes, and lurid poor and perverse.
Instead of the scarred child-stealing Indian, Chief Cicatriz (Chief Scar) in John Ford’s The Searchers – and the simultaneously romanticised and demonised mythography of Native Americans – this New Southern Western has a scarred child-stealing Errol Childress mimic a British accent and enact Chambers’ European gothic.
Rust, in turn, becomes the liminal and indefatigable Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne in The Searchers), another ex-agent of the state, unafraid to enter into the Carcosa of Louisiana in the Hollywood South.