Literature seeps into television series

Cranbrook Public Library's Mike Selby delves into the twisted world of 'True Detective'

Mike Selby

HBO’s ‘True Detective’ has one writer, one director, and a whole lot of literary references. Its eight-part run saw two Louisiana detectives spend 17 years trying to solve a series of murders, in some of the most haunting landscapes ever filmed. The only clue the detectives have to go on is that the killer is known as “The Yellow King,” and that he comes from the unmapped town of Carcosa.

In 1895, the New York artist Robert W. Chambers published a collection of stories called ‘The King in Yellow.’ Each story is weirder and creepier than the one before it, yet all revolve around a mythical book titled ‘The Yellow King’—one which causes whoever reads it to go insane. Several stories also feature a supernatural demon known as the King in Yellow, along with the frequent appearance of a yellow sign.

The Yellow King shows up again in ‘The Whisperer and the Darkness,’ a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, published in a 1930 edition of ‘Weird Tales.’ For this tale Lovecraft has renamed the king Hastur, but still has him associated with the yellow sign. He also happens to mention that Hastur hails from Carcosa.

As he had borrowed the Yellow King from Chambers, Lovecraft had also borrowed the name of Carcosa. Ambrose Bierce had created the mysterious Carcosa 40 years earlier in his 1891 story ‘Can Such Things Be?’

In the second episode of ‘True Detective,’ the diary of a murdered prostitute is found. Leafing through its pages, one of the detective reads, “I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow moving through the forest.” What can be made by all these literary allusions?

Without spoiling the show’s conclusion, reading these stories will not help reveal who or even where the killer is. But these ongoing references to the literary weird shifted ‘True Detective’ from a typical police program to one unlike any other show to air of television.

And the nod to books doesn’t stop here. Of the show’s two detectives, one frequently speaks in nihilistic terms and phrases. While his partner thinks they are the inane ramblings of a burnt-out cop, they are actually quotes from Thomas Ligotti’s ‘The Conspiracy Against the Human Race,’ and E.M. Cioran’s ‘The Temptation to Exist.’ The show also makes much of Nietzche’s theory of eternal recurrence, found in his work ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra.’

Nihilism is also present in Karl Wagner’s 1974 short story ‘Sticks,’ which features an underground cult trying to summon evil spirits by creating small stick structures.

These stick structures uncannily appear in every episode of ‘True Detective.’ The show’s only writer Nic Pizzolatto has told interviewers that Wagner’s story has been a big influence on the entire show.

Pizzolatto has also borrowed from his own work. His novels ‘Galveston’ and ‘Between Here and the Yellow Sea’ have many of the same unsettling and weird themes found in ‘True Detective.’

So if you like you cop shows top heavy with weird 19th century occult literary references and dreary existential philosophy expounding characters, ‘True Detective’ is all this and more.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at Cranbrook Public Library.