I just want to state, right off the bat, that I am a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. It took a very long time for Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos, specifically the idea that something ancient, eternal, and either uncaring or malevolent underlying our conception of space and time, to come to some kind of mainstream appearance in geek culture. It was on my quest to read everything eldritch and gibbous by the man who was Providence and spurred on even further by Alan Moore’s The Courtyard and Neonomicon comics when I came across something called “the yellow sign.”
I followed this up online and found a book called The King in Yellow. The book contains a series of short stories published in 1895 written by Robert W. Chambers: a writer of many genres but especially romance, decadent literature and, in particular, horror. In four of The King in Yellow‘s stories, “The Repairer of Reputations,” “The Mask,” “In the Court of the Dragon,” and “The Yellow Sign” as well as some mention in “The Prophets’ Paradise” we are introduced to the idea of a play in a book that drives people insane, a malevolent entity known as The Yellow King that is a part of the play or summoned by it, and “the yellow sign”: last of which is a symbol associated with the King that can manipulate or distort the minds of those who see it.
They were some fascinating tales, by favourite being “The Repairer of Reputations” but aside from taking some notes on them, I thought that they would remain some fascinating but otherwise obscure stories even though it has a specific following and Lovecraft himself read them and alluded to their content in his story “The Whisperer in Darkness.” But I thought that would be the last I ever saw of them.
So how does this book from 1895 have any bearing on geek culture right now?
The answer is possibly a lot. Very recently I watched a recent video interview with the author and editor Joseph S. Pulver Sr.: who is an expert on the mythos of The King in Yellow. I knew that he would say some very interesting things on the stories, but what I didn’t know then until he and the interviewer, The Arkham Digest’s Justin Steele, mentioned it was that there is a recent television program that draws heavily from The King in Yellow. Please don’t click on the video unless you want spoilers from True Detective.
I’ve had a friend or two suggest that I watch True Detective and I just thought it was another generic police show or a derivative of Criminal Minds until this little nugget was revealed to me. Two detectives undertake a seventeen year old hunt for a serial killer named The Yellow King: a quest that seemed to have come to its conclusion this past weekend. Steele and Pulver seem really enthusiastic about The King in Yellow becoming more mainstream as a result of this plot development in True Detective. Indeed, for years Pulver himself has been instrumental in gathering The King in Yellow‘s stories for Chaosium anthologies and then even editing and encouraging writers to create stories in Chambers’ particular universe. Pulver takes great pains to point out that despite August Derleth’s attempts to make The King in Yellow a part of the Lovecraftian or Cthulhu mythos that these stories exist in their own continuity and outside of Lovecraft.
In addition, Pulver himself is in the process of gathering further King in Yellow stories from new writers: particularly female horror writers. It is quite fitting in a way. After all, unlike Lovecraft whom the mythos of The Yellow King is often attributed, Chambers was definitely not afraid of writing female characters into his stories that weren’t monsters, one-dimensional throwaway characters, or that just pretty much exist at all.
Justin Steele’s interview with Joseph S. Pulver Sr. is very fascinating and I would definitely recommend watching the above video if you are at all interested in the origins of The King in Yellow as well as reading Pulver’s article on the subject at The Lovecraft eZine. Also, please check out True Detective: Season One is now over and there are only eight episodes in the series, so it shouldn’t take you long to get through them. Finally, I should point out that you can read The King in Yellow for free online.
As an added bonus, it seems that H.P. Lovecraft himself and a Southern doppelganger, reanimated for YoutTube by Leeman Kessler, have their own opinions about both True Detective and The King in Yellow.
In any case, you will find that the mythos of The King in Yellow is a very mysterious thing of poetic fragments and goose bumps not unlike its yellow sign. This is just as well: as that sign, whatever its shape or purpose, makes minds receptive to madness.
See you in Carcosa.