I was just a kid back in the mid-1970s, when my brother and I were first getting into Blue Öyster Cult. Now BÖC has some … eccentric lyrics, which meant that I would often ask my brother what various lines meant. “Who is Sir Rastus Bear?” “What’s a diz-buster and why do they scream?” That sort of thing.
I’m thinking about this because of HBO’s newish show True Detective. (I have the show on my DVR, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.) In case you haven’t heard, word around the internet says that “the key to understanding this show” is in Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow. To most people that’s an obscure book. If you’re the sort of person who would come to this site and read these words, you’ve probably heard of it because Chambers is widely known to have influenced H.P. Lovecraft.
But I first heard of the collection because of a Blue Öyster Cult song: “E.T.I. (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence)” from their album Agents of Fortune.
I’m in fairy rings and tower beds
“Don’t report this,” three men said
Books by the blameless and by the dead
King in yellow, queen in red
I can still remember hearing that verse coming out of the speakers of my dad’s stereo one afternoon and saying to my brother, “The queen in red? As in Alice in Wonderland?”
“That’s right,” said my brother, not looking up from his novel. (Actually, I think it was the book club three novel collection Three to Dorsai by Gordon Dickson.)
“But what’s the king in yellow?”
His response carried the essence of the correct answer, but he made it sound like the most boring book in the world. In his defense, when your six-year-younger kid brother keeps bugging you with questions, dull answers are the quickest way to get him to stop.
So even when I did start reading Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith, I didn’t bother with The King in Yellow. I did find a copy in a used bookstore sometime in the ‘80s, so I picked it up and put it on my Lovecraft shelf, for completeness’ sake.
And all but forgot about it.
Now, nearly forty years after bugging my brother about a Blue Öyster Cult song, I’m hearing people rave about this television show that owes itself, somehow, to that collection of short stories.
I finally took it down from its shelf and read it.
I must say, if it weren’t called The King in Yellow it might have been titled Bohemian Artists in Paris. Several of the stories are set in Paris and involve painters with inconstant affections. In fact, the fictive play “The King in Yellow” appears only briefly in a couple of stories, and not at all in others. Only in the first story is it truly featured (though it does have an important role in another couple).
But when he could stop talking about his inconstant painters, Chambers handled gothic horror pretty darn well.
And I think those scant references lend weight to it, the way it can be more effective to not show a monster in a monster movie, only hint at it and keep it in shadows. If Chambers had shined his light too brightly on dim Carcosa, his work might not have inspired others as it did.
So would I recommend it?
Personally, I think every Lovecraft fan should read the first few stories, to see what the fuss is all about and experience Chambers’ version of gothic horror. And now that I have read it, I am prepared to watch True Detective and find out if it’s as good as people say.
I confess, though, I do hope that their King in Yellow references aren’t slammed in my face. I’ll be disappointed if I find out that what I had learned through literary osmosis was enough to make everything clear.
Still, just the rumor was enough to get me to finally read The King in Yellow, so maybe it was worthwhile even if I find out that the show’s killer is serving the tattered king or dreams of Carcosa, and Hyades, and Hastur, or something like that.
Have you read The King in Yellow? If so, what did you think? If not, and you want to, you can find it at Project Gutenberg.