Every so often, literature appears outside of literature. The Shakespearean “sleep of death” catalyzes the major events of the film, What Dreams May Come. Homer Simpson daydreams about spending his unemployment by a Waldenesque pond (and journaling about how much he misses TV).

A few recent television shows feature particularly thoughtful references to American literature. True Detective, whose much-anticipated third season is nearly upon us, is one of them.

The King in Yellow
The King in Yellow, 1895

In 1895 Robert Chambers published The King in Yellow, which would be a cache of symbolism for the 2014 HBO hit. In Chambers’s story, The King in Yellow is the name of a book within a book, an opaque fiction. Readers never learn much about its plot, but we know its disastrous impact upon the world. According to one character:

“I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens […] I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth— a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow.”

The book – an inscrutable artifact and a persistent symbol of destruction – is denounced in pulpits and the press, pushing communities to the brink and sending men to asylums for the criminally insane. Carcosa and its King somehow alert readers to disastrous truths of the world, whatever those might be. Or does the book twist the minds of readers into believing untruths?

Enter True Detective, in which a brutal murder brings together two detective partners (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) who are both horrible and perfect for one another. Meanwhile a “Yellow King” appears in brainwashed girls’ journals and in off-the-record criminal confessions. In other words, Yellow King is the one whodunit. The King may have otherworldly powers of manipulation and illusion, leaving a trail of deadly crimes awash in pagan symbolism, but he’s a very real flesh-and-blood suspect. Facing the near-impossible task of catching him, the detectives skirt dark psychological waters as they’re forced to examine their own reflections in the case. The show’s genius lies in these two central characters’ worldviews, but it’s the seven-year, brain-warping challenge of finding the Yellow King that roots their partnership and their fates. Destruction, criminal insanity, and untruths, in overt homage to Robert Chambers’s work, make for another high-stakes story.

True Dectective
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson      Star in True Detective, Season 1

Season 1 Minor Spoiler Alert!


For the most part, Robert Chambers’s book doesn’t ruin the “answer” to True Detective, but the showrunners rewarded readers with a major clue. In the final season 1 finale, the two detectives find their man – and to Rustin Cohle’s immense frustration, they realize they’ve met the King in Yellow many years before. While they scoured underground communities and hidden identities, the King himself had appeared to the detectives and to True Detective fans in broad daylight. Readers of Robert Chambers’s The King in Yellow may have predicted a twist along these lines if they remembered this excerpt from the fictional The King in Yellow, Act I:

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed, it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

-Jill Dwiggins