Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Idea map 5: True Detective, The King in Yellow.

This one's going to be complex; I may have to come back to it a few times to consult and possibly expand.

First, the facts.

  1. The King in Yellow was published in 1895. HP Lovecraft was born in 1890.
  2. There is no actual play depicting The King in Yellow, though some have attempted to create it. The closest we've come to it in America is probably Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and even that is a poor shadow. Given that I'm not an expert in cinema, I'll leave it to others to decide what best approaches it. There certainly does not seem to be a published text that approaches the effects of Chambers's narrative.
  3.  The influence of Chambers's text, however, has been wide ranging. See the appendix to the Google Play e-book for a well-researched list, including True Detective.
So here we have concentricity again. In the middle sits Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa," which describes a dreamlike experience. Circling that is The King in Yellow as both Chambers's book and a text-within-a-text. Chambers pulls the name, and perhaps the idea of, Carcosa from Bierce's short story. The play The King in Yellow is a central part of Chambers's book, even though it is never fully presented; it's trickier to put it in the center when the text is fragmentary. The next circle around Chambers's book is a rich set of literary references to The King in Yellow, including references made by HP Lovecraft himself and other weird fiction writers. Rolling by next are the numerous popular culture references to the idea of Hastur, Carcosa, and The Yellow King, not least of which have been published by Chaosium as part of the Call of Cthulhu RPG. Along with those popular culture references is True Detective, which arguably handles Chambers's text the most deftly.

The inner circle:

Plot development is difficult to describe in The King in Yellow. It moves at first in reverse, starting with near-future elements--America of the 1920s--then coming back to Paris, then back in time (perhaps) to the Franco-Prussian War some time in 1870-71--Paris is under siege, and there are certainly Germans to be bayonetted--then back to what seems to be Chambers's contemporary Paris. Regardless of what moments in which the narrative occurs, there is a deep sense of moral vulnerability for the characters, at first associated with exposure to the text of The King in Yellow, which is rumored among other things to have caused riots overseas, thus associated with having an artistic sensibility. 

The hearsay associated with the text is imputed to lead to a common reaction to the text, yet we find that when Chambers's characters read the text, the viscerality of their experience goes beyond hearsay. That moral vulnerability extends past those characters who read The King in Yellow (not all of Chambers's characters do). By the time Chambers's narrative ends, the peculiar vulnerability exhibited by the artist has been explored from multiple perspectives. Chambers's primary characters are artists, especially artists in Parisian ateliers, and it is their sensibilities that both make them vulnerable to the enticements of the text of The King in Yellow and able to survive them. Some who read the text go insane, yes, but that is because they have been brought to ultimate knowledge of reality--which is what the artist struggles to gain, even if the work at hand is abstract. Thus, the text itself has a relationship to artistic sensibilities, a relationship that permits the text to evoke reaction without effort on the part of the reader. Any artist wishing to access this ultimate knowledge must first be able to cope with the revelations in the text.

The characters in Chambers's work are largely of the monied classes and the social elites. Their exposure to The King in Yellow is deftly copied into True Detective, where the powerful have access to the practices of the King in Yellow's cult. This access, although toxic to some, leads to power for others, and itself represents the definition of that which is taboo--both forbidden and sacred because of its power. It also gives primary access to the human body, specifically sexual access to the murder victims.

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!
In True Detective, the characters are one of three things: masked, unmasked, or wearing no mask. Hart remains masked until the very end. Even when he's being visited by his family in the hospital, Hart tells them that everything is going to be all right when he knows it won't because the center of the cult remains untouched. Gilbough, Patania, and all the other officers are unmasked by Hart and Cohle's findings; their easy, pat solutions to the murder investigation are shown up by the bodies found on the Childress compound. Without that unmasking, the officers and investigators would still wear their masks. Cohle is the only one who wears no mask. 

I won't avert my eyes. Not again. --Cohle to Hart, "After You've Gone," episode 7
Once Cohle hears from Guy Francis that the murderer is still loose, and once he realizes he will not receive any support from his precinct toward additional investigations, Cohle takes off all his masks. From that point on, he has nothing to obstruct his view of the evidence and his ongoing, private investigation into the murders.

One more topic in the inner ring, and I need to do some more thinking about it: the text and the human body



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