The one literary reference you need to know to appreciate True Detective

9 min readJan 19, 2024
True Detective, Season 1 hid all sorts of references to literary cosmic horror

See also: True Detective, Carcosa and a deleted scene from Blackwater Lights and True Detective: Season One finale review

Note: This was originally published on the entertainment website io9 (part of Gawker Media) in 2014, shortly after the debut of Season One of HBO’s True Detective series. When I pitched it, editor Annelee Newitz loved it and agreed to pay me $50. Neither of us had any idea what was going to happen next.

The story went instantly viral. Within days, as the show drew enormous audiences, I got inundated with request from radio, TV, and podcasters from across the country to discuss this material. I scrambled to keep up with all the requests and emails flooding my inbox. It was disorienting but also thrilling to see some of my weird, niche interests—literary cosmic horror—taking hold of popular culture.

I eventually got paid a lot more than that initial $50 when the article surpassed one million views.

But the best part of the surreal experience of virality was seeing Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, an obscure and largely forgotten book written in 1895, rocket to the top of the Amazon bestseller list, as noted in The Atlantic.

Since the original io9 article has been moved, and the images are broken, I’m republishing it here, intact. I also published some follow-ups after watching later episodes, and a lament of the truly abysmal Season Two, which I will also republish.

Enjoy the weird lightning-in-a-bottle magic that was True Detective Season One.

(Original article begins here)

Two episodes into the series, True Detective dropped a reference to one of the strangest, most compelling tales in the canon of weird fiction: Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories published in 1895. Knowing this book is key to understanding the dark mystery at the heart of this series.

This collection of stories has influenced writers from H.P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler, to Robert Heinlein, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin. The King in Yellow and his legendary city of Carcosa may be the most famous character and setting you’ve never heard of.

In fact, the more of the show you watch, and the more carefully you pay attention, you’ll find a number of Easter eggs aimed squarely at hardcore fans of the weird fiction genre. I’ll touch on a few of the more prominent ones, but I have a feeling the rest of the series will be a bonanza for true detectives of strange fiction.

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!

— The King in Yellow: Act I, Scene 2

The King in Yellow is a fictional play within a collection of short stories — a metafictional dramatic work that brings despair, depravity, and insanity to anyone who reads it or sees it performed. Chambers inserts only a few selected scenes from the play into his story collection, and all of them are from the first act. This act, we are told, is a bit of a honeypot, luring readers into the cursed text. If they read even the first few words of Act II they are driven insane by the revelation of horrible, decadent, incomprehensible truths about the universe.

Anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s “cosmic horrors” should see the thematic similarity. For his unfortunate protagonists, the ultimate truths of the universe are too much for their overloaded minds to handle. It should not be surprising that Lovecraft incorporated Chambers’s The King in Yellow into his overarching Cthulhu mythos, embellishing the elements of the story and adding the fictitious play to his growing bookshelf of equally fictional mythos tomes.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,

Where flap the tatters of the King,

Must die unheard in

Dim Carcosa.

— Cassilda’s Song in The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene II

For many fans of weird fiction, the surprising appearance of this madness-inducing play into what ostensibly appeared to be just another police procedural was a bolt of lightning. Suddenly, the tone of the show changed completely, signaling the descent into a particular brand of horror rarely (if ever) seen on television. The first mention of the play comes in episode two when Rust Cohle, the cynical, nihilistic detective played by Matthew McConaughey, finds the journal of a young former prostitute, Dora Lange, who has been ritualistically murdered.

“I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow moving through the forest,” Cohle reads aloud from her journal. “The King’s children are marked. They became his angels.”

Dora Lange’s journal with mention of The Yellow King

The journal pages flash briefly on the screen. Lines from Chambers’s play have been copied verbatim into the notebook.

Lines from the fictional play “The King in Yellow”

Along the shore the cloud waves break,

The twin suns sink behind the lake,

The shadows lengthen

In Carcosa

Strange is the night where the black stars rise,

And strange moons circle through the skies,

But stranger still is

Lost Carcosa

— The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene II

Note the black stars, which become recurring symbols in the series. Black stars also appear as tattoos on the neck of the character of Carla, who first alerts Cohle and Hart to Dori’s involvement with a strange “church.”

But the weirdness gets even thicker in episode three. A revivalist tent preacher has the unusual name of Joel Theriot, which is one letter away from the name claimed by famed occultist Aleister Crowley, who referred to himself as Master Therion, aka The Beast 666. And I had to pause the show when I watched Theriot lower his head and make the sign of the cross on his chest — because he does it backwards (right to left, instead of left to right). Given the meticulous layering of clues and symbols throughout the other episodes, my guess is that was intentional.

Later in the episode, our detectives interrogate a convict named Charlie in a bare, concrete room, attempting to get information about their prime suspect, Reggie Ledoux, aka The Tall Man. Charlie had been a former cellmate of Ledoux’s. Charlie was privy to some of the Tall Man’s peculiar stories, which he relates to the detectives:

He said that there’s this place down south where all these rich men go to, uh, devil worship. He said that, uh, they — they sacrifice kids and whatnot. Women and children all got — all got murdered there and, um, something about someplace called Carcosa and the Yellow King. He said there’s all these, like, old stones out in the woods, people go to, like, worship. He said there’s just so much good killin’ down there. Reggie’s got this brand on his back, like a spiral. He says that’s their sign.

The spiral was found painted (tattooed?) on the murdered Dora’s back, as well as on another victim Cohle discovered in the police archives. And in a recursive layering of clues, we’ve seen the spiral in another unusual sequence in episode two. As Cohle observes a group of birds outside of a burned church, they swirl and coalesce into the identical spiral formation before flying away. It’s a chilling moment that has already been dissected by many viewers.

The enigmatic spiral

The idea of ancient standing stones as the scene of bizarre pagan rites and atavistic sacrifices is a common trope of weird fiction, too, and was employed by authors as far back as Arthur Machen and Lovecraft (“The Dunwich Horror”), up through Stephen King (in his short story “N”). I used such a scene in my own novel, Blackwater Lights.

And those are only a few of the Easter eggs and symbols embedded in this clever and meticulously constructed television drama. Take note, for instance, of the regular use of yellow — in Cohle’s dim, depressing apartment and the smoky haze at the illegal warehouse rave. Yellow is visually linked to insanity, mental collapse, and decadence — another explicit echo of Chambers’s iconic mythology.

But where, one might wonder, is this all going? Is this just writer Nic Pizzolatto dropping nods to his favorite authors and their fans? Some critics have dismissed the idea that the show is moving into the realm of the supernatural, but I have little doubt that it is going to only get much weirder and much, much darker. The clues are all there for those with eyes to see.

Why The King in Yellow? I think it’s obvious, and I’ll go out on a limb and say the season will continue with detectives Cohle and Hart edging closer to the abyss of what Lovecraft termed “cosmic fear,” which he defined as:

A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces . . . a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

In a revealing interview with the The Wall Street Journal, Pizzolatto discusses his love of existential horror and its most prominent authors, from Chambers and Lovecraft to modern masters of the weird Laird Barron and Thomas Ligotti:

Their fictional visions of cosmic despair were articulating the same things as certain nihilist and pessimist philosophers, but with more poetry and art and vision . . . It’s important for us to confront the potential of the true abyss. . . .

Clearly, the present-day Cohle, with his glazed, vacant eyes and brutally nihilistic philosophy, is someone who has experienced the chaos and daemons lurking just over the edge of the interminable abyss. He explains his philosophy in his interview with the two current-day detectives:

You, yourself, this whole big drama, it was never anything but a jerry-rig of presumption and dumb will and you could just let go, finally know that you didn’t have to hold on so tight. To realize that all your life, you know, all you love, all you hate, all your memory, all your pain — it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person. And like a lot of dreams . . . there’s a monster at the end of it.

Cohle has seen the monster. I suspect we will, too.

Michael M. Hughes is a writer, speaker, and magical thinker. He is the author of Magic for the Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change, the Blackwater Lights Trilogy, as well as numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction, and he speaks and teaches classes on magic, tarot, pop culture, psychedelics, and more.

His comprehensive tarot course, The Art and Magic of the Tarot: Foundations, is available here, as well as his new course on Tarot Magic.

Michael’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, CNN, The L.A. Times, Rolling Stone, Comedy Central, Wired, Elle, Vox, Cosmopolitan,and even the ultraconservative The American Spectator, which wrote: “He may play footsie with the devil, but at least the man has a sense of humor.”

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