The King in Yellow: Inspiring HBO’s True Detective

If you’re on Twitter as much as Gollancz tends to be, you’ve probably noticed all of the excitement there’s been about HBO’s new series True Detective. Starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, it’s being hailed as ‘the best detective show since the Wire’ and there’s no doubt that it’s making a huge splash over in America (and wherever else people *ahem* watch things they shouldn’t. So the internet, basically). It comes to ‘nobody I know has got it’ Sky Atlantic this Saturday, and I’m sure will be talked about even more after that.

Well and good, you say. Not very Gollancz-related, is it? A detective show?

And I say, well, the other thing that everyone on Twitter started talking about was The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, a (sometimes linked) collection of short stories published in 1895 and a huge influence on H. P. Lovecraft and many others. I read it years ago and had basically forgotten that I had ever even heard of it, but when people started mentioning it I went and looked it up and had that moment of ‘oh yes, I remember that now’. It’s a chilling series of shorts, the first four of which reference ‘The King in Yellow’, a play which will drive anyone who reads beyond the first act mad. MAD, I tell you. They’re a little dated now, but then so much fiction is, and the worlds the stories show us – some an imagined America of the future (well, 1920) and some set in Paris – is a recognisable and well-depicted one, and there are some lovely chills and creepy moments.

So, I hear you still saying, what?

The point is it appears that True Detective leans heavily on The King in Yellow, with multiple references to the book scattered throughout the episodes aired so far, and presumably more to come. As these nods and winks started appearing, the internet had one of those collective ‘ooohs’ and got very excited. Perhaps this seemingly straight-forward detective show is about to become all Lovecraftian?

As well as the book’s influence on Lovecraft – he mentions various elements in some of his Cthulhu stories – Wikipedia also tells me that Robert Silverberg, Marion Zimmer Bradley, James Blish, Lin Carter, Robert Heinlein, Stephen King, Grant Morrison and Simon Green have all incorporated elements or made sly nods to the book in their work, making it an obvious contender for our SF Gateway ebook programme and a natural companion to our Lovecraft publishing programme. We’ve been toying with the idea of including some of the earlier key texts of SF, Fantasy and Horror on the website, as our goal was always to make it a central hub for the best of genre writing, so this seemed like the perfect moment. Our eBook is released today.

As well as the ten short stories, we’ve included a (very) short piece by Ambrose Bierce, from which Chambers took the name of his fictional city Carcosa and which was clearly an influence on The King in Yellow, and Chambers’ entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

If you’re as intrigued by the buzz as we were, if you’re about to watch True Detective and want to be on top of the subtleties, or even if you just fancy some quality short fiction with creepy undertones, it’s well worth a go. You can get it from Amazon and iBooks at the moment, and it should go live on all other platforms over the next few days.