Oh, The Sin Of Writing Such Words: The Infinite Horror Labyrinth Of The Carcosa Mythos
In episode 5 of HBO’s True Detective, moments before his face is blown off, Reggie Ledoux tells detective Rustin Cohle “You’re in Carcosa now.” The 2014 season was widely regarded as a success for its superb acting, writing, and its exceptional genre-defying tone. The show straddles the line between drama and horror brilliantly, in part because of how it alludes to an esoteric horror mythology without ever bogging itself down in explanations.
Detectives Hart and Cohle’s investigation uncovers hints of an occultish milieu from the very beginning, but when we hear about Carcosa a whole new underworld surfaces. It is a portal into an endless maze of horror metareferences and intertexts; a maze, much like that of the season finale, that leads Rust and Cohle to their King in Yellow.
The Carcosa mythology is not solely attributable to any one particular horror author, though is most commonly associated with American short story writer Robert Chambers. His 1895 collection The King in Yellow contains a number of stories that reference the King of the book’s title and the mythical city of Carcosa. The opening story, “The Repairer of Reputations,” is the most explicit work of fiction about the titular figure. The story’s narrator, Hildred Castaigne, has lost his mind, presumably from reading a forbidden play called “The King in Yellow.” To read the play is to suffer irreparable madness.
We don’t learn any details about this supposed King, or the Carcosa which he inhabits; we just know that these images are the sources of widespread insanity. In the story, the play has been banned the world over, as fear of the lunacy it causes has become a global concern. We get this information from Castaigne, our unreliable narrator.
Neither in “The Repairer of Reputations,” nor in the other stories in Chambers’s collection do we get an explanation of exactly what The Yellow King or Carcosa are. We know the King is revered, even godlike, and Carcosa is the blasted city where he lives, but that’s it. The mystery persists.
Though Chambers’ collection is the closest to a source material about The King in Yellow, it isn’t the earliest work in the mythology. Carcosa first appeared in horror literature in Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” in 1886. In Bierce’s work, much like in Chambers’, Carcosa is barely explained; we know it’s a place, a city, possibly cursed, and possibly a source of madness, but that’s all. No obvious connection exists between Chambers and Bierce, other than the notion that Chambers was a fan of Bierce’s work, “borrowed” the name Carcosa, and expanded on it as a concept.
Look beyond Bierce and Chambers and you find a dark spiral, a web of intertextual references within horror and literature; the endless maze of the Carcosan cult. H.P. Lovecraft is the most famous horror author associated with Carcosa, but if you look to Lovecraft for answers, you only uncover more darkness, as neither Carcosa nor The King in Yellow are ever mentioned explicitly in his fiction. The closest connection in Lovecraft is found in The Whisperer in Darkness, which references the lake Hali among various famous Cthulhu mythos backdrops like R’lyeh and Yog-Sothoth. Hali appears as a lake in Carcosa in Chambers’ work, but there’s little to uncover directly through Lovecraft other than this loose connection.
A slew of Lovecraft-inspired authors have touched on or added to the Carocsa-Cthulhu mythos connection like Charles Stross, Joseph Pulver, Lin Carter, Michael Cisco, and John Scott Tynes, but they are all rewriting their own version of a mythology — they are not speaking to anything official, per se. In Alan Moore’s Neonomicon, the FBI agent protagonists uncover all kinds of mythical underworld a la Lovecraft, involving Great Old Ones and what have you; one of the key characters tied to the occultish mythos is drug dealer Johnny Carcosa, who turns out to be a Great Old One in disguise.
While this might feel like a decent piece of connective tissue between Carcosa references and Lovecraft, the breadth of Carcosa references in the fiction stratosphere is too great to pin down anything authoritative. Even George R.R. Martin uses Carcosa as a city in A Song of Fire and Ice; a dark sorcerer lives there, a lord who claims to be “The Yellow Emperor.”
All these intertextual references lead us down a deep hole that has no discernable end. Carcosa and The Yellow King exist as concepts in a maze of texts, rooted in cosmic horror. The appeal of Chambers’ fictional play “The King in Yellow” is that we can’t know why the play drives its reader mad. It is a horror not of the unknown, but of the unknowable, and the texts that make use of the mythology riff on this motif.
We can add to the maze any work of fiction based on a deadly artwork, the thing with which we must never engage, such as the video in The Ring, or Lamarchand’s Box in Hellraiser. This motif, while rooted in horror, bursts through its genre-fiction skin into the literary, in books like Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, about a child’s lullaby that causes certain death to any listener, or David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan Infinite Jest, about an art-film so entertaining it kills its viewers. All of these works shape the labyrinth of the Carcosa mythos. It has no end, and no true limits, its hedges glued together by any one text’s relationship to another. It could be said that The King in Yellow can’t be explained because it’s effectiveness as horror is grounded in an unknowable, cosmically terrifying proposition.
When True Detective repopularized the Carcosa mythology, articles popped up all over the internet asking what exactly this horror legacy was all about, but they provided little in the way of answers. It wasn’t that the characters on the show worshipped something with clear explanations from horror canon, but rather that they were dabbling in the realm of forbidden knowledge.
There is undeniable allure to the prospect of the unknowable; the desire to read the forbidden text is so strong because of the danger that it might kill me, not in spite of it. This strikes at the root of cosmic horror; we have no footing by which to understand Carcosa and The King in Yellow, only shadowy glimpses. If we try to look closely, we risk beholding something we must not see, something we cannot know.
In one of the last scenes in True Detective’s first season, when Cohle reaches the end of the maze and confronts the show’s villain, he sees a dark portal in the sky. Viewers of the show know that Cohle used to suffer hallucinations, but what if the portal is in fact the gateway to Carcosa, and not just a figment of Cohle’s traumatized imagination? It is the unanswerable nature of the question that makes it so appealing.