The Infinite Horror Labyrinth Of The Carcosa Mythos, THE EXORCIST Miniature, And More!
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The Bite #123
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The Infinite Horror Labyrinth Of The Carcosa Mythos, THE EXORCIST Miniature, And More!

August 25, 2020

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The Infinite Horror Labyrinth Of The Carcosa Mythos

By Derek Fisher

In HBO’s True Detective, moments before his face is blown off, Reggie Ledoux tells detective Rustin Cohle “You’re in Carcosa now.” The 2014 show straddled the line between drama and horror brilliantly, in part because of how it alluded to an esoteric horror mythology — “Carcosa,” and “The Yellow King” — without ever bogging itself down in explanations. As HBO begins another journey into cosmic horror with its acclaimed new series Lovecraft Country, let’s take a look back how weird fiction haunted this earlier pop culture phenomenon.

In True Detective, 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.

The Carcosa mythology is not solely attributable to any one 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.

Though Chambers’ collection is the closest to a source material, it isn’t the earliest work in the mythology. Carcosa first appeared in Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” in 1886. In Bierce’s work, as with Chambers’, Carcosa is barely explained; we know it’s a place, a city, possibly cursed and a source of madness, but that’s all.

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 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 this is the only 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. In Alan Moore’s Neonomicon, the FBI agent protagonists uncover all kinds of mythical underworld a la Lovecraft; 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.

All these intertextual references lead us down a deep hole that has no discernable end. We can add 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. The King in Yellow can’t be explained because its horror is grounded in an unknowable, cosmically terrifying proposition.

Derek Fisher is a Toronto-based writer and an English professor at Seneca College. He’s also a bartender. You can read his work in The Write Launch and on his website.


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