Snozberries for the King in Yellow: Why HBO’s True Detective Is a Religious Text

Written by Adrienne Parks

3500 words

In his beloved children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl created the concept of lickable wallpaper. “Lick an orange, it tastes like an orange! The strawberries taste like strawberries! The snozzberries taste like snozzberries!” And of course, all the children in the story fall to licking the wallpaper, delighted at the fact that it tastes like candy.

Years later, however, with typical Dahlian whimsy, the author revisited the word “snozzberry” in a slightly different context. In his adult novel, My Uncle Oswald, the eponymous character asks his friend Yasmin Howcomely how she talked George Bernard Shaw into wearing a condom.

“How did you manage to roll the old rubbery thing on him?”

“There’s only one way when they get violent,” Yasmin said. “I grabbed hold of his snozzberry and hung onto it like grim death and gave it a twist or two to make him hold still.”

“Ow.”

“Very effective.

“I’ll bet it is.”

Much has been made in recent years of the rediscovery of this Dahlian joke, confirming the fact (if confirmation were needed) that Dahl’s sense of humor was nothing if not naughty. But of course, the larger point is that up until recently, nobody noticed. Authors’ private “snozzberries” (inside digs, hidden clues, what in video games are called “easter eggs”) usually remain just that, private. Writers sometimes use the names of people they love, people they hate, people they’ve slept with, and people they owe money to (Stephen King once named a hillbilly clod after his agent) and nobody’s ever the wiser.

Sometimes, though, the hidden messages in books and movies are a little more substantial, and very often these “hidden persuaders” (pace,Vance Packard) aren’t simply incitements to buy things or to indulge in illicit acts.

No, very often their purpose is quite different. They attempt to get us to consider, and perhaps even ponder, religious themes.

Why this should be is in one sense a great irony. We long for substance in our lives, we desire meaning and fear its lack, but if someone sits us down and says, “Now I’m going to preach to you,” we roll our eyes and immediately head for the exit. Preaching, after all, implies certitude: I know what’s true and what’s not, and now I’m going to tell you (of course the best preachers never do that, but that’s still our doleful expectation).

Preaching, or more broadly speaking, philosophical writing, also doesn’t allow us any wiggle-room. We have to march manfully from concept to concept and clause to clause of the writer’s logical argument, until either we’re convinced or we throw up our hands in disgust and go and find something else to do.

Philosophical writing, to put it simply, doesn’t show, it tells, and good stories, as we all know from every creative writing course we’ve ever taken, show. Philosophical tomes, even those written by wonderful writers, are constrained by abstraction, and human beings aren’t by nature abstract. We live, breathe, and crave stories. C. S. Lewis knew this par excellence, as he wrote in Of Other Worlds:

Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to… [By] stripping them [these stories] of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, could one make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

And of course he did, stealing into Narnia, just as Tolkien stole into Middle Earth and J. K. Rowling stole into Hogwarts, to present us with wonderful tales full of Christian meaning and Christian concepts, though in the vesture of epic fantasy.

In fact, the genre of epic fantasy may be especially well-suited to such an endeavor. It presents a world in which true evil is allowed to exist in all its naked horror, and then creates beings who are truly good—usually flawed, human or human-like beings, conflicted yet resolute, frightened and yet courageous—to combat it. But if we allow that the stories of Frodo, Harry Potter, and Lucy Pevensie have much in common with those of David, Joseph, and even Jesus—battles against superior forces, temptations and trial, and penultimate descents into death—what of those darker fantasy creations, the ghost story, the horror epic, and the weird tale?

Clive Barker, who made his mark on the horror genre in 1984 with the first edition of his Books of Blood (“Every body is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red”) uses the word fantastique to refer to works of both terror and happy make-believe. And as he puts it, there’s really very little distinction between the two:

But the fantastique, perhaps more than any other genre, defies domestication. It is imagination in action; an account—at its best—of how the mind transforms reality; makes it metaphor, makes it myth; uses it to harrow and heal.

Barker’s own work has expanded beyond the merely horrific (“The Midnight Meat Train”) to his masterpiece, Imagica, an in-depth exploration of Gnosticism in the guise of a sprawling epic involving magic, monsters, true love, and other worlds.

The truth is writers have often found their way to religious questions, if not religions answers, in the pages of horror. It’s scarcely a coincidence that such masters of the genre as Arthur Machen and M. R. James were the sons of clergymen, or that the lurking “old gods” of H. P. Lovecraft form the flip side to his chilly atheism. In brief, the fantastique has many rooms, some Christian, some pagan, and some definitely not for children. And one of the denizens of those rooms has recently been rediscovered in the unlikely setting of an HBO’s crime drama, True Detective. In this case, the neglected bogeyman is Robert W. Chambers’s spectral monarch, The King In Yellow.

When Chambers first published his short-story collection of the same name in 1895, yellow was the color of fin de siecle decadence: “The Yellow Book” magazine, and the “yellow wrapper” novels of J. K. Huysmans, whose A Rebours (“Against Nature”) was immortalized by Oscar Wilde as the “poisonous French novel” which led to the downfall of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s own Salome, published in English the year before Chambers’ work, was a play reportedly so “evil” it couldn’t be produced, and its author’s downfall only added to its satanic lustre.

In the midst of all this fear of “yellow perils,”Chambers wrote several short stories about a play, also titled The King In Yellow, so beautifully written no one could resist reading it through to the end, and so thoroughly wicked (or possibly so inherently cursed) that no one having finished it could resist being driven mad. In “The Repairer of Reputations,” a tour de force of unreliable narration, Hildred Castaigne forms a pact with the nefarious “Mr. Wilde” to become the last king of “The Imperial Dynasty of America,” a dream that devolves into a madman’s nightmare, all as a result of having read this terrible play:

During my convalescence I had bought and read for the first time, The King in Yellow. I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the firelight. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet.

This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth—a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow.

The fact that Castaigne is clinically insane as the result of a fall from his horse is, of course, beside the point. The King In Yellow is one of the great imaginary sources in literature, right up there with the Necronomicon and The First Encyclopedia of Tlon. We want these books to exist, just as we want to experience the exquisite terror of seeing the Yellow Sign (Chambers’ imaginary sigil of the King) for ourselves. As Kent David Kelly points out in the foreword to his anthology, The King In Yellow Rises,

The actual existence of such real occult works as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Three Books of Occult Philosophy, the Picatrix, and even the Malleus Maleficarum can cause avid readers to continue the search for other “real” imaginary sources, even when they know the unreal books do not exist… This fascinating observable fact can perhaps most succinctly be explained by the legendary X-Files mantra, “I want to believe.” In other words, readers who tend to favor that particular subgenre of speculative fiction which prominently features imaginary sources tend to take pleasure in the fact that the imaginary works just might exist. By intuitive extension, the alleged existence of such “real” books of a revelatory nature can be interpreted as tacit—yet distant—proof of the supernatural.

Chambers’ brilliant handful of fictions about the Yellow King (undoubtedly the most enduring things he ever wrote over his forty-six year career), inspired two far more famous practitioners of the “weird” genre: Lord Dunsany and H. P. Lovecraft. Dunsany’s “Bethmoora” describes an entire city, like Chambers’ Carcosa, abandoned in horror because of a king’s mad decree, while Lovecraft appropriates not merely the trope of an evil book (the Necronomicon, written by the “Mad Arab Abdul Al-hazred”) but the whole concept of “forbidden knowledge” which, once acquired, leads its hapless devotees to madness, damnation, and death.

And in their wake a veritable flood of “yellow fiction” has followed, ranging from poet Ann Schwader’s dark, dystopic verses to Karl Edward Wagner’s “The River of Night’s Dreaming” (in which another mental patient, this time female, imagines herself seduced by The King In Yellow), to James Blish’s “More Light,” a daring, if ultimately derivative, attempt to actually write the play itself.

Indeed, the Yellow King is a persistent underground figure, weaving his way through much contemporary horror today. Which is how he ended up in Nick Pizzolatto’s neo-noir masterpiece, True Detective.

Pizzolatto, who began his career writing dark short stories and a gritty crime novel, Galveston, has acknowledged that he hid two big “snozzberries” in True Detective: references to Chambers’s Yellow King, and quotes from the nihilistic writings of Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, whose Conspiracy Against The Human Race presents a full, cogent argument for existential angst, is the source of many of Pizzolatto’s darker riffs on life’s meaninglessness and mankind’s torment at being a part of it. In Ligotti’s view, echoing Julius Bahnsen, “Man is a self-conscious Nothing.” Furthering his explication, Ligotti states,

All reality is the expression of a unified, unchanging force… monstrous in nature, resulting in a universe of indiscriminate butchery and mutual slaughter among its individual parts. Additionally, the “universe according to Bahnsen” has never had a hint of design or direction. From the beginning, it was a play with no plot and no players that were anything more than portions of a master drive of purposeless self-mutilation. In Bahnsen’s philosophy, everything is engaged in a disordered fantasia of carnage.

Not the most comforting thought, but a great basis for a classic noir vision played out against the grim backdrop of post-industrial Louisiana, with its oil fields and trailer parks, its religious zealots and lost, meth-crazed madmen. In fact, superficially at least, this is what True Detective is, a hard-boiled examination of life’s flotsam, observed by two flawed anti-heroes, a nasty, brutish world perversely captured in some of the loveliest dialogue being written for the screen today.

The series itself can even be seen as a kind of King In Yellow, impossible to resist watching, and carrying at its terrible core a madness-inducing message of despair. Give up now, it tells us. Mankind is a creature doomed to die, too stupid to quit while he’s behind. Give up on family, love, pleasure, beauty, and all the other illusions with which we distract ourselves. They won’t work. They’re all meaningless. Surrender now to the madness of the Yellow Sign.

Except, of course, for the other side of the argument, which Pizzolatto sneaks in so deftly that even the most hard-boiled agnostic will be at pains to see it coming. Detective Martin Hart, played with unreliable good-ole-boy charm by Woody Harrelson, seems initially to reject pessimism and be a happily married man. It’s not long, however, before we see Hart succumbing to adultery and family violence. At the same time, Hart’s partner Rust Cohle, in Matthew McConnaughey’s heartbreakingly nuanced performance, is revealed to be a cynic because of his grief and rage at the death of his young daughter. We don’t know where we stand with these two men. The masterful split-chronology of the series, veering back and forth between the 1990s and today, further disorients us. Are these men heroes? Villains? Is one of them in fact the murderer whose spectral presence we glimpse every now and then, wandering in the bayous?

As the series jolts from humor to horror, from false leads to a seeming resolution halfway through (which ends up being no resolution at all), the detectives’ search for meaning seems destined to slide down the same slippery slope towards madness which threatens us at every moment, the temptation to say nothing matters, and nothing makes any sense.

It’s here that Pizzolatto’s use of The King In Yellow really pays off. Gradually, through dogged police work that veers into full-on obsession, Cohle comes to realize that, in 1995, they caught the wrong man. The true killer, a “tall scarred man” who is in fact referred to by some of his victims as the “Yellow King,” remains at large. In order to capture him, Cohle and Hart must heal their own rift and accept their mutual responsibilities for the past. Reluctant, distrustful, damaged, and bereft of official sanction for any of their actions, these two faithless men must confront a conspiracy of madness and abuse far deeper than that which they helped to cover up seventeen years before.

What Pizzolatto is doing here, of course, is distracting us from our own despair. Having brought us to the point where Ligotti’s arguments for life’s meaninglessness have seemed well-nigh irrefutable (corruption seems pervasive, and even sympathetic characters like Hart’s wife are revealed as bitter and mercenary), he’s nonetheless making us care. He’s making us care by telling us a story. We still want to catch the bad guy. We still want to see our two anti-heroes win. And it’s here, in the last episode of the series, that True Detective finally works its subversive alchemy. By entering into the belly of the King in Yellow’s madness, Hart and Cohle are forced to face their own true natures and find out what, if anything, they truly believe in.

Robert W. Chambers’s great genius in The King In Yellow lay in never letting us actually read the play. In True Detective, by contrast, the demands of the mystery genre necessitate Pizzolatto giving us concrete answers to the questions of Whodunnit and Why. We find some of the usual suspects implicated in the midst of these final revelations—a sinful fundamentalist preacher and his debased, half-wit family; child abuse and devil-worship; sickness and malfeasance in high places—but what we mostly find is the terrible allure madness and violence hold for the two central characters. As Cohle enters the killer’s labyrinth, named “Carcosa” after the Yellow King’s realm, he sees visions of a spiraling galaxy brought on by his own strung-out insanity. As Hart questions the killer’s gibbering half-sister, we fear a reprise of the rage we earlier saw him direct against his own wife and child. We watch them fight the monster, and we fear that, at the last, this conflict will take them down as well, their own sins catching up with them and making their victory moot.

And yet it doesn’t happen. They pull through. They kill the killer, and back-up arrives to save the day. By enacting this ritual entrance into the grave of madness and coming out the other side, they (and we) have earned the right to take another look at our assumptions of existential dread. Not that Pizzolatto gives us a storybook ending. When we last see them, Hart and the wheelchair-bound Cohle have gone for a stroll in the parking lot of the hospital where they’ve both been recovering. Hart has reunited with his family, and Cohle reveals a dream he’s had, while unconscious, of seeing his daughter and his father. Neither man is promised a paradise going forward, and Hart gives Cohle a pack of cigarettes—surely the most ambivalent gift possible in today’s world, a macho gift passed from one doubting man to another, indicating that the quest for some kind of health and serenity still goes on.

Cohle looks up at the night sky and describes a universal battle between light and dark, and Hart, looking up as well, gently observes that the dark has much more territory. Cohle, the recovering nihilist, is allowed a moment of sweet near-sentimentality as he answers, “Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” It’s a measure of Pizzolatto’s genius that this potentially puerile endnote seems not saccharine, but merited and, in fact, truly cathartic. If the shattered Cohle can express such a thought, we’re left to wonder what either of these wounded men will make of their lives in the future.

It seems to me, as someone who works in the horror-fantasy genre, that this may be the unique potential of the dark fantastique, that it can go into the blackest places of the human psyche and offer there the possibility of light. Unlike its sunnier cousin, epic fantasy for children, the dark fantastique isn’t kid stuff. It has to address the existence of despair, of the possibility, at least, of an argument, à la Ligotti or Sartre, that hell isn’t just other people. Hell is life itself. The dark fantastique doesn’t just allow its practitioners to present a convincing Voldemort or Sauron and then sit back and watch them destroyed. It presents the disturbing possibility that all our fictions may be just the illusions of a child whistling in the dark: that the terror from which we hide, reading Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, may be, in fact, the only truth there is.

This, it strikes me, is a valid place to bring the reader—but not to leave him. I think (this may be my own faith or my own fear talking, I’ll admit it) that the horror-fantasy writer has a responsibility to offer a reassuring hand to the reader in the dark—even if it’s only the reassurance of a fellow prisoner, saying, “I’m in here, too.” I think the true meaning to be found in The King In Yellow, and the true genesis of the hidden “snozzberry” of faith Pizzolatto has concealed inside his gritty tale is that we come through the madness to the other side. By surviving the horror, we transcend it. If dark fantasy is the best vehicle for presenting a grown-up Devil, it has to at least leave the door open for the presence of a grown-up God. Today, as always, we get our best sermons from stories, and I hope Nick Pizzolatto keeps telling them.

I personally can’t wait for the next season of True Detective.And I hope the Yellow King will still be a spectral presence there, along with the equally elusive King of Kings.