True Detective, an American anthology of self-contained stories created and written by Nic Pizzolato, exploded onto television screens in 2014. The first eight-part mini-series starred Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, as a pair as former homicide detectives in rural Louisiana embroiled in the hunt for a mysterious and murderous far-reaching Southern syndicate. Fans of straight police procedurals soon found themselves caught in a captivating Southern Gothic tale that spans several years and incorporates distinctly supernatural elements. In fact, with its direct references to the lost city of Carcosa from Robert Chambers’ seminal collection of short horror stories, The King in Yellow (1895), itself subsumed into H. P. Lovecraft’s literary canon of cosmic horror, one could argue that the series not only staked its place in mainstream popular culture despite its horror roots, but that it is a true example of Lovecraft’s philosophical and existentialist weird tale.
The series begins with the pair being questioned, individually, by the Louisiana State Police Department; Hurricane Katrina destroyed the majority of the evidence files relating to their investigation of the murder of a prostitute seventeen years previously. The interviews serve as a formal device for flashbacks, revealing key information about the men, the case and their relationship. McConaughey’s Rustin Cohle, a nihilistic alcoholic, is now a bartender. In his detecting days he was referred to as the Taxman by colleagues, due to the large black notebook he carried everywhere with him as he diligently and dispassionately worked his way through successful cases. Harrelson’s Marty Hart is a masochistic idealist, now a Private Investigator, who lives alone after neglecting his wife and daughters in favour of his workload and younger women.
In addition to this characterisation and exposition, the interview set-up also acts as a narrative device in that it allows the different timelines to merge. When it becomes apparent that the case may not be solved after all, and that further parties were involved, Marty and Cohle leave the interview room in the present day in order to put aside their differences and continue their investigation. Despite their flaws and opposing natures, at its heart, the series is about a trait shared by both men. Marty and Cohle are seekers of the truth, or the light in the darkness; they are true detectives in a truly weird tale of Southern Gothic horror.
The Southern Gothic literary sub-genre developed in America in the early 1900s, producing a new collection of novels, plays and short stories set exclusively in the American South. Southern Gothic writing is thus an extension of Gothic fiction, which originated in England in the 18th Century, with novels such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764); Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794); and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818). These novels all contained elements of horror, death and romance, often revolving around events that appear to be supernatural but which have a natural explanation.
The word ‘gothic’ can be taken as an historical reference to the Goths, the people responsible for the first known example of Germanic language during the 4th to the 6th centuries AD. It denotes the Dark Ages, and the brutality, horror and decadence associated with this period. It also refers to medieval architecture; location is very much a character in itself in these novels – which often take place in castles, manors and monasteries. When considering that the earliest English novels were released during the 18th Century – a puritanical age of austerity and sexual repression – Gothic fiction spoke to opulence, desire, erotica and excess.
It wasn’t long until Gothic fiction had spread into Europe; the genre was a notable influence upon the Schauerroman (shudder novels) in Germany, which were much darker than their English predecessors, with a greater focus on necromancy and secret societies. Gothic fiction was thus used by authors to delve deeply into the history of Europe, and later America and beyond, allowing its audience to experience the thrilling terrors of the dark past.
Themes explored within the Southern Gothic include grotesque, eccentric or delusional characters, madness, dilapidated locations, supernatural elements that often centre around hoodoo (traditional African American folk magic or folk spirituality that can be associated with black magic), and sinister storylines full of crime, violence, death and deceit. Many works from notable authors in this area were adapted for stage and screen, such as: William Faulkner’s As I lay Dying (1930); Erskine Cadwell’s Tobacco Road (1932); Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940); Davis Grubbs’ The Night of the Hunter (1953); and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).
The first series of True Detective, in addition to its Southern Gothic setting and characters, incorporates much of the core aspects of European Gothic fiction, as well as drawing on the work of specific American horror authors: H. P. Lovecraft, Robert W. Chambers and Ambrose Bierce. Countless reviews have noted the direct references to Chambers’ story in particular, The King in Yellow, within the first series of True Detective, via the inclusion of text, symbols and titular allusions to a figure known as The Yellow King.
Chambers’ The King in Yellow cites a meta-narrative, a play, throughout the collection of short stories; the play supposedly possesses secrets about the cosmos and thus induces madness in the reader. This mystery, or lack of definition, is what makes The King in Yellow a fascinating foundation upon which other writers can weave their own original material and mythology, with inexhaustible potential. This was the case with Lovecraft, who was inspired to incorporate Chambers’ text into his body of work. Like Chambers, Lovecraft also created a meta-text, the infamous fictional Necronomicon, a grimoire or textbook of magic, which appeared throughout his stories.
The beauty of these imaginary texts is that their mystery has the potential to make the reader question their veracity; in doing so, these texts are the perfect instruments to propel existentialist or cosmic horror within Lovecraft’s definition of the weird tale because they incite in the reader an emotional terror induced by a “certain atmosphere of breathless unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces”. Lovecraft, in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, goes on to state that the weird tale must therefore contain:
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 […] Therefore, we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point […] The one test of the really weird is simply this–whether of not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.
Lovecraft’s particular strand of philosophical horror, which generates the insidious atmosphere that permeates True Detective, thus lends itself perfectly to the mystery of Chambers’ included imaginary text, The King in Yellow. Many critics have analysed the specific references to Chambers’ play within the series in detail, conspiring to determine their individual meaning. The Yellow Sign is a glyph that appears throughout Chambers’ book and latterly is incorporated into several of Lovecraft’s stories. It is described by one of Chambers’ characters as “a curious symbol or letter in gold. It was neither Arabic nor Chinese, nor as I found afterwards did it belong to any human script’’. Another character alludes to the symbol’s power to render anyone who looks upon it under the possession of the King in Yellow or one of his heirs, which is very telling considering the familial connections within the sinister syndicate responsible for the murders within True Detective. A similar symbol appears throughout True Detective: it is painted on the murdered prostitute’s back; Cohle witnesses a flock of birds forming the shape of the symbol when he has an hallucination – an after-effect of considerable time spent undercover when he worked within the narcotics division; and the twig-lattice structures, known as bird traps or devil nets, that appear close to the victims of the syndicate have also been likened to the spiral shape of the sign.
Similarly, the series adopts specific lines of text from Chambers’ book and uses visual clues that point back to this material, reshaping it with a Southern Gothic slant. The following text appears in the notebook of the murdered prostitute:
Along the shore the cloud waves break
The twin suns sink behind the lake
The shadows lengthen
Strange is the night where the black stars rise
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
– The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene II
Throughout the episodes, symbols appear that refer back to this text: several characters have black stars tattooed on their bodies; Carcosa is referenced as an actual place by several characters; and the phrase ‘time is a flat circle’ indicates the cyclical orbits of celestial bodies in the above text – the moon and stars, including twin suns. This cosmic reference equates to existentialist horror via the philosophical concept of eternal return; all energy and existence is recurring and infinite and outside of the fixed law of Nature, or meaning. Without meaning – societal and moral law – we are adrift in the abyss of “unknown spheres and powers”. The murderous syndicate within True Detective operates outside of these laws and force Cohle, Marty and the audience to confront this notion of cosmic horror.
It can thus be argued that is in fact a culmination of these references that elevates True Detective to the position of the ultimate weird tale. Each singular element associated with Chambers’ fictional work, The King in Yellow, correlates to the mystery of the play itself. The insidious nature of this imaginary narrative – just as the Necronomicon works to the same effect in Lovecraft’s literature – acts as a formal device that imbues the series with a cosmic fear of the unknown. Chambers’ work thus perfectly complements Lovecraft’s idea of cosmic horror within the series, in the battle between light and darkness. This can be further explored with the use of the word ‘Carcosa’.
The word ‘Carcosa’ first appeared in the short story, An Inhabitant of Carcosa, by Ambrose Bierce in 1886. Though Bierce is often overshadowed by Chambers and Lovecraft, his influence on American horror literature can be measured by the effect his original tale had upon their work. In Bierce’s story, a man from the city of Carcosa awakens from a severe illness to find he is in an unknown land. Though he can clearly see, he is aware that it is night and wanders, stumbling across several animals and a man wearing an animal skin. He eventually comes across a corpse in a dilapidated graveyard, untouched in centuries. Among the graves he discovers a marker etched with his name. He realises that he is dead and that he is in the ancient ruins of the city of Carcosa.
Cohle and Marty can be read as inhabitants of Carcosa; both men have lost something and, to an extent, themselves. Cohle’s marriage and life unravelled after the untimely death of his child, leaving him depressed and nihilistic. Marty’s egotistical idealism cost him his family, leaving him emasculated and alone. The notion of cosmic horror, the instinctual fear of the unknown, of the abysmal darkness, can be existential, philosophical or psychological; like Bierce’s inhabitant of Carcosa, the series presents our protagonists as wandering the wilderness in perpetual night. In the battle between the darkness and the light, the lost city of Carcosa simultaneously haunts and is forbidden to our protagonists.
Thus, the series strips away the fixed laws of Nature in order to make the mystery the centre of its mythology and, as a result, forces the viewer to question the veracity of the fictional work it references. The allusions to madness, existentialism and the very human fear of the unknown all work together to unsettle the viewer. The series is a thus a true incarnation of the weird tale, that “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”. Cohle seeks death at the end of the series – he is despondent that the pair couldn’t uncover the mystery of The Yellow King and has no desire to continue living without his daughter. This is the true message of True Detective, and one that the audience can take comfort in; as Marty tells him, despite looking into the abyss, they made a difference. Cohle and Marty are the embodiment of the light, of meaning, in the perpetual darkness. They seek the truth, as the title suggests and, in doing so, confront the true cosmic horror of existence: the unknown darkness of the universe and within themselves. Despite the omnipresent black stars as we all search for the lost ancient city of Carcosa, True Detective reminds us that the light is winning.