There’s been quite a debate about the HBO series, True Detective, and how much it relates to the Lovecraftian genre. The ending was ambiguous enough that fans have been divided on whether or not showrunner Nic Pizzolatto included any supernatural elements at all. The DVD release is an opportunity to explore the weird fiction genre surrounding the King in Yellow, Hastur, and Carcosa. This five-part analysis argues that despite Pizzolatto’s protests to the contrary, True Detective contains supernatural elements.
To understand just how the supernatural elements suffuse True Detective requires some background about the genre is in order. True Detective is nominally about two detectives investigating an unusual murder. When a woman’s body is found in a position of supplication facing a tree with a crown of antlers on her head, it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary case. Their investigation expands to include a cult of at least five men invoking the King in Yellow and Carcosa. But what are these phrases and where do they come from?
It all begins with the victim, Dora Lange, and her notebook. Her notebook quotes Cassilda’s Song from The King in Yellow and mentions Carcosa. This Imgur does an excellent job of demonstrating how Pizzolatto visualized phrases from the play on screen.
Author Robert W. Chambers’ collection of short stories about the play is also titled The King in Yellow. The King in Yellow is metafiction, a short story about a play that drives the reader mad. To read beyond the first act is to go mad, which is why the reader never gets more than snippets. Lange’s notebook quotes Cassilda’s Song in Act I, Scene 2 of The King in Yellow:
Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa. (“The King in Yellow”)
Carcosa is coming to the world. Of the two detectives, Rust Cohle is the most sensitive to the supernatural — he describes his synesthesia as being able to “taste” changes in the psychosphere:
It’s a misalignment of synaptic receptors and triggers…alcolyzed colors and certain metallics…It’s a type of hypersensitivity. One sense triggers another sense. Sometimes I’ll see a color and it will put a taste in my mouth. A touch, a texture, a scent can put a note in my head.
Creator Nic Pizzolatto, who had a form of synesthesia himself, heightens the effect for viewers by expansive use of color and sound, particularly the color yellow. Within the context of the King in Yellow, this color has special meaning:
The color yellow signifies the decadent and aesthetic attitudes that were fashionable at the turn of the 19th century, typified by such publications as The Yellow Book,a literary journal associated with Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. It has also been suggested that the color yellow represents quarantine — an allusion to decay, disease, and specifically mental illness. For instance, the famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, involving a bedridden woman’s descent into madness, was published shortly before Chambers’ book.
Look for it everywhere in True Detective — in the sky (yellow skies), in the characters’ attire (yellow ties), and even in the Big Hug Mug. And oh yeah, the detective’s name, “Rust,” is another shade of yellow. Conversely, blue seems to be the opposite color, representing wholeness — Mrs. Hart’s underwear in the very first episode and the gift box given to Cohle in the very last episode.
Stars have meaning as well, from tattoos in the shape of black stars to the little characters Cohle creates from Lone Star beer. Note that the star at the head of each little man is yellow. They are two-dimensional, flimsy beings (living in the “time is flat” parallel) given three-dimensional form, created from the castoffs of debris. In another interview, Pizzolatto expands on how Cohle’s synesthesia interacted with the stars:
There was a part in the show that wound up getting cut, in which Cohle detailed his childhood in Alaska, and he described having no entertainment, now way to pass the time than to walk around in the night, with his synesthesia, it would seem like he could hear the stars ringing.
Pizzolatto points out in the DVD commentary that awareness of the psychosphere is a curse. If time is a flat circle and we are doomed to repeat it, Cohle is aware of his existence as a character that is endlessly replayed for our amusement. Carcosa, then, is the True Detective television show itself!
And yet, despite Cohle’s synesthesia and his comment about the psychosphere, Pizzolatto has said that there are no supernatural elements. Definitively so. Almost too definitively:
I don’t read internet chatter, but all I can offer is that to date there hasn’t been a single thing in our show that’s supernatural, so why would that suddenly manifest in the last episode? The show has a quality of mysticism, for sure, but nothing supernatural so far. I think there’s a lot of self-projection going on in certain cases; like the show has become a Rorschach test for a specific contingent of the audience in which they read their own obsessions into it. This is what it means to resonate with people, so I don’t mind it. The danger is that it’s myopic and unfairly reductive, like a literary theorist who only sees Marxism or Freudianism rather the totality of a work.
Pizzolatto’s argument amounts to “my work is much more complex than supernatural, so please don’t dismiss it at such.” And yet invoking the King in Yellow and Carcosa is a dog whistle to fans of Lovecraftian horror. Renowned horror author Stephen King and Robert Bloch, the author of “Psycho,” both used H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology in their fiction.
Given the long history of Lovecraftian allusions in weird fiction, it’s entirely reasonable for fans to assume there are connections to the supernatural in Pizzolatto’s work. It’s also par for the course that every writer who invoked Lovecraft early in his literary career disavowed it once he has become successful. Ramsey Campbell as a perfect example (he has since come full circle and embraced Lovecraft once more). In Pizzolatto’s case, the entire transition took place in one season:
Once it really got out there, and people were buying The King In Yellow, I wanted to tell them, “Don’t buy that! Go buy Galveston!”
The Lovecraftian elements in True Detective are never addressed in the special features of the DVD. The use of the Lovecraftian elements are overt enough that it would warrant some sort of mention at least once — but Pizzolatto never brings it up. In another interview Pizzolatto expands on this point:
If your character conveys a vision of cosmic horror, it felt appropriate for me to dramatize the Lovecraftian sense of madness, of a carnivorous universe in which you’re food. And Cohle’s attitude is similar to things Lovecraft said (and Cioran, and Schopenhauer), though we can see Cohle would have a substantial confirmation-bias based on his life story.
Pizzolatto is playing a metafictional game with his viewers. He has set up an unreliable narrative and refuses to fit neatly into anyone’s preconceived notion of what the “right” story is — supernatural, noir, crime drama. The Lovecraftian perspective fits Cohle’s world view, but not necessarily the author’s. That doesn’t make the supernatural any more or less relevant to the overall series. But it also doesn’t exclude it as a possibility. Here’s how Pizzolatto characterizes supernatural in the series:
The show was never concerned with the supernatural, but it was concerned with supernatural thought, and it was concerned with supernatural thinking to the degree that it was concerned with storytelling. So if there was one overarching theme to “True Detective,” I would say it was that as human beings, we are nothing but the stories we live and die by — so you’d better be careful what stories you tell yourself.
True Detective may not have a supernatural rationale for its events but they cannot be ruled out either. True Detective works on so many levels precisely because in a psychophere defined by the collective id of the masses, whatever we believe to be true is correct.
You can purchase True Detective at Amazon. Want more? Subscribe to this column; follow me on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, and the web; buy my books: The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, The Well of Stars, and Awfully Familiar. Become an Examiner and get paid to write today! See below for the rest of the five-part analysis of supernatural elements in True Detective.