True Horror in True Detective

Everyone’s been talking about it: Mathew McConaughey. Woody Harrelson. The King in Yellow. Carcosa. And many have been asking, even since the finale, what does it all mean?

One of the reasons this show has people buzzing (and frantically flipping through old horror novels) is because it deftly crosses genres in its brief 8-episode run. What appears to be a noir / Southern Gothic detective mystery is overlaid by a larger story of horror and modern mythology.

Hey, I'm warning you! Stay the hell back if you haven't watched yet. This post is riddled with spoilers!

Hey, I’m warning you! Stay the hell back if you haven’t watched yet. This post is riddled with spoilers!

THE KING IN YELLOW

This show is all about storytelling. Through interviews with the detectives, we get the story of a gruesome murder case that Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart solved (or thought they solved) back in ’95. The case comes back to haunt them in the present, as it seems the mysterious figure behind it all—the King in Yellow—is still at large.

On the show, he is spoken of in awed whispers, along with the word Carcosa. Everyone watching quickly realized this was a reference to a book of short stories by Robert Chambers, published in 1895. Chambers, a forerunner to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, wrote about a play called The King in Yellow that drove people mad during the second act. He also wrote of a strange lost city called Carcosa, which he nabbed from an Ambrose Bierce short story called “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” Lovecraft (as well as many others) later used both of these motifs in his writing.

the king in yellow

The connections between The King in Yellow and True Detective run much deeper than mere name-dropping. For instance, Carcosa is inhabited by people wearing skins, and the cultists behind the killings of True Detective wear animal masks. In fact, masks play an important role in Chambers’ stories (there is even one called “The Mask”). And there’s that weird line in the finale of True Detective where Errol Childress, aka the King in Yellow, tells Rust to “take off your mask!” (before he stabs him).

True Detective’s vision of Carcosa is deliciously creepy as well. Carcosa is described as having “twin suns,” “black stars,” and “strange moons.” It is a cursed place filled with dead trees. On True Detective, some of these aspects are mentioned by people who claim to know of Carcosa. Psycho-killer Errol Childress’s lair of Carcosa, which we see in the finale, is a dark tunnel system filled with those strange stick-sculptures that appear throughout the season, mimicking dead trees.

I wouldn't go in there if I were you.

I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.

THE HORROR

If this show were your typical crime series, the ending would have given us some twist that explained everything: who was the killer, and why did he do it? We find out that scarred Errol Childress is the killer. We find out that he is truly evil and psychotic through his seedy house, the way he fluidly transitions from one accent to the next as if he doesn’t have one fixed identity, his narcissistic god-like mentality, and his eerie lair. But why would someone do these things? What is behind his cult?

Why does he love riding lawnmowers so much?

Why does he love riding lawnmowers so much?

That we are left to grapple with on our own, just like Rust and Marty. The ending of the season is reflective of the ending of classic horror tales: the broken characters, having come face-to-face with true horror, must reconcile their experiences with their lives. In many Lovecraft stories, these characters go insane or become suicidal.

The horror elements come out in more than just the ending, though. This thread of weird horror, best known in Lovecraft’s writing, explores the idea of peeling back reality and glimpsing the infinite and the incomprehensible beyond our world. Perhaps Rust’s drug-induced hallucinations are more than they seem. Perhaps he’s seeing into greater dimensions of reality, seeing the circle of time from the outside.  Carcosa, it is said, is a city outside of time. Part of the horror of Rust’s story, then, are these moments when he traverses into the infinite.

Oh god, Cthulhu is coming! Run for your life!

Oh god, Cthulhu is coming! Run for your life!

Most people who get these glimpses go insane. Rust’s character is appealing because he can have these experiences without going completely nutty.  For instance, other characters who have harrowing experiences related to the Yellow King or Carcosa start screaming or babbling manically when they speak of them. We understand their horror through their reactions to it.

This idea of seeing vs. not seeing the horror ourselves, as viewers, is an old trope used by the likes of Lovecraft. In the finale of True Detective, we are privy to a videotape of one of Childress’s crimes. We don’t see the full video, but those who watch it end up screaming in horror. This is even more disturbing than showing us what is on the tape because it is left to our imagination. It is unthinkably horrific, like many of the things Lovecraft wrote about.

CREATING MODERN MYTH

The way True Detective has tapped into this mythology of the Yellow King and Carcosa is not, perhaps, the way we would expect a modern TV show to use literary allusions. Viewers expected an explanation and resolution of the Yellow King and Carcosa, but we were left feeling that, though Errol Childress is dead, these ideas that fueled his killings are not. Characters on the show declare that the King in Yellow was before and is always—out of time, eternal. It doesn’t die with the death of one man.

Maybe because the King in Yellow is actually composed of dead people.

Maybe because the King in Yellow is actually composed of dead people.

The show is accomplishing the same thing as all of the literature that has used this mythology. Chambers, Bierce, and Lovecraft are not the only ones to write about the King in Yellow and Carcosa. What they’ve done, however, is to develop a new mythology. True Detective is only one more piece in the puzzle, building on this mythology in a literary way.

This show is all about storytelling. In the last scene, Rust talks about how, as a kid, he would look up at the stars and make up stories. This is exactly what our ancestors did thousands of years ago. They made up stories, which were passed around and built upon until they became mythologies. They created a shared literature, and True Detective revels in this idea.

I’ve always been interested in mythology. My first novel, Pandora, involves Greek mythology. My current novel includes Native American mythology. These are ancient mythologies. The King in Yellow is a new mythology. We can trace it back to its beginning. We are doing, now, exactly what our ancestors did. Time, as Rustin Cohle says, is a circle. We do the same things over and over again.

True Detective is a story as ancient as stories themselves. We seemed to have entered an age where television can accomplish the same things that literature has been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years. And that is pretty damn cool.

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6 thoughts on “True Horror in True Detective

  1. Well written and great job of putting together some history of the story. I am kicking myself for not getting the literature reference of Carcosa! But now I have some reading to do 🙂

  2. Great article 🙂 True Detective is surely a new dimension or a new age for television. Great show and thanks for writing on Carcosa and Yellow King.

  3. Pingback: True Detective jako kino drogi, czyli o gatunku ukrytym w dyskursie | thisishagada

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