The meta-story of True Detective has been one of completely dodging viewer expectations. All of its initial advertising material perfectly expressed its first cover story: a gritty Southern Gothic take on classic HBO manpain. And, you know, it is that. But in the first episode it also revealed a penchant for the philosophical and a taste for the occultic grotesque that goes beyond its genre, and has persisted throughout the series. In the second episode, writer Nic Pizzolatto dropped another huge bomb on his unsuspecting fanbase, one that expanded it in a direction that no one could have anticipated from the greyscale, wind-blown grit of the poster. It said words that I thought I would never, ever hear on TV. It said “The King in Yellow,” and “Carcosa.”
This article will contain A) spoilers and B) the potential for the sight of the Yellow Sign to break your feeble mortal mind in twain.
Since those words appeared, the theories have abounded. People went and dusted off a minor 19th century writer named Robert Chambers. They looked for clues in Lovecraft. They speculated and fought over whether this show was teasing us, whether it was, truly, a Mythos work, or whether this show was using those images and sources as another kind of criminal insanity. Fellow Tor.com True Detective fan Leah Schnelbach concluded last week that, despite the many references, this show is using those dire, dismal works to put a face on the true underlying messages of nihilism. And no, I don’t really think that Hastur the Unnameable will show up in the final episode this Sunday to ravage souls. But I think that this world that Pizzolatto has overlaid on rural Louisiana is a Mythos world. And while that’s more titillating for me, it’s no more comfortable a world to occupy than the totally meaningless one Rustin Cohle imagines.
Along the shore the cloud waves break
The twin suns sink beneath the lake
The shadows lengthen
In episode two, Rust and Marty (mostly Rust, he’s a much truer detective) discover the notebook of a murdered woman. It contains a passage from a fictional play found in The King in Yellow, a short fiction collection by Robert Chambers. All from the first act, luckily for us, because if you read the second act you go toooootally crazyballs. (By the way, I absolutely guarantee that this body of fictional work doesn’t exist in the True Detective-verse. Otherwise Rust would’ve googled this shit a long time ago.) After that, the evidence piles up. Criminal after criminal rants about a sinister figure called the Yellow King. They even have a discount Yellow Sign, to herald a discount aspect of Hastur. (I’m really disappointed about the lack of a real Yellow Sign, pictured below, but there are probably copyright issues. Beware, it will definitely cause sanity loss.) Now, the final episode is coming, and the promo contains lines that will make a Hastur-nut like me go wild. “This is Carcosa.” “Take off that mask.”
There’s one thing I want to hear after that. I want the Stranger to turn to our detectives and tell them, “I wear no mask.” (No mask? No mask!) But True Detective isn’t using Chambers and Lovecraft to satisfy genre nuts like me. The writer and director aren’t going to suddenly open a gate between worlds and have our anti-heroes step through into lost Carcosa. They’ve accomplished something far more rewarding: They established a literary precedent to justify and punish Rustin Cohle.
People have a lot of different takes on Rust Cohle’s philosophy. He establishes himself as a philosophical pessimist, and he’s not kidding. He thinks the entire world’s a gutter in space. He thinks that human consciousness is a mistake, and that selfhood is a damaging program that tricks people into believing that they’re significant. He thinks that humans should just stop reproducing and commit evolutionary suicide. We get all of this from the first real onscreen conversation between him and his partner Marty. It’s real icebreaker stuff, and his proclamations only get weirder from there. These monologues have been lauded as going beyond normal TV discourse, and dismissed as freshman stoner philosophy.
Cohle’s philosophy, love it or hate it, is completely consistent with a Mythos universe. Chambers’ stories described a world which had learned truths that were destroying it, where suicide booths were being established in every city in America, and where a play existed so strange and revelatory that to read it was to break and be remade. Lovecraft picked up these themes to create a universe that wasn’t meaningless, but rather actively malignant. For Lovecraft, and the many many writers who took inspiration from him, humans existed in a terribly precarious position. They were intelligent enough to begin to parse out the deepest truths of the cosmos, but fragile enough that learning those facts would destroy them. He created gods, monsters, whom we could only pray would remain unaware of our existence, and vice versa. An order that was obscene and carnivorous. If we live in that universe, then Cohle is right, and human intelligence is a terrible mistake. The ability to comprehend information that will drive us to debilitating insanity is an evolutionary dead-end.
In fact, everything about Rust screams Lovecraftian hero-victim. He does not sleep, he dreams. When he wakes, he has visions, and is drawn to symbols. As a sneering, condescending, elitist asshole, he even fits the personality profile. He is wallowing in a terror of the other that has been distilled from Lovecraft’s hatred of other races and cultures into a pure disgust for the walls between self and other, a contempt for the concept of individuation.
Cohle’s sneering description of the tent-revival Christians he suspects to be pawns of the criminal conspiracy open this comparison wider. “Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain. Dulls critical thinking.” Welcome to Cthulhus 101. Investigative souls who read books on old religions are going to get reprogrammed. Linguistic comprehension is a key to doors that should stay locked. The people Rust and Marty turn up, the poor, broken people who have focused their trauma and desperation on the Yellow King, the black stars, and Carcosa, have encountered something humans shouldn’t have to comprehend.
Much of this terrible, unsafe knowledge is created by humans, through humans. Personal viciousness and depredation turns people into monsters, again and again. Rust and Marty turn over the stones and find these human grubs, locking perps up and shutting bad guys down. But they also let that evil in, where it twists around all the shitty things they already had inside them. So, soon Rust stops being a passive nihilist, and begins reprogramming people on his own. He convinces people to accept his darkness, to commit suicide if they get the chance. Because if he has to be part of a race with such a glaring weakness, he’s determined to at least take advantage of it. He’s justified in hating other humans, hating himself. Hastur is real, the world is both terrible and doomed, and he is righteous.
But, as I said before, existing in a Mythos work is also a punishment. As the show goes on, Rust spouts terrible, damaging worldviews. He believes in reincarnation into his own life. He thinks that “time is a flat circle,” and that he will have to relive his every experience forever. He will have to see again the terrible thing that he accepted into his mind, because the universe actively punishes human consciousness. But there’s one implication of the Mythos experience that he can’t accept.
In episode seven Rust and Marty tracked down an old woman who had worked with the family they’ve been investigating, and Rust pulls a trick straight out of the investigator’s playbook. He opens his ledger and shows her his drawings of the occult craftworks he’s been finding everywhere. The woman responds to her programming, and begins to rant about Carcosa. “Him who eats time. In robes. It’s a wind of invisible voices. Rejoice. Death is not the end. You know Carcosa? You rejoice. Carcosa.” That’s some good cultist raving! Rust understands all of this, and the part that most bothers him? The idea that death is not the end.
Rust once said that he lacked the constitution for suicide. He thinks suicide is an honorable thing, a good way out of the trap of the human condition. He thinks that inflicting it on others is a gift. But in Carcosa, Rust faces the possibility that death is not a release. The Yellow King, if it is a god, is satiated by human suffering. It brings out the darkness that humans already have within themselves, in such abundance. And it will not relent when faced with death. Rust is faced with an afterlife, and in a Mythos universe, that is the one thing that could really scare him; an enforced order more terrible than the repetitive, malignant purposelessness of the human condition.
Like I said, I don’t think the King in Yellow will turn out to be an alien god from beyond the stars, who hungers and can only be propitiated by the sacrifice of human innocence. I think the monster at the end of this dream is human nature. But I also think that the characters are in Carcosa. Carcosa is a poisoned city that thinks its order is sustainable. It’s a city that parties and laughs as the shadows fall across it, but knows it is living in a corpse. And in that city, I believe there is a Stranger, who seems to wear a mask, but in fact is only clad in the monstrosity that is its nature. Whether that Stranger is the scar-faced man, or Rust Cohle himself, he is a herald of the doom that we have brought upon ourselves.
In the end, these genre connections don’t make True Detective’s messages any more palatable or hopeful. They are satisfying for we geek detectives, yes. But the replacement of a meaningless and uncaring universe, inhabited by people who are cruel to each other for no reason than because they can be, with a universe governed by actively malignant and inhuman minds, who drive humans to their darkest extremities with any momentary contact, has become practically semantic.