Mar 7 2014 10:00am

Has True Detective Seen the Yellow Sign?

True Detective The Yellow King The King in Yellow HBO TV Rust Cohle Hastur Cthulhu Mythos

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 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.

True Detective The Yellow King The King in Yellow HBO TV Rust Cohle Hastur Cthulhu Mythos

Along the shore the cloud waves break

The twin suns sink beneath the lake

The shadows lengthen

In Carcosa

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.”

True Detective The Yellow King The King in Yellow HBO TV Rust Cohle Hastur Cthulhu Mythos

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.

True Detective The Yellow King The King in Yellow HBO TV Rust Cohle Hastur Cthulhu Mythos

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.

True Detective The Yellow King The King in Yellow HBO TV Rust Cohle Hastur Cthulhu Mythos

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.

True Detective The Yellow King The King in Yellow HBO TV Rust Cohle Hastur Cthulhu Mythos

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.

Carl Engle-Laird has seen the Yellow Sign. He acquires and edits short fiction for, as well as rereading and commenting on the Stormlight Archive. You can follow him on Twitter here. Iä!

David G. Hartwell
2. David G. Hartwell
Pedantic note: Chambers borrowed a kernal and the name of the Carcosa matrix from Ambrose Bierce's "An inhabitant of Carcosa" and the philosophy is out of Thomas Ligotti, who is very nihilist indeed. Also a great writer.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
My prediction, however, is that we will get one supernatural moment on screen...then swiftly explained away by Rust's visual hallucinations.
David G. Hartwell
4. Margo Hurwicz
Rust's comment about linguistic anthropology and religion brought to mind the novel Snow Crash. Has any one written about this (possible) similarity?
Mouldy Squid
5. Mouldy_Squid
I am glad to see that the writers have been able to incorporate Mythos elements into the story without falling into the trap of pastiche or overt cthuluism. I look forward to main-lining the whole series once the last episode has shown.
Nathan Martin
6. lerris
My take on the Mythos elements is that they are used in place of the Christian Devil.

The result is that we have an otherwise identical story, but the audience reacts very differently. And that, to me, is a sign of good writing- the manipulation of the audience.

Rust is a very Lovecraftian protagonist, and as the article illustrates, is driven to madness by the things he witnesses. Horror tropes have migrated to a different genre.

On the shape of the Yellow Sign: it's not actually described in the literature. The one you present above is the version created by a game designer for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, and is part of the Call of Cthulhu game license carried on through boardgames such as Arkham Horror. So yes, copyright issues are in play here, and the spiral is an equally legitimate interpretation.

The best ending to the series, for me, will involve a roundup of the cult members, and an ambiguity regarding whether the yellow King is real ( much like the spinning top at the end of Inception)
Carl Engle-Laird
7. CarlEngle-Laird
@6 As a long-time veteran of Chaosium RPGs, that just happens to be my favorite Yellow Sign. (Even though they managed to print it both upside-down and backwards). I hope that at some point we see the spiral in yellow. If we do I'll accept it as a coequal representation of the Sign.
Sean Tabor
8. wingracer

I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere but I too caught the Snow Crash similarity.
David G. Hartwell
9. Kevogre
Thanks for this article. It really raised my already high regard for this terrific show. I am new to the world of Carcosa and my investigating brought me to you. I am glad it did. Remember the Owl in the church above Cohle in "Seeing Things" a few episodes back? The Owl was above Cohle's head. According to the Wikipedia entry for Ambrose Pierce's "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" The man in the story wakes up after a long fever in a strange land. He comes across a lynx, an owl, and a strange man dressed in skins and carrying a torch. In "After Your Gone" Cohle is sitting in the bar talking to Marty and over his shoulder is a stuffed Lynx. I will be looking a man in skins carrying a torch at some point next week. Unless it has already happened, will have to re-watch. Here's a like to the Wiki, Read more at
David G. Hartwell
10. c3
aren’t going to suddenly open a gate between worlds and have our anti-heroes step through into lost Carcosa.

nope. just a wormhole efx to cosmos over on fox.
David G. Hartwell
11. Lektu
Rather than a reference to Snow Crash, that would be a reference to The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, which partially inspired Snow Crash; likely, neither of these works directly influenced True Detective, but Jaynes' book is pretty well known. There's even a Julian Jaynes Society. Perhaps the influence goes from Jaynes to Ligotti to Pizzolatto.

Relatively recent SF novel Blindsight, by Peter Watts, also deals with the evolutive role of consciousness, BTW, and not in a positive way.
David G. Hartwell
12. pangolin
Pardon my cynicism, but I think Pizzolatto did a formulaic "create-a-buzz" writing job, choose one from columns A through E: unspeakable acts of sex and violence secretly performed (of course) on women and children; tantalizing hints of prominent figures in society, religion, & government being involved; cover-ups by law enforcement; vicious biker gangs; and the occult. For the latter he mined earlier works by others, secure that in our times enough people would follow up the references—using Google if necessary—to cause a stir online. It's like Dan Brown's use of art and architecture in his books, little details of a sculpture leading into theories about Jesus having a wife, or secret societies thousands of years old. We all love this shit, in some form; secret associations of the Masons and a system of Confederate spies, cryptozoology, UFOs, suppressed accounts of mind control by Scientology or Dick Cheney or a wiccan vampire goddess from Toledo or Mars. "It's all there if you search, but it's being suppressed!"

It's a treasure hunt that appeals to the intellectually curious. It's fun to play the game. But I wouldn’t give the writing any more significance than that deserved by a Dan Brown novel or a National Treasure movie. True Detective is better done than those (and longer, with better characterization), but basically still a calculated commercial production.

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