True Detective: Pulp, Crime, and the Weird Tales of Nic Pizzolatto

Like Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, HBO’s True Detective adapts none of the stories inside the pages of the magazine from which it tears its name, but the unapologetic tone of the cop characters, their methods and their milieu are, despite the contemporary setting, certainly a refreshing throwback to an older form of crime writing. Interestingly, not only does creator Nic Pizzolatto’s cable drama carry the name of Macfadden Publications’ mystery monthly, it begins its flashback narrative in 1995, the same year that the police pulp folded shop (last season was split into three timelines). But Pizzolatto’s pulp influences come from more than just rough-paper periodicals like True Detective—they are shot through a “weird fiction” prism.

The series set about accomplishing this by inverting one of the standard tropes of the police drama, the “buddy movie” rapport, so that it played almost like an “anti-buddy movie.” The tense tête-à-têtes between the two main characters, Detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), were charged with religious, philosophical, and even political overtones as Cohle slung barbs against his Promise Keeper partner Hart and the Bible Belt Louisiana where the series was set.

These verbal jousts arose in the midst of a case that takes on metaphysically darker dimensions than any typical homicide—the killer crowned his victim with antler horns and hogtied her in a manner suggesting occult symbolism. With this crime scene flourish, ordinary murder veered closer towards weird menace and kept viewers off guard over the course of its eight episodes. (Pizzolatto has been adept at having us believe that his story could at any given moment take a supernatural turn, without ever giving in to that impulse.)

That is not to say that other authors have not successfully blended detective fiction with the eerie, but Pizzolatto proves himself expert about taking things just up to the line without crossing over into Angel Heart terrain, the “occult detective” genre wherein the existence of black magic in its fictional universe is a literal reality. Novelist William Peter Blatty merged police work with diabolism in his Exorcist sequel Legion, so this is almost a genre—or subgenre—separate from but related to what Pizzolatto was attempting. Pizzolatto’s effective handling of the material is best summed up in Den of Geek which trusts him not to “go in easy territory like the Illuminati when a local Rotary Club can house as much felonious finance as any Freemason lodge.”



The Light Begins to Fade

The first season had its share of conspiracies which Cohle spent his energies, on- and off-duty, fanatically trying to unravel for decades. By the end it seemed like it would drive him to madness, like the cop character in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge, or like anyone who has glimpsed the face of cosmic dread (in whatever form, be it the play The King in Yellow from Chambers’ story collection, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, or in this case something more earthly). Instead, something else happens.

In the season’s final act there came no supernatural twist, but there was a semi-mystical change of heart in Cohle that directly confronts the conundrum of good versus evil in the way Chris Carter’s Millennium saw the age-old struggle: “It really is an exploration of evil [and] I was interested in the unscientific approach. The Bible … gives [my] show a nice foundation, it attempts to explain things on various levels not just in the modern scientific ways.” In contrast to the transcendence True Detective’s killer hopes to achieve through sacrificial murder, Cohle arrives at his epiphany through a palpable encounter with a love from beyond the grave, a grace experienced within the confined world of natural phenomena. It happens inside the life of the mind and soul, not a magical world of ghosts or paranormal phenomena.

Though set in a very real here and now, True Detective’s oblique apocalyptic rumblings—swirling bird omens, a Hieronymus Bosch-inspired Waste Land terrain, a fictional medieval tome (not the Necronomicon)—inject unique flavor into familiar crime drama. Some of this might have to do with Pizzolatto, who is “not religious,” being raised by “parents [who] were really on this end of the world kick [and] believed the Apocalypse was going to happen before 1990, and … in visions of the Virgin Mary and Medjugorje…warning us of the secret end times.”

In many ways, this was the strategy of the first season of Millennium, a world of serial killer hunters whose sometimes occult-tinged murder cases served as symptomatic signs of the End of Days. (Millennium’s main protagonist, the profiler Frank Black, even says in one episode, “[W]e who hunt monsters, who touch evil, run the risk that evil will touch us,” and the promotional tagline for True Detective is “Touch darkness and darkness touches you back.”) Carter described his series’ objective as “a murder mystery with a millennial feel,” one that “capitalize[d on] a foreboding for the end of the millennium, that something was going to happen and everyone felt it.” True Detective is a close cousin to this first season (before Millennium’s suggestion of the supernatural became more overt). It is miraculous that Pizzolatto’s show ends on the note it does considering its spiritual ambivalence and its creator’s misgivings about his religious upbringing. (It moves farther from Richard Dawkins and anti-natalism and inches noticeably closer in outlook to someone like the Catholic author Blatty.)


HBO's "True Detective" Season 1 / Director: Cary Fukunaga

The Western Books of the Dead

As a former fiction and literature professor, Pizzolatto readily acknowledged True Detective’s weird inspirations, citing H. P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, and Karl Edward Wagner’s short story “The River of Night’s Dreaming” (and later “Sticks”). In that vein he also loves Laird Barron, John Langan, and Simon Strantzas, not to mention Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, and Peter Straub. And of course there are his classical and literary picks—Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Henry Miller, not to be upstaged by Robert Stone, Denis Johnson, and Jim Harrison, except in the case of the King James Old Testament “if someone needs a book to read along with season 1,” says Pizzolatto. He grew up reading the comic books of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison before moving on to Stephen King and Raymond Chandler and then William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy (among so many others), along with philosophers like Albert Camus and E. M. Cioran. Vanity Fair went so far as to describe True Detective’s inaugural season as “Andy and Barney patrolling Mayberry as reimagined by Lovecraft or Camus.” Talking to Entertainment Weekly, Pizzolatto connects the dots of his own disparate tastes when he states, “[I]n the very first draft of episode two, Dora, in her diary, actually talks about ‘The Cypress King and his Stone Court.’ In writing, I noticed that Southern Gothic took you smoothly into the ‘Weird Tale,’ whose visions of cosmic horror took you into noir and pulp.”

On that noir side of the equation Pizzolatto extolls George V. Higgins, Ross Macdonald, James Ellroy, and “a lot of pulp fiction,” singling out Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest for special praise. (Incidentally, Hammett’s “Who Killed Bob Teal?” appeared in the pages of the original True Detective magazine.) When Shutter Island author Dennis Lehane reviewed Pizzolatto’s first novel Galveston for The New York Times, he glowingly compared it to “Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past and David Goodis’s Down There, Carl Franklin’s One False Move and James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia.” No wonder True Detective began life as “a literary police novel.” Its second season’s premise of California crime and corruption involving politicians and real estate has earned it several Chinatown comparisons in advance, thus securing Pizzolatto’s pulp bona fides.



Form and Sensibility

Chandler, Hammett, Goodis… Even taking into account Pizzolatto’s literary sensibilities, it would be too much to hope for a season of True Detective actually set in the hardboiled era in which the magazine was hatched, but the anthology format—self-contained seasons, giving way to brand-new storylines—leaves that door open, or at least cracked. It also allows for an all-new cast, and it is worth mentioning for Edgar Rice Burroughs enthusiasts that this latest season features Taylor Kitsch of John Carter fame playing a California Highway Patrol officer.

The sundry literary references of True Detective have been discussed to death, but the single fact remains that although Pizzolatto cited Lovecraft as one of his influences, True Detective remained firmly rooted in reality. For instance, despite an evocative descriptive of “the spaghetti monster,” it does not materialize as a tentacled Cthulhu creature, but rather something all too unfortunately human. In fact, there was not even a detectable Lovecraft quote throughout the series, its Lovecraftian touches coming from other sources like paraphrased Ligotti as well as two American authors whose imprint on Lovecraft and the pulps is indelibly stamped—Chambers and Ambrose Bierce. From Chambers came the Yellow King and Carcosa, the latter derived from Chambers by way of Bierce. Lovecraft himself borrowed the King in Yellow (as did Chandler for the title of a Philip Marlowe-esque short story) and Carcosa from these two authors, along with Hastur.

While intertextuality was standard practice for the authors of the Golden Age of Pulp, Pizzolatto incurred so much heat for his literary allusions, including unreasonable accusations of plagiarism, that he has since stated that “[t]here are no references or homages at all in True Detective Season 2.” This is a shame since part of the fun was sussing them out and piecing them together, even if Pizzolatto was building a nest of misleading clues, though one nonetheless could appreciate the eldritch tone his allusions fed. (Pizzolatto states that it was “important to me that the mass audience doesn’t need to know or engage these associations in order to enjoy the show.”) The “black stars” are from Chambers’ “Cassilda’s Song” fragments in The King in Yellow, and it is not insignificant that Chambers, Bierce, and Lovecraft are as American as True Detective’s grotesque but paradoxically picturesque landscapes (symbolic of “psychosphere[s],” to use a Pizzolatto phrase). This upcoming season, unlike the last, seems to be distancing itself from its “weird fiction” roots, with Pizzolatto telling HitFix, “I’m interested in the atmosphere of cosmic horror, but that’s about all I have to say about weird fiction. I did feel the perception was tilted more towards weird fiction than perhaps it should have been.”

Despite Pizzolatto’s disavowal, one of his second season characters, Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), does share the same last name as crime writer A. I. Bezzerides (author of novels like They Drive By Night, adapted into the George Raft-Humphrey Bogart film, and screenplays such as Kiss Me Deadly), but Pizzolatto, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, is adamant that “[t]here is no A. I. Bezzerides influence or homage whatsoever. I have seen the Jules Dassin film Thieves’ Highway but that is my sole exposure to his work. I saw the name in a California directory and liked it. That’s it. This show is certainly not putting his work in the spotlight, as his work has nothing to do with mine.”

Elsewhere asked if “this season share[s] the gothic horror sensibilities of season one,” Pizzolatto answered his HBO interviewer that “[t]he gothic horror suggested by Louisiana’s coastal landscape didn’t feel appropriate in this place” (season two’s place, being described by Pizzolatto, as “some of the much lesser known venues of California”). Yet the title of two works by Pizzolatto “all-timer” Henry Miller, A Devil in Paradise and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (its third section titled “Paradise Lost”), suggest a California as sulfurous as it is sunny, in a literary metaphorical sense, as both works chronicle a west coast chapter of his strained friendship with astrologer Conrad Moricand. Meanwhile, Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur spiritually diagnoses the beat poet’s own nervous breakdown with sentences such as, “…I’ve seen the Cross again and again but there’s a battle somewhere and the devils keep coming back—.” California’s Big Sur, it should be noted, is the scene of the crime that kicks off this season.



Change Will Come to Those Who Have No Fear

That is not the only difference to expect this coming season. Recent word came down the pike from Pizzolatto that despite original statements, there will in fact be “no secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system,” which minus the “occult” part sounds like the type of dense crime conspiracy found in not only Chinatown, but also Ellroy’s L.A. novels, and just Looney Tunes enough to make you think of Christopher Lloyd’s trolley-busting freeway schemer Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. (The poster art for True Detective’s new season is even a cloverleaf highway layout.) Even when it comes to the world of conspiracy theory, Pizzolatto reins things in for believability.

This initial second season concept, per Jeff Sneider at TheWrap, was to “follow the death of Ben Caspar, the corrupt city manager of a fictional California city who’s found brutally murdered amid a potentially groundbreaking transportation deal that would forever change freeway gridlock in the state … Caspar’s 52-year-old corpse is found on a lonely stretch of Pacific Coast Highway near Big Sur—satanic symbols etched on his chest. It turns out he had a penchant for rough sex and may have been involved in the occult.” Pizzolatto explained “[t]hat was a comment from very early in the process, and something I ended up discarding in favor of closer character work and a more grounded crime story.”

Lambasting Pizzolatto in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Lili Loofbourow cites T. S. Eliot as decrying the “rel[iance] either upon occult phenomena or … mysterious and preposterous discoveries…” in mystery fiction. The article basically extoled the “‘feminized’ form of the detective story [that] the ‘hard-boiled thriller’” was a reaction to, exhorting Pizzolatto to go back in time to join the genteel Detection Club of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. But this is hardboiled America after all, not drawing room mystery Great Britain. Knowingly or not, Pizzolatto seems to have gotten the hint from Loofbourow to some small degree, taming his wilder imagination which made season one so memorable in exchange for something that, on the surface, sounds possibly more prosaic (or “more grounded,” as he calls it).

Beyond all this, Pizzolatto has apparently taken to heart criticism that he cannot write strong female characters, promising after the conclusion of season one that the new season would feature “hard women.” (McAdams as detective Bezzerides is presumably one of those “hard women,” and literature professor Pizzolatto’s choice of first name Ani, short for Antigone, should signal a peace offering to those parties who in the past accused him of misogyny.) Perhaps this is Pizzolatto’s reaction to the backlash, including the cold-shoulder at the Emmy Awards, that followed the flood of initial critical acclaim.

All these detours from the original season indicate that Pizzolatto is determined to make season two as unlike season one as he possibly can, most likely an effort to deflect comparisons and demonstrate range the way that versatile actors do. While there is certainly no reason that “hard women” cannot play a role in his distinctive blend of the hardboiled and horrific, making these other changes and concessions risks backfiring on Pizzolatto if loyal viewers—captivated by what they saw in Season One—feel shortchanged.

Besides losing so much of what made True Detective, in its first season, True Detective, it is a shame to abandon the occult angle if, as expected, Exorcist director William Friedkin has been signed on to direct one or more episodes—it could be an opportunity to have a French Connection–style cop thriller shaded with, at the very least, some of the atmospherics of his adaptation of Blatty’s bestseller. It would also serve to underscore the theme he and Blatty share with Pizzolatto: “It’s just one story: the oldest, light versus dark … If you ask me, the light’s winning.” At the same time, it is worth remembering that Ellroy has long been able to plumb the heart of darkness without taking a page from Strange Detective Stories.


HBO programming director Michael Lombardo was quoted by HuffPost UK as saying the new season is “still dark [but] not as dark” as the previous one. As consolation, however, Pizzolatto did promise that he would not “play the next one straight” and would “keep being strange,” though for good and for ill it seems unlikely it could be ever be as strange as a “secret occult history” transportation mystery, and not “weird” like Weird Tales. At least not this season.

Then again, subsequent reports closer to the airdate trickled in indicating that the initial ritual murder would indeed have occult overtones after all, so perhaps Pizzolatto is once again keeping us off guard. If so, expect more cops on, to lift a line from the new theme song, “a battlefield locked inside a holy war.”

Gilbert Colon has written for Filmfax, Cinema Retro, Crimespree, Crime Factory, New York Review of Science Fiction, and several other publications, and his interview with Body Snatchers director Abel Ferrara appeared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute (Stark House Press). Additionally, he interviewed Tor editor Greg Cox and contributor Matthew R. Bradley for SF Signals. At present he is a regular contributor to Marvel University and bare•bones e-zine. Read him at Gilbert Street and send comments to [email protected].


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