Wednesday, February 19, 2014

True Detective is Ruining My Life

On Friday in the United States, one of my favorite shows going right now ended up streaming on Netflix, House of Cards. I got through two episodes this weekend largely because I was pointed in the direction of True Detective, an HBO program that's currently at the midpoint of its first, self-contained season. I thought it was a police procedural, I knew it starred two actors that I'm not really a fan of, and, frankly, I watch enough television as is. I don't need another show.

Then things got Weird.

Okay, so first and foremost, the thing that roped me in was a post at io9 regarding the literary reference central to True Detective's plot. Without giving away much in the way of spoilers, the story of the show is a whodunit involving a brutal, cultish murder. In episode two, Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) finds the journal of our victim. The journal contains multiple references to "the Yellow King." I'll let the folks at io9 explain further:

The King in Yellow and [Robert W. Chalmers's] legendary city of Carcosa may be the most famous character and setting you've never heard of.


The King in Yellow is a fictional play within a collection of short stories—a metafictional dramatic work that brings despair, depravity, and insanity to anyone who reads it or sees it performed. Chambers inserts only a few selected scenes from the play into his story collection, and all of them are from the first act. This act, we are told, is a bit of a honeypot, luring readers into the cursed text. If they read even the first few words of Act II they are driven insane by the revelation of horrible, decadent, incomprehensible truths about the universe.

Anyone familiar with Lovecraft's "cosmic horrors" should see the thematic similarity. For his unfortunate protagonists, the ultimate truths of the universe are too much for their overloaded minds to handle. It should not be surprising that Lovecraft incorporated Chambers's The King in Yellow into his overarching Cthulhu mythos, embellishing the elements of the story and adding the fictitious play to his growing bookshelf of equally fictional mythos tomes.

The point of this? True Detective might not be a hard-boiled detective story anymore, but rather a significant, mainstream accounting of weird fiction in a medium we haven't seen it in for some time. If we can't get a Lovecraft movie, this might be a more than worthy substitute. io9 refers to it as an "Easter egg," but it's so, so much more than that. It's the cornerstone in a series of references to the Chalmers book as well as the root of other weird occultish references and offerings. I won't list off all the stuff that io9 found, but needless to say, this rabbit hole runs deep, and a lot of people are on board with this aspect of the show.

If you're down this hole with me, you can get a free, legal copy of The King in Yellow from Project Gutenberg. I am not to be held responsible for any insanity that this causes. It's already driving me nuts, and I haven't even opened the ebook yet.

But wait! There's more!

So, as I said, I mainlined all five episodes over two days this weekend. Couldn't help myself. I'm roped in by the mythology that's been created, I'm waiting somewhat impatiently to see how far the showrunners are willing to go in terms of cosmic horror, and, let's be honest, McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are both brilliant in these roles, and McConaughey really deserves an Emmy for his performance. Everything about this show is pitch-perfect so far, from the cinematography to the script to the mood. It's great.

Anyway, now that I'm caught up, I'm totally reading up on things. The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog has a short interview with Nic Pizzolatto, the writer responsible for all eight episodes of this season and all the weirdness that comes along with it. It turns out he's as much a nerd about this stuff as I am:

Speakeasy: If you could recommend any single work of weird fiction and/or horror to people, what would it be?

Pizzolatto: That’s tough — on the one hand I want to name one of the blue-chip classics, and on the other I’d like to give an endorsement to people who may not usually get enough attention. I mean, I’d suggest Lovecraft or Poe, but everybody knows them already. More recently, I’d point people in the direction of Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, John Langan, Simon Strantzas and others. For fans of the show who’d like to see what contemporary voices have done with Chambers’ “King in Yellow,” I’d point them toward Karl Edward Wagner’s short story “The River of Night’s Dreaming” or the recent anthology “A Season in Carcosa.”

Speakeasy: When did you first hear of and read Ligotti?

Pizzolatto: I first heard of Ligotti maybe six years ago, when Laird Barron’s first collection alerted me to this whole world of new weird fiction that I hadn’t known existed. I started looking around for the best contemporary stuff to read, and in any discussion of that kind, the name “Ligotti” comes up first.

(This show does feel like one long Laird Barron piece, now that he mentions it.)

Now I'm intrigued, of course, which means that, before I know it, I've dropped about $25 on Kindle editions of Ligotti's works, reserved a bunch of stuff from different authors (including Pizzolatto himself) at the library, and I feel like I'm slowly going mad with my brain constantly thinking about the show and the references. It's bad news, guys. Worse, I spent a good while texting a friend back and forth about the show, but it's not enough. The fifth episode in particular changes things drastically, and it just makes me want more. I don't even know what to make of it anymore. I'm constantly surfing the subreddit in my spare moments, I'm seeing what books I need to read next, I'm fully and completely invested in ways I haven't been with something like this in a long, long time. It's crazy/infuriating/frustrating. Maddening?

Don't be like me. Watch the show, enjoy the show. There's plenty to like here even if you don't want to dive headfirst into the mystery and mythology that bubbles underneath the main story. For someone like me, though, the fun is in the extras. The references might kill me, but hopefully they don't kill you first, right?

Right? Anyone?

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