'True Detective': Maybe Not the Show You Think It Is

HBO has a crime drama called “True Detective,” improbably starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, neither of whom seems like they would appear in a cable-TV crime drama.  That’s part of why it works.  It’s a densely-layered police procedural, largely told in flashback as the two starring detectives talk to other modern-day cops about a bizarre ritual murder case they worked in 1995.  It is deeply weird to hear 1995 spoken of as the distant past.

And that’s not all that’s deeply weird about this story, which just goes further off the rails as the show carries on.  I watched the existing episodes in a single Friday-night binge, and just about spat out my pizza when the characters started name-dropping cosmic horror figures from the fiction of Robert Chambers.  This thing might turn out to be a lot more than a police procedural by the time it’s done.

Chambers is the author of a book called “The King In Yellow,” which should be considered the direct precursor to much of modern horror fiction.  If H.P. Lovecraft is the grandfather of the modern horror story, Chambers is its great-grandpa, the author who got those cosmic-horror gears turning in Lovecraft’s head.

“The King In Yellow” pretty much introduced the concept of a book that can drive you insane just by reading it, which has become a durable staple of cosmic-horror fiction thanks to Lovecraft and those who followed him.  The book in question, which is itself titled The King In Yellow, is actually a play, set on a city called Carcosa on an alien planet.  (Among other distinguishing features, this planet has two suns and is surrounded by a number of “black stars,” which get verbally and visually referenced quite a bit in “True Detective.”)  The ruling family of this city throws a ball at which a mysterious stranger appears, speaking prophecies of doom.  When it’s time to unmask, the stranger reveals he isn’t wearing one – the pallid inhuman face they’ve been seeing is what he looks like, and he wasn’t kidding about those prophecies of doom.  At that point, madness and death rip through the city of Carcosa in the play, and if you’re either reading it or seeing it performed, you (and everyone performing it) go stark raving mad as well.  And heck, that’s only Act Two of the play.

The really unsettling thing about “True Detective’s” use of this mythology – which is laced through every episode, from verses of the play copied down word-for-word in the notebook of a murder victim, through all sorts of little background details – is that none of the characters on the show seems aware of Chambers’ work.  In other words, nobody has looked up the real-world version of “The King In Yellow” by Robert W. Chambers and said, “hey, this murder victim and the cult that killed her must be fans of this obscure but historically significant collection of horror stories!”  That’s something they could, and normally would, have done almost immediately; it would take only a bit longer to do in 1995 than it would in 2014.  The fact that no one has done so raises the disturbing possibility that there is no Chambers, no fictional horror novel, in the world of the TV series.  Which could mean these detectives are in way over their heads.  You do not want to meet The King In Yellow.

It would be a strange and jarring twist if the show veered into the full-blown supernatural, instead of perhaps using Chambers’ mythology as the basis for a crazy cult, just to make them a bit more offbeat than garden-variety Satanists.  I guess we’ll soon find out.  Based on what this excellent show has done thus far, I’d rather if they kept anything supernatural vague and ambiguous.  They’ve already punched their geek card, to the surprise of everyone who sat bolt upright when McConaughey started reading verses of “The King In Yellow” out of that notebook.

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