“Welcome to Carcosa:” Awesome literary references in True Detective

true detective poster artI finished Season 1 of HBO’s True Detective this past weekend. Let me say first of all that this show is worth watching for Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey’s performances alone. The basic gist of the story is it follows the men over a 17-year period as they investigate a spate of disappearances with occult overtones. Their efforts are complicated by the fact that the perpetrators may be influential figures in Louisiana’s political and religious landscape.

This probably makes True Detective sound like a plot-driven cop story in the vein of The Killing. It is partly that, to be sure. But what sets it apart is the literary quality of the overall atmosphere.

The show heavily references the King in Yellow and Carcosa — both from Robert W. Chambers’ fiction (which in turn influenced some of H.P. Lovecraft‘s most famous stories, notably “The Whisperer in the Darkness”).

True Detective is unusually literate television.

As far as I can see the whole point of drawing on Chambers’ is to introduce cosmic horror to the proceedings. Some off-the-cuff observations:

  • McConaughey’s drug-induced visions seem to reference the otherworldly landscape of Carcosa.
  • True Detective often plays with the concept of text or imagery that can drive the viewer insane, as is the case with the fictional play, the King in Yellow. The two examples that spring readily to mind are a video tape of a murder that seems to cause the viewer physical pain (it is never shown in its entirety). The face of the “man with the scarred face” seems to have a similar effect on his victims.
  • McConaughey’s character is obsessed with the insignificance of humanity’s place in the universe. He sees no solace in religion. In fact the show as a whole adopts his viewpoint at times. One character appears as a fire-breathing tent revival preacher in the early episodes and a broken alcoholic later on. He’s clearly lost his own faith. If that’s not Lovecraftian I don’t know what is.

These literary references are what I like best about True Detective. Personally I am a huge fan of Lovecraft. While I don’t particularly care for Chambers’ writing style I did enjoy the substance of the few of his stories I read for this post. Hopefully the show will help spark more mainstream interest in these authors. I also have a recurring fantasy of the Cthulhu Cult appearing in Season 2. Does that seem too heavy-handed?