Thursday, June 26, 2014

True Detective and Lovecraftian Horror

Note: This essay will contain spoilers for the TV show True Detective.

    I just finished a binge of HBO's True Detective, well after everyone else in America seems to have watched it. Still, one of the benefits of our modern society is everything is almost immediately available online (in my case, HBO GO) or soon out on DVD. I could review the individual episodes but I tend to believe some television series are best analyzed when taken as a whole.

    While True Detective is one of those series, it also occurs to me everyone in the world has written reviews of that as well. So, instead, I'm going to talk about how True Detective manages to capture the spirit of Lovecraftian horror without ever having a (tentacled) monster in it.

    The premise of the show appears to be a police procedural about two flawed detectives investigating an occult-themed murder (and is), it's also a series about a great deal more. I'd say the best way to think of True Detective is it's more or less three shows: the first show is about the occult murder investigation, the second show is about masculinity in modern America, and the third is about the lies we tell ourselves to get through the day. All of which have different things to say about the Cthulhu Mythos and its themes.

    The first of these three is the most interesting to me, being the diehard fan of supernatural horror that I am. Interestingly, True Detective goes with the trappings of the universe without actually confirming whether or not anything mystical is happening or not. It uses references to Robert Chambers, Thomas Liggotti, and the general cosmic nihilism of H.P. Lovecraft's writings to establish a theme of universe meaninglessness which humans instinctively recoil from.

    One of the elements played up by the original Call of Cthulhu novella by H.P. Lovecraft which has been lost in many other adaptations is the central role of the cult. H.P. Lovecraft spoke of how human beings, when they encountered the Mythos, were warped in a way which rendered them perverse as well as deranged. The "truth" of the cosmos was too much for them to bear and they became unnatural fiends in behavior. Robert Chambers' The King in Yellow is a novel about despair and insanity which follow along similar lines.

Altar to the Yellow King.
    In True Detective, the occult element is explored less as a question of whether or not the cult's beliefs are valid--they're not. Even if the universe is a dreadful, meaningless, and horrific place the individuals suspected to be involved in the murders are repulsive beyond belief. Their crimes are unspeakable and their victims are society's most vulnerable. Instead, it is a journey of the protagonists down the proverbial rabbit hole to figure out who was involved, why, and how to put a stop to it.

    Our guides on this journey are the aforementioned flawed detectives: Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. Their names give cursory insight into their worldviews. Rust is ostensibly a nihilist and cosmicist who believes humankind and its pretensions of importance are a joke. Marty Hart is a theoretical family man who believes in religion, home, and tradition.

    The show subverts Lovecraftian expectations by making Rust's worldview a shallow facade which hides his regret while Hart is an enormous hypocrite. Both individuals struggle to ascribe meaning to the universe they don't believe in, the former by claiming it has no meaning so nothing he does matters while the latter struggles to live up to an ideal he can't follow.

    Over in my review of the 2007 Cthulhu movie, I said that Lovecraftian horror was used as a metaphor for alienation due to a man's homosexuality. Here, True Detective does something similar with gender roles. Again, this is something that H.P. Lovecraft (as well as Chambers) never touched upon but fits perfectly in their universe.

Carcosa--real or imaginary? Is there a difference?
     The women of the show live under deep oppression of a male patriarchy and are almost invisible to the men around them. An invisible system of abuse, rape, and murder is alluded to across the state of Louisiana which can't be talked about because the primary victims have no one who will listen to them.

    The "invisible evil" is something which H.P. Lovecraft used frequently in his writings. The character of Wilbur Whateley is an abomination against reality and a monster but he is a person born under extremely humble beginnings in a town of no particular importance. The cult of Cthulhu is everywhere in H.P. Lovecraft's world but effectively opaque to the character of Inspector Legrasse.

    The cult of the Yellow King in True Detective systematically abuses and rapes hundreds of children in parochial schools spread across Louisiana. One of them is possibly Marty Hart's own daughter. This massive crime spree barely registers as a blip on the radar of the police because the victims, children, are intimidated into silence. Even if they spoke up, they would probably not be believed because the perpetrators are authority figures their parents respect. They'd prefer to blind themselves to the unpleasant truths of the cosmos.

    It's enough to cause damage to one's insanity in real-life that this sort of thing has happened in real-life.

    Happens in real life.

    All the time.


    The embodiment of the cult and "villain" of True Detective, Errol Childress is almost an embodiment of the deranged deviants envisioned by Lovecraft. Unlike so many other fantasy and science-fiction authors, Lovecraft did not envision possessors of supernatural knowledge to be  successful. Indeed, his cosmic knowledge (if he has any) has rendered him unable to relate to other human beings save on the most superficial level. Yet, despite this, he dwells amongst us as an invisible threat.
You wouldn't think this guy would be a wizard of vast supernatural power. Maybe he's not. Does it matter if he believes he is?
     Errol Childress lives in filth, has an incestuous relationship with his mentally handicapped sister, and is warped in every possible way. Whether he actually possesses occult knowledge that connects him to the Yellow King is unimportant. Errol believes he does and is willing to act upon this information.

    Which is, perhaps the scariest possible result.

    Folks who desire to see something specific from the Cthulhu Mythos will be disappointed. Carcosa, depicted as a alien world in The King in Yellow, is treated as much as a state of mind as anything else in True Detective. The Yellow King is never referred to as Hastur or any of his other names. The closest we see to him is an altar dedicated to his evil.

    We have a scene of what is possibly a gateway to Carcosa but it's just as likely to be in Rust Cohle's head. This is the way it should be, in my humble opinion, because the greatest horrors are only alluded to. Great Cthulhu, himself, is more effective as the "horror in clay" versus his skyscraper-tall self at the Call of Cthulhu's climax.

    Perhaps the most Lovecraftian element of all is also where True Detective subverts itself. A great deal of the horror to the Cthulhu Mythos is the revelation of the universe's meaninglessness. One of the main characters has this philosophy from the beginning and it's actually an attempt to comfort himself. Because if nothing has meaning, nothing is of importance.

    Whereas Hart's "meaning" to reality is something he doesn't take any comfort in because he can't commit to it. The show also makes allusions to religion as stories told to children and lies we tell ourselves. The ending of the show where Rust Cohle finds "meaning" to his life may speak of him adopting a (possibly) false worldview or embracing the true meaninglessness he'd only been fooling himself into believing.

    I'm rather fond of the show's ending for this as well. While Errol Childress is defeated and his "ascension" plan foiled, whether it was real or not, the cult itself remains undefeated. It may only be a five-man-band of which only a single survivor remains but the true scope of its activities remains concealed from the public. Like even "successful" Lovecraftian heroes, the 'True Detectives' strike only a symbolic blow against the evil around them.

    Perhaps that is enough.

    In conclusion, True Detective is an extremely Lovecraftian show and one I'd recommend to any fans of the genre.

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