'True Detective' and the Primal Urge to Tell Stories by Starlight

Xander Bennett

The True Detectives are driven by the desire to create form from void, to seek meaning where none exists. They share the primal urge to daub on cave walls and tell stories about the shapes we see in the stars.

True Detective

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: HBO
Creator: Nic Pizzolatto
Air date: 2014-01-12

The True Detectives are driven by the desire to create form from void, to seek meaning where none exists. They share the primal urge to daub on cave walls and tell stories about the shapes we see in the stars.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

-- Genesis 1:2

Human beings are fictional animals. I mean that in the sense that each of us is a walking, talking bundle of narratives; a collection of stories that we internalize and tell about ourselves. Some of these stories are healthy and affirming, while others are so dangerous that they threaten to corrupt our entire lives.

HBO's True Detective, written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga, is a series about the dangers of narrative. It's a funny title, "True Detective". In Episode 7, when Marty explains to his former boss that he's writing a true crime book ("That's the genre, not the title.") he could just as well be talking about the show he's in. "True Detective". Truth seeker. Atomized down to its simplest form, this is what the show is about: two seekers after truth, hunting for the answer that lies at the center of the spiral but forever getting tangled up in their own toxic narratives.

The idea of a story that can kill you is a relatively recent addition to the cultural landscape. In 1895, American writer Robert W. Chambers published a book called The King in Yellow. A departure from his usual romantic work, it was comprised of ten short stories, the first four of which make passing mention to a deadly play known as "The King in Yellow"; deadly because it supposedly corrupts the mind of any person who reads past the first act, causing them to descend into irreversible madness. The first story, "The Repairer of Reputations", is by far the strongest: it features a subtly twisted American landscape, a conspiracy of powerful men, and a violent, nihilistic, unreliable narrator who experiences vivid hallucinations.

Chambers' book met with moderate success, but it probably would have disappeared from the canon if not for the attention of H. P. Lovecraft. Virtually unknown during his lifetime, Lovecraft's titanic legacy was destined to grow and spread, like a brilliant idea or a cursed book, far beyond the realm of short fiction, infecting new writers and new artforms that didn't even exist when he was alive. Lovecraft's favorite themes -- the limits of scientific knowledge, the dangers of revelation, and humankind's essential meaninglessness in the face of an infinite universe -- insinuated themselves into the zeitgeist of the 20th century. Lovecraft made the unreliable narrator into a stock character; his haunted academics and obsessed detectives usually ended up incarcerated, insane or both, while the monsters they had sought to defeat only grew more powerful. (There were notable exceptions, however, such as the successful raid by federal police during the climax of The Shadow Over Innsmouth.)

Lovecraft made passing mention to the Yellow King and Carcosa in his short stories, but it was up to other writers to combine Lovecraft's and Chambers' fictional universes. Special mention must be made of Sandy Petersen's ground-breaking role-playing game Call of Cthulhu (1981), which forever cemented the Yellow King's place in what August Derleth had termed the "Cthulhu Mythos".

"Call of Cthulhu" conveniently codified all the tropes and tricks of Mythos fiction, presenting them in prepackaged form for the entertainment of its players. Participants in role-playing games (Dungeons & Dragons is the first and most famous example of the medium) each take on the mantle of a fictional character, playing out that character's adventures over the course of several sessions. "Call of Cthulhu" was different in that it asked players to wear the masks of "investigators" -- people drawn to uncover the awful truth about their universe. Usually this involved serial murders, deranged cultists, unspeakable oaths, and ultimately tentacled horrors from beyond the stars. Unusually for a role-playing game, characters were not expected to survive with their life or sanity intact.

A game of "Call of Cthulhu" could be played in a single evening, ending with the characters either solving the case or being mentally and physically destroyed by it. Alternatively, the story might unspool over a short "campaign" of play sessions, sort of like a season of a television show. If your character solved a mystery and survived, you might receive a minor sanity points reward; not enough to make up for the horrors you'd seen, but enough to ensure you could fight on another day. The potential for catharsis in a game of "Call of Cthulhu" was exhilarating; like a horror film, only more immediate. By wearing the mask of a doomed character, players could experience their own personal brush with the cosmic void without fear of any lasting effects on their sanity.

Interestingly, there is a "Call of Cthulhu" scenario in the book The Great Old Ones (Chaosium, 1989) written by Kevin A. Ross entitled "Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?". Set in Louisiana, it involves police detectives, serial murders, voodoo, an occult conspiracy involving well-connected men, and an avatar of the Yellow King. One of the characters is a chain-smoking investigator who records everything in large notebooks; another is psychologically broken after the death of his daughter. The cultists disguise their activities by masquerading as a crew of decorators. I don't mean to suggest that Pizzolatto cribbed from this scenario; merely that time is a flat circle, that we have all been here before and will no doubt be here again.

Chambers gave us the story that drives you mad as you read it. Lovecraft gave us the puzzle that unravels your whole world as you solve it. True Detective picks up these themes and runs with them.

Enter Rust Cohle. A brilliant storyteller, he spends much of the show's first six episodes directly addressing the camera (both the camera operated by the two investigating detectives in 2012 and the camera through which we, the audience, watch the show). He has a gift for allowing criminal suspects just enough space in which to construct the narratives that will lead to their own arrests.

But Rust's masterpiece is the personal story which he has constructed for himself: a complex and elaborate suit of armor comprised of Zen, Nietzche, Ligotti, contempt for hypocrisy, and pure misanthropic nihilism, and all of it designed to protect the open wound in his soul left by the untimely death of his daughter. But Rust's armor isn't impenetrable. When his partner's wife calls him on his bullshit ("End of the day, you duck under rationalization, same as any of them.") he is left uncharacteristically speechless. Rust Cohle informs us that identity is just a story we tell ourselves, yet he lacks the self-awareness to realize that this statement also applies to him.

No wonder that Rust is seduced by the story of Carcosa and the Yellow King, by the idea of an invisible cult of hyper-competent, unspeakably evil, possibly even supernatural murderers. He starts to see things that aren't there, such as a flock of birds forming the Yellow Sign. In his obsession, Rust feeds the legend of the Yellow King, and in return the story of the Yellow King imbues him with power, pushing him to continue the search when otherwise he would simply give up and commit suicide ("tie it off", as he says of his own life).

Perhaps the only other man who can rival Rust in terms of poisonous self-narrative is his partner, Marty Hart. Marty desperately longs to be thought of as simple and uncomplicated ("Just a regular type dude with a big-ass dick."); to be a strong man and a good husband, but these desires are completely at odds with his own violent sexual urges and self-destructive instincts. He shoots a handcuffed man in the head, then half-convinces himself it was the right thing to do.

Marty tells himself he's a good man, not like his father-in-law; the kind of man who would try to protect an underaged girl who he perceives to be in danger. But Marty's not that man; instead, he's the man who sleeps with that girl and lies to his wife about it. He is the predator he was afraid of. No wonder Marty beats his daughter's sexual partners half to death; they remind him of him, and he disgusts himself.

It's not just the characters that are rotten on the inside. In the world of True Detective, the land itself is experiencing its own dramatic arc. The Louisiana countryside appears to be waging war against itself. Thin roads cut through miles of boundless swampland, buildings are buried under vines and overgrown grass, while across the water the cyclopean spires of factory buildings loom, a parallel Carcosa reflected in the waters of the Lake of Hali. The story of human civilization written across the earth, staining and corrupting it -- or is it the other way around; the land corrupting and destroying what humanity has built?

Even the villain of the final episode, the "monster at the end" of Rust and Marty's story, is a puzzle box of conflicting narratives. Pizzolatto has stated in interviews that he has "no interest in serial killers", which I take to mean that he had no interest in portraying an all-powerful, operatic, fiendishly intelligent villain in the vein of NBC's Hannibal. Instead the show presents Errol Childress as a patchwork man, a conglomeration of different voices and different accents. He's a product of his family history ("My family's been here a long time"), an almost chthonic entity, born from the decaying earth and stitched together like a devil's nest made of bones. He feels compelled to daub primitive art on the walls of his house, of the abandoned church, of Carcosa. His house is filled with piles of moldering books, as if to suggest that he was assembled from a thousand different stories of boogey men and human monsters. His fractured nature recalls another Lovecraft creation: Nyarlathotep, he of a thousand and one masks, the Messenger of the Outer Gods.

"Form and Void" is the title of the first season's final episode, and it neatly describes the thematic conflict at the heart of the finalé. Rust, Marty and Childress are all driven by one and the same thing: the desire to create form from void, to seek meaning where none exists; the primal urge to daub on cave walls and tell stories about the shapes we see in the stars. Staring up at the night sky, we draw invisible lines between the stars, connecting them into constellations -- a god, a stag, a hunter, his prey.

As the final act approaches, Marty and Rust desperately need to make a connection. Before they take up the case again in 2012, both are shattered remnants of their former selves; Rust drinking himself into a stupor in Alaska (perhaps searching for traces of the stories he told himself as a child while staring up at the night sky), Marty sitting alone in his house, re-watching old cowboy movies in search of his lost hero narrative. They both need this case because they have nothing else. They need the Yellow King to still be out there, they need Carcosa to really exist, and they need to become heroes again, pitting their light against the darkness. They know that this is a story that will kill them; Marty says goodbye to his ex-wife for the last time, and Rust has long since made his peace with death.

Lucky for them, Carcosa exists. Unlucky for them, they survive the encounter.

In the field outside Childress' house, Rust and Marty discover the entrance to Carcosa, a spiraling madhouse composed of symbols piled upon rotting symbols. Stag horns, skulls, rotting wood, children's dolls, devil's nests and Yellow Signs -- a cavalcade of narrative significance. Surely we have slipped into another dimension; surely this is a place beyond human comprehension. Then Rust reaches the center of Carcosa, a deep well with a hole in the roof resembling a massive eye looking down, and we see that Childress is, in fact, just the messenger. He is not the Yellow King, much as Marty and Rust might wish him to be. The Yellow King is nothing more than a scarecrow made of bone and tattered rags, with a sacrificial stone set before it. This is the crushing reality at the heart of the mystery; this is Act Two of The King in Yellow, Great Cthulhu rising from the Pacific Ocean, a failed sanity roll that pushes your character over the threshold of madness.

"Take off your mask" says Childress to Rust, and Rust does. His guiding narrative shattered, Rust's unconscious mind panics. In that moment, the center of Carcosa becomes a kind of ur-space where reason and narrative cease to exist; a black hole containing nothing but the here-and-now. There is only a dark void... until Rust's unconscious comes rushing back to fill the vacuum, bringing with it an explosion of stars, a nebula of narrative possibilities, endless constellations of realities, as if he were a child again back in Alaska, connecting constellations together and conjuring stories from the night sky.

In the end, Rust and Marty kill Childress, but only at the cost of massive physical and psychological harm. Lying in a hospital bed, Marty appears to us as a broken man. Not physically broken -- he will recover from his wounds -- but mentally destroyed. Defeating Childress has exorcised the ghost of Reggie LeDoux, the man he murdered 17 years ago. By surviving the trial of the Yellow King and passing through Carcosa, Marty can finally forgive himself. But without that self-hatred hanging over him, who is he? When Marty's family comes to visit him in the hospital, his daughter asks him how is. He whimpers "Good... Fine... I'll be fine... I mean, I am fine", as if desperately grasping at some kind of identity. Seeking a new framing narrative for his own life.

As for Rust, we learn that he has created an entirely new story for himself, one that may have been inspired by a police flare glimpsed through the eye of Carcosa before he slipped into unconsciousness. It would seem Rust latched onto the convenient symbol of the flare/falling star, infusing it with the significance of a new, redemptive narrative. He gave up, left everything behind, and felt his daughter waiting for him there in the afterlife.

Paradoxically, this has given him a new reason to live. Rust, ever the storyteller, has created a new story to live by, one that requires no connection with the past. As he tells Marty, "Anything I left back there, I don't need". He and Marty may be broken and alone, but in this moment, in the story Rust is telling about himself, they are heroes. For tonight at least, Rust Cohle will allow himself to believe that there is a cosmic battle between light and darkness, and the light is winning.

That's the thing about human beings. The night may be dark and endless, and when we slip into that black void there may be nothing waiting for us on the other side. But we can conjure gods and monsters out of nothing just by connecting a few points of light in the sky. We'll never know for sure whether the light is winning, but we can still tell stories about the stars.

Xander Bennett Xander Bennett is a screenwriter and author. He blogs at and procrastinates at

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