Open Thread: NerdAlert, True Detective Division

I haven’t watched the show yet (no cable), but it’s been a topic of conversation here. Alyssa Rosenberg, at ThinkProgress, has a theory:

The first five episodes of True Detective have mostly been concerned with the contrasting styles of masculinity that meat-and-potatoes Marty Hart and cracked philosopher king Rust Cohle represent. But lurking around in the background is something stranger than even Rust Cohle’s meditations on the state of the universe: references to Carcosa, and a King in Yellow, and in Sunday’s episode, a meth cook babbling about “black stars” and “twin suns.” These details might seem in keeping with True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto’s literary dialogue. But they actually come from someplace else. And that someplace else suggests something interesting about where True Detective could be going.

True Detective, on the surface, seems to be a noir story. But a deeper dive into the references that keep popping up in the show suggest it’s from another place entirely: it’s a horror story dressed up in noir clothing. All these details come from a mythology that writers have been contributing to for more than 120 years: an interlocking set of stories, poems, and even a play about a fictional city called Carcosa, that can never quite be seen directly…

I did read a certain amount of the King-in-Yellow lit back when I was a teenager. My opinion at the time was that Bierce (who I greatly admire, as a philosopher) was punking the more suggestible of his literary fellows — deliberately baiting their imaginations to see how far up their own epistemiologies they could cram their heads. But I’ve always been a bit of a Sancho Panza, and how would our tribe entertain ourselves without Don Quixotes?

43 replies
  1. 1
    Hawes says:

    If your read of Bierce is right then that makes Cohle’s character finally make sense to me.

  2. 2
    Cervantes says:

    But I’ve always been a bit of a Sancho Panza, and how would our tribe entertain ourselves without Don Quixotes?

    I really wouldn’t know.

  3. 3
    ruemara says:

    As I found when I’d post art for critique, it’s fascinatin’ what other people think I think. Says more about them than they’d think. Also, too, please check your email. I sent you the LA BJer meetup synopsis and some pics.

  4. 4
    mclaren says:

    The King In Yellow from 1895 got penned by Robert W. Chambers. However, Chambers pilfered the names Carcosa, Hali, and Hastur from Ambrose Bierce: specifically, his short stories “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” and “Haïta the Shepherd.”

    So we’re talking about two different things here. Much of the True Detective background references seem to come from the 1895 The King In Yellow but that’s Robert W. Chambers. Don’t see a lot of Ambrose Bierce influence in True Detective. On the other hand, macabre short stories like “The Repairer of Reputations” certainly seems to qualify as source material for at least some of the True Detective series so far.

    To make matters even more convoluted, H. P. Lovecraft read The King in Yellow early on, and he pilfered some references too — the Lake of Hali and The Yellow Sign, which appear in Lovecraft’s short story “The Whisperer In Darkness” (1931).

    However you slice it or dice it, there definitely seems to be a Lovecraftian tone to a lot of the True Detective episodes so far.

  5. 5
    Joey Maloney says:

    Her French is wrong, though. Ledoux would mean “the soft” not “the second”. They don’t sound anything alike.

  6. 6
    mclaren says:


    As I found when I’d post art for critique, it’s fascinatin’ what other people think I think.

    On this forum, it’s even more fascinating what other people call “thinking.”

    Gems like “if the president does it, that means it’s legal” (Omnes Omnibus) and “a national ID card will solve our undocumented immigrant problem” (mnemosyne) and “a joint resolution of congress can override the constitution” (burnspbesq) come to mind.

  7. 7
    Scamp Dog says:

    Will Cthulhu be showing up at some point, I wonder? AND, if I recall correctly, Brad DeLong appointed our front pager, Tom Levenson, the Dread Cthulhu Professor of Health Policy

  8. 8
    Steeplejack says:

    I just got done binge-watching True Detective today, so I’m up to speed. But let me suggest that, going forward, posts note at the top whether the post is spoiler-free or not, and whether the comment thread is intended to be a spoiler-free zone or not. Less agita all around.

    Having said that—and no spoilers here!—I was skeptical, but the first five episodes do make True Detective must-see TV. I just hope it doesn’t go all to hell like Twin Peaks did. I am hoping the “one cast, one story, one season” thing will prevent that, but I’ve been hurt before. So many times. I was thinking of Twin Peaks because True Detective reminds me of it—mostly the strong locations and cinematography. And the awful, awful stuff bleeding into “normal” life.

  9. 9
    Cassidy says:

    @mclaren: You need to start smoking pot.

  10. 10
    some guy says:

    Along the shore the cloud waves break,
    The twin suns sink behind the lake,
    The shadows lengthen
    In Carcosa.

    Pizzolatto setting TD in a Bierce/Chambers/Lovecraft mashup Louisiana is just fucking brilliant. only on episode 3, so please no spoilers.

    PS: is Devils Dictionary your idea of Biercean philosophy, Anne Laurie???

  11. 11
    ruemara says:

    @Scamp Dog: Cthulu did show up in LA. He didn’t seem very inclined to destroy all. For a dead Elder God, he was very trim, neat and pleasant.

  12. 12
    Omnes Omnibus says:


    Gems like “if the president does it, that means it’s legal” (Omnes Omnibus)


  13. 13
    some guy says:


    Don’t see a lot of Ambrose Bierce

    listen to the dialogue more closely, especially when the 2 protagonists talk to perps in interview rooms.

  14. 14
    NotMax says:

    how would our tribe entertain ourselves without Don Quixotes?

    We’d have a lot more time to work on that, what with not having to rebuild all those windmills.

  15. 15
    Anne Laurie says:

    @NotMax: Replacing our aging infrastructure is very progressive!

  16. 16
    mclaren says:


    You need to start smoking pot.

    Not my cup ‘o tea, all puns intended. But if I want a genuinely mind-bending hallucinogenic experience, all I need do is read some of burnspbesq’s posts. More bizarre than the weirdest LSD trip…

  17. 17
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Anne Laurie: Are windmills really where we want to start? How about bridges? They would provide homes for the trolls.

  18. 18
    mclaren says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Your well-known defense of Obama’s order to assassinate U.S. citizens without charges or a trial. Try to deny you defended that unconstitutional and illegal atrocity.

    Just try.

  19. 19
    Cassidy says:

    @mclaren: You’re doing it wrong. Smoke a bowl, watch your favorite tv show, and relax a little. You’re wound to tight.

  20. 20
    some guy says:

    Omnes Omnibus, I think McLaren (emphasize THINK, as “he” can speak for himself) is referring to your October 29/30 comments,


    I think that people who had some idea of what the NSA does expected that it was scooping up the overseas phone calls. Merkel’s personal phone, I don’t know.

    On the broader surveillance and security issues, I tend to oppose anything within the US that is not specifically targeted. Basically, I think that if you want to wiretap someone, read someone’s email, etc., you should be able to explain why you need to do it in a way that satisfies a judge. Outside the US, I would have far looser criteria. I don’t see any reason that we should be trying to scoop up the communications of every Gunther and Pierre in Europe, but I think it benefits us as a country to know as much as possible about what is happening in the world.

    and re:

    The big hurdle is getting a political establishment that will talk to the American people like they are adults about security issues. We can’t be perfectly safe. We can just try not to miss the major shit. The vast majority of the political establishment will not say that. Some because they are too dumb to know it. Some because they benefit from infantilizing the population. Some because they are cowards. If you know that you can’t be perfectly safe no matter what, you can better determine whether you are willing to give up some more privacy for a marginal increase in safety.

    and finally, this gem:

    @Betty Cracker: I am looking forward to the post. I would suggest adding: “How much surveillance is acceptable?”, “What types? Metadata, e-mail content, phone locations, phone conversations, CCTV?”, and “What should be the standard for allowing the surveillance? Probable cause, reasonable suspicion, etc.?” Or something similar but better worded.

    Boot stomping on your face? The boot was sanitized for your convenience, so why all the gripes about dirt and filth?

  21. 21
    some guy says:


    nothing says SMOKE MORE POT than a Center-Right camp follower repeating his jibes.

    bugger off, or go find your fuck buddy Cacti to light one up with.

  22. 22
    James Gary says:

    Confidential to Anne Laurie (and Alyssa Rosenberg) re “True Detective”: so far it’s pretty much a boilerplate (though well-made) whodunit–with some name-dropped references to high-lit horror (as noted above) which seem to have the fanboys all aflutter.

    For the most part, It’s a watchable and fun show–but I gotta say I find the critical gushing a bit overblown.

    (Edit: A LOT of name-dropped references to high-lit horror. I’ve read Bierce too. So what?)

  23. 23
    ruemara says:

    @some guy: Yes. That’s advocating for a police state and boots stomping on your face. Yep, no hyperbole there.

  24. 24
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @some guy: You see those comments as somehow saying “if the president does it is legal?”

    Boot stomping on your face? The boot was sanitized for your convenience, so why all the gripes about dirt and filth?

    What the fuck are you talking about?

    @mclaren: No, I defended it as justifiable under the laws of war. I, however, never said anything approaching what you suggested.

  25. 25
    Helen says:

    @Cassidy: So. Last thread. Cole wanted to know why McLaren kept trolling him. Cuz trolls troll. And I said I LOVE trolls. McLaren and Fuckhead. Also Omnes. I wish I was as snarky as you peoples. I’m prolly more educated (TROLL BITCH’ prove it!!) but I am not nearly as quick and witty.

    Also POT is good. It is best. It is not bad. Wish I live where it is legal. But it will be legal everywhere. Hopefully before I am dead.

  26. 26
    goblue72 says:

    @Cassidy: I don’t believe O.G. Kush is a cure for being an a-hole.

  27. 27
    Cassidy says:

    @some guy: You are a sad, sad, pathetic little person. I’m gonna help you out though. McLaren is interesting. She’s a little nutty, but I like her. You are devoid of anything resembling a personality. The only thing you could do that is remotely beneficial to humanity would be to become some guy who put a plastic bag over his head and sealed it with some duct tape. Go ahead. We’ll wait.

  28. 28
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @ruemara: I was opposing domestic surveillance without a warrant in that comment cited by some guy. I just wasn’t screaming fro the rooftops.

  29. 29
    some guy says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    I think that people who had some idea of what the NSA does expected that it was scooping up the overseas phone calls.

  30. 30
    ruemara says:

    @Omnes Omnibus ever notice that insufficient fealty is an accusation preferred by those who bear the largest grudges for insufficient fealty?

  31. 31
    Cassidy says:

    @Helen: From my point of view McLaren was saying the same thing I’ve said in Cole’s Greenwald gushing, albeit in our own assholish ways: Cole has a lot of emotional energy invested in having people here be his cheerleader. I would not have chosen the weight loss thread as I’m a staunch advocate of exercise, healthy eating, and beating the smirk off the faces of people who make fun of the overweight, but I get the sentiment.

    @goblue72: I would test that theory, but these pesky public service jobs don’t like us to toke up.

  32. 32
    some guy says:

    That doesn’t remotely follow from BC’s comment. Obviously, if someone really wants to abuse their position or break a law, they are going to do it. But we can make it easier or more difficult to do. Right now, it appears that our intel folks could use some help. That Manning and Snowden were able to do what they did the way they did indicates one area of potential change. Talk of improper domestic surveillance indicates yet another; even if nothing improper actually happened, the fact that this has become a thing shows that roles and procedures, at least, to be clarified. Also, the rapid changes in technological capacity have not been matched by equivalent legislative changes. Finally, the Patriot Act simply sucks.

    that this has become a thing.

    mistakes were made.

  33. 33
    goblue72 says:

    @Cassidy: Sorry, I was referring to McLaren, in terms of pot doing little good for her a-holeish disposition. In my experience, most jackholes remain jackholes, even when stoned.

  34. 34
    Cassidy says:

    @goblue72: I know what you meant. It’s all good.

  35. 35
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @some guy: Not remotely what I said.

  36. 36
  37. 37
    RandomMonster says:

    @James Gary:

    references to high-lit horror (as noted above) which seem to have the fanboys all aflutter.

    Sorry James. I’ve read the previous posts from the other day, use of the term “fanboys” makes you homophobic. At least that was the argument made of anyone criticizing Greenwald’s reporting.

  38. 38
    Mnemosyne says:

    I’m about three-quarters of the way through the version of “The King in Yellow” that was available through Project Gutenberg and am currently knee-deep in the lives and loves of art students in Paris. I’m assuming one of them ends up writing the insanity-causing play, but I’m a little confused at the moment about where the story is going.

    (It starts off with a blockbuster creepy story with a very unreliable narrator, but now I have art students fishing in the Seine and pretending one’s girlfriend is not a whore. Not the kind of weirdness I was prepared for.)

  39. 39
    Bargal20 says:

    Alyssa Rosenberg’s retarded critique of the previous episode of “True Detective” ensured I’ll never read her stuff again.

  40. 40
    Cheryl from Maryland says:

    Spouse and I were putting this on the back burner due to other TV interests, but mention of the King in Yellow has pushed this to gotta see.

  41. 41
    jake the snake says:

    The first part is mostly tease. Chambers never got anywhere near the level of weirdness that he seemed to promise.

    Similar to the feeling when you realize that the theory of William Hope Hodgson’s books being published in reverse order is likely true. That “The Dark Land” was his first failed attempt rather than end of a journey toward strangeness.

  42. 42
    jake the snake says:

    Oops, The Night Land, dammit. Effin’ memory, how does it work.

  43. 43

    Hart’s ex-father-in-law. Just saying. Why do you think that the little girl was drawing those pictures in the first episode?

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