“From the dusty mesa, her looming shadow grows.”
10 years ago, these ominous lyrics (courtesy of the alternative country duo The Handsome Family) introduced us to a horrific world of crime, conspiracy and multi-layered madness in the infamous intro to HBO’s hit show, True Detective. From that very first episode, we all knew this was going to be something special, with Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga teaming up for a cinematic fusion of different genres that would end up earning countless accolades.
And while this made it difficult for subsequent seasons to compete with that masterful debut (even if they were all entertaining in their own unique ways), Issa López’s ongoing True Detective: Night Country is finally harkening back to the quasi-supernatural terror that flavored Marty and Rust’s story, with the showrunner going so far as to describe her new tale as a dark mirror of the first season. With that in mind, I think this tenth anniversary is the perfect moment to look back on how Pizzolato and Fukanaga’s use of grounded cosmic horror made that first chapter of this anthology such a special experience.
The project that would eventually become True Detective began life as a crime novel that Pizzolato intended to write after his work on AMC’s The Killing. Realizing that the material was better suited for television, he soon adapted the idea into a 90-page pilot which was later sold to HBO. Forgoing a traditional writing team, Pizzolato worked on his own for three months in order to develop the complete story into a 500-page monster of a project script.
This unprecedented level of creative control – coupled with Fukanaga’s commitment to directing every episode – has made the show a rare example of auteur theory in television. However, it’s pretty clear that True Detective’s impressive narrative stands on the shoulders of giants, with Pizzolato incorporating frequent references and even blatant homages to everyone from horror maestro Thomas Ligotti to comic-book writer Alan Moore, something that has even resulted in the showrunner being accused of plagiarism.
Regardless, the finished show ended up being an eight-episode epic following troubled police detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) in both the past and present as they deal with the fallout of a ritual murder and a series of missing children in Louisiana. Along the way, the two discover an interconnected conspiracy involving religion, child predators and a certain Yellow King.
On paper, this already sounds like a thrilling premise, but it’s really the character work that elevates this story to premium television status. The excellent writing is boosted by career-best performances from both Harrelson and McConaughey, with their unique dynamic deconstructing buddy cop tropes as we embark on a near-metafictional commentary on detective fiction itself. That being said, the real secret to this story’s success is in its grounded take on cosmic horror.
While horror aficionados are likely already familiar with Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 book The King in Yellow, it’s worth revisiting this often-misunderstood piece of genre-bending fiction in order to properly grasp the fears behind Pizzolatto’s creation. The book’s title actually refers to the homonymous play that shows up several times in the anthology, with the play supposedly telling the story of visitors in the mysterious city of Carcosa meeting the titular inhuman king. Naturally, the horror of these stories comes from the fact that the cursed tome drives its readers to madness, even serving as the inspiration for horror tropes like H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.
Chambers may have kickstarted cosmic horror in weird fiction, with Lovecraft later going so far as to appropriate the King himself into his pantheon of eldritch gods as Hastur the Unspeakable, but The King in Yellow only really contains a handful of bona fide horror stories. In fact, most of the book is comprised of romantic tales about artists studying in France, with the only real throughline being how the art that we create and consume can have real world consequences.
True Detective may feature some obvious references to these stories (like in its depictions of Carcosa and even the Yellow Sign), but the show’s biggest connection to Chambers isn’t in its esoteric mythology at all – it’s in the subtext. Here, it isn’t art that carries evil but memory, with the horrors of both Rust and Marty’s past experiences in the police force coming back to haunt them like a supernatural curse. Instead of a play, it’s the cycle of suffering and violence that slowly scrapes away at their sanity in increasingly eerie ways.
From traumatizing videos of horrific crimes to stories about babies being burned alive in the microwave, the terror here is decidedly grounded and man-made. That’s not to say that there aren’t any weird occurrences (like the frequent unexplainable spirals and the murder mystery’s connections to Lost Carcosa), but these preternatural elements are mostly associated with Rust, a character we know is already suffering from mental issues when the story begins.
And though the ultimate conclusion of this dark narrative is much more optimistic and down-to-earth than one might initially expect (the final lines are also a touching comic-book reference), the reveal that Carcosa was simply the lair of a flesh-and-blood monster of the human variety and that we can in fact overcome the demons of our past does tie in with Chambers’ surprisingly romantic conclusion to his 1895 anthology. Stories may be able to “curse” the world with horrific ideas, but they can also inspire – and I too believe that the light is winning.
Much like the art that influenced it, the first season of True Detective remains a disturbing and fascinating combination of mystery and terror that will likely continue to inspire storytellers for decades to come. That’s why I can’t wait to see how Night Country’s arctic investigation ties into one of the best pieces of serialized weird fiction to ever grace television screens.