True Detective, S1E1, "The Long Bright Dark"

INTRODUCTION

It has been several years for me since first watching season one of HBO’s True Detective, and it's time to revisit the series with an eye toward bringing out some of the themes and issues prevalent in much of the weird fiction considered here on Weird Murmur. I’ll take each of the episodes in turn, drawing out ties to the series’ inspirational roots found in Thomas Ligotti, Karl Edward Wagner, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert W. Chambers, and others. These murmurs will assume familiarity with the episode under discussion and so I won’t provide much in the way of summary.

Diving right in, the name of the series, “True Detective,” sounds like a title fit for a newsstand pulp sitting alongside magazines like Amazing Stories, Dime Detective, Doc Savage, and Weird Tales. As it turns out, there was just such a true crime pulp using that title, and it had quite a long run. It will be interesting to see whether the story shares much in common with the style popular in the heyday of the pulps. But for now, the meaning of the show’s title remains elusive. It could be taken to mean that the stories told here are true, or maybe that the detectives featured in these stories are the genuine article, or alternatively, that the investigation is focused on discovering the True. And that is just to name a few possibilities! Already we are faced with a mystery, and we haven’t gotten past the title screen.

Speaking of titles, episode one has a great one: “The Long Bright Dark.” The opening shot of the line of fire on the dark horizon offers visual reinforcement, but here too the significance of the episode title is difficult to discern. With that said, the paradoxical nature of “bright darkness” brings our attention to the fact that paradox plays an important role in the show and the pessimism to which Detective Rustin Cole subscribes. As we’ve had several occasions to remark on in earlier posts, paradox is central to much of Thomas Ligotti’s approach to horror, and his influence on Nic Pizzolatto (the creator/writer of the series) is evident. We’ll return to the role of paradox below, but first, I must remark on the incredible opening credits sequence that introduces the show.

        The intro is packed full of references to Carcosa—that mysterious city from which the King in Yellow hails. From the smoky cloud waves rolling, to the towers on the horizon, and is that the lake of Hali? But I get most excited when I see the two silos rising behind the trailer house—the twin suns! The pallid mask imagery chroma-keyed over Marty's face may prove significant. With the Louisiana smokestacks, towers, transmission masts, silos, and cloud waves rolling as the looming shadows lengthen, it feels like we are entering Carcosa. As the series develops, we’ll have a lot more to say about that.


THE LONG BRIGHT DARK

If we have entered Carcosa, it is a place of decay and neglect. The imagery in this episode with its abandoned buildings, weed lots, houses in disrepair, graffiti covered concrete ruins all work well to reenforce Cohle’s claim that “the planet is just a giant gutter in outer space.” He describes the place as “somebody’s memory of a town and the memory is fading.”

 

       The episode begins in 2012 with a pair of investigators, Thomas Papania and Maynard Gilbough, separately interviewing Rustin "Rust" Cohle and Martin “Marty” Hart about the Dora Lange murder investigation that occurred in 1995. With that said, their questions to Marty seem more focused on the behavior of Cohle rather than the details of the Lange case. Lange’s tortured naked body, posed in prayer and adorned with a crown of thorns and deer antlers is discovered staged in a sugarcane field outside of Erath, Louisiana. Particularly given a later scene in which Cohle explains the presence of a crucifix in his apartment, the image of Lange posed in this manner and bowed in prayer shares similarities with the biblical scene of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. We should keep an eye peeled for the significance of that. Around Lange’s body, the scene is scattered with small lattice structures made of twigs. More of these “bird traps” or “devil nets” eerily hang from the large, gnarled tree under which Lange’s bound corpse kneels. These weaved bits of wood won’t be lost on any reader of Karl Edward Wagner’s short horror story “Sticks.” Hopefully we’ll get more nods to Wagner as the series progresses. 

        The murder looks ritualistic, and, as the investigation continues in the first episode, the evidence of occult connections begins to materialize. A particular revelation in this episode proves tantalizing to any Robert W. Chambers fan. In an interview with her imprisoned ex-husband, Charlie Lange reveals that Dora, in a phone conversation when she was high, claimed to have met a king and that she was going to become a nun. Already the seeds are being planted for a King in Yellow connection!


CONTRADICTION AS HORROR

Above I noted that paradox plays a central role in the philosophy of pessimism that Cohle claims to endorse. This worldview is very similar to the position presented in Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race but this philosophy also cleverly filters into his fiction. But the notion that the contradictory is horrifying goes back much further than Ligotti. Lovecraft talks of the fear and madness created by things that we, in principle, cannot bring together or collate, and Arthur Machen makes much of the notion that the truly abominable is that which contradicts its own nature. The conscious puppet or the living dead constitute examples of such abominations. For a puppet acting on its own motives has a contradictory nature. A puppet, in virtue of the very thing that makes it a puppet, doesn’t have its own motives but instead is controlled by the puppet master. Likewise, the zombie or the vampire are both living contradictions—simultaneously dead and alive! Like an Escher drawing, we cannot make sense of these things, but there they are right in front of us, and perhaps that is where the locus of horror is located.

        In this first episode, Detective Rustin Cohle makes remarks in a similar vein. In a conversation while in the car with his partner, Detective Martin Hart, Cohle summarizes the philosophical pessimism that he embraces. The comments that he makes here certainly sound like material from Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. For Cohle (and Ligotti), it is us, human beings, that are the contradictory abominations. He doesn’t spell out all the details here, but Cohle seems to locate the seed of our abominable natures in our self-awareness. He claims that evolution (nature) has taken a misstep in creating something that has a point-of-view—something that can look at itself. To look at nature, we must stand independent of nature, but we are just natural objects subject to natural law and therein lies the contradiction at our core that makes us horrifying.

        Throughout the series, we’ll have many more opportunities to explore other aspects of Cohle’s worldview. We’ll particularly want to pick back up on Cohle’s argument that we ought to stop reproducing and, in fact, we should commit suicide. We’ll put that to the side for now but should flag the crucifix scene in Cohle’s apartment as relevant. As Cohle points out in response to Marty, he is not a Christian; however, he does have a crucifix on the wall above his mattress. He says that he uses it for a form of meditation in which he contemplates Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and the idea of allowing your own crucifixion. Aside from the issue of Christ committing suicide by allowing his own crucifixion, there is a deep tension or paradox in the notion of Christ simultaneously praying for reprieve from the impending anguish and simultaneously willing it to happen. How fitting that God in the form of Man has this self-defeating paradox at his core.


Up next, episode 2: “Seeing Things.”   


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