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.
Carcosa shows up first in a story by the American writer Ambrose Bierce, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” The main character is a nameless resident of the city who wakes up in a place he doesn’t recognize, and desperately tries to find his way home. The landscape he finds himself in is one we might recognize as post-apocalyptic. “Over all the dismal landscape a canopy of low, lead-colored clouds hung like a visible curse,” Bierce’s narrator tells us. “In all this there were a menace and a portent — a hint of evil, an intimation of doom. Bird, beast, or insect there was none. The wind sighed in the bare branches of the dead trees and the gray grass bent to whisper its dread secret to the earth; but no other sound nor motion broke the awful repose of that dismal place.” And in an echo of the tree where Cohle and Hart found Dora Lange, and where Cohle finds the wreath, looking like a portal to another world, “A few blasted trees here and there appeared as leaders in this malevolent conspiracy of silent expectation.”
He encounters a man dressed in skins, and asks him for directions back to Carcosa, but doesn’t get an answer in any language that he recognizes. Ultimately, he comes across what appears to be a grave and discovers that it’s his own. “And then,” he tells us, “I knew that these were ruins of the ancient and famous city of Carcosa.”
In other words, he’s trapped out of time, the memories of his last life lost to him just in the same way that Cohle describes to the detectives in the contemporary section of the story. Whether that means that True Detective is going to end with some sort of tear in the fabric of our reality, or whether the Carcosa story is simply a way of describing what it means to be trapped in the same stories that you’ve told yourself over and over again, as Rust and Marty are doing now with the investigating detectives, we’ll have to wait and see. But the repeated references to the city, and the fact that Reggie Ledoux and his victims were both obsessed with the story suggests that at least some of the characters are trapped in a terrible desolation.
And Reggie Ledoux’s name may have some tie to the references to the “King In Yellow.” That’s a phrase that shows up in Dora’s notebook and in Rust’s interrogation. And it’s also the title of a collection of short stories by Robert Chambers, a play described within those stories, and a man himself, an exiled king for whom Carcosa is meant to be a refuge. The play itself is supposed to be so powerful that it drives the reader insane, and Chambers includes only fragments of it in his collection. Those fragments include something called “Cassilda’s Song,” from which Ledoux’s ramblings appear to be drawn:
Along the shore the cloud waves break,The twin suns sink behind the lake,The shadows lengthenIn Carcosa.
Strange is the night where black stars rise,And strange moons circle through the skies,But stranger still isLost Carcosa.
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,Where flap the tatters of the King,Must die unheard inDim Carcosa.
Song of my soul, my voice is dead,Die thou, unsung, as tears unshedShall dry and die inLost Carcosa.
In a sense, Carcosa itself is a disguise — the King is sentenced to “die unheard in / Dim Carcosa.” But what if that’s the point, that by hiding himself, he can avoid whatever forces exiled him. It’s possible that the Carcosa mythos that’s circulating among both suspects and victims in the Dora Lange case functions like “The King In Yellow” is supposed to: entranced the people it’s told to, building up the legend of the King himself, whether he’s Cohle or not, and providing a disguise for him by distorting his image. Reginald Ledoux’s name could be construed to mean the Second King. Whether that means he’s an inheritor of the real King’s practices, or that the contemporary detectives’ theory that he was a decoy is correct, is for the show to reveal in subsequent episodes.
A third potential link to the Carcosa mythology is the Yellow Sign that Chambers describes in The King In Yellow. It’s never fully described, though artists have invented versions of it for other Carcosa stories and works of art. But it’s supposed to perform the same entrancing function as the fictional play. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the tattoos described on Reggie Ledoux and found on the women who are supposed to be his victims are supposed to be the Yellow Sign, a spiral pulling those who knows its meaning deeper into complicity, and those who don’t into the mystery that will eventually consume them, too.
And then, there’s a short story by James Blish called “More Light,” in which a character much like Blish himself visits a critic named Bill Atheling, who’s been seemingly transformed. Much like Rust, Atheling has a beard that’s sitting poorly on him, and “He had lost some twenty or thirty pounds, which he could ill afford…His skin was grey, his neck crepy, his hands trembling, his eyes bleached, his cough tubercular…If he was not seriously ill, then he had taken even more seriously to the bottle.” But the cause of his troubles seems to have been how deeply he’s read into the actual manuscript of “The King In Yellow,” given to him by H.P. Lovecraft (whose real-life writings referenced Carcosa, too) — though he’s been unable to finish it.
Blish takes a crack at the play, and gets deeper into the text. A strange figure comes to Cassilda, a queen embroiled in a succession struggle, and confronts her with the Yellow Sign, but promises her that “The Pallid Mask / protects me — as it will protect you.” “How?” she wants to know before agreeing to don the concealment. “It deceives. That is the function of a mask.” But having put it on, Cassilda is condemned to wear the mask forever, and is stripped of her humanity. There’s an interesting detail in the stage directions, which Blish notes, given both Lovecraft and Chambers’ negative opinions of Jews and black people: “N.B. Except for the Stranger and the King, everyone who appears in the play is black.”
So what does it all mean? The parallels between the characters of Blish and Atherling, and between Hart and Cohle, both sets of men reunited by interests in a common mystery, are clear. And while Hart and Cohle aren’t the only white characters in a cast that’s otherwise majority-black, they are juxtaposed with the two black detectives who are interrogating their motives. Does that make them the Stranger and the King, at perpetual war with each other? And if so, which one is proffering the mask? Which one will fix it forever on an innocent woman’s face?
The answer may be that there’s no answer. Blish and Atherling each read deep into the play, but neither one of them can reach the end: something stops them reading along the way. Maybe True Detective will never tell us the truth after all.
But there’s a joke in Blish’s short story, too, a moment when Blish and Atherling talk about why Atherling didn’t show the story to his wife. “Female common sense would blow the whole thing sky-high in a minute,” Blish admits of their obsession. Maybe that’s true of Maggie, too, and she’ll get out of this all right. And maybe it’s true of Hart and Cohle, that they’re caught in an obsession with no answers, at the expense of themselves and everyone else, but that female common sense, so lacking in so much of True Detective, could have cut through with the kind of clarity Hart frequently laments that he lacks. The story of True Detective is structured like the spiral on Dora Lange’s back, both in relation to itself and the larger Carcosa mythology: it goes round and round, but the city itself can never quite be seen clearly, or its power would vanish. Or maybe, like the inhabitant of Carcosa, Hart and Cohle are going to end up staring at their own graves, and taking their secrets with them.