Late to the Party: True Detective as Weird Fiction (or not)

At first, I was disappointed.

Weird fiction/horror author Orrin Grey has described works that tease the supernatural but offer realistic explanations in their stead as “spookblocking,” a term that I intend to steal and use from now on. After watching the final episode of the critically-acclaimed True Detective, I thought the show had perhaps crossed into that territory.

Upon reflection, I’m not sure that’s the case.

True Detective is a show that garnered a lot of praise—and a lot of criticism—as it acted less as a generic police procedural, and more as a live-action vehicle for the philosophical ideas of Nietzsche, Thomas Ligotti, and even H.P. Lovecraft. What starts out as a high-quality murder mystery show quickly metastasizes into an exploration of the Weird Tale, more in line with Ambrose Bierce than Raymond Chandler; more Robert W. Chambers than David Simon.

Without getting too far into spoiler territory, the murder mystery begins with a single individual, but strands and threads are tugged and pulled to reveal a larger web of Southern-fried gothic conspiracy. Not only is there a killer on the loose, there is a whole network of influential people in very important positions in our society, all engaged in ritualistic “devil” worship.

Except, of course, that their particular devil isn’t the one of Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s of a much more alien variety. The object of their worship appears to be Chambers’ King in Yellow, an extradimensional figure that may or may not be a figment of everyone’s imagination.

Ah, that last line may have caught your attention. Grey’s analysis of his own frustration—resulting in the sexual innuendo-laden “spookblocking” term—may be begging your interpretation of this plotline. Matthew McConaughey plays Rustin “Rust” Cohle, one of the (if not the) titular detectives, slussing out this bizarre mystery, one lead at a time. Early on we learn that Rust is prone to hallucinations—damaged neurons resulting from his years of undercover work wherein he was forced to take drugs to avoid blowing his cover. It’s from his perspective that we witness several strange events—weird lights flashing by him as he drives; a flock of birds forming a spiral symbol; and the (pen[?])ultimate vision of a cosmic cloud moving to consume time and space amidst a serial killer’s dungeon altar.

Drug use; a damaged past. Can what we see through Rust’s perspective be trusted, or is this just HBO’s own version of spookblocking?

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Typically—and, admittedly, in the moments following my viewing of the last episode of True Detective’s first season—I thought the latter was the case. Here was another high-profile show, content to take two steps toward the Weird and the Unknown, only to take three steps back at the show’s conclusion. How frustrating to be treated to a grown-up’s version of Scooby-Doo. The monster is always just Old Man Jones, wearing a hokey monster mask and employing some lo-fi special effects to scare the kids.

But is that really the case? Does weird fiction—which most would agree this show falls into that category—have to be a binary, post-modern, either/or proposition? That is—would the writers that this show draws influence from have employed spookblocking, or is the idea of spookblocking perhaps not always applicable to a work that leans toward one explanation and form (realism/literary fiction) over another (supernaturalism)? Is spookblocking even applicable to weird fiction?

So, I thought about this show for a while. Season one was an immensely enjoyable ride, with twists and turns that never felt cheap or convenient. The detective work conducted by the two leads was always easy to follow and not at all overwrought, engendering a sense of participatory understanding in the audience; the cinematography was gorgeous and often intentionally understated; the dialogue was whip-smart with the exception of Rust’s ridiculous anti-religious, anti-rural folk screeds. While some reviewers have pointed out the problematic interpretation (or outright plagarization, depending on who you read) of the popular works of Ligotti, the true influence on this show is Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow.

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Understanding that the King is a character in this work, and that Chambers’ (and, to a lesser extent, Bierce’s) proto-weird fiction is a driving force, the idea of this show being an example of spookblocking becomes less relevant.

That is, in weird fiction—especially in the tradition of Chambers’ The King in Yellow—what the Truth is (capital “T”) is less important that what the characters’ experiences are. In real life—or in the cultural mythology that we build and call “real life”—strange things happen. Odd coincidences crop up, patterns emerge, or outright terrifying and unexplainable events (UFOs, poltergeists, cryptids, etc.) happen to seemingly stable, regular folk. It’s not just the backwoods, moonshine-drunk yokel who sees spacemen wearing silver suits and football helmets (full disclosure: there’s nothing wrong with backwoods, moonshine-drunk yokels… I happen to be a member of that particular population); it’s also the trained observer aircraft pilots, police officers and even several ex-presidents.

Although the horror-hound in me yearned for a more gee-whiz, flashbang supernatural ending, the subdued, almost reserved denouement made sense in light of what Chambers’ work with the King was. In his short story collection, there’s never a concrete explanation of who the King in Yellow really is, or what he wants, or what he’s doing. He does speak, in a fashion, and his influence is felt everywhere. But whether he was a demon, a hallucination, a government-created fabrication, or something else entirely is left up to speculation. The reader becomes an active participant in determining what the Truth behind his malevolent influence really is.

Even Lovecraft, in his vaguery and obtuse style, would often over-explain cosmic horror/weird concepts (in a relative sense, at least). Cthulhu was an organism, after a fashion. There was a hierarchy of Great Old Ones, forgotten gods, Crawling Chaoses, and so forth. That there exists a cosmology to his world, as bleak as it may be, makes it understandable, quantifiable. In Chambers’ treatment of the King in Yellow, no such stratification exists, and, therefore, our lack of understanding contributes to the terror and weirdness that he sows within our imagination. Each story could very well be a hallucination or the result of mental illness on the part of the various characters we meet. And yet—it is weird fiction. Solidly, inarguably.

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I’m not making a judgment call on whose style I prefer. I’ve read more of Lovecraft, but find Chambers’ work intriguing and beautiful. Lovecraft was inspired by Chambers, and took his ideas (and settings and characters) in new and interesting directions, just as Chambers was inspired by other proto-weird writers (such as my fellow Army-veteran-turned-writer, Ambrose Bierce).

Writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga have given us a work of weird fiction worthy of inclusion in such a pantheon. They’ve taken the ideas of literary weird fiction and converted them into a live action story about two men pushed to the brink: professionally, personally, and by their own misdeeds.

While I was tempted to consider this an example of spookblocking—to chalk up the supernatural elements as merely frosting on a cake built of convention and familiar tropes—it’s since become clear that Chambers’ work was often obtuse and strange, lacking definitive answers and explanations, even if we expected them to be pronouncedly supernatural.

My personal preferences tend toward the cosmic, the weird, the fictional, the supernatural—but true weird fiction doesn’t have to play by my rules. It doesn’t have to play by anyone’s rules—and that’s the point. Weird fiction, like its twin brothers horror and supernatural fiction—challenges conventions, ideas, and easy explanations. Grey’s posit that spookblocking is a tired, worn-out trope rings true. True Detective, when appraised from a historical, true weird fiction perspective—is anything but.

The King in Yellow is available for free from Project Gutenberg.
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