Unless you’ve been watching TV under a rock, you probably know that HBO’s dark and gritty True Detective is the best show airing. The series, which may be the most gorgeously shot TV show of all time, follows detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they try to solve a case of brutal murders with occult overtones in Louisiana. The show is fairly unique in having only one director (Cary Joji Fukunaga) and one writer (Nic Pizzolatto). This has allowed the show to be more stylistically daring than even other great HBO shows, and has allowed Pizzolatto to infuse his Southern gothic noir narrative with two literary traditions that rarely make it to the mainstream: weird fiction and pessimistic existentialist philosophy.
Viewers and critics have been puzzling about the strange references to “Carcosa,” “the yellow king,” and “black stars,” as well as Cohle’s rambling depressing comments about the horror of existence and the aberration that is humanity. The former are direct references to a book called The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers that was a huge influence on writers like H. P. Lovecraft. The latter are not, as some critics have said, incoherent freshman dorm-room nonsense. Instead, Cohle’s comments are infused with a strain of existentialist philosophy that runs from Friedrich Nietzsche to E.M. Cioran to Thomas Ligotti.
Below, I recommend readings to understand the mythology and philosophy of True Detective, as well as some other works in the Southern gothic, noir, and/or weird fiction vein that fans might enjoy.
4. The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers
This cult classic of supernatural horror is the source of the cult references on the show. The interlinked stories circle around a fictional play, titled The King in Yellow, which drives its readers insane. There is also a creepy supernatural entity referred to as the King in Yellow and references to the mysterious city of Carcosa. Attentive True Detective fans will recognize those names from the show. Ledoux’s rambling comments about “black stars” and “twin suns” are also taken from the fictional play. The crooked spiral tattooed on the back of the murdered Dora Lange is likely an interpretation of the “yellow sign” of the King in Yellow. This is the center of the weird fiction mythos that haunts the edges of True Detective. (For longer literary analysis of how The King in Yellow relates to True Detective, check out these essays on io9 and ThinkProgress.)
5. The Complete Short Stories by Ambrose Bierce
Chambers himself borrowed elements from the great American satirist (The Devil’s Dictionary) and story writer (“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”) Ambrose Bierce. Specifically, he borrowed the names Carcosa and Hastur from his haunting “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” which you can read online. It is really only that one story that ties into Chambers’ mythology, but Bierce’s fiction is well worth your time.
6. H. P. Lovecraft: Tales by H. P. Lovecraft
As Chambers borrowed from Bierce, Lovecraft borrowed from both. Lovecraft’s famous Cthulhu mythos was heavily influenced by Chambers. If you are unfamiliar with Lovecraft, he is the central figure in the genres of cosmic horror and weird fiction. He wrote tales of horrific alien gods, demented cults, insanity, and the horror of the cosmos. (BuzzFeed published an essay on his influence, and his troubling racism, recently.) Although not terribly famous in his life, his influence has grown to cosmic proportions in the greater genre of horror fiction. Everyone from Neil Gaiman to Stephen King counts him as a major influence. King called him “the 20th century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” If you have any interest in the genre, Lovecraft is a must.
7. The Imago Sequence & Other Stories by Laird Barron
Lovecraft’s cosmic horror has been kept alive by a whole school of writers. One of the best, whom Nic Pizzolatto frequently cites in interviews, is Laird Barron. Barron’s dark and haunting fiction also frequently draws on the tradition of hard-boiled detectives and noir that are clear influences on True Detective. The Imago Sequence, his first collection, is a great place to start.
9. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti
Thomas Ligotti is the bridge between weird fiction and Rust Cohle’s existential philosophy. Ligotti writes both Lovecraftian horror and existential pessimistic philosophy. As I said above, Cohle’s aphorisms are not random ramblings but references to actual philosophers and thinkers, especially Ligotti. At one point, Cohl says, “We became too self-aware; nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.” Compare that to Ligotti in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: “We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does.” Pizzolatto has talked openly about the influence of Ligotti on Cohle, and noted that, “Next to The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Mickey Spillane seems about as hard-boiled as bubble gum.”
10. The Temptation to Exist by E. M. Cioran
For my tastes, the finest writer of pessimistic philosophy is the great Romanian thinker E. M. Cioran. His aphorisms could easily come out of the mouth of Cohle, such as his famous question “Is it possible that existence is our exile and nothingness our home?” Cioran viewed existence as fundamentally pointless and urged us to resist the “temptation to exist.” At the same time, Cioran’s writing is very funny and treats life as humorously absurd. Allegedly Cioran’s mother once told him she would have aborted him if she’d known he would have such depressing views, which prompted Cioran to take the attitude that “I’m simply an accident. Why take it all so seriously?” Here’s True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto on Cioran: “I’d already been reading E.M. Cioran for years and consider him one of my all-time favorite and, oddly, most nourishing writers. As an aphorist, Cioran has no rivals other than perhaps Nietzsche, and many of his philosophies are echoed by Ligotti.”
11. Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
You can’t really talk about existential philosophy without talking about Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a major influence on Cioran and one of the most important philosophers of the 19th century. His philosophical novel Thus Spake Zarathustra contains a lot of elements that seem to influence True Detective. The central concept of this work is “eternal recurrence,” the idea that existence occurs over and over again and we will be forced to make the same decisions and suffer the same fates for all eternity. Rust Cohle paraphrases this exact idea in the series’ fifth episode.
12. OTHER READING
13. Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
If you are looking for fiction similar to True Detective, Pizzolatto’s own novel seems like the right place to start. Pizzolatto employs a similar dual past-present narrative to True Detective in this noir-influenced novel. Mystic River author Dennis Lehane called it “the best roman noir I’ve read in a decade.”
15. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Pizzolatto has called Jonnson one of his all-time favorites, and Jesus’ Son is his masterpiece. This series of interlinked short stories about a heroin user (the title is a reference to the Velvet Underground song “Heroin”) is written in dreamy, surrealistic prose that might recall the beautiful landscapes and dreamy Rust Cohle hallucinations on True Detective.
16. I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay
If you like your Southern gothic tales as dark and thick as molasses, you can’t do better than the late William Gay. “The Paperhanger” in particular is one of the greatest and darkest short stories ever written.
17. The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits
Last year’s The Vanishers is a great detective novel with supernatural overtones. Karen Russell called it “One of the best novels I’ve ever read, delivering all the immediate pleasures of mystery, horror, and satire while exploring grief in language that is as shocking for its originality as its precision.”
18. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Speaking of Karen Russell, her novel Swamplandia! is a good choice for readers interested in contemporary Southern gothic with supernatural aspects. The story follows the journey of a 12-year-old gator wrestler searching for her lost sister. While hardly as dark as the bleak world of True Detective, it shares a swampy setting and Southern gothic sensibility.
20. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor is the grandmother and unsurpassed master of American Southern gothic fiction. She is probably the greatest American short story writer ever, but her first novel — about false prophets, twisted religion, a blind preacher, and a gorilla costume — is also essential.
21. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Bolaño’s posthumous masterpiece contains a lot of things: a mysterious German novelist, romantic literary critics, a murderous ex-boyfriend, and people who hear voices. However, the heart of the novel is a cataloguing of the brutal murders of female factory workers along the U.S.–Mexico border that is as bleak and nightmarish as anything on TV.
22. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
Few writers have the gift for bringing terror out of everyday life like Shirley Jackson. Like O’Connor, she is a master of the grotesque. The titular story, “The Lottery,” caused a huge scandal when it was published and over 60 years later is still one of the most anthologized short stories in American letters.
23. Last Days by Brian Evenson
Brian Evenson is another writer who combines noir, horror, and philosophy. I could list a lot of his books here, but his great novel Last Days seems most appropriate. It follows a disfigured detective who investigates a murder in a bizarre religious cult that views amputation as a means to enlightenment.
24. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
Rust Cohle’s monologues also remind me of the dense, biblical lyricism of early Cormac McCarthy. While most famous for Blood Meridian and The Road, Child of God’s dark and twisted tale of Appalachian necrophile Lester Ballard is closest in feel to the show.