Although I enjoyed True Detective enormously, I was disappointed in one important respect: it attempted an occult theme, and as so often happens, I thought it failed, and I felt disappointed.
The background to True Detective was a series of ritualistic murders, and the writers had attempted to construct an occult framework out of sticks (see Sticks by Karl Edward Wagner, and The Blair Witch Project), some ritual, and references to the King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. I had high expectations. I had hoped for an intelligent elaboration of these ideas, something that would excite me, but no. The finger pointed … at nothing.
H.P. Lovecraft excelled at pointing fingers at nothing. He points at aeons of time, unseen dimensions, abysses of space, terrible entities, and an unfamiliar syntax of script, book and symbol … but there is no substance. One can follow the finger carefully and what one discovers at the end are words, words that point to each other. It is all very postmodern, a fake ontology of self-reference. The Lovecraftian cosmos is a tissue of invention that gained substance (like papier-mâché) as more people daubed tissue onto it. His infamous Necronomicon is constructed out of references. It usually appears on a desk or in a bookcase as a sign to the reader that the protagonist is about to wade through seriously weird shit – e.g. that these ain’t no common-or-garden hillbilly devil worshippers. He understands very well the need to keep his readers’ clammy hands off this forbidden tome, lest they discover there is nothing inside. It is like one of those moulded cardboard stash boxes in the shape of a book. The only substantial quotation consists of a couple of paragraphs in The Dunwich Horror.
A writer like Lovecraft can avoid the syntax of the occult by focussing on atmosphere and feeling. He submerges us in adjectives. A situation that might seem normal is transformed by labelling everything with adjectives that force us away from a normal interpretation. He uses a word like ‘blasphemous’ without ever attaching it to a concrete instance of blasphemy; his storytelling suggests that any prosaic thing might outrage our inbuilt sense of what is right and normal. Blasphemy is a part of the fabric; with Lovecraft we feel that reality is a surface, and he paints that surface in new colours to suggest a terror that lies behind.
This is a difficult trick for the film-maker to pull off, and for the most part every attempt to adapt Lovecraft to film has been laughably bad. Others may disagree, but I have been a huge fan of Lovecraft for 40 years and do not say this lightly. The film-maker has to use different means to suggest an esoteric depth to reality, and this usually means buying the Bumper Book of Occult Symbols – the same Bumper Book of Occult Symbols that everyone else has used. So we get to see all the usual stuff … inverted pentagrams, seals from the Key of Solomon, and everyones’ perennial favourite, Eliphaz Levi’s Goat of Mendes. Just in case you have been living in a shed, I have provided it right here below (this will probably get me sent straight to NetNanny hell).
Symbols, scripts, incantations, fragments of ritual … these are the syntax of the occult, stripped of tradition and meaning. The film-maker drizzles the esoteric over a film in the hope it will spice it up.
Returning to True Detective, I can understand the problem faced by the film-maker. How does one transport the viewer into an occult dimension when one has so little time to enter into the syntax and semantic of the genuinely occult? Occultists of experience understand that the esoteric is like an augmented reality overlay, similar to wearing a head-up display. Symbols are like hyperlinks, pointers to other realities. It’s like Google Glass, but without Google and without the glasses. The creators of the BBC’s recent series Sherlock grasped this idea beautifully, superimposing fragments of Holmes’ thought and analysis over a scene. This is the authentic experience of the occult, seeing the depth behind the surface … like Holmes’ HUD, but less analytic, more richly cognitive. Lovecraft may have been an avowed rationalist, but he understood what it was like to see in shades of terror. His head-up display showed him fear. As Michel Houellebecq suggests (in H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life) he saw the same world as the rest of us, but he felt and experienced it differently.
True Detectives does its best to transport us to that nihilistic bleakness. The true detective Rustin Cohle looks out into a place where identity is a construction, meaning is a construction, morality is a construction, and at the finale he has a typically Lovecraftian vision, the kind of thing that sends the typical Lovecraftian protagonist round the bend. Reality thins, and he sees the greater truth.
Ritual, symbol, murder, hoarding, filth, dolls, alienated reasoning – the entire dressing-up box of weird, dysfunctional stuff is raided for atmosphere, but it seems to me, on reflection, to add up to very little. There are some startling images, but they did not transport me. I expected postmodern Lovecraftian horror, I wanted some postmodern Lovecraftian horror, but it didn’t quite touch the void. The strength of True Detective is the excellent script and excellent acting. The exotic patina of the occult felt tired and overworked.