Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Heading into 2014, a few things about HBO’s True Detective were clear. For one, its cast would be stellar, led by two of film’s best living actors, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. The same director, the highly respected indie filmmaker Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre), directed all eight episodes. Also, it would follow in the one-story-per-season anthology template recently popularized by FX’s American Horror Story.
Otherwise, True Detective was a big mystery, and the biggest of its mini question marks hovered over Nic Pizzolatto, the show’s creator and sole writer. Little was known about Pizzolatto at that point, except that he’d published a short story collection, Between Here and the Yellow Sea (2006), and a novel, Galveston (2010).
Because of its creator’s relative anonymity, True Detective’s viewers couldn’t prepare themselves for one particular sensibility—and thank the TV gods for that. With each new episode, True Detective meticulously revealed its and Pizzolatto’s temperaments: crime fiction by way of classic, old-school horror literature.
The deeper into their occult-tinged murder investigation detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) got, the weirder their clues became. Witnesses and suspects began referencing Robert W. Chambers’ 1985 book The King in Yellow by saying the person behind it all is “the Yellow King,” and telling Rust that they’d seen him before “in Carcosa,” bringing Ambrose Bierce’s influential 1891 short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” into the mix. With all that, True Detective started feeling scary, unraveling one’s nerves more than The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, or any other horror TV show.
But now, it’s all over. The Internet’s questions have been answered and far-reaching theories were debunked. Hold up, though—just because you’ve seen the last of Rust and Marty, that doesn’t mean True Detective’s potent sense of disorientation can’t be experienced through different mediums. Particularly, horror fiction. These five recommendations should help fill your empty heart, and also torment it. Hey, you gotta take the good with the bad.
Teatro Grottesco, by Thomas Ligotti (2006)
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Nic Pizzolatto discussed his love for weird fiction master Thomas Ligotti’s style, even admitting that some of Rust Cohle’s monologues heard in early True Detective episodes were directly influenced by Ligotti’s non-fiction book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. So what better way to reconnect with Matthew McConaughey’s lovably anti-everything character than by immersing yourself into Ligotti’s one-of-a-kind horror fiction?
Just be prepared for your head to spin, your thoughts to darken, and other horror authors’ writing styles to seem pedestrian. Ligotti doesn’t hide his adoration for H.P. Lovecraft, and his short stories read like Lovecraft handling Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman subject matter. Teatro Grottesco, his most easily locatable collection (The Nightmare Factory is Ligotti’s best one, but also difficult to find outside of used copies online), seesaws from reality-based dread to fantastical nuttiness. “Purity” centers around a family that can’t stay in one home for too long since its patriarch keeps performing grotesque experiments in the basements. “The Red Tower,” one of Ligotti’s fantasy shots, gives readers a wild tour of a factory where “a line of quite morbid, quite wonderfully disgusting novelty goods” are produced.
Be warned, though, Ligotti’s writing demands your undivided attention and, more importantly, a fondness for ambiguity. He’s a master of dislocation, never letting you completely grasp a story’s setting or when exactly it’s taking place. If you’re not conditioned to experimental fiction, aspirin will be mandatory.
A Season in Carcosa, edited by Joseph Pulver, Sr. (2012)
When writing True Detective, creator Nic Pizzolatto let his literary freak flag show, working in those unexpected and unnerving mentions of “Carcosa” into his dark Louisiana noir.
Unless you’re a student of the Lovecraft/Ligotti/Bierce school of weird fiction, though, “Carcosa” probably sounded like an allusion to a Mafioso family, not the ancient fictional city known for its physical destruction and otherworldly location. Pizzolatto mined such impressive dread and confusion from his “Carcosa” name-drops because they were so randomly heard. Anytime someone mentioned it to Rust Cohle, both he and the viewer were left disoriented, but also fascinated, sending those within an earshot deeper and deeper into their own personal abyss of investigation. Where is Carcosa? Is it anywhere near New Orleans? And why does every mention of it make me feel so out-of-whack?
The short story anthology A Season in Carcosa creates that exact kind of momentary bewilderment. None of the included tales take place in the mysterious terrain—they’re all based in reality, much like True Detective, and feature references to Carcosa and the “King in Yellow.”
Reading through the stories, compiled by veteran anthologist Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., is an experience similar to watching True Detective for the first time. There’s always malevolence afoot, but just how important each story’s horror elements are doesn’t play out until the final paragraphs. A highlight is Cody Goodfellow’s “Wishing Well,” in which a former child actor’s mind descends into maniacal terror when he receives a long-lost episode of the children’s show he once starred on, a kid-geared adaptation of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow. Other entries, like Daniel Mills’ “MS Found in a Chicago Hotel Room,” use King in Yellow characters names like Camilla and Cassilda to evoke that Carcosa-level oddness.
The Deadly Percheron, by John Franklin Bardin (1946)
One of True Detective’s greatest strengths: its masterful deployment of those 2012 interrogation scenes. Through those present-day sit-downs with a bitter Marty Hart and the haggard Rust Cohle, Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga figured out a slick way to toggle between time-frames and rely on unreliable narrators. John Franklin Bardin’s bizarre novel The Deadly Percheron opens with what may be the craziest first-chapter interrogation ever written—psychiatrist, Dr. George Matthews, trying to figure out if one of his patients is looney-tunes or not. It’s funny, strange, and haunting, just like every time Rust spewed one of his nihilistic speeches to those stone-faced 2012 detectives.
And even more like True Detective, The Deadly Percheron evolves into an unpredictable murder mystery, one that alternates between genres and tones with ease. The end result is a madcap whodunit and who-am-I knockout. There’s kidnapping, deformities, leprechauns, and a horse, of course. Trust, it all connects incredibly thanks to Bardin’s engrossing prose and wacky imagination.
Lovecraft Unbound, edited by Ellen Datlow (2009)
Nic Pizzolatto’s “weird fiction” influences go beyond just Thomas Ligotti. In that same Wall Street Journal interview, Pizzolatto cites a few of Ligotti’s like-minded peers and juniors Laird Barron, John Langan, and Simon Strantzas as other personal favorites.
One thing those guys definitely all have in common: they’re all disciples of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Next to Edgar Allen Poe, Lovecraft, who penned an endless stream of classic horror fiction throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, is the genre’s most influential writer. Without him, we’d be without that infamous book of the dead, the Necronomicon. That means subsequent creators of mythological monsters and fictional underworld kingdoms wouldn’t have the Elder Gods and Outer Gods to use for inspiration, and ultimately there’d be no Cthulhu or any of his legendary kind.
Had he blown up off of True Detective before 2009, Nic Pizzolatto would’ve been a logical choice to contribute editor Ellen Datlow’s themed anthology Lovecraft Unbound, an assortment of original stories written as homages to the scribe. Horror fiction stars like Barron, Joel Lane, Gemma Files, and Cailtin R. Kiernan blessed Datlow with some real gems, none of which overtly steal any of Lovecraft’s mythos, but, rather, cleverly weave Lovecraftian sensibilities into more relatable settings. Which Pizzolatto did in True Detective, though he focused more on Lovecraft’s predecessors Ambrose Pierce and Robert W. Chambers.
Bonus Recommendation: Ellen Datlow's similarly themed collection Poe, a 22-story treasure chest of tales rooted in the great Edgar Allen's influence.
Falling Angel, by William Hjortsberg (1978)
In its moments of “Yellow King” and “Carcosa” creepiness, True Detective found the sweet spot between procedurals and psychological horror—two familiar genres that, when merged by gifted storytellers, can go together like Matty McConaughey and long, existential monologues. One of the all-time best examples of eerie cop drama is William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, a pulpy, first-person journey into New York City’s underbelly. Cinephiles should know it as the source material for the terrific 1987 horror flick Angel Heart, a twisty piece of nightmare-noir featuring one of Mickey Rourke’s great ‘80s performances.
Hjortsberg’s novel is just as effective. Falling Angel follows private eye Harry Angel, a rough-and-tumble dick who gets hired by millionaire Louis Cyphre to track down a musician named Johnny Favorite and collect a debt. The assignment introduces Angel to a variety of voodoo rituals, Satanic imagery, dead bodies, and a humdinger of a final twist.
A hardened pragmatist, Harry Angel is the forefather of True Detective’s Marty Hart's anti-philosopher attitude. And in that spirit, Falling Angel, told in Harry's own words, addresses its supernatural elements with Marty’s brand of dry sarcasm and cynicism. Yup, Rust Cohle would hate this book.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)