The Arkham Digest interviews Nic Pizzolatto, creator of HBO’s True Detective:
It seems that some elements of True Detective draw influence from the realm of literary horror. I speak not only of the references to The King in Yellow, but also the stick-like creations reminiscent of Karl Edward Wagner’s story “Sticks”, as well as Cohle’s Ligottian worldview. What drew you to these elements, and how did you go about choosing to incorporate them into the show?
Nic: Sure. That influence is, like everything in True Detective, part of a whole-earth catalog of cultural obsessions, including my own. If your character conveys a vision of cosmic horror, it felt appropriate for me to dramatize the Lovecraftian sense of madness, of a carnivorous universe in which you’re food. And Cohle’s attitude is similar to things Lovecraft said (and Cioran, and Schopenhauer), though we can see Cohle would have a substantial confirmation-bias based on his life story.
The stick lattices are actually things I discovered in researching early Megalith cultures and the mound-builders in Louisiana, but I discovered Wagner’s story and then it seemed even more appropriate to the kind of subconscious cultural associations the killer creates, the atavistic dread that the show tries to transmit. I suppose what drew me to these elements were the show’s themes and characters, and my own interests, which to be fair are pretty broad and discursive. And no one told me I couldn’t do it, you know? If these things are all appropriate to the story and its themes and they can be incorporated organically and become an authentic part of the story, why not? Why not mash these influences together? Provided it’s in a way that doesn’t betray or lead astray the governing genre being served.
The landscape itself is a rather looming presence. What can you tell me about your choice of venue and what it means for the story?
Nic: The landscape is literally the third lead in the show. This is the area of the country where I grew up, and I knew the kinds of environments waiting for us there. Very detailed, prosaic descriptions of setting were a large part of the script: taking these opportunities to witness the contradictions of place and people, to feel a sense of a corrupted, degrading Eden. It was always going to be a rural show, but originally in the Ozarks, which I also know. Out of a few subsidy states, I chose Louisiana for the move because there were all these personal connotations and knowledge of the place I could bring to bear. It enabled me to write landscape that was almost as full as the characters, and that became an important guidepost in the writing: the awareness of contradiction, the landscape as culture.
The show is straddling a fine line between realistic terror and what could be interpreted as the supernatural, or figments of madness. Do you find this a tricky balance to pull off?
Nic: A bit. We have a hallucinating detective in episode 2, which is weird, and the visions themselves are almost religious in their metaphysical nature. But the important thing, I think, is that there is a realistic explanation for everything. Cohle’s visions are accounted for by his neural damage, probably guided in some part by his unconscious associations. There’s no evidence to suggest that the things we’ve seen are the result of anything supernatural. Ritualism, some sort of worship is implied in the murder, but there’s nothing supernatural. Reality is the dread, and that’s probably where the line’s drawn. So we can touch these things and by doing so provide avenues for layers of meaning to settle and refract and resonate, but we don’t strictly-speaking break from the realist mode.
In a follow-up interview, he discusses Thomas Ligotti.