Did the writer of “True Detective” plagiarize Thomas Ligotti and others?

Friday, August 15th, 2014

When I saw a headline asking, Did the writer of True Detective plagiarize Thomas Ligotti and others?, I distinctly remembered that Nic Pizzolatto had explicitly mentioned Ligotti as a major influence in interviews:

MD: But isn’t it true that Pizzolatto acknowledged Ligotti’s influence on True Detective and praised his work?

JP: In the many interviews Pizzolatto gave in the lead up to episode three, the show’s influences were discussed by the show’s creator at great length. You know who wasn’t mentioned by Pizzolatto until days after episode three aired? Ligotti.

MD: But in this Wall Street Journal interview, Pizzolatto does talk at length about Ligotti’s influence on the show.

JP: Only under pressure. Here’s what was happening behind the scenes: WSJ reporter Michael Calia and I (and plenty of other Ligotti readers) had already noticed that Rust Cohle’s monologues and other dialogue were peculiarly Ligottian (his prose is very distinctive). In an interview with the True Detective creator, Arkham Digest editor Justin Steele even brought up Cohle’s “Ligottian wordview”, and I was frustrated when Pizzolatto evaded his question, at least as it concerned Thomas Ligotti or his work. Three of nine commenters on that interview page also noticed that Pizzolatto appeared to be evasive in dealing with the Ligotti influence question. At that point, I tried to get an interview with Pizzolatto about Ligotti’s influence on True Detective — writing to his agent — but I was told politely that Pizzolatto was “up to his ears in post-production and working on season two of True Detective.”

Then I started digging. Mr. Calia was coincidentally already working on an article centering on the influence by past and present masters of weird horror tales on True Detective, so I decided to analyze Cohle’s familiar dialogue and compare it side by side with Ligotti’s prose in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I quickly sent Mr. Calia the results of my research, and he used just the tip of the iceberg of evidence I had uncovered in his article — perhaps cannily implying that “The Most Shocking Thing About HBO’s ‘True Detective’” was that Pizzolatto lifted text and ideas from an author he had hitherto explicitly refused to acknowledge as an influence.

Shortly after the article’s publication, Calia interviewed Pizzolatto in a follow-up to his original article. It seems that the “too busy” writer suddenly had time for an interview mostly about, you guessed it, Thomas Ligotti. Usually I would give any kind of writer who appeared so praising of Ligotti the benefit of the doubt, but I knew how deep the plagiarism issue ran, and I had no illusions that Pizzolatto suddenly and coincidentally wanted to talk about Ligotti after already having dozens and dozens of opportunities to do so before. Was Pizzolatto in damage control mode (i.e., “I don’t want to get in legal trouble” mode)? Quite suddenly Thomas Ligotti was one of his top literary influences, an acknowledgement that would never be repeated again in a full-length interview or, to my knowledge, elsewhere.

MD: Wait, that interview was the only time Pizzolatto mentioned Ligotti as an influence?

JP: Not quite. He sent Justin Steele a follow-up paragraph clarifying Ligotti’s influence on True Detective just days after Calia’s first article on the connection between the show and Ligotti’s work was published. But after that, Pizzolatto hasn’t mentioned a word about Ligotti. Not one word. Nothing in interviews. Nothing on the DVD commentaries. Nothing. In how many interviews total does Pizzolatto mention Thomas Ligotti or his work? Two — the two I’ve mentioned.

MD: During the one WSJ interview, though, Pizzolatto states that “In episode one [of ‘True Detective’] there are two lines in particular (and it would have been nothing to re-word them) that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers. Which, of course, you got.” How do you respond to his claim?

JP: I consider that justification absurd and disingenuous.


  1. A Boy and His Dog says:

    After reading the excerpts, I don’t think it’s plagiarism. Strong influence, yes, but the case for plagiarism isn’t as strong as JP’s claim.

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