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The Flat Circle

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This was going to be a Google+ post about True Detective, The King in Yellow, Lovecraft, Cthulhu gaming, and Black Stars Rise, but it rapidly approached critical mass. So now we’re here, talking about one of the most memorable, most discussed TV shows in recent memory.

I first heard about True Detective because of Black Stars Rise. I had probably a half-dozen “have you seen this yet?” messages about True Detective from various people who knew about BSR. I took my time, but I’m finally caught up, and the series we ended up with isn’t the one I think some people expected.

In the end it might be a mythos show. It might be a crime drama. It might just be a drama. Whatever it was was polished, enticing, but not without problems. The middle was a little bloated despite some great moments. The entire thing had maybe as many lines spoken by females as the two main characters speak in the running car ride conversations. Nobody’s really sure what Rust is saying half the time.

Probably the reason you’re here, though (and why you or I heard about True Detective to begin with) is it’s running connection to The King In Yellow, a collection of short stories that’s been assimilated into the Cthulhu Mythos. Depending on your expectation this might be one of the shows biggest flaws: after 8 finely crafted episodes the world is decidedly mundane. Rust maybe hallucinates, or maybe sees the real truth, but it’s ultimately unimportant to the plot. In the end (those words are your cue to cut out if you don’t want spoilers) the killer is just a man.

If you were hoping for essentially a Cthulhu TV show, this was probably a let down. I felt the same way at some points—I wanted to move past all this Law & Order crap and know more about this Yellow King cult. At times the allusions to Chambers feel like a shibboleth of nerd appeal, a way to trick people into watching an (admittedly well done) crime drama.

In retrospect, though, I think this may be one of the best elements of the show, and hopefully its lasting contribution to the mythos canon. It’s a modern take on the Cthulhu mythos where Carcosa isn’t a literal place, and The King In Yellow isn’t a literal figure, but they’re still malignant cosmic forces. The series takes us to Carcosa twice based on dialogue—once at LeDoux’s lab, and again at the end of the series—but we never go to the Hyades or travel through time. Carcosa exists clearly within the series, but it’s not a fixed location (or some fantastical ultradimensional place that’s everywhere at once), it’s more of a consecration. Just like you could be “in church” anywhere like-minded people have decided one exists, we’re taken to Carcosa in places where power is abused.

Likewise for the Yellow King. While some readings (like the excellent series on Boing Boing) have referred to Childress as the Yellow King (and the abandoned fort as Carcosa) I think we see the Yellow King a few times as an aspect of various characters. Especially in light of the series’ treatment of female characters, it’s tempting to read more into the choice by the show’s writers to use The Yellow King, a persona which is explicitly male. Some person within the cult may be called “The Yellow King” but it also seems clear that The Yellow king is some sort of religious figure or embodiment.

In the final episode Rust (or perhaps Marty, more on that in a moment) is referred to as “little priest” by Childress as he stalks through Carcosa. Or, at least, I think it was little priest based on a horrible transcribed script I found. When I heard it the first time I thought it was “little prince.” Regardless, either reading paints one or both of our main characters as in some way tied to the King.

One reading would be that one or the other character was secretly tied to the cult, as was suggested at various times during the series, but the structure of the show itself doesn’t really hold that up. We’ve been told that next season will be entirely different characters, a different plot, “the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.” Since this story certainly seems finished, and lacking any further evidence, it’s hard to find a reading that allows Rust or Marty to be part of the cult.

That leaves two options: either one (or both) of the main characters are inadvertently priests of the Yellow King, or it’s just a wonderful way to taunt a detective.

If they are, unwittingly, priests, what would the King be? For Rust, prior to the final moments of the last episode, he at least claims to be a pessimist. Marty, on the other hand, is the male double standard taken to an absurd level. If they are priests, one or both, the Yellow King is those traits taken to the extreme, which certainly seems to match the members of the cult: men who disregard all morality and see as their highest calling the use of their power, especially over women and children.

As the show’s writer says, “the show was never concerned with the supernatural, but it was concerned with supernatural thought, and it was concerned with supernatural thinking to the degree that it was concerned with storytelling.” Ultimately the supernatural or natural explanation for what we see (which could all be explained by Rust’s hallucinations) doesn’t really matter. What matters is what those ideals inspire in the people we see, no matter if the actual King sits in the Hyades driving this on. While it doesn’t really take a stance of the supernatural aspects of the Cthulhu mythos, the fears it prays on are very much the same. It’s still about being alone in the locked room, and the fear of what’s happening in the other locked rooms all around you.

Wrapping around to gaming, this is something that I was trying to articulate much less successfully when I first started with Black Stars Rise. It’s not a game so much about Cthulhu gaming is it frequently exists, but in this other vein where those same themes are seen through a modern lens.

I got to Lovecraft’s stories relatively late, and found them to be not quite what I was expecting (having played Call of Cthulhu before reading any of them). The bits of his stories that resonate the most with me—the vast indifferent cosmos, the tenuous position of humanity, the fragile human mind—are there in part, but a large part of his repertoire is also influenced by pulps and horror of a more direct kind. The Call of Cthulhu, for example, is almost akin to King Kong: a vast and forgotten land found under mysterious circumstances holds a dangerous creature that, even when mostly resolved, promises more. “Cthulhu gets run over by a boat” is the short version. The things that H. P. seemed to find terrifying—the dark human other in cahoots with Cthulhu—comes off as backwards in our marginally-less-racist society. Without the fear of the horrible religions of other people the story is about a strange sea beast that, yes, does kill most of the crew of a boat, but is also largely hurt by the same boat.

This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy Lovecraft’s work. In the right story, when I get past the racism, classism, and proliferating adjectives, cosmic horror is still horrifying.

I think that’s part of what True Detective shows. Cosmic horror is often caught up in the trappings of squamous creatures, dark others, and non-Euclidean geometry, which can feel a little empty at times sitting in the 21st century. It doesn’t need those trappings to be terrifying. The terror is not so much in the actual physical existence of the Yellow King or Carcosa, but in what those ideals can drive humans to, and where that leaves us in the vast empty night sky.

That’s the mythos that I found in True Detective. The lack of a literal appearance by the Yellow King as a supernatural entity doesn’t lessen the ties to the Cthulhu mythos, it just shows an avenue less traveled.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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