Monday, March 31, 2014

So long, and thanks for all the snark.

I found out over the weekend that Television Without Pity is closing down.  The site will be shuttered as of April 3, while their TV discussion forums will be open through May.  

When I saw the notice posted on the site, I almost cried.  My husband thought there was something wrong as he heard me from the other room moaning, “No, no, nononono,” over and over again.  

Articles on high-profile sites and magazines, as well as the Twitverse are all mourning the loss of TWOP.  So am I.  I also echo those who say that TWOP made me the writer I am today.  

I first discovered the site over 12 years ago and immediately got hooked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer recaps.  I’d never read anything like it.  They were these full-blown critical analyses.  Of TV shows.  And not just the show as a whole, but episode by episode.  They were funny, sassy, exhaustive and thought-provoking.  TWOP’s recappers brought literary sensibilities to pop culture, tempering the high-mindedness with a wicked sense of humor.  I thought it was brilliant.   

Since then, I’ve visited their site nearly every day.  I can't even begin to tell you how many hours I've spent reading TWOP commentary.  It has irrevocably shaped my tastes in TV and film viewing.  When I get hear about a new show, I immediately tune in to TWOP to see if they’re going to be recapping it.  When a new season of my favorite show is about to premiere, I am equally excited about the prospect of new recaps to read, and forums to visit where people as passionate as I am about their entertainment will endlessly speculate, analyze, and dissect.  Without it, watching TV simply won’t be as fun for me.  I learned more about plot, pacing, character development and dialogue from their recaps and forums than I ever did in any writing class.  Like many scribblers, I frequently checked the site to see if I could join their recapping staff—among the likes of Jacob, the Couch Baron, Aaron, Monty, Sep, Ace and Sars.   

Not only did the site have a profound impact on a generations of writers and critics, it affected the online landscape as a whole.  Their phrases crept into our lexicon—snark, sexposition, HoYay!, and so forth.  They hilariously nicknamed TV characters and created more cute neologisms and portmanteaus than you can shake a stick at.  TWOP turned us into more discerning and demanding viewers.  It even made viewers into participants in their beloved shows, providing a forum where show-creators were known to go so they could get direct feedback from their audience.   Aaron Sorkin was famously known to frequent their forums, as did Rob Thomas and Rick Cleaveland, among others.   

Like other fans of the site, I, too, hope that TPTB will see fit to create an archive for the old recaps—which I still reread.  

Fare thee well, TWOP.  As long as there are TV shows, there will be a Tubey-shaped void in my heart.

Monday, March 17, 2014

“No mask? No mask!” The King in Yellow on True Detectives

If you’re reading this blog, it should come as no surprise to you that I was intrigued when I heard a new TV show had come along featuring the King in Yellow and Carcosa.  That TV show is HBO’s new anthology series, True Detectives.  (Spoilers ahead.  You’ve been warned.) 

Relax.  I’m not here to give you yet another opinion on why the show is the greatest thing in the history of ever, or why it was a big fat letdown.  Overall, I will say that I found the show to be thoroughly entertaining, for all the reasons everyone says—outstanding acting, amazing production values.  I binge-watched the whole thing this past week, devouring it the way I would a novel, staying up late to get in another chapter because I simply had to find out what would happen next.  Even though the visuals gave me nightmares every night, I couldn’t tear myself away.  The show left me with some extremely mixed feelings that, I confess, I’m still trying to sort out.  (I agree with everything Emily Nussbaum said about the misogyny of the show.)  I’m bothered by the bad guy turning out to be another Deep South sister-fucking redneck because—cliché much? 

Still, I think the show got a lot of things right.  It must have, because I imagine it’s something that’s going to be rolling around in my brain for months, if not years, to come.  I already plan to re-watch it as soon as possible.  (I’m thinking sometime after the nightmares die down.) 

But what I want to talk about is the show’s use of Lovecraftian themes (though Carcosa technically predates Lovecraft’s work by a good 30 years) and occult imagery.  It’s a tantalizing mythos that has inspired my own work, along with thousands of other writers the world over.  It’s also inspired art in other mediums besides literature.  As a devotee of Lovecraft, Chambers, and the rest, it’s exciting to see these stories transcend the halls of horror geekdom to find a mass audience.  

In addition to my works that deal directly with the King in Yellow and Carcosa, I have had a lifelong interest in the occult and all things supernatural.  So, from that perspective, here are my thoughts:

The “mythology” that the show hinted at but never fleshed out was quite muddled, a jumble of paganism, Celtic mythology, Wicca and Jungian archetypes, with an overlay of ontological angst.  I didn’t see anything particularly New World—no voudun, no Santeria, which I found strange.  Why have the show set in coastal Louisiana, and even toss around verbal references to local religions, but have none of the actual rituals or images present from those religions?  I’m fine with inventing a new religion whole-cloth, especially since they were creating a fictional cult to the King in Yellow—but then why not come up with something entirely imagined?  To use something from a pre-existing work created a certain set of expectations that I am not entirely satisfied were met. 

But let’s talk about the occult imagery for a second.  One of the recurring set pieces in the show was “devil’s nests.”

In my many sojourns into things horror and occult related, I have never seen or heard of such a thing.  The closest might be a witch ball, which were sometimes made out of threads or twigs, to help ward off witches.  Otherwise, the only other thing I’ve ever seen that looked remotely similar was those twig formations in The Blair Witch Project.  Now, I am not against the idea of pure invention.  Sometimes, striking the right balance between fact and fiction is what makes a story so compelling—truth embedded in lies and so forth.  The twig sculptures were equally disturbing in Blair Witch and here, possibly because they look so crude.  They look exactly like something an ancient cult would create as a warning, a curse, a communication device between themselves and some malign nature spirits.  So basically, while I found the devil’s nests effective, I don’t think they were authentic.

Another recurring image in the show is antlers, which points to the Celtic horned god, Cernunnos, or, in Wicca, the masculine aspect of the divine.

Marty Hart, one of the main detectives, has a name that means “stag.”  Yet, in the show, the antlers usually crowned a female, whether a female murder victim, or a female representation (the art found on the burnt out church wall).  Women as a sacrifice hinted that the killers were, perhaps, looking for some sort of rebirth, confirmed later when one of the murderers (yes, it’s that kind of show) Errol Childress mentioned being close to the “infernal plane.” 

This would make sense, given the show’s finale in “Carcosa.”  The other symbol the show referenced repeatedly was a spiral—again, possibly Celtic, though I found it to be Jungian.  The spiral as a universal archetype, associated with goddesses, the womb and change.  They are inked on the victims' bodies.  Cohle sees a flight of birds form a spiral in the air.  In the finale, when we are finally shown Carcosa, we see Rust Cohle follow Childress into a series of subterranean chambers—it looked to me like a cathedral, though I found out that the set was created within Fort Macomb, a 19th century fort.  The shape of it suggested a spiral.  Spirals are also connected with journeys, with the centering of consciousness—both Cohle and Hart are certainly travelers on a long journey.  Like Theseus, they pursue the (horned) beast to the center of the labyrinth.  Like countless other heroes, they descend into the underworld.  They experience the metaphorical death and rebirth.  The underground scene is their descent into the axis mundi, the Omphalos, the center of the world.  At the center of Carcosa was a wide, domed room, with an oculus in the ceiling.

The oculus indicates a union with the divine.  Cohle’s vision of a cosmic umbilicus connecting him to the greater world seemed to me to be a very deliberate visual.  He and Hart emerge from their very close brush with death as very different men—more centered, more evolved.  Cohle makes peace with the death of his daughter.  Hart makes peace with his live daughters.  Time is not a flat circle, as Cohle suggests; it’s a spiral.  It exists in multiple dimensions.  Sometimes it’s a maze.  Sometimes it’s a wringer.  You may emerge dizzy, you may emerge clean.  Or you may be flattened.  You can go up or down.  Whatever direction you choose, the loop is not necessarily an endless repeat.  It is the widening gyre, spinning us in circles around our point of origin—how widely you roam is up to you. 

Which, I suppose, brings us to the Yellow King and Carcosa.  Talk about a spiral—the tie-ins were so twisty and oblique, I’m not sure it was successful.  The viewer has to really be familiar with the source material.  Otherwise it just ended up creating confusion, as evidenced by the thousands of viewers who are screaming across the Internet about the show’s unsatisfying conclusion. 

The main thing the show borrowed from Lovecraft, et. al, was the paradigm—the existential horrors of living in a malevolent universe, where the real threat is not to the body, but to the mind.  The horror of witnessing something so terrible that it can, quite literally, shatter your reality.  The horror of comprehending how very small, weak and inconsequential humanity is, so that if some Outer God decides to come stomping through the Milky Way, we’ll be lucky if death is all It brings.  Obviously, this is most notable in Cohle’s nihilistic attitude, that humanity is a plague, ants, “sentient meat.”  His entire outlook is pure Lovecraft.  The end of the series has the men solve the mystery, but only bring two of the numerous offenders to justice.  Some satisfaction is gained, but the heroes will forever remain uneasy, knowing that their victory was only partial, knowing that beasts still stalk their prey in the night.  That's . . . actually more optimistic than Lovecraft usually is.

In addition to the fear of the universe being populated by cruel, alien gods, there is also the theme of insanity in tales associated with the King in Yellow.  We fear Alzheimer’s, we fear madness, because even though you’re still breathing, you have lost yourself, your identity, your essence.  There’s nothing more terrifying than the idea that you could lose who you are.  Again, Cohle embodies these ideas, as do the victims and criminals he comes into contact with—there is the girl, Kelly, the surviving victim of the cult who has been left catatonic by her experiences; there are murderers and suicides—all things we view through Cohle’s jaundiced eyes. 

Yet, I think the show has the most in common with “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” by Ambrose Bierce.  It is the original and more obscure story that first introduced the fictional town of Carcosa.  It’s told in first person, by a man undergoing a bizarre, shamanistic journey that ends with him realizing he is dead.  The end reveals that the story had, in fact, been relayed through a medium.  I feel like that’s more reflective of the Cohle/Hart experience than Chambers’ stories.  Cohle is referred to as a “priest,” after he himself said that he thought he was “mainlining the secret truth of the universe.”  For an atheist, that sounds suspiciously like making time with the Almighty, no?  Not to mention his visions, his synesthesia, his occasional flashes of some sort of psychic ability.  I know that cops are a profession where it pays to have a well-developed gut instinct about things, but Rust Cohle is a man who can literally sniff out psychosis, a scent he describes as “aluminum and ash.”    

True Detective’s references to Chambers’ works feel more superficial—more like set dressing than a thematic influence.  Black stars appear drawn on walls, in a woman's tattoo, the black stars that so clearly demonstrate Carcosa's otherness.  Childress wrote “Cassilda” all over his slaughterhouse walls.  There is a sly reference to theater when Childress is watching North by Northwest, and he quotes, “. . . with such expert play-acting, you make this very room a theater.”  Men view a VHS tape, which we are never shown—we only know that it drives them to extreme reactions, despair, and a sort of madness, the way the King in Yellow play is said to in Chambers’ stories.  In the end, Childress demands that Cohle “remove his mask” before the King.  But there is no mask.  Or is there?  When Cohle later awakens in the hospital, he definitely has the air of a man stripped to his barest components.  

At the end of the series, when the heart of the mystery is laid bare, I didn’t think for one minute that Childress was the King.  (At one point, I thought perhaps Hart was, since he’s a tall blond with the stag name.)  When that looming twig and skull sculpture, enshrouded in yellow cloth appeared in Childress’ Carcosa, I thought that’s the King—observe his yellow tatters.  

Effigy of the King in Yellow

Maybe the idea of the show was that Carcosa, the King in Yellow, all of it was something decayed—Carcosa in the stories, after all, is a lost city.  Maybe the cult that produced Childress and his half-sister was once something grand and powerful in its sinister way, but no more.  With the inbreeding, the fading rites and the crumbling temple, perhaps it is more Innsmouth than Carcosan.  In which case, maybe next season, True Detective will explore the Esoteric Order of Dagon.

I’d be down for that.  'Cause I mean, hey.  Who needs sleep.  Right?