The first season of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective spawned a frenzy of interpretation and plot dissection. Its narrative twists and melange of philosophical snippets and cosmic horror ambience created a fertile ground for such heady engagement. In this essay I want to draw out some interpretive strands informed by my research into the social history of cosmology. I’m less concerned here with what Pizzolatto may have explicitly intended in his writing, and more concerned with following some of the veins he tapped, deeper underground. His finely-orchestrated script was ultimately character-focused, and the plentiful and suggestive mythical triggers were subservient to Marty’s and Rust’s journeys. But his awareness of the grounding for his triggers was keen enough to generate a work peculiarly rich in socio-cosmic gems – which should be mined.
A little scene-scetting first. In North I outline a vision of cosmology which simplistically divides human history into three zones. From the Agricultural Revolution (around 12,000 years ago) up to the Copernican Revolution (around the seventeenth century) there’s a zone I call ‘the polar cosmos’. The emphasis in cosmology is geocentric, with an ordered system of planetary spheres around a central Earth, all surrounded by the changeless empyreal realm of the gods. (Rust: ‘See, everything outside our dimension, that’s eternity, eternity looking down on us. Now, to us, it’s a sphere, but to them… it’s a circle.’) Power flows down from divinity above, often via a conduit envisioned as a vertical axis connecting Earth below to the heavens above. While the observed world certainly accommodates this vision, my contention is that its importance in cosmology is less to do with observing nature, and more to do with projecting onto nature. This cosmology is to a large extent a reflection of social dynamics: it mirrors the emergence of centralised power, and the division of society into upper and lower classes. The frequent association between divinised royalty and the pole star – central and elevated – underlines this idea, and shows how power usually justifies itself by claiming that human social structures follow natural forms or divine dictates. (Rust’s story of the origin of religion uses the more popular focus of the sun, but apart from it being set a little too early, is much the same: ‘Oh yeah! Been that way since one monkey looked at the sun and told the other monkey, “He said for you to give me your fuckin’ share.”‘)
Before the polar cosmos we find a vast zone without agriculture, the realm of the hunter-gatherer, extending many, many times further into the past than the polar cosmos period. Power struggles were far from absent, but egalitarianism was prevalent as we roamed in small leaderless bands. Likewise, cosmology was less concerned with an abstract birds-eye view of a concentric array of spheres, or the vertical separation of Heaven and Earth, and more concerned with horizontal systems of relationships between animals, people, and the landscape.
After the polar cosmos, with the geocentric vision shattered, we find ourselves in an obviously open-ended zone of ambivalence. A mixture of old hierarchies, still powering along with great momentum, and new challenges to centralised power and politically-coded images of the natural world. A sense of insignificance, even nihilism, in the face of the newly revealed black infinity of space, bereft of divine order, but also a sense of freedom from outworn traditions.
With this double-hinged socio-cosmic narrative in mind, let’s explore how it shapes the implications of the narrative of True Detective.
From identification to dominance
Early on in True Detective, we’re cued in to a ‘primitive’ symbolic dimension to the killer’s mindset. ‘It’s all primitive,’ says the coroner regarding the first crime scene’s paraphernalia. ‘Like cave paintings. Maybe you ought to talk to an anthropologist.’ The iconic deer antlers found crowning Dora Lange’s corpse at the beginning do indeed call to mind ‘The Sorcerer’ figure in the Palaeolithic French painted cave at Trois-Frères. Palaeolithic (i.e. ‘pre-polar’, hunter-gatherer) art is frequently oriented around animals that were hunted.
However, the coroner’s comment has more to do with the abstract, shallow sense of ‘primitivity’ and ‘savagery’ it conjures up than it has to do with genuine connections between the Palaeolithic world of hunting and the killers in True Detective. The reference to anthropology here is a kind of deft intellectual-sounding veil for crude ideas about ‘animality’ and ‘wildness’. When we bear actual anthropology in mind, we’re able to unpick some of these crudities. Of utmost importance is the transformation that the practice of hunting underwent in the transition between the generally egalitarian world of hunting and gathering, and the generally elite-ridden agricultural world.
For hunter-gatherers, the hunt is of course about killing, and survival. More than that, it becomes a way in which the identity of the group is continuously integrated with the dynamics of ‘the wild’. As the hunter stalks his prey1 he enters a process of psychic identification with it, inhabiting its behaviours in order to track it better. There’s a power dynamic here, but there’s always a strong sense of reciprocity in the forager’s hunt – an acknowledgement that while the human is a very peculiar animal, it’s still an animal among animals. The Sorcerer (pictured above) is clearly part human male – this is entanglement with the prey animal, communion.2 In his book Juniper Fuse, poet Clayton Eshleman argues that the cave paintings are evidence of an internal cultural struggle, as humans began to realise how detached from the natural grace of the animal world they were becoming. He sees the paintings as part of a shamanic attempt to address this encroaching pathology, creating magical-artistic bonds to bridge the widening abyss between humanity and animality.3
When agriculture made hunting less of a necessity, it soon became bound up with ideas of humans being elevated above nature, with power as vertical dominance rather than horizontal relationship. The domestication of some animals and plants created a clearer rift between ‘human’ and ‘wild’, and the latter was often demonised because of its threat to domestic life. ‘Vermin’ and ‘weeds’ were created by agriculture. Hunting became an expression of the gap between humans and animals rather than an attempt to bridge it, making a virtue out of what was formerly felt to be pathology. It also became more and more associated with emerging social elites – and commoners occupied a position of subservience analogous to animals. Hunting’s association with elite power goes back at least to Assyrian times, from four or five thousand years ago. Here, the king styled himself as a lion hunter, a heroic figure defending civilisation from the wilderness.4 By the time we get to the Renaissance in Europe, all hunting is legally restricted to the nobility. Peasant hunters became ‘poachers’.
So, far from being connected to some wild, primitive savagery, the killer’s symbolic world here is more bound up with civilised expressions of power. Dominance over nature, animals, and the lower orders of society is channelled into a particular act that makes horrifically concrete another age-old – but far from primal – power dynamic: male dominance over women. Dora Lange’s crown of antlers has little relationship to the original hunting mode of identification and respect amid the violent necessities of nature. It speaks of gratuitous dominion, and places her in the role of detested, subservient quarry, whose life is in the hands of her master.
The killer here is not an utterly ‘other’ outsider, as we would like to think; he is a shadowy encapsulation of the established order of power.
Hunting and mastery in the South
When Europeans arrived in the New World, they were amazed. Back home, hunting was the preserve of the nobility. Here, everyone was allowed to hunt! This, in essence, is the origin of the term ‘the Noble Savage’ – an association between Native Americans and nobility which was just an artefact of Europeans who had no conception of society without steep hierarchies.5
While many pre-Columbian Native American societies had complexified past foraging, with some becoming agricultural, as Europeans ruined and displaced indigenous cultures, the agricultural dominance-oriented mode of hunting triumphed.6 In the southern states, hunting became a deeply embedded tradition. The space and freedom of the New World led to a certain democratisation of European hunting customs.7 But frontiersmen who hunted as a means of easy feeding, freeing one from the bounds of farming, were looked down on as ‘little more than white Indians.’8 By the early eighteenth century, hunting began again to be officially restricted to the wealthy in the South9 (though this naturally proved hard to police).
In his book Bathed in Blood: Hunting and Mastery in the Old South, Nicolas Proctor notes that after the American Revolution,
… many (especially members of the slave-holding elite) began placing more emphasis upon the recreational aspects of the hunt. Leisure hunting also became increasingly popular in the North, but by the 1830s some southerners began promoting it as an element of a distinctively southern way of life.’10
Hunting in the South, detached from utility, upheld the old complex of dominance and mastery, in a new context. ‘Whether it was expressed as dominion over women, slaves, domestic animals, property, nature, or death, southern hunters craved proof that they could control the world outside of themselves.’11 ‘Nothing demonstrated mastery as unequivocally as the taking of life, so for many the kill and the delivery of the trophy to the hearth became an essential act of domination.’12
The membrane between this socially central complex of dominance and the psychopathic acts of torture and murder is very thin. The slippage between them – against a southern backdrop – is hinted at in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, when Johnnie Farragut is kidnapped in New Orleans by Marcelles Santos’ crazed contract killers. The faked note left for his sweetheart Marietta reads: ‘Gone fishing with a friend… and maybe buffalo hunting, too.’ Later, we see him bound and gagged, about to be shot. ‘We hunt buffalo now,’ taunts the perverted Juana.
While buffalo were sometimes hunted to excess by Native Americans, it is more the twisted sense of utter dominion at the heart of the European immigrants’ massacre of these animals that resonates here.
This history of leisure hunting, industrial slaughter, and strict, violent codes of masculine dominion is a major aspect of the atmosphere of moral degradation that pervades the characters and landscape of True Detective.13 When Jimmy Ledoux, Reggie’s cousin, is interviewed, he says he remembers that his dad let Reggie and DeWall – accompanied by Errol Childress – use their deer camp when he was eleven. This small glimpse into what would have been a very natural part of growing up in the area immediately makes us think of the deer antlers on the victims of Errol and the Carcosa cult, and wonder at the extent to which their perversities overstepped normalised traditions in quantitative rather than qualitative terms. Rape and murder aren’t socially sanctioned, but the vicious power at their heart is encoded, embedded, and diffused, in common, acceptable practices. There’s nothing inherently wrong with killing for food, but as a leisure pursuit, it often becomes a vessel for overflows from tyrannical aspects of a culture.
The more overt trappings of the Carcosa cult are derived in the narrative from a shallow mish-mash of Courir de Mardi Gras traditions, Santeria and Voodoo. These are rallied in a similar way to the earlier use of ‘anthropological’ ideas of ‘primitivity’ – they trade on commonplace misrepresentations, working as easy-to-use weapons in the writer’s arsenal rather than as depictions of actualities. The extent to which the more pagan, ‘othered’ traditions of the South may or may not be hijacked by psychopathic behaviour is less important than the way in which their otherness acts as a decoy away from the shadow aspects of the mainstream. Within the narrative, Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle tries to deflect attention from his ministry’s role as a cover for serial child abduction by whipping up concern about Satanism. But we might see the pagan or African diaspora aspects of the cult of Carcosa, at the heart of the Tuttle clan, as a deeper, unconscious deflection of attention away from the diffuse, historically-ingrained darkness of leisure hunting’s inner dynamics. Voodoo’s African roots are in hierarchical agrarian societies, but its concern with natural forces, and systems of reciprocity between those forces, see it retaining strong traces of the old hunting notion of exchange and relatedness with nature. While leisure hunting, like Voodoo, is generally the domain of good, well-meaning people rather than crazed killers, its internal, historical character is just as, perhaps even more in tune with the mentality of the murderer who wishes to assert categorical power. The murderer’s unhinged intensity gives shocking form to the invisible, accepted architecture of power in leisure hunting. And the animal masks worn by members of the Carcosa cult during their rituals are decidedly not a return to hunter-gatherer ‘identification’ with animals; nor are they easily related to African traditions of mask-wearing and spirit possession. They are taking on the demonised image of animals created by civilised monotheism, revelling in becoming ‘animals’ in the tabloid sense of crazed, ungoverned monsters, rather than invoking the spirit of actual animality.14 In this, they are all too human.
In the character of Marty, the control and power of the hunt is translated into the world of male sexual control over women – albeit in a different register from the lethal control exercised in the Carcosa cult. He fucks young women to escape from his lack of dominance in his home (‘It’s supposed to be what I want’), then flies into a rage when one of his mistresses sees someone else. His rationalisation for his infidelity is subtly revealing. ‘What you get into, on the job, you can’t have the kids round that. So you got to get your head right.’ On the surface, this is him letting off steam after a stressful day at work. But his work is getting inside the mind of a rapist and killer of women and children. Venting this through affairs with young women whose lives he violently tries to control is far from innocent. And, after beating to a pulp two young men who had sex with his sixteen-year-old daughter, he ends up in bed with a former prostitute who wasn’t much older when he first met her. Doing some shopping for his family, after years of fidelity, he’s tempted back to his ‘hunting’ habits by a tavern, which he gazes at as he’s torn between responsibility to a life where power is shared and desire for a world where he rules.
This is just one of many instances were Pizzolatto weaves correspondences between the killer’s mindset and the ‘normal’ world. When Rust becomes obsessed with the extent to which the Tuttle clan control the establishment in Louisiana, he talks of ‘the sprawl’. Beyond the way this family has insinuated itself into the fabric of the civic community, there is in True Detective a vivid sense of a more profound sprawl, with fragments of the killer’s world reflected uncomfortably in everyday transgressions and lapses. ‘Everyone’s guilty,’ Rust says, and we cut to Marty’s daughters playing, one stealing the other’s toy crown, wearing it proudly, then throwing it into a tree. Audrey’s five dolls posed around an apparent victim figure, her obscene drawings… All the supposed red herrings that drove people crazy trying to jigsaw them into a literal narrative whole, all are suspended skilfully between being teasing decoys, ‘coincidences’, and a poetic commentary implicating everyone. The legacy of leisure hunting is a major part of this wider sprawl, its embeddedness in southern culture working to reveal the killer’s madness as a particularly intense node in a pervasive network of power relations.
Detectives and killers as hunter-priests
Rusts’s relationship to hunting is very different from Marty’s. We get clued into this as they approach Reggie Ledoux’s backwoods compound. They cross a bridge over a moat-like river, and weigh up their chances for heading further in.
Rust: You ever been hunting Marty?
Marty: Ah… yeah. Ten-point buck year before last, fifty yards.
Rust: I’m not talking about sitting in a tree house waiting to ambush a buck come to sniff your gash bait. I’m talking about tracking.
We find out that Rust learned bow hunting from his dad, a Vietnam vet who went survivalist in Alaska. This is pre-agricultural hunting – not something which died with agriculture, but something which was slowly displaced and overshadowed by new technologies and cultural imperatives to rise above the animal. Tracking is a human skill which works with the shifting and ambiguous realm of nature’s language, the syntax of spoor and trail. It’s the domain of tricksters, who are interpreters, masters of mercurial meaning. Hermes, and hermeneutics: ambassadors in the agricultural realm of an animistic ‘reading’ of nature which was the lifeblood of the hunter-gatherer.
So, to the extent that the Assyrian king, asserting violent dominion, is the cultural ancestor of the serial killer, the bow-hunting forager is the cultural ancestor of the detective, intuitively processing cryptic signs in a quest to serve the community.15 There is still much ambivalence around the figure of the detective (‘Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I can do terrible things to people… with impunity.’) But stories such as True Detective are about the battle between these divergent hunting inheritances: the hunter as the reader of signs who serves the greater good, and the hunter as the control-obsessed tyrant.
We see this battle going in within Marty, to an extent. Rust evades much of Marty’s struggle by ascetically removing himself from the social and domestic world. In this asceticism – his bare room with the cross on the wall, his devotion to his work to the exclusion of intimate relationships – Rust evokes another important inheritance: the role of the priest. Giles Fraser is among many who argue that modern detectives are the new priests:
The circumstantial evidence is that this literary genre took off around the same time that Darwin was publishing On the Origin of Species (1859) and Nietzsche was proclaiming the death of God. TS Eliot called Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) ‘the first and the best modern English detective novel’. Literary theorists often argue that the detective took over the role of the priest, seeking justice, trying to make sense of the mysterious, struggling to bring order out of chaos, facing evil.
When Rust flags Marty down after their 2012 grilling, in order to enlist his help in finishing off the Carcosa case properly, his appeal to Marty is moral, even religious: ‘You have a debt.’ The detective’s responsibility to society is figured as an almost sacred burden.
Obviously the Tuttle cult embraces the religious inheritance of civilisation, as well as its notion of hunting as a mode of control and dominance. It’s clear that the belief in life after death is central. When Rust enters Carcosa at the end, Errol calls him ‘little priest’, and frames his part in the deaths of the ‘acolytes’ Reggie and DeWall as his having ‘blessed’ them. In a familiar logical perversion (and implicit critique) of Christian belief, death is embraced, and murder justified, as a deliverance into a higher plane of existence. And we should take the metaphor ‘higher’ – and Errol’s talk of his ‘ascension’ – seriously. These are keys to the cosmological dimension of death and rapture in the polar cosmos. The most common transition for ancestors in hunter-gatherer cultures is one of ‘terrestrial transformation and continued presence.’16 In agricultural religions, where power and numinosity is concentrated in the heavens just as it is in the ‘upper’ elite within society, the longed-for post-mortem transition is one of ascent into the sky.
The Divine King and sky religion
The spiral which is the symbol of the Carcosa cult – found on its victims, and branded into its members’ backs, or at least errant members like Reggie and Errol – is central to unpacking the religious significance of the cult. And Rust’s entry into the ‘temple’ of Carcosa gives us all we need to know about this spiral.
The temple is an old fort decked out with twisted branches and the remains of children. The form of it is labyrinthine, embodying in the whole the spiral motif. At its centre is the sanctuary of the Yellow King.
This ramshackle effigy made of branches, bones and tattered rags is the focus for the whole cult, and its effect is complex. It evokes a certain disorder, and its skeletal unwieldiness and atmosphere of decay imply the festering corruption of evil. Yet it symbolically occupies a position – at the centre of an inherited cult of power – which arose in history as the orderly centre of civilisation itself. As agriculture created surpluses and expanding populations, these in turn allowed emerging social hierarchies to entrench themselves deep. The first kings were semi-divine figures charged with numinosity, who acted to ritually bind the community to the power of the ancestors and gods. Creation myths in such societies frequently figured the primal cosmic act as the separation of Heaven and Earth – surely an unconscious metaphor for the entrenchment of higher and lower social classes. The priestly elite, and especially the Divine King, were seen as being essential channels of connection between human society and the cosmic sustenance of divinity. And divinity – which used to be scattered informally throughout nature in the form of animistic spirits – became condensed into the symbolic centre, and elevated into the far-off heavens. All this both reflected and subliminally justified the centralisation of power in an elevated elite, who claimed that the shape of human society merely reflected the ‘natural’ form of the cosmos: the rotation of the heavens around the still polar centre.
This rotation of the heavens, then, is perhaps the major symbolic aspect of the spiral – the concentric paths of the stars implying an upward and inward journey to the pole, which is often figured in mythology as a portal into the empyreal beyond.17 As Rust enters the Yellow King’s sanctuary, he looks up and sees a dome with a hole at the top, like the Pantheon in Rome with its oculus open to the sky.18
Given Pizzolatto’s heavy debt to weird fiction, the encounter with this dome may be a (conscious or not) reference to the scientists’ descent into the fossilised Antarctic alien city in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931). They suddenly find themselves ‘in a prodigious open space which made us gasp involuntarily – a perfect inverted hemisphere, obviously deep underground …’ The inner surface of this hemisphere is ‘carved to a likeness of the primordial celestial dome’, and forms ‘the entrance to the great abyss.’ Rust’s vision, then, isn’t an unfortunate generic flashback, but a climactic glimpse into the mythic machinery not only of Carcosa, but of much of civilisation.
The vortex is uncanny, active, reaching down – but we can clearly see the dome studded with stars, revealing its connection with the vault of the sky.
The final episode where this happens is titled ‘Form & Void’, which concisely expresses the ambivalence of this mythic centre. The form is the image of the axis of the world: a stable, vertical mainstay of the cosmos around which all is ordered. The Divine King is its embodiment on the human plane, as in Classic Maya society, where the king was identified with the cosmic World Tree, which reached into the starry heights and opened up communication between humans and the supernatural world. ‘The king was this axis and pivot made flesh.’19 Recall the mighty tree in the cane field where Dora Lange’s body was found, poised facing it in prayerful worship, and where Rust found, returning years later, a large spiral wreath of branches. The tree is a Carcosan World Tree, a centre of power.
But the image of the axis mundi, inferred from the axial appearance of the cosmos around us, disguises a contradictory aspect: the void at the centre. The celestial vortex can be taken as a pattern around which everything is ordered and arrayed, but at its heart is a sucking black emptiness. A revelation, perhaps, of the fact that this cosmic image is constructed, without real substance, and that royal-religious reliance on it as a ‘natural’ model to follow is just an old con trick, a sham. The Emperor wears no clothes, and the Divine King, when you’re not loaded on either meth and LSD or religious servility (or both), is just a pile of bones in yellow rags.
Rust’s own spiritual journey is closely entwined with this complex of imagery. He waxes eloquent about the night sky in Alaska – the polar sky a matrix for his boyhood stories, and inspiring his final Manichean myth about light and dark. All of his visions are implicated in mythic sky and vortex imagery. As the lights on the freeway begin trailing, we get the impression of Rust being locked into a tunnel, evoking the ‘neural vortex’ which many archaeologists believe is at the root of concentric art in prehistoric tombs20 and the shamanic experience of descent into the painted caves.21 When he’s in the car with Marty and sees the clouds being seared back by a white fire consuming the sky, he is at the roots of ‘apocalypse’. This Greek word hints at pulling away covers or veils, and here we see the falling away of the dome of the sky – which veils us from the burning empyrean of God, beyond the fixed stars.
Most significant of all is his glimpse of the Carcosa spiral in a murmuration of birds that take off as they approach a derelict church which Dora Lange used to frequent. This is augury.
In ancient Rome, divine communications were seen as being encrypted in the behaviour of birds. An augur, an important kind of priest in the Roman world, would be consulted prior to any major undertaking to ‘take the auspices’ – literally, to ‘look at the birds’, noting how many were seen, how they flew, what calls they made – and translate this mass of avian data into a message from the powers above. Augury was central to Roman life, governing acts of war, business ventures, and especially deciding on the location for the foundation of temples and cities. Generally, east was ‘auspicious’ (probably due to the association with light), and west was ‘inauspicious’. Traditions varied, but most augurs tended to face north when consulting the sky like this. And because facing north placed the inauspicious west to the left, the Latin for left, sinister, came to mean unlucky or unfavourable.22
Inside the church, we find that Rust’s bit of offhand psychedelic augury was bang on. The wall is covered by a crude drawing of Dora Lange’s antler-crowned corpse in prayer. She is not only the servile quarry in the hunt, she is pictured as the abject supplicant. The hierarchy of power in both leisure hunting and organised religion are conflated in one tragic figure.
If Carcosa is a condensed, decadent expression of civilised sky religion, used as a vehicle and excuse for brutal domination, is there anything in the name? Some guess it was derived from the French city of Carcassone. It was originally coined in an 1891 short story by Ambrose Bierce, following an inhabitant of this mysterious city lost in a liminal sick-dream wilderness. Robert W. Chambers used the name soon after in his collection of stories The King in Yellow. Interestingly, the key story ‘The Repairer of Reputations’ involves the ropey narrative of a man afflicted by a head injury, who becomes obsessed with the idea of a rising aristocracy (‘The Imperial Dynasty of America’), who fight the influence of immigrants – especially Jews. They are said to have descended from the stars of the Hyades – the old elite association with the heavens. Carcosa popped up in stories by Lovecraft and other writers of weird fiction, usually a mysterious city on Earth, often retaining a connection to the stars.
But I’m fascinated by the sound of the word as pronounced by Miss Delores, the retired, semi-senile housekeeper for the Tuttle family. Maybe it’s because she’s black, but the way she drops the ‘r’ sound (something like ‘co-cossa’) immediately brings ‘caucasian’ to my mind. A disputed term for ‘white’, it’s more specifically related to ethnic origins in the Caucasus Mountains. In terms of the heavy presence of domineering sky religion in True Detective, it’s hard to avoid thinking of the hypothesised Proto-Indo-European people, whose tongue is thought to have given rise to the Indo-European family of languages. These were a farming, cattle-herding Neolithic bunch, patriarchal worshippers of a father god of the sky, whose society was divided into three hierarchical classes. Many theories place their homeland around the Caucasus Mountains. Scholars called them ‘Aryan’ until it became clear that the scholarship involved was racially dangerously biased. These were the people claimed as ancestors and paragons of human magnificence by those dregs of humanity, the Nazis. When we see swastikas and white supremacist (SWP – ‘Supreme White Power’) tattoos on Reggie Ledoux, we take them as simple tokens of nastiness, perhaps evidence of his involvement in prison gangs. But since the pre-Nazi swastika is heavily associated with sky religion, even figuring as a symbol of the stars around the celestial pole,23 we might also see a much deeper historical significance. Miss Delores speaks of Carcosa with a troubled reverence which befits someone whose enforced subservience wrestles with tantalising promises of life after death. Some people relate her apparent acceptance of the cult to involvement with Santeria; but there is a much clearer resonance here with the enforcement of Christianity. The air of Eurocentric racism around the weird fiction which propagated the hazy myth of Carcosa only strengthens the feeling that something unpleasantly Caucasian is at work here.
Killers, class, and the Mowing-Devil
Elliott Leyton – author of the classic on serial killers, Hunting Humans (1986) – is the anthropologist that Marty and Rust should have talked to. He notes that the murder of strangers is extremely rare in pre-literate societies,24 and that serial murder as we know it only becomes common in modern industrialised societies. His analysis highlights social class as a major variable in the psychic ambience of such a killer. Their upbringing is often associated with class uncertainty.
It is precisely at the point in time when a single class is most threatened (when its rights are challenged by another class, its legitimacy questioned by a discontented proletariat, or its newfound status imprecisely defined) that we can expect to find some members of that class beginning to fantasise about killing members of another class.25
Leyton identifies two major themes in the industrial-era serial killer: ‘the new petit bourgeouis … disciplining the social inferiors who threatened his position’, and ‘… the lower orders engaged in a kind of sub-political rebellion that expressed their rage at their exclusion from the social order.’
The concept of the aristocratic serial killer is for the most part the domain of sensational fiction – notably, the character of Hannibal Lecter, the highly cultured and intelligent offspring of Lithuanian nobility. Gilles de Rais, a French knight, lord, and child rapist and murderer in the fifteenth century, is one real-life exception. Peasant children became victims for pragmatic reasons of availability and invisibility, but Leyton also points to a distinct sociological relationship. He notes the sharp increase in peasant uprisings during this period, and comments: ‘It can be no coincidence that the only pre-industrial multiple murderer, who killed purely for its own sake and of whom we have reliable record, was a member of that threatened established order.’26
Of course, the plain fact of the elite’s power makes historical scholarship like this terribly difficult. It’s impossible to know how many well-off serial killers have simply got away with it over the years. Here in England, as we begin to unravel recent decades of children being abused by well-connected media figures and members of the political establishment, it’s hard not to wonder what passed by without intervention in less questioning times.
In any case, amid the elusive clues about the Tuttle clan and the Carcosa cult in True Detective, we sense of a tangle of such class-oriented conflict. The Tuttles – the probably-dead patriarch sheriff Sam, his nephew the Governor / Senator Edwin, and the Reverend Billy Lee – are the socially respected and powerful core, conducting ritual abuse and murder since Sam’s time and perhaps before. They use their power to keep everything hidden, and while children from their own extended clan are abused and sometimes killed (Marie Fontenot is possibly a bastard great-grandchild of Sam), their prime targets were the easy pickings among the underprivileged around the Louisiana wetlands. They are Gilles de Rais gone reproductive in the decadent remnants of the Old South.
Errol is the unregistered son of Billy, in turn the bastard offspring of Sam Tuttle and his mistress Elisabeth Childress. It seems likely that Elisabeth occupied a lower social station than Sam. Although her other son Ted followed Sam into the sheriff’s office of Vermilion Parish, we find that Billy & Son made a living doing odd jobs – painting, mowing lawns and the like.
Errol’s 1995 Dora Lange murder, which catalysed the whole investigation, is unusual in that it wasn’t kept hidden – quite the opposite. Errol stages her corpse next to his World Tree and torches a whole cane field to draw attention to it. In 2012 at Lake Charles he displays a similar victim strung up on a bridge. One aspect of these ‘show killings’ is that Errol is courting a confrontation. It’s not clear why he might want to die at the hands of a detective rather than otherwise, but it seems his ‘ascension’ does involve eventual embrace of death received as well as given.27 At the same time, it makes sense that there is some kind of internal class conflict going on in the extended Tuttle clan. We see that Errol regards Sam with worshipful envy when he asks his half-sister Betty, with a mixture of lust and childish deference, to ‘tell me about grandpa’ as he caresses her. Her story of being raped in a cane field by Sam is clearly a repeated favourite. But in drawing attention to the clan through the public display of corpses, beside progressing his ‘ascension’, Errol may also have been provoking or challenging the respectable Tuttles. In fact, may the two motives have been wrapped up together? In religious history, spiritual ascent to the heavens is usually symbolically linked to vertical social hierarchies. In ancient Egypt and China, ascent to the circumpolar stars was the preserve of pharaohs and emperors. Could Errol’s ascent be both the transcendence of death and the symbolic attainment or usurping of the summit of the Tuttle patriarchy, from which he and his menial labourer daddy were socially excluded even though they were also family? When we find Errol with his freshly-deceased father tied to a bed, his lips sewn shut, it seems likely that Billy Childress had been trying, perhaps at the order of a Tuttle, to reign Errol’s Carcosa rebellion in – and failed. Billy badly scarred his son’s face when he was young – perhaps Errol always had a rebellious streak, which familial sadism fuelled as much as disciplined.
Let’s also look at one of the Biblical quotes on the wall of the derelict church which Dora Lange attended. It seems clear Errol scrawled these quotes, since there was also the image, in his style, of Dora Lange’s corpse. One of the quotes is Judges 16:30.
And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people who were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than those whom he slew in his life.
Does Errol fancy himself as Samson, bringing the whole clan house down, at his expense as much as anyone’s, in order to vent his resentment, and enact some kind of escape from the ‘flat circle’ that is the cycle of intergenerational abuse?
Finally, the possibility of internal class war among the Tuttles and their bastards is brought into strange relief via a seventeenth-century pamphlet from Hertfordshire in England. Often cited by crop circle enthusiasts as the earliest example of a crop circle, the text on the pamphlet cover concerns a farmer who refuses the price asked by a mower for cutting his crop of oats. Swearing that the Devil should mow it instead, he thought he saw the crop burning in the night. But the next morning, the oats had been neatly mowed and laid out.
A historian blogging at Mercurius Politicus contends that closer analysis of the full text reveals the pamplet to be ‘fairly explicit in its representation of the power relationships between the farmer and the mower. The farmer is a “rich, industrious farmer”. The mower is a “poor Neighbour”, who “endeavour’d to sell the Sweat of his Brows and Marrow of his Bones as at dear a Rate as reasonably he might.”‘ It’s a tale of devilish comeuppance that reinforces the ‘moral economy of their rural community’, and acts as a warning for greedy landowners.
While the spiral that we find Errol mowing at the end of episode seven is clearly a reference to the ‘flat circle’ of time and the Carcosa sky-vortex, it’s also very hard not to see a fugitive echo of the Mowing-Devil:
And surely there are further echoes in the cane field that he torches at the beginning in Erath, the Tuttle’s home ground, just as the night of the Mowing-Devil is associated with the burning of the oats.28 If Errol’s murders are a class-tinged power struggle within the Carcosa cult, any parallel with the ‘moral economy’ reading of the Mowing-Devil pamphlet can only be rough. But this flagrant display of murder – perhaps in the same cane field where Sam Tuttle raped his granddaughter Betty, Errol’s beloved half-sister – still reeks of twisted insurgency, a vile provocation against the self-satisfied Tuttles, by a devil of their own creation.
True Detective is bound to the flat circle of intra-masculine clashes: bad men fighting bad men. But within this remit, it exposes a great variety of historical and mythical innards: the contrast between the hunter-detective and the hunter-tyrant, the duties and abuses of priesthood, the way hierarchical relationships pervade human life, and how cosmic-religious motifs and experience reflect and refract social power. The Carcosa cult, for all its pulpy occult trappings, emerges as a condensed remnant of the kind of centralised control systems which have been typical of civilisation for much of its existence. Its hidden perversities and its grasp on public power capture a poetic sense of the momentum of ancient tyrannies, working away behind the scenes as the world keeps struggling to break free of their tainted dominion. Marty’s commonplace sins resonate disturbingly with this power complex, showing how its millennia of influence have embedded it so thoroughly in the social fabric. And Rust’s ambivalent evocation of the pre-agricultural hunting mode, serving the community, reminds us that our heritage is more thoroughly laced with morality than we imagine.
Rust’s pessimism is part of the post-Copernican response to the collapse of the polar cosmos: the embracing empyrean of God is lost, and replaced with Nietzsche’s fearful ‘infinite nothing’.29 But bound up with this loss of fatherly containment is the potential for freedom from the father as abusive despot, the negative aspect of the Divine King as the corrupted ego around which everything must revolve. In the final shot of the night sky we see not just Rust’s sense of the light gaining ground, but also the stars as they are: a field of crystal points unburdened by the projected hierarchies of polar cosmology, free of the rigid nets of power we’re so thoroughly tangled up in.