5 Writers to Read to Better Understand 'True Detective'

The hit HBO show True Detective is an anthology of self-contained narratives. The drama series, which first aired in 2014, is filled with dense philosophical meanderings and dark esoteric references. With that in mind, here's a list of authors that will help you navigate the choppy, ever-so-confusing waters of what is a darkly amazing and amazingly dark detective story. 

  • You can't talk of True Detective’s existential nihilism without talking about Friedrich Nietzsche. Other than his well-known contributions to existentialist philosophy - that of the inherent meaninglessness of life, "God is dead," and "the will to power" - one of Nietzsche's  biggest inspirations to the show is his cosmology of Eternal Recurrence, which he discusses in this book as well as in The Gay Science and later in his Notes on Eternal Recurrence.

    In The Gay Science, he writes: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you."

    Something similar to this is said by Detective Rustin Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) in Episode 5: "Time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do we’re gonna do over and over again."

  • Much like Nietzsche, John Paul Sarte is an integral figure in 20th-century existentialism, pessimism, and nihilism. For Sarte, humanity, more than any other creature in nature, is "haunted by a vision of 'completion.'" He refers to this as ens causa sui, "a being that causes itself." This brings Sarte to one of his most basic premises: that "existence precedes essence," meaning that any significance placed on existence is done so by the individual, not by any outside creator or metaphysics.

    First, a person exists, then that person attributes meaning to his or her own existence. Another important tenet of Sarte's thought is that "man is condemned to be free," quoted from his book Being and Nothingness. Because there is no creator, and because one cannot explain his own actions and behavior with reference to any specific cause in nature, the individual is fully responsible for his actions. As Sarte said in his lecture "Existentialism and Humanism," "We are left alone, without excuse."

    Thoughts like this are directly echoed by Cohle as early as the first episode when Detective Martin Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) asks him if he's religious. Cohle's answer is: "We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self." 

  • By show writer Nic Pizzolatto's own confession in The Wall Street Journal, the writings of Thomas Ligotti, among others, have had a profound influence on True DetectiveLigotti is a writer of existential pessimistic philosophy and "philosophical horror," continuing in the vein of writers such as H.P. Lovecraft. He believes that human consciousness and a misplaced belief in the supernatural have completely severed us from the nature that spawned us, making us a mockery and absurdity of the natural order. 

    It's easy to see where the character of Rust Cohle finds his influence with lines from Ligotti like: "This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are - hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones," and "Our self-removal from this planet would still be a magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun. What do we have to lose? No evil would attend our departure from this world, and the many evils we have known would go extinct along with us. So why put off what would be the most laudable masterstroke of our existence, and the only one?"

    Another gem from Ligotti's book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: "We are only chance visitants to this jungle of blind mutations. The natural world existed when we did not, and it will continue to exist long after we are gone. The supernatural crept into our life only when the door of consciousness was opened in our heads. The moment we stepped through that door, we walked out on nature." You can almost hear Cohle saying each one of them, right? 

  • H.P. Lovecraft
    Photo: Lucius B. Truesdell / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    True Detective deals directly with the waking nightmare of digging too deep into the mysteries of the universe and discovering that the truths uncovered there are too terrible for the finite minds of humans to comprehend. We aren't meant to look beyond that veil, yet our very nature urges us to keep digging. It's one of humanity's greatest absurdities: ignorance truly is bliss, yet we fight it at every turn.

    It's hard to talk about the cosmic horror of nothingness and an inconsequential existence without talking about H.P. Lovecraft and his entire canon of work. The common theme in all of his writing was that of humanity looking deep into the cosmic well and being faced with the unavoidable truth: not only is humanity of absolutely no consequence, but the universe could not care less if we existed or not. 

    In fact, Lovecraft suggests that we are no more than corporeal grist for the mill of the universe, fodder for the horrors and depths of the cosmos to feed upon. 

  • Robert W. Chambers
    Photo: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform / Amazon / Fair Use

    Last but not least is Robert W. Chambers's book of short stories The King in Yellow, first published in 1895. It is a classic work of "weird fiction," 10 short stories that all revolve around the supernatural and the occult. The most important aspect of this book to remember in relation to True Detective is its reference to The King in Yellow, found referenced throughout the first four stories in the book. 

    In Chambers's book, The King in Yellow is a play forbidden to be read or performed due to the fact that it induces madness to all who read it beyond its first act. The King in Yellow, possibly a supernatural being, is from the city of Carcosa, a place whose exact location is not known. However, references are made to the "Hyades" in the first act of the play, so it can be assumed that The King in Yellow and Carcosa are alien to earth, cosmic in origin. 

    In Episode 2 of True Detective, Cohle finds a journal that directly references the "Yellow King" and the city of Carcosa, and it also contains drawings of black stars. Black stars are a prevalent symbol throughout the show, appearing as a tattoo on one of victim Dora Lange's friends and, in Episode 5, drawn on a window, framing Cohle right in the middle of them.