Rust Cohle, in episode 6 of True Detective:
“Something’s going on, Major. Along the coast . . . women. Children disappearing. Nobody hears about it, nobody puts them together. Someone, maybe more than one, is killing people, Major. And they’ve been doing it for a long time. . . .
I can’t decide if it’s a coverup or the garden-variety incompetence here. I mean, it has to do with those boys we got in ’95, The Dora Lange killing. We didn’t get them all. Women, then children. Now they’re getting no press, the way things in the bayou get no press. And it’s happening in the same area that voudon [the proper religious term for voodoo] shit goes down. And it happening in the same area those schools were set up. . . .
We’re in a muddy swamp here, man. The alligators are swimming around us and we don’t even know they’re there. You know why? ‘Cause we don’t see ’em.”
Let’s take a look at H. P. Lovecraft’s most famous work: The Call of Cthulhu.
In a passage in the story, Inspector Lagasse finds a bizarre statuette:
The statuette, idol, fetish, or whatever it was, had been captured some months before in the wooden swamps south of New Orleans during a raid on a supposed voodoo meeting; and so singular and hideous were the rites connected with it, that the police could not but realize that they had stumbled on a dark cult totally unknown to them, and infinitely more diabolic than even the blackest of the African voodoo circles.
. . . The Louisiana swamp-priests had chanted to their kindred idols was something very like this—the word-divisions being guessed at from traditional breaks in the phrase as chanted aloud;
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”. . . This text, as given, ran something like this: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
Lagasse, being a proper police inspector, raids the swamp cult.
In a natural glade of the swamp stood a grassy island of perhaps an acre’s extent, clear of trees and tolerably dry. On this now leaped and twisted a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a Sime or an Angarola could paint. Void of clothing, this hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing and writhing about a monstrous ringshaped bonfire; in the centre of which, revealed by occasional rifts in the curtain of flame, stood a great granite monolith some eight feet in height; on top of which, incongruous in its diminutiveness, rested the noxious carven statuette. From a wide circle of ten scaffolds set up at regular intervals with the flame-girt monolith as a centre hung, head downward, the oddly marred bodies of the helpless squatters who had disappeared. It was inside this circle that the ring of worshippers jumped and roared, the general direction of the mass motion being from left to right in endless bacchanale between the ring of bodies and the ring of fire.
It may have been only imagination and it may have been only echoes which induced one of the men, an excitable Spaniard, to fancy he heard antiphonal responses to the ritual from some far and unillumined spot deeper within the wood of ancient legendry and horror. This man, Joseph D. Galvez, I later met and questioned; and he proved distractingly imaginative. He indeed went so far as to hint of the faint beating of great wings, and of a glimpse of shining eyes and a mountainous white bulk beyond the remotest trees—but I suppose he had been hearing too much native superstition.
And then one cultists confesses the true story of what was happening in that bayou swamp:
They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. These Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.
Mankind was not absolutely alone among the conscious things of earth, for shapes came out of the dark to visit the faithful few . . .
Only two of the prisoners were found sane enough to be hanged, and the rest were committed to various institutions. All denied a part in the ritual murders, and averred that the killing had been done by Black-winged Ones which had come to them from their immemorial meeting-place in the haunted wood. But of those mysterious allies no coherent account could ever be gained. What the police did extract came mainly from an immensely aged mestizo named Castro, who claimed to have sailed to strange ports and talked with undying leaders of the cult in the mountains of China.
There had been aeons when other Things ruled on the earth, and They had had great cities. Remains of Them, he said the deathless Chinamen had told him, were still to be found as Cyclopean stones on islands in the Pacific. They all died vast epochs of time before men came, but there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity. They had, indeed, come themselves from the stars, and brought Their images with Them.
These Great Old Ones, Castro continued, were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape—for did not this star-fashioned image prove it?—but that shape was not made of matter. When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live. But although They no longer lived, They would never really die. They all lay in stone houses in Their great city of R’lyeh, preserved by the spells of mighty Cthulhu for a glorious resurrection when the stars and the earth might once more be ready for Them. . . .
Then, whispered Castro, those first men formed the cult around small idols which the Great Ones showed them; idols brought in dim eras from dark stars. That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel andenjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. Meanwhile the cult, by appropriate rites, must keep alive the memory of those ancient ways and shadow forth the prophecy of their return.
So will our detective duo seek out and find a bloodthirsty cult of the Great Old Ones dancing to drumbeats around an ancient monolith in a Louisiana swamp? As much as the Lovecraft fanboy in me would be thrilled to see that, I do not see True Detective going full-blown into the Cthulhu mythos. And that’s okay. Because I’m enjoying all the metaphorical nods to the masters of late 19th and early 20th century weird fiction—from the direct King in Yellow references, to the Cthulhu-esque gas mask of Reggie Ledoux, and the stick lattices taken from the art of Lee Brown Coye. I believe it’s even more satisfying to have this deliciously creepy meta-layer grafted onto the show, as it delivers an inoculation of cosmic horror instead of a punch in the face. And while much more subtle than a tentacly CGI Cthulhu, it’s infinitely more effective.
And I have little doubt we will finally meet the real monster at the heart of this mystery—the “green-eared spaghetti monster.” I think he may look familiar to many of you.
A little closer and enhanced: