Tag Archives: true detective

Interlude 2: True Detective and Galveston

6 May

(Not a poem, and I kind of wish it were.)

During the True Detective hullabaloo, a lot of people were looking for ciphers to the show, texts that could explain what it meant, what Pizzoloto was up to, what the references to old horror fiction were doing in a police procedural. Some people suggested Robert Chambers; some suggested Ambrose Bierce or Thomas Ligotti; but the true key text was Pizzaloto’s own first novel, Galveston.

Galveston follows Cody, a hard-living, none too bright ne’er do well through a fallout with his low-rent crime boss, a man names Pritz. Cody’s double-crossed and ends up on the run with a teenage prostitute and a small child. He seeks refuge in a cheap motel on the Texas Gulf Coast and waits.

And waits. And drinks. And waits.

Let me start by saying, it isn’t great. In fact, it was a pretty big disappointment. It’s thin; it’s a bit one-note; it’s predictable; it feels undercooked; and there aren’t enough characters.

But as a precursor to Detective, it’s intriguing.

Pizzoloto uses the same split narrative device, telling the story out of order. Cody is 40, now he’s 55, now he’s 40 again. (This same device is what made Detective so compelling, only here there is none of the self-delusion or burgeoning sartorial self-awareness.)

The heat. The south. Women on the fringe preyed upon by an uncaring society. Even intimations of Satan worship, secret societies. Also the logic of crime fiction—always inexorable, always inevitable, always pre-determined—at work. Old sins come back to find you.

Don't believe the blurbs or the hype. Merely okay.

Don’t believe the blurbs or the hype. Merely okay.

What Pizzoloto does differently is shift the old crimes into something akin to old virtues. Your basic decency will find you out.

Which is the big message[1] of Detective, despite the grim tone and dark theatrics: given enough time, your heroics will emerge.

Redemption is just ten years around the corner. Isn’t that what the show is saying, as Harrelson and McConaughey stumble off under a canopy of brave stars?

It’s in stark contrast to the main lessons of crime fiction, which at its core is a fatalistic, deterministic genre of literature with a series of interlocking messages drilled into readers’ heads over and over: there are no clean getaways; nobody gets away with anything; you will pay for your sins; if you are poor, you’ll stay poor; and behind every rich man there’s a crime.

Or, to put it more succinctly: you. can’t. win.

There are many strands to crime fiction, but the roots of it are in the Great Depression and the post-war years. The high practitioners of the genre—James Cain, David Goodis, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson[2], James Ellroy, Ross McDonald and James Crumley to name a few—all understand the doomy loss of innocence and the necessity to persevere. It isn’t enough for the characters to give in to entropy and decay; the genre is already too disgusted with the vile grotesqueries of the world to do this. Stoicism and violence are only part of the genre’s magic. Outrage, barely contained on the page, this is yet another.

Pizzolatto is young and hungry. His first novel lacks the elegance of half of the above list, and the hard-earned, easy brutality[3] of the rest. He has very little of the outrage. (Detective, in contrast, has an overabundance.)

Galveston isn’t bad. But I’ve seen Cody before, so many times, in crime fiction. He brings to little that’s new to a genre that has so many great novels already within it. (My God, The Twenty Year Death came out last year, and Hawthorne & Child, too.) The book is humorless. The stoicism is exhausting. There’s something shaggy and indistinct about the whole affair. I felt like I was reading the middle book of a trilogy. The writing is good, but it lacks that electricity, the gasoline, the holy fire that keeps me thrilled with the written word.

Here’s a sample:

“Certain experiences you can’t survive, and afterward you don’t fully exist, even if you failed to die. Everything that happened in May of 1987 is still happening, only now it’s twenty years later, and what happened is just a story. In 2008, I’m walking my dog on the beach. Trying to. I can’t walk fast or well.”

Which loops me back to True Detective, and gives us the bedrock normality of the show. Pizzolatto isn’t a visionary, he’s a devotee of a very specific genre. And he has talent—some of McConaughey’s speeches are dynamite—but he lucked out, with the cast, with the director, with HBO.

We’ll see what he comes up with next season. Or in the film version of this oh so very middling novel.




[1] I should know; I watched the mofo twice.

[2] He actually doesn’t fit in with this list, but what the hell, he rules.

[3] Hammett was a Pinkerton.


Interlude 1: Thomas Ligotti, True Detective, and the conspiracy against human race.

11 Apr


I’ve long been a fan of what’s labeled weird fiction for a long time. This includes horror, science fiction and fantasy, but only in so far as the narrative is damaged somehow, askew, bent. My canon for weird fiction is lengthy, a sort of catch-all, including H.P. Lovecraft—who is a touch overrated, despite writing some excellent stories[1]—Robert Howard, Robert Chambers, Algernon Blackwood, E.T.A Hoffman, Philip K. Dick, Barry Hannah, Flannery O’Connor, Michel Houellbecq, Jonathan Carroll (Voice of Our Shadow is excellent), Roberto Bolano, J.K. Huysman, Angela Carter, Victor LaVelle, James Ellroy, as well as the literary pornographers Marquis DeSade, Anais Nin, George Bataille. Obsessives, lunatics, visionaries, perverts, creeps both high and low—I welcome weird writers of all types. I include in the above list the comic book writers Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (and don’t ask me to weigh in on that particular debate; I love them both), Neil Gaiman, to a lesser extent Peter Milligan and Ed Brubaker.

The point: I like the weird, the dark and the bizarre. Always have.

I also thought True Detective was excellent. So I was excited to dig into some new weirdoes on the literary fringe. I dipped into Brian Evenson (intriguing and singular but one note) and Heidi Julavitz (a very fine writer I must return to).

Which brings me to the horror writer Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti is a horror writer of some reputation. I haven’t been able to get my hands on his fiction as of yet. But I did pick up his merciless, vicious overview of pessimist philosophy, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I just finished it.

I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Um, no and kind of boring.

Um, no, and kind of boring.


Ligotti summarizes the pessimists including Nietzche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Cioran, Weineger (a minor character in the excellent The World as I Found It), alongside other angry, dour, despondent dudes. The basic belief is this: consciousness is a curse, an evolutionary mistake, and mankind should quickly and quietly bring itself to extinction by not having any more offspring. A collective eradication of our species.

Ligotti reiterates certain key points to his philosophy, but the big one is the oldest: space is empty and bleak, airless, full of sucking black holes; life exists to gobble up other life; non-life exists to gobble up life; nothing can justify or redeem humanity because humanity is temporary and useless; and humans are merely meat puppets with no agency, free will, and only the illusion of control. Ligotti’s using this tradition of pessimist philosophy to argue for nothing less than the complete extinction of the human race, and as quickly as possible. His version of reality is the ultimate reduction, and therefore very difficult to crack[2].He and his ilk invert the values of most of history by laying all our turmoil at the feet of hope and belief, while arguing that there is succor in nothingness and suicide.

Here’s a taste:

“We know we are alive and we know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. 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.”

No daisies or puppies or rainbows for him.

Fifteen years ago this would have gnawed at my waking hours and plagued my dreams. I would have jotted down notes, read arguments against Ligotti’s summation. I would have fretted, worried, paced. I would have lost sleep, had nightmares, night sweats. I would have suffered.

Now I just shrug. Hundreds of thousands of thinkers, artists, poets, and theologians have grappled with these issues for millennia, so I’m not going to add anything by trying to contradict his claims. I’ll just say that he’s cartoonishly[3] negative. Not content to live in a shitty paradigm of joylessness, he insists that everyone from the dawn of man to the end of time lives in the exact same terror that he does. In a word, he’s wrong.

I defer to Epicure and sunlight and the transcendentalists and the music of Bach and Ray Charles. I would also quote William James on rationality and logic and philosophy:

“There arises a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned . . . . What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”

Put another way: Nothing is logical. Not even the most basic premise. Everything is preconditioned by the flawed human minds that create them[4]. We are our experiences and beliefs.

Eat it, Ligotti.


Much of the book is an oddball sequel of H.P. Lovecraft’s overview of the at the time current weird fiction, Supernatural Horror in Literature. (I wouldn’t recommend this either; for fans of weird fiction I would suggest the out of print and magnificent Illustrated History of Fantasy by Franz Rottensteiner). Ligotti is on his surest footing when writing about other writers, adding a few surprises into the mix. He covers Poe and Lovecraft, but also Pirandello and Conrad (he correctly loops in Heart of Darkness in this literary lineage). I almost enjoyed his literary analysis, although his stilted writing style, a kind of faux doctoral thesis psychobabble, never really worked for me.

With all those caveats, there’s something disturbing—and intriguing—in Ligotti’s tone, almost ironic, close to Swift in his famous essay, “A Modest Proposal.” Only Ligotti isn’t joking, satirizing, pretending. He believes his own nonsense, like one of Jim Jones’s acolytes guzzling the kool-aid.

I’ll let him have the last word. You tell me if this wouldn’t work as some type of absurdist high-concept comedy routine (voiced by Adam West, perhaps):

“You would then know the horror and know that you know it: that you are nothing but a human puppet would not be impossible to believe. What now? Answer: Now you go insane. Now our species goes extinct in great epidemics of madness, because now we know that behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world. Now we know that we are uncanny paradoxes. We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does.”

Gimme a break.


[1] I love At the Mountains of Madness.

[2] It’s simplicity should be a huge warning sign to people.

[3] You can hear the nihilists in The Big Lebowski yelling from the pages: “We believe in nozing, Lebowski, nothing!”

[4] And this, too, offers little solace in the final tally.