For the highly anticipated third season of True Detective, That Shelf and our friends at Everything is Scary are teaming up to examine the scarier elements in what we agree to be a landmark of horror television. Welcome to the True Detective Horror Diary for episodes one and two: “The Great War and Modern Memory” and “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.”
True Detective is back and for those who were missing the more overt occult flavour of season one in the under-appreciated (but still pretty flawed) second season, it looks like showrunner Nic Pizzolatto and his team have turned the spooky up to thirteen this time around. True Detective season three focuses on Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and his involvement in the case of the missing Purcell siblings, Will and Julia. The events of the crime echo through time, from Halloween 1980 when the Purcells went missing on their bikes, through the case’s reopening in the 90s, and to its commodification in 2015 when it becomes the subject of a true crime docuseries. It has Jack-o-lanterns, creepy dolls, Satanic Panic, and even something for those of us pining for that old Rust and Marty weird fiction spark: the reference to a place right out of Lovecraftian fiction.
In season one, much ado was made of Carcosa, realm of the King in Yellow — both references to Robert W. Chambers’ 19th century horror stories that H.P. Lovecraft incorporated into his own fiction, and went on to be shared throughout the weird fiction subgenre of horror. This time around, careful viewers will have noticed a Dungeons & Dragons game book in the bedroom of the missing Will Purcell titled “The Forest of Leng.” Putting aside the similarities with a more family-friendly horror series set in the 80s about a lost nerd named Will, the century-old literary reference is easy to trace: Leng is another of those terrible places from the pages of H.P. Lovecraft, but unlike Rust in Carcosa, I don’t think we can bet on our hero having a climactic fight in its literal catacombs.
In the literature, Leng is not a forest, it’s a plateau, but that’s not as important as the fact that it only exists in dreams. A northern region of the dreamlands in Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Leng is only a place you can find in your mind. It is a dark and daemonic place, described in the story as “hideous” and a place “no healthy folk visit and whose evil fires are seen at night from afar.” Allegorically it’s a powerful symbol in True Detective 3, which is all about the ephemeral places in our minds, from which we’ve been separated by that cruel flat circle we call time.
In episode two, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” Hays and his partner West (Stephen Dorff) interrogate Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), who saw the Purcell kids the night they went missing. Woodard struggles with the post-traumatic effects of his service in Vietnam, which has interfered with his ability to take control of his personal narrative. He’s lost his family, collects trash, and longs for days when all he had to do was not get killed. Woodard’s existential pain coalesces into the first great Cohle-ism of the season: “You ever been someplace you couldn’t leave and you couldn’t stay, both at the same time?”
On the surface, Woodard is speaking of Vietnam. But more accurately he is speaking of his memory of his time in the war. As emphasized by the constant checking of watches, regular time jumps away from the action, and the persistent ticking and chiming built into the show’s soundtrack, the characters in True Detective cannot stay in a moment. And yet, they are in many cases incapable of escaping those moments too.
Contrasted with Woodard’s trash collection, Hays, who did solo recon in Vietnam, seems to have made the transition to life at home a bit better, at least at first. But flashforward to the new millennium and he’s trapped in a dreamland of his own. Throughout the first two hours of True Detective 3 some of Hays’ behaviour overlaps between the 1980 and 2015 narrative, emphasizing that the earlier scenes are his inhabited memories. He is embodying a past as he recalls it from 2015, unable to leave and stay at the same time. Hays is on his own Dream-Quest, and he won’t be able to escape that terrible plateau where no healthy folk visit, that place “which common folklore associates unpleasantly with the Other Gods and their crawling chaos Nyarlathotep”— Leng, whose evil fires are seen from afar.