I had planned on writing about the ease of reading Infinite Jest in this entry of the (probably infinite) series, but then something strange and wonderful happened. I started listening to a podcast and watching a tv show that both had these odd connections to one of the genres Infinite Jest dabbles in: Weird Fiction. One of the major weird fiction writers was H.P. Lovecraft, and he described weird fiction in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature“, “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” At the (still) 63rd page into Infinite Jest, this uncanny idea has certainly creeped into the edges of the story so far. See my previous post for some examples. Those 63 pages have continued to ring in my mind as I watched HBO’s True Detective and listened to the fantastically funny and weird Welcome to Night Vale. Both are drenched in that weird fiction vibe that really gets my goat. So much fun, let’s investigate!
True Detective is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. It instantly became a favorite when Matthew McConaughey began his quiet drawling musings on the unnatural quality of humanity. Here’s a guy who is very clearly out there, maybe crazy, maybe just drug addled, and yet he holds a pretty important job. We’re introduced to him as he takes his first major murder case with his partner, played wonderfully by Woody Harrelson, and already it is quite obvious that they are two different kinds of men. McConaughey plays Rust Cohle (best name ever?) as close to an alien as you can get while still being technically human. He has a past in deep undercover situations with drug runners so maybe he’s just done one too many lines to function like a normal person anymore. Or maybe he’s tapped into the deep dark secret that we’re hiding from ourselves. Maybe we have, as he opines on in the car as they drive away from the ritualistic murder scene at the beginning of the pilot episode, become too self aware. We have separated ourselves from nature and we do horrible and strange things because of that. I don’t really agree with much of what Rust Cohle says, but his ideas can’t help but be mesmerizing. The show acts as a genre piece, a serial killer murder mystery steeped in the weird and exotic Louisiana bayou atmosphere tinged with the supernatural.
There have been about a billion blog posts about True Detective‘s connection to The King in Yellow, a weird fiction book by Robert W. Chambers which influenced people like H.P. Lovecraft and, pretty obviously, Nic Pizzolatto, the writer of True Detective. The first and biggest clue is that the big bad in True Detective is called The Yellow King, and a diary left by the murder victim in the first episode has several other references to the The King in Yellow. The majority of the stories in The King in Yellow take place in Carcosa, a fictitious town where a bunch of strange things happen throughout the history of weird fiction. It has popped up in Lovecraft’s stories and originated in an Ambrose Bierce short story. And it is the supposed location of The Yellow King in True Detective. These references cannot be coincidences and they point the show in a more uncanny direction than a story about police normally goes. It’s fascinating to watch a show become a huge cultural phenomenon and also immerse itself and its viewers in the deep end of this little known genre.
Speaking of fictional towns where a bunch of crazy things happen, Welcome to Night Vale! This parody of A Prairie Home Companion gets its fun from turning Garrison Keillor into a local radio host in a town where the dog park is not fit for dog or human occupancy thanks to the supernatural forces and wormholes to other dimensions that pop up in it from time to time. It’s a comedy show first and foremost, but I only listen at night to bring out the more insidious elements in the show’s production. Mixed in with reports of a Glow Cloud that slowly moves over the town raining animal carcasses (starting small and building up to a lion, for maximum absurdity) are the usual things like traffic reports, though those often have the narrator/host relaying information about traffic in their small south western town and asking why we’re even driving when cars have been specifically outlawed by the town’s not-so Secret Police. The deadpan delivery of these jokes/genre tropes works superbly well, echoing the voice of Rust Cohle’s philosophical ramblings and letting the weird fiction elements feel as real as possible.
There’s more going on here than just three things that work in the weird fiction genre. The King in Yellow is, in the book, the name of a play which, when read, will cause the reader to go insane. I haven’t gotten to that part of Infinite Jest yet, but I’m pretty sure there’s an obvious parallel there to the film cartridge that lends its own name to the book’s title and is “so entertaining to its viewers that they lose all interest in anything other than viewing it and thus eventually die”(Wikipedia). Maybe Rust Cohle has read The King in Yellow and has tapped into the sub- or un-conscious of the universe itself. He has these visions that might just be drug flashbacks or might be nature telling him that he’s on the right path, or, alternately, on very much the wrong one. This is the excitement of a show that hasn’t ended yet. Maybe Night Vale is the sister city to Carcosa, too, and perhaps they share cultural exports like the shrouded figures that inhabit Night Vale’s seedier locations. The King in Yellow is, perhaps, the prequel to Infinite Jest, both exposing the sub-human nature of humanity to their readers or viewers. It’s something to think about, at least.