Matthew McConaughey in 'True Detective'
Matthew McConaughey in 'True Detective'

Update: David Haglund, the Rust Cohle of Slate's Brow Beat blog, points to HBO promos released in October as the source of McHale's inspiration.

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Michael M. Hughes wrote a fascinating post for io9 detailing the references to Robert Chambers' The King in Yellow salted throughout the four episodes of HBO's True Detective that have been broadcast so far. In addition to the title of Chambers' short-story collection (and the most recent Dead Milkmen album), The King in Yellow is, as Hughes describes it, "a fictional play within a collection of short stories -- a metafictional dramatic work that brings despair, depravity, and insanity to anyone who reads it or sees it performed."

The references to Chambers' book, as well as the invocation of Satanic worship and the occultist Aleister Crowley, indicate that Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson's detectives are on the trail of something much bigger -- more evil, more elemental -- than a simple or even serial murderer. But there's another reference in the episode that airs tonight, "The Secret Fate of All Life," that's even harder to explain. (Don't worry: No spoilers.)

In one of the present-day segments, McConaughey's Rust Cohle tells his interrogators, "This is a world where nothing is solved. You know, someone once told me time is a flat circle. Everything we've every done or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again."

Compare that to the poem that writer Dennis McHale published on his website on December 14 of last year, titled "This World":

Your love, your hate –-

it's all the same thing

it gathers me in the same web

entangling me with empty promises.

and like a lot of dreams

it made a monster at the end of it.

This is a world where nothing is solved --

where time is a flat circle

and everything we ever do, or have ever done,

we do over and over and over again.

Where you touch darkness

and darkness touches you back.

True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto's dialogue tracks McHale's poem almost exactly, right down to the "over and over and over again." Not only that, but the end of the first stanza also overlaps with the dialogue at the end of episode three, "The Locked Room": "All your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memory, all your pain, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room -- a dream about being a person. And like a lot of dreams, it had a monster at the end of it." (In fact, if you listen closely, McConaughey's swallowed "had" could well be "made.")

Even stranger, True Detective has been advertised with the slogan "Touch darkness and darkness touches you back," although that line does not appear in any of the seven episodes made available to critics so far.

What does this mean? Why would True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto build in repeated references to the work of a self-published poet? (And if he did, why isn't McHale credited?) Conversely, how could a poem published last December borrow multiple elements from episodes of a show that hadn't been broadcast yet  -- and, as of this writing, still hasn't, although the "time is a flat circle" line was apparently included in a making-of featurette released before True Detective's premiere? Neither McHale nor HBO have returned requests for comment -- this post will, of course, be updated if they do -- so for now it remains a mystery that not even detectives Cohle and Hart can solve.

True Detective