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Why Does 'True Detective' Repeatedly Overlap With the Work of a Self-Published Poet?

by Sam Adams
February 16, 2014 3:41 PM
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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.

* * *

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

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  • Richard White | April 30, 2014 12:55 PMReply

    I'd rather not give specifics using this format, but there is another writer from whom he allegedly borrowed if you are interested. This item has been completely ignored by the press, but it is much more noteworthy.

  • magdalena.feru | March 16, 2014 4:36 AMReply

    Nobody copied nothing from nobody.
    Both are describing a culture that most of us are not familiar with. That is why it is called the occult.

    The fact that this concepts are new to you does not mean that they are new to the world.

    Did you see Twin peaks,Millennium,Fringe etc.?

    Why they are keep repeating the same storyline?

    You can choose to believe it is just plagiary if it helps you sleep at night.

  • Sammy McNight | March 1, 2014 11:28 PMReply

    Poems pop up every day.

    True Detective

    "...'truths' which send men frantic and blast their lives."--from Robert W. Chambers' short story collection, 'The King in Yellow' (Louis Castaigne from 'Repairer of Reputations')

    King Yellow, Belly of the Beast,
    your magma chamber's sulfur-feast
    will blot all eyes. Let ash illumine day. (1,2)

    Twin meta-stars surrender light
    against Carcosa's crowning night.
    What length, Hastur's blank shadow, none can say.

    Beside a sohind a hidden mask, too near,
    one psychopathic, flattened sphere
    takes heart. Which is the wolf and which the prey?

    Detectives lie at spiral's end.
    No fates advance, nor acts amend
    this criminal, inalterable play.

  • J Smith | February 21, 2014 6:01 PMReply

    Why is this poorly researched article still on this site? It's obvious that the poet was 'inspired' by the early True Detective promos, which were released months before the poem (with the script being written years before). The author of this article, Sam Adams, is also seemingly content in trying to hide his shoddy journalism by shoving the update down to the bottom of the page.

  • R Smith | February 21, 2014 12:39 AMReply

    I would say that time is a flat circle and this line is repeating itself.

  • Baron Morris | February 20, 2014 2:11 PMReply

    Check this Nietzsche quote - sound familiar??

    What if, one day or one night, a demon slinked after you into your loneliest loneliness, and said to you: "This life, as you live it now, and as you have lived it, you will have to live once more and countless times more. And there will be nothing new about it, but every pain and every pleasure, and every thought and sigh, and every thing unspeakably small and great in your life must come back to you, and all in the same series and sequence - and likewise this spider, and this moonlight between the trees, and likewise this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again and you with it you mote of dust."

    Wouldn't you throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke this way? Or have you ever experienced a prodigious moment in which you would answer him: "You are a God, and I have never heard anything more God-like!" If that thought took control of you it would change you as you are, and maybe shatter you. The question in each and every thing: "do you will this once more, and countless times more?" would lie as the heaviest weight on all your acts! Or how benevolent would you have to become in order to long for nothing more ardently than for this ultimate and eternal sanction and seal?

    - from "The Heaviest Weight" by Friedrich Nietzsche

    I frickin love this show!

  • FigureEight | February 19, 2014 5:47 AMReply

    You newbs. Pizzolatto is McHale. McHale is Pizzolatto. sbwen uoY

  • Dennis McHale | March 24, 2014 8:48 PM

    You are so much more clever than your peers. Congrats.

  • Reggie Ledoux | February 18, 2014 9:36 PMReply

    His poem has mysteriously disappeared from his site.

  • Chris | February 18, 2014 2:11 PMReply

    I'd argue similar influences.

  • NuMystic | February 18, 2014 3:26 AMReply

    I find it fascinating that so many comments are attacking the article's author when he attaches no implied blame, judgement, or even a presumption of with whom the original authorship lies.

    Meanwhile the comments are rife will all manner of unsubstantiated conjecture.

    Personally, I find the unmistakable literary connection remarkable and am grateful that he both spotted and reported on it.

    Being that Pizzolatto was an academic teaching Literature and Fiction I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he's familiar with McHale's work or perhaps even knows him personally.

    Whatever the case I'm sure the actual facts will emerge soon enough, but in the meantime I say, well spotted!

    As for Chandler, he's one of many later writers that were influenced by, or referenced, Chambers' much earlier work.

  • Sue Speed | April 16, 2014 3:23 PM

    the problem here is that the poet admitted he was inspired by the teaser of the show and wrote the poem because of that. The poem is not on the author's website nor does he try to sell it. The fact that PIzzolatto has to put up with claims of plagiarism when it is actually the other way around here, is slander.

  • EffThat | February 22, 2014 12:40 AM

    You use lots of big words, you must be thuper thmart.

  • DD | February 18, 2014 6:34 AM

    Isn't it amazing that so many people only see two possibilities - both involving plagiarism? Not considering that that there might be a connection between the two works that we don't know about. The writers could be friends.

  • JD | February 18, 2014 12:01 AMReply

    I have to wonder if 'Sam Adams' knows that both the poem and the show pull heavily from Nietzsche. It would certainly be a dipshit move if they hadn't. How do you see the phrase 'touch darkness and darkness touches you back' and not recognize the 'abyss'? The wording is particular do you not bring up the source material? At all. It's stunning.

  • DD | February 18, 2014 6:23 AM

    Easy - because it's so obvious. Whenever you read something, it's assuming that you are familiar with a lot of cultural background. (Notice that science articles about climate change also don't explain that heat in the atmosphere actually comes from the sun.) And in fact, it isn't important to the point here - which is that the substitution of "darkness" for "the abyss" is an obvious direct borrowing.

  • Jungian | February 18, 2014 1:41 AM

    True Investigative Journalism doesen't exist anymore.

  • Joe Corrao | February 17, 2014 10:32 PMReply

    May have been noted..."The King In Yellow" is a Raymond Chandler short story

  • Mark Johnson | February 17, 2014 10:05 PMReply

    This is one tough crowd of writer critics. Why don't y'all just enjoy the show and quite trolling so hard on this articles' author? You can slam everyone after the show is over with your powerful intellect, right before you crawl back under your bridge.

  • In the know | February 17, 2014 1:46 PMReply

    The scripts for True Detective were written years ago as some of the commenters have noted. This article is ridiculous and the author should be ashamed of himself.

  • Joe Barthlow | February 17, 2014 1:40 PMReply

    "Way to similar to be coincidence" seems to be the main argument.

    Based on what? I admit, certainly seems the same vein. But check the history of music, movies, or anything. Amazing similarities abound. We are all a product of our times. We share the currents of time, style, fashion, whatever.

    Please tell us your benchmark Sam Adams. And beer me up.

  • Michael W. Phillips | February 17, 2014 2:06 AMReply

    My name is Michael Phillips. In 2004, I had the pleasure of editing a manuscript for an emerging poet, Dennis McHale. While the book was ultimately passed upon for publication, I strongly recall the poem, "This World." The title of the manuscript submitted was "Echoes Across Time" and "This World" was one of several gems that convinced our editorial board to give Mr. McHale's book its initial review. I have been familiar with Mr. McHale's work from as far back as 1993 when he did a series of oral recitations of his work at Indiana University, Marquette, University of Michigan, and Notre Dame. While I can not authenticate the true authorship of the poem, what I can do is vouch for the fact that anyone familiar with his early work in the 1990's knows that the style and flow of "This World" completely displays Mr. McHale's writing style. I do recall that in his 1993 recitation at Marquette the phrase "Touch darkness and darkness touches you back" was included in the title poem, Echoes Across Time."

  • Suzanne | February 17, 2014 12:36 AMReply

    Another possibility is that the writer of the poem wrote it way before he put it up on his website. He's been writing since 1986. Publication date doesn't necessarily mean actual time of writing. Neither is Dennis a self-published poet. He's been appearing in a number of publications over the years - you only have to see his book blurb to see that.

  • Jeannie | February 16, 2014 11:49 PMReply

    This article is embarrassing for the author. Take it down.

  • dante | February 16, 2014 7:08 PMReply

    why is this so roundabout. isn't the basic question who copied who?
    if it's the poet - a guy liked some advertising and put it up as his own writing for not many people to read.
    if it's the so far great show - shame, shame.

  • SHERLOCK | February 16, 2014 6:38 PMReply

    Which is the more likely story:

    1) Nic Pizzolatto, given an opportunity to write an HBO show with two movie stars, decides to somehow plagiarize a self-published poet months before the offending poem is put online, thereby transgressing not only literary ethics but also time-and-space as we know it;


    2) The scripts were written and produced in early to mid 2013. Teasers and ads start circulating in December 2013. A self-published poet sees these ads, likes the language, and then collages some together to make a "found poem" from it. He posts the found poem to his website.

    I say story #2. And like a lot of stories, there's a banal, lazy journalist at the end of it.

  • bart | February 16, 2014 6:11 PMReply

    Yall are studying the wrong clues.

  • Schwastie | February 16, 2014 11:00 PM

    It's the detectives' curse.

  • B | February 16, 2014 4:35 PMReply

    Sounds like someone in the writing department took lines from the script and published them on the side?

  • newsyhoundsy | February 16, 2014 4:32 PMReply

    Perhaps McHale and Pizzolatto are both referencing a shared third source...?

  • Ben Nicholson | February 16, 2014 4:22 PMReply

    I'd have to agree, the similarities are far too close to call this coincidence. I also think that True Detective is too rich, and too meticulous, to call anything coincidence.

    Still, in the same way that the series has thus far drawn heavily on other literary sources, it may just be tip of the hat to a poet whose collection describes his as "a life spent in gripped in the clutches of despair and suffering." Would seem to very suitably fit with the themes at play in Pizzolatto's work.

  • Michael M. Hughes | February 16, 2014 4:02 PMReply

    Thanks for the kind words and the shout-out. Just a quick correction—I do have an old self-published collection of my short stories, but it has nothing to do with the King in Yellow. And what a fascinating find in McHale's poem. Literary synchronicity, perhaps? Or something more?

  • Angelica Jade | February 16, 2014 3:51 PMReply

    Wasn't True Detective written far earlier than when this poet's work was published? I'll wait to hear if anything develops but from the interviews with everyone involved Pizzolatto wrote the episodes years ago (first draft dates back to 2010) and then rewrote them again to suit McConnaughey and Harrelson when they came on board and the change in location. And while I see similarities with that poem I don't think that's enough to accuse Pizzolatto of plagiarism. I've heard similar lines like that before.

  • meta | February 16, 2014 8:58 PM

    Except that you should have done your freakin' research before you made this ridiculous article. The show was filmed LONG before this poem was published, and as any person who can do his research, like a real journalist is supposed to do (thank you, David Haglund), could have found out in less than half an hour that the trailer, and True Detective itself, was filmed months earlier. It's not that hard to decipher, Sherlock! Instead of changing this article or at least posting it in bold on top of the piece, you plaster it at the end where no one will notice. Come on, man!

  • Sam Adams | February 16, 2014 3:54 PM

    I have no idea what happened, but the similarities are way too close to be coincidence.

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