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True Detective‘s first season, which mixed a police procedural with metaphysical themes and cosmic horror, centered on a hunt for the Yellow King. The show’s human killer and his cult took inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, which itself originated with Robert W. Chambers’s collection of short stories The King in Yellow. The HBO series, Lovecraft’s supernatural entity, and Chambers’ deadly play that drove people to madness are all connected and build off one another. But before the advent of True Detective and the rest, they all began with Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.”
That tale, about a man who finds himself in a strange and ancient land, is where the realm of Carcosa, the home of the Yellow King, first came to life. Now, it might be back, but not merely as the chosen name of a Louisiana cult’s home. Bierce’s strange wilderness of cold and darkness might be the actual setting for True Detective: Night Country, because Ennis, where people see the dead, might actually be Carcosa.
Bierce’s “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (which you can read here) opens with a man ruminating on the very nature of death. He then realizes he’s in a strange wilderness after “a sudden chill wind” revives his senses. He’d been sick, and he fears he ran from his bed and loved ones in a fit of delirium. After he calms down, he notices it is cold, though he doesn’t feel cold himself. The man then walks down a paved road, finding “weatherworn” gravestones he describes as relics. (All of these descriptions of Carcosa may start to sound very similar to True Detective fans.)
The eerily quiet land’s complete lack of life also makes him wonder if he’s going mad until he comes across wild animals, a lynx and owl, who both ignore him. As does a wild-looking, half-naked bearded man wearing animal skins and carrying a torch. After begging the stranger for information, the bearded man only briefly speaks in “a barbarous chant in an unknown tongue” before walking away.
The story’s main figure then notices it’s night even though he can see just fine. Up above him, he also recognizes real constellations of stars. Finally, he sits under a giant tree whose roots are “held enclosed in its grasp,” a decaying gravestone slab. It was placed there ages ago, and the old tree grew up around it and consumed it.
Only when another wind blows away twigs and leaves from the stone does he realize exactly what it is. It’s his grave bearing his name, his date of birth, and his date of death. The man is terrified when a “level shaft of light” from the rising sun then illuminates the tree as a “chorus of howling wolves” salutes the dawn. That’s when he finally knows the truth of where he has been this whole time: “these were ruins of the ancient and famous city of Carcosa.”
The original Carcosa, a place that still inspires writers to this day, shares the same stars as the realm of the living. It’s both of this world and not of this world, blurring the lines between the natural and the supernatural. “Ancient” Carcosa is also a place without warmth, a land where no living person should be, yet those who walk there seem unaffected by the cold. And, most importantly, that dark and desolate wilderness where the Sun seems to hide until moments of revelation, is the realm of the dead. Carcosa is their home, and even if they’ve just arrived there, they seem to have always been there. It’s as though time doesn’t exist in the ancient city.
Bierce’s land of Carcosa sounds exactly like True Detective: Night Country‘s Ennis. That might be because, unlike the show’s first season, where everything that happened was ultimately rooted in reality, and in the acts of human monsters rather than of supernatural forces, Ennis is actually the famous city of Carcosa.
People in that Alaskan town don’t just contemplate the nature of death all the time. They actually see the dead in the darkness. Residents live among the ice and snow as though it cannot touch them, just as they can see in the dark. Wild animals, like a one-eyed polar bear, wander among the desolate plains as though humans aren’t there. The strange spiral that brings death wherever it’s found is also older than the ice itself. It’s like an old gravestone that predates a giant tree that took root around the stone, for Ennis rose up around that spiral and what it represents. That town at the edge of the world is also where people caught between life and death, people like Travis Cohle and Julia Navarro who had strange connections to the afterworld, wander out alone into the cold as though it’s calling them home.
And people who leave are drawn back to Ennis—a place full of lonely people cut off from their loves ones and unsure how they ended up there—like the dead are inevitably drawn to Carcosa.
If True Dective‘s Ennis really is Carcosa, it would explain all of the strange phenomena taking place there. It would explain why Annie K. dreamt of an ancient spiral, one tied to death and pain everywhere, that ultimately led to her murder. It would also explain why so many people see the restless dead, including Trooper Navarro. Her mother is calling for her from beyond the grave. And it would reveal why no one ever truly leaves Ennis, not even in death. They remain there suffering and unable to move on with their lives. It’s like they’re stuck in a desolate land of the dead where nothing can thrive.
A connection between Carcosa and Ennis would also explain why the Tuttle family cult, worshippers of the Yellow King who adopted that spiral as their own, was funding scientists’ strange research there in True Detective: Night Country. They hoped to unlock the secrets of eternal life. They believe they can find those secrets buried deep in the land of the dead. It’s the same the land of their god where an ancient monster of death just awoke.
If Ennis actually is Carcosa—say rather than just a normal place where fumes from an unsafe mine cause hallucinations—it would also reveal that the supernatural element of the True Detective‘s first season were actually real all along, too. Rust Cohle was the only person who had visions in the show’s debut story. He also once lived in Alaska with his father Travis, the same specter who guided Rose to those frozen scientists in Night Country.
The Yellow King’s follower, the murderer Reggie Ledoux, welcomed Rust to “Carcosa.” The killer also called the detective a “priest” of the Yellow King. And that was before Night Country connected Rust to the ancient town in Bierce’s story.
Maybe Reggie was right. Maybe time is a flat circle, just as it seems to be in Bierce’s land of the dead. If that’s true, Rust was always and forever already in Carcosa. Same as the people of ancient Ennis who live alongside the dead who call it there forever home.
Eventually, we all go to Carcosa. When we do, like the man in Bierce’s tale, will we learn we’ve always resided there? The people of True Detective: Night Country suffering in the cold and darkness might be in Carcosa already.