A month ago I touched on the notion of Gothic horror and its links to crime fiction. Today I’d like to examine two extraordinary writers and showcase the different ways they have linked an existing genre to their own work, each to stunning effect, and each in radically different ways. The writers are Nic Pizzolatto, an American novelist, screenwriter and creator of the HBO series True Detective, and Daniel Woodrell, an American novelist whose work focuses mainly on the Missouri Ozarks.
First though, to Pizzolatto and True Detective. In every way, the show is a triumph. Each hour flies by stuffed full of some of the finest writing, acting, cinematography, exploration of plot, character and place that you could wish for. But it is also a stunning example of a writer deeply knowledgeable about his subject, his genre and his location. Set in both the present day and also during a 1995 murder investigation the story is based in Louisiana and is as good a representation of Southern Gothic as you will find. The show is full of respectful nods to classic works of Gothic horror and also contains all the classic tropes of Southern Gothic. But it also contains some of my favourite crime fiction tropes. One, in particular, that of misdirection, occurs in the opening scenes. The bizarre sight of Dora Lange’s corpse, painted with strange markings and deliberately lacerated, is topped with antlers and found kneeling at the base of a tree. An offering perhaps, but certainly a stark opening image. The detectives, and by the design the viewer for we see the story through their eyes, focus naturally on the body. In so doing they fall for the misdirection. The clue in this scene, and if you haven’t seen the show you don’t need to stop reading for I won’t spoil the plot, is not the corpse, but the tree. To understand the clue you need to know, or be able to hint at, some of the tropes of Southern Gothic. This is where Pizzolatto’s deep understanding of genre is to be found. He sprinkles Southern Gothic tropes throughout the story. The use of physical decay to represent moral decay is one example. The show is full of images of the aftermath of particular events, fire and hurricanes are used extensively, and the landscape that has been left behind, gloriously shot on 35mm film, is a stark reminder of the moral decay of our age. We see churches destroyed by fire, communities ravaged by the elements and when Detective Rustin Cohle speaks openly about such issues as moral decay his partner’s discomfort is our discomfort. Cohle’s nihilism forces us to confront our own morality and own our shallow philosophical bent. In this regard, Pizzolatto drifts the show into early film noir territory to astonishing effect. We agree with Cohle’s partner Hart when he urges Cohle not to speak of such things, but in a way, we can’t turn away. We have to know more. Very Gothic, and very noir at the same time.
The collapse of southern hierarchies and of the traditional plantation owning aristocracy is another feature of Southern Gothic and True Detective embraces this theme from the very beginning, not least by locating the corpse in a sugar cane plantation. As a piece of misdirection, the tree is subtle and brilliant. What it represents to me, if you’ll forgive the crude analysis, is the longevity of hierarchy, and of the deep-rooted hold that corruption can take on a society if allowed to go unchecked. It also serves as a more obvious representation of family, in the form of a tree that maps the individual strands of the corruption the detectives are facing. Follow the strands, and they will lead you to the truth. The show also contains, in addition to frequent references to alcohol, which we have already looked at, a host of nods to classic Gothic horror. The reference to the Yellow King, on a flyer found in the victim’s diary, is in clear homage to The King In Yellow (1895) by Robert W. Chambers, a title we touched on briefly a month ago. The title of the book, and indeed quotes from it including repeated references in the diary to Carcosa are used throughout the series. True Detective is an excellent example of how closely linked crime fiction and all things Gothic are.
In contrast to Pizzolatto, there are writers who follow a different path. Few writers are able to create a new category of sub-genre for their work and have the description readily accepted by critics and readers. When done right, as in the case of country noir a term created by Daniel Woodrell the impact can be incredible. Woodrell is the author of several novels, most of which are set in the Missouri Ozark mountains and he coined the phrase country noir for his 1996 novel Give Us A Kiss and it has stuck ever since. You can’t simply invent a genre without demonstrating a deep knowledge of your stories and their surroundings. Genre isn’t something that we simply bestow, it needs to be earned.
Woodrell however, speaks and writes with such a deep understanding of his time and location that he thoroughly deserves to have created his own sub-genre. He is a true Ozarker and his family history is rooted in the mountains. Perhaps the most well known of his works is Winter’s Bone (2006) which was made into an award-winning film in 2010 starring Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes. At the heart of the story are 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) and her search for what happened to her father. Pretty much everyone in the story is involved in the manufacture or consumption of methamphetamine and there is little in which to seek solace, just as you would expect in a noir story. At the heart of Winter’s Bone though are the themes of taboo and of the need to tread carefully over old ground. Actually, you could say the same about True Detective. In the Ozark mountains, family secrets run deep and if you are going to trespass over sacred ground you need to have the courage of your convictions. Young Ree is mature beyond her years, but that doesn’t prevent her from endangering her own life in the search for what happened to her father.
Pizzolatto and Woodrell are two writers at the top of their game. A deep understanding of genre, respectful nods to the tropes that fans want to see, and an astonishing writing talent that deserves to be celebrated.
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