In 1990, shortly after the first season of Twin Peaks had finished showing in the US, Video Watchdog magazine ran a feature by Tim Lucas which attempted to trace all the various cultural allusions in the character names and dialogue: references to old TV shows, song lyrics and the like. This was done in a spirit of celebration with Lucas and other contributors welcoming the opportunity to dig deeper into something they’d already enjoyed. This week we’ve had a similar unravelling of textual borrowings in a TV series, only now we have the internet which, with its boundless appetite for accusing and shaming, can often seem like something from the grand old days of the Cultural Revolution.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): a more subtle allusion to Apocalypse Now.
The latest culprit ushered to the front of the assembly for the Great Internet Struggle Session is Nic Pizzolatto whose script for True Detective has indeed been celebrated for its nods to Robert Chambers and The King in Yellow. It’s also in the process of being condemned for having borrowed phrases or aphorisms from Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2011). See this post for chapter and verse.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): It’s not very clear but that’s a boat from The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
If I find it difficult to get worked up over all this pearl-clutching it’s because a) it shows a misunderstanding of art and the way many artists work, b) True Detective was an outstanding series, and I’d love to see more from Pizzolatto and co, and c) I’ve done more than enough borrowing of my own in a variety of media, as these samples from my adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu demonstrate, a 33-page comic strip where there’s a reference to a painting, artist or film on almost all the pages, sometimes several on the same page.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Ophelia by Millais.
Cthulhu is a good choice here since Pizzolatto’s story edged towards Lovecraft via the repeated “Carcosa” references. You’d think a Lovecraft zine of all things would know better than to haul someone over the coals for borrowing from another writer when Lovecraft himself borrowed from Robert Chambers (and Arthur Machen and others), while “Carcosa” isn’t even original to Chambers’ The King in Yellow but a borrowing from an Ambrose Bierce story, An Inhabitant of Carcosa (1886). Furthermore, Lovecraft famously complained about his own tendencies to pastiche other writers in a 1929 letter to Elizabeth Toldridge: “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces and my ‘Dunsany pieces’—but alas—where are any Lovecraft pieces?”
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): A poster by Alphonse Mucha.
I’ve not read the Ligotti book that’s at issue here, but I did spot a paraphrase of William Burroughs in one of Pizzolatto’s Rust Cohle monologues. “Oh, cool, he’s read Burroughs!” was my immediate thought, not “Where’s me pitchfork?” Burroughs, of course, borrowed lines and phrases from other writers throughout his career: in The Ticket that Exploded rather than explain the actions of an alien organism he simply inserts two suitable paragraphs from a Henry Kuttner story; the opening Invocation from The Cities of the Red Night borrows some of the demon descriptions from the Simon Necronomicon. Burroughs’s attitude to other people’s work may be an extreme example (see also Kathy Acker who was always open about her textual thefts) but artists are continually borrowing themes and ideas, riffing on other works, quoting and appropriating. If you make art of any kind this shouldn’t need to be explained, the only people who are shocked when discovering this are those who want “true” art to be the product of a stainless originality.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): An Athlete Wrestling with a Python by Frederic Leighton.
For my part, The Call of Cthulhu was heavily referential because I enjoyed making these allusions, and it was also a way of making the adaptation thematically richer. The references to Joseph Conrad and Apocalypse Now were a nod to Heart of Darkness, another story about a journey by boat to “one of the dark places of the Earth”. So too with King Kong, a story about a lost island that’s a home to monsters. Art is often a conversation, between artists and between different artworks, past and present. The borrowing doesn’t always have to serve as an homage or a reference that everyone ought to understand, sometimes you merely want some intangible quality of otherness from the borrowed thing in your own work, something to throw you off the familiar paths you might otherwise tread.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Joseph Conrad.
Now this Ligotti connection has come to light it’s increased my appreciation of True Detective. The series now seems even more of an unlikely smuggling of the True Weird into the mainstream, a rare and difficult feat when so much popular entertainment is increasingly inane, unambitious and juvenile. I’m looking forward to the second series.
More of my own outrageous thefts follow.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): The face from Parsifal by Jean Delville.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Max Ernst and Odilon Redon, together at last.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Joseph Conrad again (and not a very good portrait).
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): The Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): A frame from King Kong reimagined as a Louisiana swamp.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Bird borrowed from an alchemical illustration.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, one of Lovecraft’s favourite artists.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Shades of Gustav Klimt.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): The inn sign is a copy of one of the Tales of the Black Freighter panels in Watchmen.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Two more frames from King Kong.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): Intertextuality overload: on the left, the edition of Weird Tales in which The Call of Cthulhu first appeared; on the right, two of the books seen on Kurtz’s desk in Apocalypse Now. Those books are there because they’re two of the volumes mentioned by TS Eliot in his notes to The Waste Land. Why Eliot in Apocalypse Now? Because he has a quote from Heart of Darkness at the opening of The Hollow Men, a poem Marlon Brando reads in the film. The Waste Land is, of course, very famous indeed for being a poem-collage of quotes and allusions to other poets, dramatists, etc.
The Call of Cthulhu (1988): This was an RKO picture. Mind how you go.