'True Detective': Does Stephen King's 'The Lawnmower Man' explain the monster at dream's end?
The gripping nightmare that has been True Detective’s first season is almost over, and like all dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it. He’s a real grim reaper, only he comes decked in green, not black, and his blades are motorized, and actually, he’s a friendly neighborhood guy, in a Mr. Rogers meets Slingblade sort of way … if you can get past him being mucho psycho. Behold the demon lawn barber of Carcosa: The Lawnmower Man, an agent of an ancient cult that swears by the Greek goddess of magic Circe, serves the Greek god of fields and shepherds Pan, and practices ritualistic sacrifice by slaughtering dumb greedy Republicans (among others) using a rusty red …
Wait. Sorry. I’m getting my lunatic landscapers confused. That’s the deranged grass muncher of Stephen King’s 1975 short story “The Lawnmower Man.” (The story has little to do with the so-called “movie adaptation” from 1992, a techno-thriller about mad, artificial enlightenment and virtual personhood. A Rust Cohle fave, no doubt.) (But I do totally recommend this comic book iteration, with art by the great Walt Simonson.) No, True Detective’s sketchy greenskeeper is Errol the lawnmower guy, and the final scene of the penultimate episode fingered the tractor-driving “simpleton” (?) as the “green-eared spaghetti monster” and “the tall man with scars” long suspected of being the killer of Dora Lange. To build on Nietzsche: All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle, and evil is The Straight Story.
After seven episodes, it would appear that Errol Childress is the scarred-face frontman for an occult* mob that has been trolling coastal Louisiana for years, one that fetishizes purity and consumes innocence in all forms (spiritual and sexual; virgins and children), then spits and dumps the remainder spitefully. Here’s a fun sentence (not!): These wolfish dicks have apparently sodomized and slain more women and kids than a season’s worth of Law & Order: SVU, especially in recent times, exploiting the condition of chaos and moral anarchy that followed Katrina. They’re protected from on high by the entire franchise of Law & Order that runs the state
of television . These deeply entrenched good old boy bad cops — reminiscent of The Blake Association in The Mentalist (so much fearful symmetry in pulp pop TV these days!) — keep The Yellow King cloaked and keep his illicit activities hush-hush. Call it: La. Confidential. They made the Marie Fontenot file disappear. They stopped the Carcosa legend from going public. They’ve prevented the Lake Charles murder from hitting the press. Those CSI: Southern Gothic guys are slippery fellas. Who’s watching these watchmen?!
*By occult, I mean “hidden.” True Detective has cultivated so much “cosmic dread” through atmosphere and allusion that some think we’re headed toward a Cthulhu uprising. Yet we now see the evil in the show — while pulp outrageous — is human, even relatable. Uncorrected historical injustice. Corrupt institutions. Animal-masked debauchery. (Okay, maybe not all relatable. Hopefully.) The denial of death and the reckless pursuit of self-serving heroism. Mounting accumulation of neglect and indulgence, creating a widening gyre of incoherence, producing an ominous sense that things are out of control, falling apart, can’t be fixed; accent with Lovecraft and visions, and sure, you might think there are monsters lurking behind the curtain of reality, lying in wait to raid and reap. (The obvious lesson here: Don’t live in rural Louisiana.) But the only monster at the end of the dream is our own bad selves. True heroism, in this world, for these men, is defined by recognizing their complicity, however small, and taking some responsibility for repairing their fallen culture, lest things get worse and worse. The older, wiser, humbled, chastened, twilight-era Cohle and Hart of 2012 seem to have finally gotten this. “I don’t like this place. Nothing grows in the right way,” said Cohle of his sick soil/rotten foundation world during one of last night’s ride-alongs with Hart. Both men see the “debt” they owe society. Both men recognize their reckless, self-centered, fraudulent heroism of 1995 solved nothing, and worse, allowed evil to continue flourishing. Now, they are activated to do better — and then, do no more. Both seem certain that they won’t be coming back from whatever comes next. Cohle, by choice. Hart, just because. Both seem to recognize they represent notions of manhood and heroism that shouldn’t carry forward into the better world they want to make. Said Cohle, the man who could have been a painter (or a historian): “Be careful what you get good at.”
If I was tracking things correctly, Errol is the son of Ted Childress, a corrupt sheriff and terrible father. At one point, Ted burned Errol’s face around the mouth for reasons TBD. I’m thinking Errol might have said something he shouldn’t have — blabbed a secret; maybe spoke up in defense of all those abused kids — and got his mouth washed out. With hot coal. (Read Isaiah 6:6-7. We’ll be coming back to this.)
Errol is the grandson of the long dead Sam Tuttle, my pick for The Yellow King. Sam is the father to former governor (now senator) Eddie Tuttle and the recently, mysteriously deceased Billy Lee Tuttle, a prominent minister. But Sam, a perverse piece of work, sired many children with many different women, producing a sprawl of kinfolk, including the Ledouxs and the Childresses. We might wonder: Who doesn’t have a little Sam Tuttle in them in Louisiana? Who doesn’t have The Yellow Sign upon them?
The Tuttles have deep roots in New World sin. Piracy. Slavery. The occult? (Supernatural/devil worship edition this time.) Errol appears to be mixed up with a particularly wicked Tuttle family pastime: A cult involved in the abduction, abuse, and even murder of women and children, a (doomsday?*) cult with language for its theology and mythology (“The Yellow King,” “Carcosa,” “dark stars”) taken (unknowingly?) from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, an influential work of Weird Fiction, whose ideas have been transmitted though generations of horror and detective fiction and colonized our imagination like a sly, mutating virus. (The charismatic preacher’s “viral ministry” + Rust’s dismissal of religion as fairy tale palliatives for the horror of living = a cynical metaphor for the history and appeal of pulp fiction?)
*Interesting that Reginald knew his number was up when Cohle and Hart raided his jungle compound. On his knees, hands over his head, Ledoux asked Cohle: “It’s time, isn’t?” Like this was inevitable. Like this was expected. Maybe time is a flat circle. Maybe Yellow King theology was anticipating turn-of-the-millennium armageddon. Or maybe — maybe — Ledoux was a kind of Manchurian Candidate, brainwashed/conditioned to play a part in a conspiracy — in a story — in a conspiracy of storytelling. His capture was the trigger. More on this in a minute.
When he’s not involved in making neopagan snuff or smut, Errol mows. His properties include Reverend Tuttle’s shuttered Wellspring Foundation church schools, one of which, as recently as 2002, was being used by someone — Errol? — as a stash house for the devil nests linked to the Carcosa conspiracy. At episode’s end, Errol was running his tractor around an above-ground cemetery, or “cities of the dead.” (Is this where the Yellow King killers bury their missing victims?!) We’ve wondered: Where is this “Cacosa” the Yellow King creeps keep nattering on about? All around them. The corrupt, Fallen world of Tuttle-scarred Louisiana is Carcosa.
But is Errol really as sinister as the episode built him up to be? I’m not convinced. At the very least, perhaps here in the True Detective present of 2013, Errol, like Hart and Cohle, isn’t the man he used to be. I heard a forlorn tone in his line: “My family has been here a long, long time.” It was hard to tell if he was proud of the fact or grieving it. I was struck by the circle shape that he had mowed into the graveyard green. This, not long after Cohle’s confession: He desires to bring an end to generational cycles of cultural evil — and then check out of his own dispiriting spiral. “[My life has been] a circle of violence and degradation,” said Cohle. “I am ready to tie off.” (Guess he found the constitution for suicide — and social responsibility — during that Alaskan exile.) Rust living in circles, Errol driving in circles — were we meant to see them as kindred spirits? Rust wants out of life. Soul-warped Errol might feel the same way. Perhaps this sick simpleton Lennie has been waiting for a George to come along and “tell him about the rabbits,” if you know what I mean.
And so it goes that true villain in True Detective is not a single man. It’s an entire culture. One steeped and stuck in a grotesque rut, a Romantic — or love-hate? — fixation with crime and punishment, sex and violence, deception and denial. The horror, the horrorshow. How the hell are Cohle and Marty going to tear that whole monolithic playhouse down? Who do they arrest? Who do they put on trial? Who do they hang? Especially since the most powerful players are either dead or untouchable. What is really needed here is a crash. Not Crash, Rust’s anti-heroic alter-ego. That kind of amoral thrill-junky nihilism is part of the problem. No: System crash. What is needed is the drastic heroism modeled by Maggie in episode six, when she finally decided to Force Quit the buggy, obsolete operating systems making her life such a laggy drag: Her fundamentally dishonest, increasingly toxic marriage to Hart, and, by extension, his equally not-healthy, co-dependent relationship to Rust. (Way to stick it to “The Man” there, Maggie!)
But how do you blow up, like, “the establishment” and make a spoiled society start over? Good luck with that, boys. I think you’re doomed. We’re totally heading to a “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown” denouement. Pessimist grump Rust is going to get a bullet through his eye, and Marty is going to go home muttering in despair. Maybe he can write a true crime book about it. But who would believe it? Maybe he should just mail it to The New Frontiersman.
Here’s another theory. Feel free to skip this part and cut to the Stephen King elaboration, if you wish.
I call this theory “The Repairer of Reputations” theory of True Detective. Some context, first.
“The Repairer of Reputations” is the first short story in True Detective’s marquee literary reference, The King In Yellow. The plot, such as it is, describes an otherworldly conspiracy to control the world via powerful proxies who are either being blackmailed, or who owe The Powers That Be a debt because they saved them from scandal. “The Repairer of Reputations” is also the first of the stories in Chambers’ book to refer to a fictitious play that drives people mad called “The King In Yellow,” which concerns a decadent culture threatened by the arrival of stranger bringing awful enlightenment and possibly destruction. (Chambers himself appropriated “Carcosa” from Bierce, a master of irony and unreliable narrator narrative, who coined “Carcosa” in the vaguely post-apocalyptic “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” a fallen kingdom-cum-‘city of the dead’ cemetery, just the like the Louisiana “city of the dead” cemetery we saw Errol mowing at the end of the seventh episode.) But “The Repairer of Reputations” is also a story told by an unreliable narrator — a madman. What’s true? What’s not?
So here’s a thought. What if Cohle’s grand conspiracy pitch — a unified field theory of all evil under the Louisiana sun — isn’t completely correct? The fantasy of a damaged man trying to bring meaning and form to his meaningless, shapeless life before checking out. His conspiracy theory is his religion. He needs all of it to be true. So deep is his void that he needs something this grandiose to fill it. It can’t be just a few unconnected lone nuts doing psycho stuff. (And to be clear, psycho stuff was done!) No, everything must be connected. There must be intelligent design to “the sprawl”of this madness; there must be an organizing principle for everything; there must be logos. If there isn’t, then the catharsis of a final triumph — capturing/killing whoever remains to capture/kill — won’t be as satisfying, won’t give him a transcendent feeling of accomplishment, won’t fulfill the yearning of his chosen “immortality project,” the great heroic work that grants, in the here and now, a feeling of lasting significance. Basically, it all comes down to a denial of death. For all of his hard boiled nihilist rhetoric, Rust needs a fairy tale to get him through the day like the rest of us suckers.
Like I said: That’s just a thought. And what an unsatisfying thought, too! And it’s not my theory.
I propose that True Detective, a story about stories, a metafictional enterprise that creates a fiction to comment on our culture (or at least our pop culture), is about men stuck in stories trying to change their stories, and by extension, change their culture.
I think the Tuttle brothers (the reverend; the governor, now senator) wanted to use that “task force on anti-Chrisitan crimes” to repair their family reputation by cleaning up the awful, toxic legacy of their Yellow King father, the creator of the crazy Carcosa cult, which lives on via rancid relatives like the Ledoux brothers.
This redemptive scheme* was supposed to generate some ancillary benefits for the Tuttle brothers. It was good PR for Christian values in a “God is dead” world where religion’s relevancy is imperiled; and it shored up their political power.
Hart and Cohle hijacked this narrative and turned it into a self-promoting and fundamentally dishonest legend of their own agency — Captain America and The Winter Soldier save the world from a post-modern axis of evil. Still, for the most part, the hollow myth of the Wrath at Erath worked out for the Tuttles. Superhero yarns tend to nourish the (Christian) American Monomyth.
*An even more super-cynical diabolical version of this scheme: The Tuttles — the Father, the Governor , the Holy Reverend –created The Yellow King cult for this purpose, as a cultural bogeyman to be caught. This is where Ledoux-was-brainwashed/Manchurian candidate theory comes in. Like, maybe, Ledoux (and Errol) were raised from an early age for this awful purpose.
Back to the less super-cynical diabolical version: I don’t think the Tuttles or the Ledouxes had anything to do with Dora Lange’s murder. The man who committed this crime: Errol the lawnmower guy. He, too, wanted to clean up his extended family’s legacy — all of it, including the self-righteous, hypocritical Reverend Tuttle. His motivation: Guilt over his early years participation in (or failed attempt to stop) the Carcosa SRA; and simple justice, albeit expressed horribly. He murdered Dora and festooned her signs and symbols — clues — that he hoped would lead the authorities straight into the heart of the darkness that was his f’d-up family. I don’t think the Tuttles suspected Errol of his subversions, because, hey: Simpleton. Anyway: It didn’t work.
Now, I think Errol is giving it one last try. Learning Rust was back in town and back on the case, Errol murdered the girl at Lake Charles, hoping it would fuel his fire. More, I think he wants to be punished for his own anti-heroic crimes and sins of the past, and he wants Rust the dark angel — Errol’s mirror twin in many ways; warped by darkness, becoming darkness — to deliver the blow. It would be an ironic subversion — and repeating — of his scorched-mouth creation myth. Isaiah 6:6-7: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.'” With that, Errol’s circle would be tied off, complete.
But that’s the part of me that doesn’t want Errol to be as awful as he seems. Here’s the version of the theory where he is: Take everything I said about the all-powerful Tuttles trying to redeem fallen culture and accumulate power with an Ozymandias/”Architects of Fear” storytelling scam — but Errol has been their bagman. Their wetworks operative. Their secret agent in the field.
Their Lawnmower Man.
Which brings us back to Stephen King.
Stephen King’s “The Lawnmower Man” — suburban anxiety horror and a short-and-nasty satirical sketch of Nixon/Ford America — tells the darkly comic tale of Harold Parkette, who’s basically Marty Hart in his mediocre prime. Harold’s a weak sauce cultural conservative who thinks all is right in the world because God is in his heaven. He’s got a wife and a sexually blooming daughter, but he only has eyes for the things of the world — beer, the business pages, and the Boston Red Sox. You can say he struggles with “inattentiveness.” All of this symbolized by his yard: He’s really let it go to hell. In “The Lawnmower Man,” Suburbia is a decadent Carcosa. Eventually, though, the grass gets too tall even for Harold. But instead of doing the work himself, lazy bones calls a service to do his work for him. Enter The Lawnmower Man, and Harold’s weedy life unravels.
The Lawnmower Man is a few archetypes at once: The carefree rural stud, the enlightened madman of terrifying integrity, and the illusion-stripping, you-brought-this-on-yourself bogeyman. So there’s a little Rust Cohle in him. Harold immediately senses a threat to his manhood. “He had seen the type before, working for the sanitation department and the highway repair crews out on the turnpike. Always with a spare minute to lean on their shovels and smoke Lucky Strikes or Camels, looking at you as if they were the salt of the earth, able to hit you for five or sleep with your wife any time they wanted to. Harold had always been slightly afraid of men like this; they were always tanned dark brown, there were always nets of wrinkles around their eyes, and they always knew what to do.” Can’t you totally see Harrelson and McConaughey playing these guys?
The Lawnmower Man gets to work. But when he does, he morphs from man to beast. He grows goat horns and scampers after his auto-pilot mower, gobbling up grass — and a run-over mole — until he becomes obscenely fat. Harold passes out. When he wakes up, The Lawnmower Man explains himself. His story is interesting from True Detective POV, because the political and mythological reference points thematically corresponds with the political and mythological reference points of the show. Consider:
“The Lawnmower Man.” About Harold: “As a good Republican, he considered the Wall Street executives behind the columned type to be at least minor demigods … and he had wished many times that he could better understand the Word, as handed down from the mount not on stone tablets but in such enigmatic abbreviations as ‘pct.’ and ‘Kdk’ and ‘3.28 up 2/3.’” When the lawnmower man starts doing his “obscene” thing in the front yard, Harold sweats the reaction of his loathsome neighbors: “Out front the lawnmower blatted and howled. Harold Parkette refused to look, as if by refusing he could deny the grotesque spectacle that the Castonmeyers and Smiths – wretched Democrats both – were probably drinking in with horrified but no doubt righteously I-told-you-so eyes.”
True Detective. Like King’s story, True Detective traffics in culture war politics, and makes Republicans look like jerks , and clearly desires for them to reap what they sew, or just get reaped. The well-connected Reverend Tuttle tried to co-opt the Dora Lange investigation by lobbying for a task force to investigate anti-Christian crimes that would take charge of the case. And then there’s Hart’s father-in-law: In his single scene so far this season, Maggie’s well-to-do pop, clearly a political conservative, made a big impression by making snide comments about President Bill Clinton and complaining about sex-crazed young people wearing Goth make-up. “Things aren’t like they were when I was young. People said ma’am and sir. There was more dignity. People weren’t out in the streets yelling about their rights.” (I’m guessing he grew up in the same Bizarro World Louisiana as Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson.) Hart tries to put him in his place, though it’s not like Hart is rich with moral authority, either. (How many of you think Maggie’s father-in-law is connected to the Tuttle-Yellow King mythology? Is that how Audrey got that ritualistic sex pic in her head? Because she saw something — say, a video? — at grandpa’s house she shouldn’t have?)
“The Lawnmower Man.” The titular character tells Harold that his overgrown backyard won’t be a problem to cut. “The taller, the better. Healthy soil, that’s what you got there, by Circe. That’s what I always say.”
Circe? Circe was the Greek goddess of magic. Her niftiest trick: She could turn her enemies into animals. In Homer’s Odyssey, in fact, she seduced the great hero’s men and transformed them into pigs.
True Detective. The Carcosa cultists had “animal faces ” — masks — according to victim/survivor Toby Boulair [sp?], aka “Johnny Joni.” And all of True Detective’s “heroic” men? Total pigs.
“The Lawnmower Man.” The lawnmower man shocks Harold by stripping naked and gobbling up the grass chewed up by a self-powered devil red mower. “Well, it’s a new thing the boss has been trying. It works out real good. Real good, buddy. We’re killing two birds with one stone. We keep getting along towards the final stage, and we’re making money to support our other operations to boot. See what I mean? Of course every now and then we run into a customer who doesn’t understand – some people got no respect for efficiency, right? – but the boss is always agreeable to a sacrifice. Sort of keeps the wheels greased, if you catch me.” When Harold asks who this “boss” might be, the lawnmower man responds: “Pan. Pan’s the boss.”
Pan? Pan was the Greek god of… well, many things. Music. Wine. Fertility. Shepherds. Fields. Pan has a unique distinction: He’s the only Greek god to have died. Date: Sometime during the time of Christ. Christian historians and poets would later interpret the “death of Pan” myth to mean the passing of the pagan age and the advent of the Christian era. Browning‘s “Great Pan is dead!” is to the Christian worldview what Nietzsche’s “God is dead” is to post-modern atheists. The Romantics and counter-culture folk revered and revived Pan fandom; Christian culture has painted the cloven-footed hedonist as the devil.
True Detective. The show depicts a culture war of competing worldviews. Christian. Atheist. And the bizarre alt religion represented by the Yellow King worshippers, neo-pagan/cult pop. The Carcosa conspiracy profits somehow from their deviant debauchery, possibly in many different ways, and woe to anyone that gets in their way. (Was Dora Lange murdered — and made into sacrifice — because like Parkette, she saw and learned something she shouldn’t have and “wasn’t agreeable” to it?) The cultists have Bad Pan written all over them. They dress as horny beasts, and act like horny beasts. They are rural Mardi Gras — Courir de Mardi Gras — gone wayyy too far. The conspiracy uses various operations (schools; maybe drugs; and, of course, lawn-mowing) and agents (Reginald Ledoux) to finance and advance its greater, evil agenda. Dora’s corpse? Pan allusions! A party girl jacked with intoxicants. Dumped in a field. Adorned with antlers and dressed with animal skin. She was also posed in a praying position – on her knees, hands bound together as if folded – and left at the base of a massive tree. Of course, the visual can be interpreted two different ways (after rank misogyny and the desecration of the feminine): A Christian (remember that Dora found Jesus at the end of her life)given a pagan makeover, made to worship nature; or a fallen soul, made to heel and kneel before a symbol of The Fall, eating from The Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil. What is the subtext of this terrible tableau: “God is dead!” or “Great Pan is dead!”?
Of course, I could be completely wrong. And I wouldn’t mind if I was. So why theorize at all? I do it because it’s fun, not to be right; and I do it as a means of conceptualizing and thinking through the ideas and themes of a show. It’s an imaginative response to a story that has captured my imagination. Please take all of this in that spirit.
That said: Judgment day for True Detective is coming. Next week: The finale. Will it satisfy? Will it disappoint? I’ll have a review of the finale — and the season — the day after. Until then: Your theories, below. Oh, and if you hate True Detective? Darren Franich has opened a branch of the True Detective Is Dumb And Not What Television Needs Right Now Club. You won’t find me there. But to each his own Yellow King.