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Six Degrees of Separation: “True Detective” and the Ransom Center

I am already missing Rust Cohle, Marty Hart, and sinister references to the “Yellow King.” If you are not sure what I am talking about, it’s the first season of the HBO crime series True Detective. A ritualistic murder investigation set against a backdrop of oil refineries in the swamps of the Louisiana bayou, True Detective is full of philosophical musings and obscure literary references including spiral symbols, black stars, yellow kings, and a fictional place named Carcosa. What does any of this have to do with the Ransom Center?

As I watched Rust and Marty enter into a wicked, sunken maze of brick tunnels, I thought “I bet the Ransom Center has a link to this show.” With the Center’s many collections in literature, film, photography, art, performing arts, and rare books, I am quite sure it is possible to connect almost any news story or popular culture reference to one of the Ransom Center’s collections in fewer than six degrees. Can I link Matthew McConaughey to the Ransom Center?

 

Start

1. Journalist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce wrote the horror story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” in 1886. The story explores death, light, and darkness and is about a man who awakens from a sickness-induced sleep to find himself lost in an unfamiliar wilderness. Sound familiar?

The Ransom Center has three photos of Ambrose Bierce in the Literary File Collection (box: PH:LF:Small Alphabet).

 

2. Writer Robert W. Chambers borrows the name of Ambrose’s ancient city, Carcosa, and builds it into a mysterious and cursed city in his collection of short stories The King in Yellow. The stories in the book are linked by a fictional play of the same name, which induces despair and insanity in those who read it or see it performed. Considered “weird fiction” under the subgenre of speculative fiction, Chamber’s The King in Yellow has inspired many writers, including H. P. Lovecraft.

The Ransom Center owns an 1895 edition of The King in Yellow. It is just one of the 35,000 volumes in the L.W. Currey science fiction and fantasy collection (call number: PS 1284 K563 1895a).

Despite being out of copyright and freely available on the internet, the book has created literary buzz and climbed into a best-selling spot on Amazon. According to the Wall Street Journal, after episode five of True Detective, sales increased 71percent, elevating The King in Yellow into spot No. 7 on Amazon.com.

The Ransom Center also has some letters by Chambers and the handwritten draft of his short story “The Maker of Moons,” which was the title story of his 1896 short story collection (collection: Robert W. Chambers in Little Alphabet and Uncataloged Little Alphabet).

 

3. The HBO series True Detective is full of direct quotes and visual references to Chamber’s The King in Yellow.

 

4. Matthew McConaughey stars as detective Rust Cohle in True Detective.

Alright, alright, alright. Your turn!

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Denis Johnson papers open for research

A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.
A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

Since July 2011, Harry Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong has been processing and cataloging the Denis Johnson papers, which are now available for research. Armstrong shares her insight about processing the Johnson materials.

“Guess what collection I just started processing?” I asked my husband in a voice that implied he would be jealous. “Denis Johnson!” Johnson is the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. I have his books in my house and he is one of my husband’s favorite writers. So from the beginning, I felt lucky. But then again, I always do. As an archivist at the Harry Ransom Center, every day I have the honor and privilege of interacting with fascinating material.

Though primarily composed of writing notes and drafts, Johnson’s papers have a definite intimacy. He created extensive notes and drafts for most of his works, and, at times, he wrote on whatever was at hand, including the back of checks, envelopes, receipts, a set of paper coasters, a paper plate, and a paper towel. One can’t help but picture Johnson sitting at a table somewhere, moved by something he heard or saw, which sparked a thought he just had to get down immediately on whatever he could grab. This may not be what happened at all, but seeing this note written on a paper plate allowed me to connect with Johnson in his everyday life and envision how he lives and works.

Though there is not a lot of professional correspondence in the papers, there are some early personal letters Johnson wrote as a teenager to his parents. These candid letters reveal a young man who already seems to possess the writer’s eye and a gift for observing, assessing, and describing the human condition. In a letter written when he was 17, Johnson, who is working away from home for his uncle in South Carolina, reports on members of his extended family:

Uncle C. S. told me tonight to take engineering in college, and he would give me a job…I told him I wanted to become a writer. He was shocked and completely unable to understand why anyone would want to devote himself to such a worthless occupation. I think if I were one of his own children, he would have beaten me.

Self-assured Johnson goes on to say, “It doesn’t really bother me what C. S. thinks, though, because our values are at such opposite extremes.” Later in the letter, he provides a snapshot of his aunt.

She is so wrapped up in taking care of her home and family that she has little time for anything else. Today in the news there was a story about a Buddhist monk burning himself. She commented that he was not very devout because it says in the Bible that suicide is wrong. I tried to explain to her that Buddhist monks aren’t interested in being good Christians. I don’t think she understood what I was trying to say.

Letters written from college about expected subjects (please send some money, my grades are improving) report Johnson’s struggles in his unmistakable voice and demonstrate his ability to turn a humorous light on some of life’s more trying moments. Johnson updates his parents about his writing in almost all the letters. Here’s an excerpt from one letter:

The stories are coming as fast and furiously as stories can come. Unfortunately my ability to criticize is fast outstripping my ability to write, and I am disappointed in everything. But a good writer is able to quickly fix the blame on a typewriter, the lighting, the weather, the president, and so on.

He also recounts stories of his daily life such as this excerpt about his infant son:

He still does his morning chores, which he picked out for himself and which consist of turning over the wastepaper baskets, emptying the ashtrays (onto the floor), and de-shelving all magazines. He seems to look upon himself as something of a hunter also. Only yesterday he captured my cigarette papers and drowned and mangled them, leaving me smokeless for today.

Though few in number, these early letters reveal a story about Johnson’s early writing and the talented author he was to become.

The Denis Johnson papers are now open for research and consist of professional and personal papers that document Johnson’s diverse writing career and showcase a broad range of creative output that includes poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journalism articles, screenplays, and scripts.

To celebrate the opening of the papers, the Ransom Center will be giving away ten signed copies of Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to see some of the Johnson materials—from a paper plate to coasters—and select your favorite for the chance to win.