Earlier this week, fansite editors Jon Padgett and Mike Davis got together to present a case that Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and Emmy-nominated writer of True Detective, is a plagiarist.
Citing a grand total of eight lines out of the entire first-season run of True Detective, Padgett and Davis attempt to make a case that Pizzolatto plagiarized one of the greats of Weird Fiction, Thomas Ligotti. What they don’t spend much time noting is the fact that True Detective directly quotes numerous other works of Weird Fiction along with Ligotti—which is exactly what it’s supposed to be doing.
Cultural conversations about plagiarism affect me directly, because when I’m not a journalist, I am an open and unashamed fanfic writer. As a writer of fanfiction, I have been called a white slaver, a pornographer, an identity thief doing “the devil’s work,” and, on a daily basis, a plagiarist.
While there have been many plagiarists in fandom, a few of whom who’ve gone on to have healthy careers as professional writers, fanfiction itself is not plagiarism. The entirety of fanfiction is a process of love and nurturing a pre-existing universe. It’s an expansion of someone else’s writing rather than an erasure, a tearing down.
What first drew me to Weird Fiction as a genre is its link to fanfiction. The phrase “weird fiction” was first used by HP Lovecraft to describe the specific weird and wonderful blend of horror and fantasy he and his small school of fellow writers were engaged in. Lovecraft himself was not the first person to write in the style of what would also be thought of as Lovecraftian fiction. But he was the first to typify it.
One of the characteristics that Lovecraft typified about the genre as a whole was that it was a fluid space, a fictional playground where anyone could show up, grab a theme or a phrase or an idea from one of Lovecraft’s works, and run with it. Writers in the early Weird Fiction circles created fanfiction of one another’s stories as a matter of course, sometimes using and re-using lines from previous weird stories.
In this way, the key parts of True Detective‘s mythology were passed down from the 19th century to the 21st. When Pizzolatto writes, “Time is a flat circle,” he’s not just referring to the internal narrative of the show, but to the way that he himself is deliberately and knowledgeably reviving the Great Old Ones—in this case, Lovecraft and his predecessors—to speak to us once again.
It starts with the legendary literary figure Ambrose Bierce. In 1891, Bierce penned the short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” That story gave us the mythical place name that winds itself through True Detective like a red skein of love. But that story also gave us this passage:
Looking upward, I saw through a sudden rift in the clouds Aldebaran and the Hyades! In all this there was a hint of night — the lynx, the man with the torch, the owl. Yet I saw—I saw even the stars in absence of darkness. I saw, but was apparently not seen nor heard. Under what awful spell did I exist?
The experience the titular inhabitant of Carcosa describes—of seeing black “stars in the absense of darkness”—is one that later showed up in another cultural work you might be familiar with:
When Pizzolatto had Rust Cohle quote Alan Moore’s comic Top Ten almost verbatim in the final episode of the season, he knew exactly what he was doing, and he also knew that Moore himself, who referenced everything from The Three-Penny Opera to Bierce in his works, was trading off the same long-standing practice of allusion, homage, and remixing that serves as Weird Fiction’s calling card.
It’s the same remix culture that Lovecraft himself was a proponent of, the same culture that fandom thrives in today. It’s a culture that Padgett and Davis make no notice of in their attempt to spell out why they feel Pizzolatto plagiarized for those eight lines, and those eight lines only—but not when he borrowed “Carcosa” from Bierce, or “The Yellow King” from Robert Chambers, or the Earl King from Germanic folklore, or the superhero comic Daredevil, or Twin Peaks.
Oh, and it’s the same culture that Thomas Ligotti was participating in when he referenced Bierce’s black stars himself in his short story “Teatro Grottesco:”
[T]he soft black stars have already begun to fill the sky…
The Cambridge definition of plagiarism, from which Davis and Padgett quote, addresses the issue of whether the accused plagiarist intended to deceive.
But it does not address the intent to be transparent—the intent to boldly take your place in a literary circle and join hands across a century-wide and ever-expanding ring of horror writers who have been referencing each other’s works the whole time.
In this case, the transparency lies in the title of the show itself. True Detective lay clues at the feet of its fans, and those fans responded by becoming detectives themselves, scouring the Weird Fiction pantheon for quotes, allusions, and hints as to the patchwork quilt of references Pizzolatto had assembled.
The earliest reference (of many) to Ligotti on Reddit’s True Detective subreddit appeared on January 27, the day after the second episode of True Detective aired, in a discussion about how Ligotti and his short story “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race” were clear influences on Cohle’s philosophy.
The fans who dug up these references behaved as they were meant to, and so did True Detective: it functions exactly how a work of true Weird Fiction is supposed to, as an expansion of the endless (literary) horror that has come before it.
It seems mind-boggling to me that Davis and Padgett, who are both Weird Fiction fans, failed to acknowledge the literary context in which Pizzolatto was writing.
But then, they also deliberately twist their description of the citation that Pizzolatto did do. First, they claim that Pizzolatto never actually referenced or cited Ligotti as a source anywhere in the leadup to True Detective. This isn’t true; he did an entire interview about Ligotti’s influence on his work here in the Wall Street Journal. So they bring up that interview and attempt to discredit it with another interview in which they charge Pizzolatto with being “evasive.”
On the contrary. Here’s what Pizzolatto said in the WSJ, in which he brings Ligotti up on his own, at the very first opportunity:
Speakeasy: If you could recommend any single work of weird fiction and/or horror to people, what would it be?