Guest Post: Is Providence Moore’s Riposte To True Detective?

By Edward Saul

Providence #11 Portrait variant, art by Jacen Burrows
Providence #11 Portrait variant, art by Jacen Burrows

Excitement abounds for we enthusiasts of Alan Moore, HP Lovecraft and Weird Fiction, as the crashing denouement to Providence looms overhead. Considering that the exact release date for Providence #11, let alone #12, is aptly unknowable, now is the prime time for speculation. Such speculation should not, of course, be limited merely to theorizing on what happens next, but could also stretch to the overall motives and meanings behind the series, and how that might predict what happens next.

This can be logical and precise, based on the evidence presented; those of us eagle-eyed readers, for instance, had by the release issue #3 or #4 realized that Prof. Alvarezs comparison of Robert Black with that other Herald reporter who found Dr. Livingstone was subtly foreshadowing Blacks inevitable encounter with Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Equally, it is also possible that such theories become outlandish, echoing the excesses of 9/11 truthers in their drawing together of thick black lines between distant, disparate dots. Or, rarely, there might be a happy medium between the two.

I put it to you, fellow readers: Providence isnt just about Lovecraft, his fiction, its meanings and its impact. Its also a riposte to True Detective Season 1.

Stay with me here.

My curiosity about the subject was piqued by an observation on Bleeding Cool, the news-aggregate website run by comics enthusiast Rich Johnston and paid-for by Avatar Press, publisher of Providence, following the broadcast of the final chapter in True Detective S1. It was pointed out  that the final conversation between the two titular detectives, Cohle and Hart, echoes that used in an issue of Top 10, Moores series with Gene Ha and Zander Cannon, which originally takes place between a middle-aged space adventurer and a cosmic chess piece fused in a teleportation accident.

Providence #1 Weird Pulp Variant, art by Jacen Burrows and Michael DiPascale
Providence #1 Weird Pulp Variant, art by Jacen Burrows and Michael DiPascale

When Providence began, I did not think much further—until this very website alerted me to the existence of the series’ ‘Weird Pulpvariants. If youre not aware, a popular plot element of True Detective as it was broadcast was its passing mentions of ChambersKing in Yellowand the variant for issue #1 of the series clearly shows the titular monarch, standing silently over a host of those driven mad by the fictional play named for him. This visual connection—in concert with the frequent mentions of Chambers and his work in that first issue—gave me the idea that series creator Nic Pizzolato might have cribbed more from, er, Moore. My first google-search to that effect yielded a result that hardly argued in his favour: a candid admission that he has long been a fan of Moore, whose work (and Grant Morrisons) taught him the storytelling method.

When you examine the visual motifs of the series, the parallels with The Courtyard and Neonomicon do stand out. In both works, we have otherworldly themes being explored in very humdrum, domestic settings. In both, we have the same provincial simple folkof whose lives Lovecraft wrote perpetrating atrocities. Aldo Sax in The Courtyard, like Rust Cohle in the flashback storyline of True Detective, is a skinny figure with a shaven head; when we see him again in Neonomicon, it is when two other investigators have come to listen to his unintelligible ramblings, Burrowspanel work practically storyboarding the camera angles for that same scenario unfolding in the present-day storyline of True Detective. After his encounter with Johnny Carcosa, Sax carves a swastika on his forehead; the Carcosa cultists that are revealed in the TV series are not shy in adorning their bodies with fill-foots.

Visual motifs, however, do not by themselves provide a proper argument. To make a more convincing case, we must make a brief detour into both Moore and Pizzolatos use of the creative technique called intertextuality.

Intertextuality, as explored brilliantly in this video by YouTube user Nerdwriter, is a technique wherein one work is influenced by, and beholden to another—and, frequently in modern media, one wherein a storys plot beats and significant events are built on communicating information which has far greater significance to the viewing/reading audience than it ever will to the characters. Distinct from metatextuality, intertextuality does not so much tear down the fourth wall as it does poke holes in it to push through messages.

It can be done well—e.g., the use of the phrase We make him an offer he dont refusein The Godfather Part IIor poorly—critics have noted that the climax of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice can be easily summarised as But—but we got Doomsday in the movie! Like all writing techniques, when robbed of meaning and justification, intertextuality falls flat, coming off as tidbits written to satisfy an easily-pleased audience.

Providence #1, cover by Jacen Burrows
Providence #1, cover by Jacen Burrows

Moores work, by contrast, is built with intertextuality as its baseline—the uniting thread between his diverse body of work is the presumption that his audience are intelligent and critical, and if they dont immediately understand the revelatory nature of throwaway lines and images in his work, they will be willing to do the work necessary to reach understanding. Whether its the myriad references crammed into the background of every panel of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or the creeping dread behind Prof. Alvarezs blue, glowing window on the cover of Providence #1, Moores work lives and breathes intertextuality, and is arguably a singular factor in his success as a writer.

So to True Detective. The methodology of a TV series laying out subtle clues to a grander mystery is not something which Pizzolato invented, being a hallmark of older creations such as Doctor Who and Patrick McGoohans The Prisoner. True Detective bucked the trend in two ways. First, unlike the methodology of J.J. Abrams and his infamous Mystery Boxtechnique, the series took it as a given that their storyline would have a beginning, middle and end rather than add a teasing hook to its season finale.

This not only presents a novelty that proves popular with audiences grown used to the keep-em-guessing method (see also the enthusiastic response to this years Stranger Things, and the near-paradoxical clamour for a second season); it also bypasses Moores major criticism of cinema/television in contrast to comics, in that the latter can easily be combed over and revisited while the former has to be enjoyed continuously. In an age of Netflix and DVD scene selection, the average audience member finds it easier to treat films or TV series as they would a comic. The creators of a series can lay out clues that build properly to the seriesending (such as the prominence of the color yellow, or Cohles Time is a Flat Circlespeech), rather than hoping, as in LOST, that the disparate threads will be tied together in a final series.

Secondly, Pizzolato was able to utilise an effect Moore had played with in his early Lovecraft-inspired works, and one he recently mentioned Lovecraft using, in which the intertextual integration of a real-life work seems to make reality a part of the story for the audience. Just as “The King in Yellow” is a book within The King in Yellow, the fact that Chambersbook exists in real life added authenticity to the Truein True Detective, leading some to ghoulishly speculate that the book could have real murderous consequences.

So how does the single TV series compare with the two comic series? If we boil them down to a single-sentence premise, then the plot for each is identical: A stoic, cynical detective with mental health problems investigates a series of ritual murders based on a Weird Fiction classic, drawing them into a web of cults and conspiracies that alters their attitude forever. In Moore, both Aldo Sax and Merrill Brears fit the same protagonist of a modern procedural crime dramatemplate that Rust Cohle became a part of; the later work supplants Chambers stories for Lovecrafts.

Far more can be drawn from the contrasting differences between the two works than the similarities, however. Both of Moores protagonists, whether partnered (Brears) or not (Sax), are not the nihilists that Cohle is: Sax merely lives with a variation of the elitism that Lovecraft utilised in his work, being an analogue for that person, and Brears is only world-weary due to the tumult created in her life by her sex addiction. Sax and Cohle, in using an analytical and somewhat arrogant attitude to their investigations, are corrupted by that which they investigate; Brears and Cohle both descend, spiritually and physically, into a subterranean realm.

Yet we notice that—in keeping with the more romantic theme of Chamberswork, and the unspoken rule that network TV not be allowed to delve into as adventurously depressing territory as comic books—the eventual character journey is reversed. Sax becomes one with the very cult he was trying to investigate, murdering in fluent Aklo; Brears, as the prospective mother of Cthulhu, makes peace with her fatalistic purpose. Cohle, on the other hand, is forced to abandon his bleak outlook when confronted with horror—accepting that he is on the side of light fighting against darkness.

So if Providence is Moore recognizing and silently recoiling against True Detective, how does this manifest in the text? We notice in the opening of Providence that our new protagonist, Robert Black, is dismissive of Chamberswork—it being only a minor fiction and apparently inferior to Sous Le Monde, the analogue for the book-within-the-book of The King in Yellow. This could easily be seen as Moore dismissing Pizzolatos usage of Chambersless haunting work; the empty-headed Prissy Turners recollection of it as The Yellow Thingcould be seen as a reference to The King in Yellows modern popularity being as fleeting as when originally published.

Further to this, though human critics such as Prof. Alvarez still hold Chambers worthy of estimation, The King in Yellow serves only as a catalyst to Blacks journey—perhaps an intertextual reference to the way in which True Detective has, in borrowing the themes Moore played with in his earlier work, helped to popularize them and paved the way for Providences publication—and does not return until the latest chapter, #10. Here, Johnny Carcosa, the closest direct connection between Providence and Chambers, makes his appearance; and as the mouth-piece of Lovecrafts pantheon, informs Black that they have no interest in Chambers. Clearly, to Moore, The King in Yellow can only ever be a starting point leading elsewhere—and perhaps True Detective can also be retooled as a gateway to his own work, as it was to Chambers.

Providence #11 Weird Pulp variant, art by Jacen Burrows and Michael DiPascale
Providence #11 Weird Pulp variant, art by Jacen Burrows and Michael DiPascale

So how does this impact the final chapters of Providence? One will note that the variant covers to #11 give us a couple of clues. Two of them, the Weird Pulp and Pantheon versions, have direct depictions of Nyarlathotep and the High Priest Not To Be Described, both connected partly to The King in Yellow, and the latter much resembling the King in Burrows’ “Weird Pulpvariant to #1; the Dreamscapecover depicts Randolph Carter in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, in which he directly meets and speaks with Nyarlathoteps avatar; and, most directly, the regular/Ancient Tomecovers depict the Exit Gardenfrom #1, directly related to the Lethal Chambersof The King in Yellow, and thePortraitcover has the arm of Lillian Russell extending Sous Le Monde to Robert Black.

Will Moores narrative return to Chamberswork only to finally, and damningly, demonstrate its inferiority to Lovecrafts, and by proxy, Pizzolatos to his own? Or will it be an exercise in setting the narrative straight, steering away from the optimistic tone of True Detective S1s conclusion and back towards the existential dread which both Chambers and Lovecraft originally intended? Like Carter and Cohle, will Robert Black be brought to the edge of total despair, only to wrench himself away from danger as though waking from a dream?

As so often happens in Moores work, I leave the conclusion to you

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14 thoughts on “Guest Post: Is Providence Moore’s Riposte To True Detective?

  1. Didn’t make the connection at all, but looking back at Courtyard and Neonomicon, the pattern is pretty clear, though it’s a loose association which could be applied to Lord of Illusion, X-Files, etc.

    I was wondering why Carcosa dismisses Chambers though. I’d accepted that Chamber’s abandoned weird fiction, but maybe Moore was trying to tell us something else.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pizzolato very much cherry-picked from a wide range of (better) writers for True Detective. He grabbed from Ligotti, Chambers, Lovecraft, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had gotten his hands on The Courtyard if he was a big Moore fan. It’s a good show (up until the last episode, anyway) but I WOULD be surprised if Moore even registered it, let alone grew to layer in commentary into Providence. True Detective and Providence are both (kinda) riffing on the same material. I remember asking myself “Is Rust Cohle a Lovecraftian protagonist?” during that show (answer: sorta? but then not really), or wondering if it had a Lovecraftian worldview (same answer). But in the end, for Pizzolato it was more about just cherry-picking tones, beats, atmosphere, etc. from our favorite genre, whereas with Moore it’s significantly deeper.

    I think the most blatant example of this is his whole use of The King in Yellow motif. Robert Chambers is never discussed, nor is his book. There’s nothing metafictional going on here. Pizzolato simply lifts, directly, the best imagery and tone from Chambers’s book. Some have argued that a few of Cohle’s rants are a little too close for comfort to a few Thomas Ligotti passages (I’ve not read much of him, so I wouldn’t be able to say- he certainly lifted the general outlook from him). In fact, upon re-reading From Hell after the season was over, I was ASTOUNDED at how blatantly Pizzolato ripped off (Moore’s) Gull’s philosophical connection between the solid-state time theory (compare “What is the fourth dimension?” to “Time is a flat circle” and you’ll be surprised by the parallels, not to mention a killer who kills to learn about / remove himself from the endless cycle of time through mystical means)

    Pizzolato never went fully supernatural. despite the myriad suggestions that we’d end up there, he chickened out. Is Moore giving him a metaphorical face-slap for his crimes against weird fiction? haha I hope so, it’s an interesting theory. But in the end, I think Moore’s got higher-minded stuff he’s already riffing on. I’m more surprised he hasn’t mentioned Arthur Machen yet

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  3. This was a fun theory and thanks for writing it, but I’d be very surprised to learn that Alan Moore ever watched a single episode of True Detective, even if word had gotten around to him about some potential plagiarism of dialogue. He probably stopped caring about other people ripping him off before the 80s were even over.

    Also, Moore doesn’t seem to hold “The Yellow King” or Chambers in low regard – if he wanted to snipe at him, he probably would have relegated it to Robert’s offhand dismissal. But they’ve now been several times across multiple issues, even before the tease of the Exit Garden in issue 11. Johnny Carcosa’s referral to Bierce’s stature over Chambers’ is probably in regard to Bierce being the first to name Hastur and Carcosa, thus occupying a similar stature to Lovecraft.

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  4. I certainly never took the lines from Providence #10 about Chambers as being negative towards him. Moore is playing in a sandbox which has its’ ears tuned to reality. Chambers went on to a long a successful career as a sort of pulp romance novelist after his foray into weird fiction. Bierce on the other hand disappeared while in Mexico… whereabouts unknown, making the “he is with us now” line from Carcosa that much more impactful.

    While I understand that the final lines from the show clearly come from Top 10, I forgive Pizzolato because he brought a very specific world-view to a major television show which is seldom seen in popular art. To me, the term “cosmic dread” best describes that particular viewpoint. The world is neither good or bad, it is much worse than that. The world is wholly uncaring to you and to anything you hold dear.

    The discussion of how to endure as well as how to find meaning in such a world is rarely addressed in mainstream entertainment. For what it’s worth, Pizzolato gets an artistic “pass” from me.

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  5. I don’t buy it. Last I heard, Moore didn’t even have an internet connection, let alone the satellite dish and Sky subscription he’d need to watch True Detective in the UK. He strikes me as the kind of guy who’d likely have moral objections to subscribing to the Murdoch-owned Sky anyway, and nor can I see him mustering enough interest in True Detective to buy the DVDs.

    Everything we we know about Moore suggests he’s a books guy, and that it’s literature which he reacts to rather than the ephemeral world of a (briefly) fashionable TV show. If True Detective has ever produced more than a passing shrug on his part, I’d be amazed.

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      • You’re sure he wasn’t talking about Wire, the old punk band? Or wire, the long thin metallic substance that carries electricity?

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    • Cite: http://www.ew.com/article/2008/07/21/qa-watchmen-creator-alan-moore/4
      ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you ever relax and just watch television?
      ALAN MOORE: Selectively, mostly on DVD. The absolute pinnacle of anything I’ve seen recently has got to be The Wire. It’s the most stunning piece of television that has ever come out of America, possibly the most stunning piece of television full-stop.

      ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Which comedies do you like watching?
      ALAN MOORE: Well, over here, at the moment, we’ve had some very good ones. There’s The Mighty Boosh, which is [Laughs] idiotically wonderful, childish, surreal, fantasy. There’s also a show called Snuffbox, and it’s one of the darkest, funniest comedies I’ve seen in ages. And I’m a very big fan of South Park.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I think the press around the Thomas Ligotti dialogue theft or the Chamber’s King in Yellow references might have crossed his radar. He seems pretty abreast of all things Lovecraftian and both those authors featured prominently in the True Detective buzz.

      I loved the show, (both seasons!) and the inference that Pizzolato may have drawn Moore’s ire doesn’t seem improbable to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think that True Detective taps into the same place as The Courtyard and Neonomicon. It certainly taps into at least Robert Chambers’ neck of the woods with regards to “The King in Yellow,” where Moore’s other two stories along with Providence also find themselves.

    As for Cohle’s monologues on time having some parallel with Sir William Gull’s perceptions of time in From Hell, in that case while the creators of True Detective may have read this idea and got it from Moore, they do take it in a different direction. The Yellow King in True Detective, from what I recall, is part of a group that wants to keep things the same whereas Gull wanted to maintain patriarchy and even expand on its influence to create the twentieth century. Cohle himself utilizes this idea to show the nihilism underlying everything he does and everything everyone else does as well. In True Detective, it shows a man on the line, on a razor-tip point, whereas in From Hell Gull is well past that line: in his delusional form of transcendence actually made as such.

    And Moore didn’t create the idea that Sir William Gull was exposed to in From Hell either. C.H. Hinton. whose father James Gull knows and whom he knows himself. had a similar conception of time. In The From Hell Companion Eddie Campbell calls it eternalism. So I think it’s more than these two shows tap into a similar well. Of course Alan Moore himself has influenced a great many writers, and there is that fact to consider, but he has been influenced by other sources as well before him.

    And I agree: True Detective’s ending could have been better. One can only have faith that Providence will stay true to the dark eldritch nature of its name.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You make some good points! but I was referring more to a parallel between the “man with the scars” and sir william gull than I was between cohle and gull, at least in terms of a philosophy or demeanor. If I recall the show correctly, it’s implied that he is breaking ranks within the cult to murder publicly because he believes it is removing him (or giving him some higher perspective) from the “flat circle” of time and space. Not EXACTLY Gull’s MO but it’s pretty damn close. I dunno if there’s a parallel to cohle somewhere in Moore’s work, but he seemed more like a pastiche of the jaded, seen-too-much weird fiction protagonist. And of course Moore didn’t make this stuff about time up out of whole cloth, but once I had read that Pizzolato admitted to being a fan on the TD press junket, it was hard for me not to draw that as one of the strongest parallels between a Moore work and that first season.

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      • It has been a while. I decided to review some of the information out there on Errol Childress and he does have a lot in common with Sir William Gull with regards to their intelligence and achievements. Their backgrounds are certainly different but the parallels are fairly eerie.

        Both came into occult organizations from lower class: Gull from a fisherman’s son to Childress to whom I recall was his more prominent father’s bastard child. Childress has a prominent role in the Tuttle cult and Gull in the Free Masons of Britain. Childress is a polymath who has cover as a lawnmower and maintenance man whereas Gull is a gifted doctor who is Queen Victoria and her family’s Royal Physician.

        I don’t recall much of Childress’ plans but what you are talking about sounds familiar and I think what really messed up Cohle’s mind was just how close he was to understanding about the circle and going outside it himself, but that is part and parcel of dramas that have profilers getting into their UnSub’s (or Unknown Subject’s) minds and mentality.

        And it has apparently been said before that a possible Moore counterpart to Cohle was The Courtyard’s FBI agent Aldo Sax. I guess the only different is that Cohle didn’t *truly* meet Carcosa, or hear sweet Aklo nothings whispered into his ear.

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  7. I doubt that, because Moore say in an interview from 2014 or pehaps 2013 that he was finishing the script for the 4° chapter of Providence. So the relation comes from Chambers and Lovecraft.

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