Like many fans of weird fiction, I was overjoyed to discover HBO's True Detective.  But as the season progressed, I became increasingly uneasy.  It seemed to me that True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto was "borrowing" words and phrasing from other authors, especially Thomas Ligotti.  Recently, I expressed my concerns on one of the Lovecraft eZine video shows and was then contacted by Jon Padgett, the founder of the website Thomas Ligotti Online.

I'd done a little research to satisfy my curiosity, but Jon had done a lot… and the results of that research were disturbing.

(NEW: Whether it was illegal or not, it was wrong.)

The University of Cambridge defines plagiarism as "submitting as one's own work, irrespective of intent to deceive, that which derives in part or in its entirety from the work of others without due acknowledgement."  The article goes on to point out that plagiarism isn't always simply quoting another author verbatim without credit.  It includes "paraphrasing another person's work by changing some of the words, or the order of the words, without due acknowledgement of the source" and "using ideas taken from someone else without reference to the originator."

As I reviewed Jon's research, and did more of my own, any doubts I had about plagiarism disappeared.  It became obvious to me that Pizzolatto had plagiarized Thomas Ligotti and others — in some places using exact quotes, and in others changing a word here and there, paraphrasing in much the same way that a high school student will cheat on an essay by copying someone else's work and substituting a few words of their own.

And I asked myself if Nic Pizzolatto had given Thomas Ligotti "due acknowledgement".  Unfortunately, there appear to be only two instances where Pizzolatto has mentioned Ligotti at all.  Worse, to date Pizzolatto has only acknowledged Ligotti when he is directly asked about him — in other words, when he has no choice.  On the DVD commentary, there is not one word about Thomas Ligotti.  Pizzolatto mentions that Matthew  McConaughey's character sometimes borrows philosophical ideas from Nietzsche,  the 19th century German philosopher, but there is no mention of Ligotti.

Writers work hard to produce original ideas, stories, and dialogue, and it is unfair for another writer to pawn off those ideas as their own.  Mr. Pizzolatto has been nominated for an Emmy for writing True Detective, while Thomas Ligotti labors in near obscurity.  Though I have agonized over whether I should write this article, in the end I felt that morally I have no choice.

Recently, I interviewed Jon Padgett via email:

Mike Davis: You contend that Nic Pizzolatto, the writer/creator of the HBO series, True Detective, appropriated a significant amount of intellectual content and language from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, a nonfiction book by Thomas Ligotti. You claim that what Pizzolatto didn't lift whole cloth from that book, he paraphrased—mostly as dialogue for the show's central character, Rust Cohle. Is there any proof that this is the case?

Jon Padgett: Ample evidence, all of which you can read/see/hear is unmistakably evident below.  (Watch the video at the beginning of this article, and/or read the quotes below; the article continues after the quotes.)

COHLE: We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.

"We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does." (CATHR, p.111)

COHLE: … we are things that labor under the illusion of having a 'self'…each of us programmed with total assurance that we're each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. 

"And the worst possible thing we could know — worse than knowing of our descent from a mass of microorganisms — is that we are nobodies not somebodies, puppets not people." (CATHR, p. 109)

"Everybody is nobody…" (CATHR, p. 199)

"…our captivity in the illusion of a self—even though 'there is no one' to have this illusion…" (CATHR, p. 107)

"…the illusion of being a somebody among somebodies as well as for the substance we see, or think we see, in the world…" (CATHR, p. 114)

COHLE: I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.

"…human existence is a tragedy that need not have been were it not for the intervention in our lives of a single, calamitous event: the evolution of consciousness—parent of all horrors (CATHR p. 15)

"…the evolutionary mutation of consciousness tugged us into tragedy." (CATHR p. 54)

"…our captivity in the illusion of a self… the tragedy of the ego." (CATHR, p. 107)

COHLE: The only honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing and march hand-in-hand into extinction.

"…the human race will never do the honorable thing and abort itself…" (CATHR, p. 138)

"To end this self-deception… we must cease reproducing." (CATHR, p. 29)

"And how many would speed up the process of extinction once euthanasia was decriminalized and offered in humane and even enjoyable ways?" (CATHR, p. 29)

COHLE: I think about the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this meat… Force a life into this thresher.

"Whatever else we may be as creatures that go to and fro on the earth and walk up and down upon it, we are meat." (CATHR, p. 165)

"Why should generations unborn be spared entry into the human thresher?" (CATHR, p. 74)

"…nonexistence never hurt anyone and existence hurts everyone." (CATHR, p. 75)

"Every one of us, having been stolen from nonexistence, opens his eyes on the world and looks down the road at a few convulsions and a final obliteration." (CATHR, p. 167)

"…this new Adam and Eve are only being readied for the meat grinder of existence…" (CATHR, p. 164)

COHLE: It's all one gutter, man. A giant gutter in outer space.

"…in the black-foaming gutters and back alleys of paradise, in the dank windowless gloom of some galactic cellar, in the hollow pearly whorls found in sewerlike seas, in starless cities of insanity, and in their slums . . ." ("The Frolic," Thomas Ligotti)

COHLE: And other times I thought I was seeing straight into the true heart of things.

"…horrible 'inner Truth' of things." (CATHR on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", p. 108)

COHLE: So my daughter, she spared me from the sin of being a father.

"…non-coital existence… the surest path to redemption for the sin of being congregants of this world."(CATHR, p. 34)

Are we truly expected to believe that all of the above is pure coincidence?  (And if that's not enough, see the end of this article for quotes from the original script followed by quotes by Thomas Ligotti.)

MD: Most of the show's material, though, is more or less original to Pizzolatto. Why is this a significant instance of plagiarism – one worthy of anyone's time and attention?

JP: For a number of reasons –

  • The most egregious instance of Pizzolatto's plagiarism involves some of the most captivating and most quoted of all the scenes from the series: namely, the car ride in episode one in which Rust Cohle outlines his pessimistic, anti-natalist worldview definitively and powerfully. It is a fact that (in that crucial, character-defining scene) almost every one of Rust's infamous lines is either taken word for word or is a paraphrase of Ligotti's distinctive prose and ideas from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Bear in mind as well that this scene is the lynchpin of Cohle's character – and it is the scene in which  True Detective goes from being just another cop buddy procedural to something different, something of exceeding interest to HBO's audience and a credit to the writer who created Rustin Cohle. It is that difference—along with randomly used red-herrings from Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow, to which Ligotti refers in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race—which set True Detective apart from more generic shows. In no uncertain terms, the pessimism and anti-natalism of Rust Cohle as articulated by Ligotti is the hallmark element of the show and sets up Cohle's change of heart, so to speak, on which True Detective closes. Take Rust Cohle's Ligottian worldview and the weird fiction references away, and you lose what makes the show special.
  • HBO was sold upon reading the scripts for the first two episodes of the show – the episodes in which the lifting from Ligotti's work is by far the most common. In fact, the drafts of the script they saw were often even more rife with plagiarism of Ligotti's work than even the final product was (see quotes at the end of this article). It seems unlikely, unless HBO was as familiar with Ligotti's work as Nic Pizzalotto was, that they had reason to believe Rust's dialogue came from any other imagination than Pizzolatto's, nor is there any reason to believe that the writer presented it any other way to them. In essence, he may have sold HBO and the star-actors (and, afterwards, the viewing audience) goods under false pretenses. Take what star, Matthew McConaughey, has to say about his decision to play Rust: "'I read the first two episodes, and I said, 'I'm in.'" Interestingly, Pizzolatto admitted in this interview that he "…wrote the first two scripts before we cast the guys, then rewrote them…"
  • Noted instances of plagiarism in the literary world far less offensive than Pizzolatto's have resulted in lawsuits and public humiliation directed at the guilty plagiarist. Plagiarism has also been in the news lately in connection with politicians like Joe Biden and Rand Paul, among others, who have lifted material from various sources without attribution. These instances of plagiarism are reported as scandals in their respective political careers. When the likes of David Simon, Moira Walley-Beckett, and David Milch are writing TV scripts often as good as any literature being written today, why should screenwriters be held to a lower standard than their literary peers, or politicians for that matter?
  • A quick word about The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. It is part philosophy, part philosophical criticism and response, part literary criticism, part metafictional expression of horror – I've never read anything like it. Its singular nature is one of the reasons that it's so easy to detect when another writer uses Ligotti's expressions and ideas (word for word or in paraphrase). This fact renders moot any argument that philosophical works can be held to a lower standard of literary ethics than other literary forms (an argument that is unlikely to have many serious supporters in any case).  Significantly, Ligotti is meticulous about citation in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race—always giving appropriate credit to the writers and philosophers whose work he discusses and analyzes and synthesizes at length.

MD: But what makes Nic Pizzolatto's Ligotti quotes and paraphrases overt plagiarism? Isn't this just a case of Pizzolatto being influenced by Ligotti – or at the very worst, writing a kind of homage to his work?

JP: Absolutely not. "Homage" suggests that Pizzolatto was honoring Ligotti or showing him respect of some sort. Lifting Ligotti's work without permission or attribution may have or may not have been a consciously malicious decision, but in any case it was neither honorable nor reverential. A legitimate instance of homage might be Brian De Palma's film Blow Out, which is based in large part on Michelangelo Antonio's Blow Up, or other films of De Palma's that allude to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, none of which employ dialogue from the source material to which they pay homage. And anyone looking objectively at the depth and breadth of Pizzolatto's plagiarism will know that this is not a case of mere influence. If a horror writer were influenced by Thomas Ligotti, for instance, they might write a story in which life is revealed to be a nightmare, a frequent Ligotti theme. They might even be influenced by his style of writing. How they got there would be a different story. Practitioners of plagiarism in mass media—such as Jayson Blair, who submitted stories to The New York Times that were taken from other writers—are almost always revealed to be what they are. Whether these instances are gross or merely conspicuous, as with True Detective, makes no difference.

MD: But isn't it true that Pizzolatto acknowledged Ligotti's influence on True Detective and praised his work?

JP: In the many interviews Pizzolatto gave in the lead up to episode three, the show's influences were discussed by the show's creator at great length. You know who wasn't mentioned by Pizzolatto until days after episode three aired? Ligotti.

MD: But in this Wall Street Journal interview, Pizzolatto does talk at length about Ligotti's influence on the show.

JP: Only under pressure. Here's what was happening behind the scenes: WSJ reporter Michael Calia and I (and plenty of other Ligotti readers) had already noticed that Rust Cohle's monologues and other dialogue were peculiarly Ligottian (his prose is very distinctive). In an interview with the True Detective creator, Arkham Digest editor Justin Steele even brought up Cohle's "Ligottian wordview", and I was frustrated when Pizzolatto evaded his question, at least as it concerned Thomas Ligotti or his work. Three of nine commenters on that interview page also noticed that Pizzolatto appeared to be evasive in dealing with the Ligotti influence question. At that point, I tried to get an interview with Pizzolatto about Ligotti's influence on True Detective—writing to his agent—but I was told politely that Pizzolatto was "up to his ears in post-production and working on season two of True Detective."

Then I started digging. Mr. Calia was coincidentally already working on an article centering on the influence by past and present masters of weird horror tales on True Detective, so I decided to analyze Cohle's familiar dialogue and compare it side by side with Ligotti's prose in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.  I quickly sent Mr. Calia the results of my research, and he used just the tip of the iceberg of evidence I had uncovered in his article – perhaps cannily implying that "The Most Shocking Thing About HBO's 'True Detective'" was that Pizzolatto lifted text and ideas from an author he had hitherto explicitly refused to acknowledge as an influence.

Shortly after the article's publication, Calia interviewed Pizzolatto in a follow-up to his original article. It seems that the "too busy" writer suddenly had time for an interview mostly about, you guessed it, Thomas Ligotti. Usually I would give any kind of writer who appeared so praising of Ligotti the benefit of the doubt, but I knew how deep the plagiarism issue ran, and I had no illusions that Pizzolatto suddenly and coincidentally wanted to talk about Ligotti after already having dozens and dozens of opportunities to do so before. Was Pizzolatto in damage control mode (i.e., "I don't want to get in legal trouble" mode)? Quite suddenly Thomas Ligotti was one of his top literary influences, an acknowledgement that would never be repeated again in a full-length interview or, to my knowledge, elsewhere.

MD: Wait, that interview was the only time Pizzolatto mentioned Ligotti as an influence?

JP: Not quite. He sent Justin Steele a follow-up paragraph clarifying Ligotti's influence on True Detective just days after Calia's first article on the connection between the show and Ligotti's work was published. But after that, Pizzolatto hasn't mentioned a word about Ligotti. Not one word. Nothing in interviews. Nothing on the DVD commentaries. Nothing. In how many interviews total does Pizzolatto mention Thomas Ligotti or his work? Two—the two I've mentioned.

MD: During the one WSJ interview, though, Pizzolatto states that "In episode one [of 'True Detective'] there are two lines in particular (and it would have been nothing to re-word them) that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers. Which, of course, you got." How do you respond to his claim?

JP: I consider that justification absurd and disingenuous. The fact everything of significance in that initial car scene demonstrably comes from Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (re-worded or not) tells me all I need to know about the veracity of Pizzolatto's excuse. Again, this was the scene that establishes the central character's worldview and motivation — the one everyone remembers. Without this scene, Rust Cohle has no foundation as a character and even the show itself loses its raison d'etre: the transformation of Rust Cohle and, incidentally, his partner Marty. Why Rust Cohle is introduced to the True Detective audience as a by-the-book pessimistic and anti-natalist is difficult to say. But unless we posit this fact the show can't go on. Fortunately, Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race provides a ready-made pessimistic, anti-natalist worldview. Was Pizzolatto lifting the work of an author who he believed would be obscure enough to give him cover when he got caught? Only he knows. In any case, the excuse you quoted above smacks of attorney-speak. And look at this another way: If Pizzolatto was blatantly lifting Stephen King's words instead of Thomas Ligotti's, do you think that Pizzolatto's justification for plagiarism would be credibly and objectively accepted in any way… by anyone? Never mind that the extent of Pizzolatto's lifting of Ligotti's words and ideas go far beyond the two lines he mentions.

And I would add that the extent of Pizzolatto's plagiarism problem goes a good bit further than his penchant for using Ligotti's words and ideas. In episode five, for instance, Cohle explains that, "…death created time to grow the things that it would kill…" Deep thoughts, care of William S. Burroughs' obscure (and expensive to buy) collection Ah Pook Is Here and Other Texts, in which Burroughs writes, "Death needs time for what it kills to grow in." If this is another example of what Pizzolatto considers an homage, why the rewording? Why not "signal [Burroughs] readers" with a word for word quote?  Even the late great Albert Einstein's words are mined for dialogue material – specifically this quote: "If people are good only because they fear punishment… then we are a sorry lot indeed." In episode two of True Detective, this quote is transformed into another popular Rust line: "If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit." Of course, Pizzolatto also ends the season's finale with dialogue lifted from one of writer Alan Moore's lesser known comic books. With "homages" like these, who needs the theft of intellectual property? It makes one wonder how many more undiscovered "homages" are to be found within these True Detective episodes.

MD: Do you represent Thomas Ligotti in any way?

JP: Not at all. In 1997, I created a fan site, Thomas Ligotti Online, and although I consider Ligotti a friend and am an avid reader of his work, I do not speak for Thomas Ligotti in any way either here or elsewhere. In fact, I was only one of a number of Ligotti's readers who noticed the problematic Ligotti connection to True Detective. At first, like me, they enjoyed seeing a favorite author of theirs being widely recognized. Later, it became evident to most that Ligotti was actually being plagiarized.

MD: Why are you speaking out about this issue now?

JP: Well, first and foremost, you (Mike Davis, the editor of the Lovecraft eZine) only recently realized the extent of what may well be Pizzolatto's ongoing plagiarism problem and—as a champion and publisher of weird tale writers like Ligotti—are obviously just as outraged by it as I am. I have made my findings and conclusions known for months elsewhere on the web, but never in front of such a large audience.

Perhaps most significantly, you may be aware that Nic Pizzolatto is up for an Outstanding Writing Emmy Award, and the votes are due soon.  I'd like the Emmy voters to know that, though Pizzolatto has made a big deal of being the show's creator and sole writer, everything special about True Detective's writing was arguably written (word for word or paraphrased) by others. Strip away Rust's peculiarly Ligottian worldview. Substitute the King and Yellow with Satan. What's left? Something we've seen many times before – that's what (i.e., decidedly not outstanding). In my opinion, he doesn't deserve to be nominated for the Outstanding Writing Emmy award, let alone be the recipient of such an award.

Also, I'd hope that Pizzolatto and other screenwriters like him will think twice in the future before they lift intellectual property that doesn't belong to them. The sad fact is that this controversy could've been avoided had Pizzolatto reached out to Ligotti for permission to use his work in the first place.

MD: What do you personally want to get out of this?

JP: Peace of mind, knowing I did everything I could to let the rest of the world know what I know. That's it. Believe me, I've agonized over going public in a big way with this, as have you (Mike Davis). In the end, standing up for the rights of authors in a genre that is often sneered at or overlooked is the right thing to do. Ligotti is a relatively little-known writer, and it appears to me that he's been taken advantage of by both Nic Pizzolatto and HBO with impunity.

MD: The evidence certainly seems incontrovertible.  Thank you, Jon.

JP: My pleasure, Mike.

I've seen page after page on the internet of "Rust Cohle quotes".  If Pizzolatto had done the honorable thing, those page owners and their readers would know that they often weren't "Rust Cohle quotes", they often aren't Nic Pizzolatto quotes, they are Thomas Ligotti quotes — at the very least, paraphrased Ligotti quotes.

I'm not sure how anyone can view the above video or read these quotes side by side, and not see blatant plagiarism.  In my capacity as the editor of The Lovecraft eZine, I receive many fiction submissions.  If I ever received a story that so blatantly "borrowed" from another writer without attribution or permission, it would be strongly rejected.

Certainly there are similar cases to this one.  In 2006, it was discovered that parts of the book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life had been plagiarized from the works of Salman Rushdie and Meg Cabot.  The result was that the publisher withdrew the book, destroyed all shelf copies, and cancelled author Kaavya Viswanathan's contract for a second book.

Then there's the saga of Polish Hill.  In 1992, Warner Brothers was accused of "lifting many details and plot lines from Homicide,a book by David Simon" (quoted from The New York Times).  I can't help but notice the similarities.  David Simon wrote: "The plagiarism involved is so graphic and blatant. Is this the way Hollywood operates?  Everything can be spun, can be twisted, and is grist for their mill. I spent three years on this book. Some guy comes along, reads it, goes to his processor and steals it. It's sort of startling."

One wonders: What would have happened if Thomas Ligotti had been a less obscure writer?  If HBO had realized right away that much of Cohle's dialogue had been lifted from Ligotti's work, would True Detective have been filmed at all?

I don't know.  But what is obvious is that ideas, words, and phrases were lifted directly from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.  Without the work of Thomas Ligotti, I doubt that True Detective would have reached the heights that it did.

(NEW: Whether it was illegal or not, it was wrong.)

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY DRAFT QUOTES are below.  Remember, these original screenplays were read by Matthew McConaughey and according to him, influenced his decision to do the show.  (As he statedI loved the writing. I read the first two episodes, and I said, "If you guys will let me be Cohle, I'm in." I was like, "Jeez, I can't wait to hear what comes out of this fucking guy's mouth on the page.")

COHLE (original screenplay draft): See, we fabricate meaning in order to deny what we are, so that we can keep on going. Family, god, country, art- these are the materials of our fabrications. We're uncanny puppets on a lonely planet, in cold space, living and replicating and sending unborn generations into suffering and death because that's our programming.

"Within the hierarchy of fabrications that compose our lives—families, countries, gods—the self incontestably ranks highest." (CATHR, p. 103)

"We are gene-copying bio-robots, living out here on a lonely planet in a cold and empty physical universe." (CATHR, p. 110)

"[We are] beings that may not be what we think we are, but who will hold on for dear life to survive and reproduce as our own species…" (CATHR, p. 92)

"Overpopulated worlds of the unborn would not have to suffer for our undoing what we have done so that we might go on as we have all these years." (CATHR, p. 228)

COHLE (original screenplay draft): There is no point. Nowhere to go, no one to see, nothing to do, nothing to be.

"Without the everclanking machinery of emotion, everything would come to a standstill. There would be nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be, and no one to know." (CATHR p. 116)

"(1) there is nothing to do; (2) there is nowhere to go; (3) there is nothing to be; (4) there is no one to know." (CATHR, p. 115)

"…first, that there was nowhere for you to go; second, that there was nothing for you to do; and third, that there was no one for you to know. (TEATRO GROTTESCO, p. 238)

"Then he said to me

He whispered

That my plan was misconceived

That my special plan for this world was a terrible mistake

Because, he said, there is nothing to do and there is nowhere to go

There is nothing to be and there is no one to know

Your plan is a mistake, he repeated

This world is a mistake, I replied" (I HAVE A SPECIAL PLAN FOR THIS WORLD)

COHLE (CONT'D): …I think now of the hubris it took to yank a soul out [sic] the bliss of non-existence into this- this meat.  No matter what else, the world hurts. 24/7. To force someone else into that hurt

"Every one of us, having been stolen from nonexistence, opens his eyes on the world and looks down the road at a few convulsions and a final obliteration." (CATHR, p. 167)

"…the arms of nonexistence…" (CATHR, p. 118)

"…nonexistence never hurt anyone and existence hurts everyone." (CATHR, p. 75)

"…becoming hurts everybody." (CATHR, p. 61)

Mike Davis is the editor of The Lovecraft eZine, and lives in Texas with his wife and son.  Jon Padgett is the founder of the website Thomas Ligotti Online.  He lives in Louisiana with his spouse and daughter.