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The devil you know

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A primitive, ritualistic "doll" is discovered at Devil's Den State Park in Arkansas by investigator Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) in season three of "True Detective."
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Touch darkness and darkness touches you back.” – True Detective (Season 3) on HBO.

OKLAHOMA CITY – Just as HBO was premiering season three of True Detective on Sunday evening, I was just about to cross the state line from Arkansas and back into Oklahoma, passing the exit sign for Lee Creek Road.

And not only that, as I was zipping through the darkness I was also on the 94th meridian west, I was getting a feeling of disquiet.

Perhaps it was because Lee Creek flows through picturesque Devil’s Den State Park, an FDR-approved, Civilian Conservation Corps project which took place in October 1933.  

I was in Arkansas because a friend in Jonesboro, a Catholic priest, was having his new church dedicated and I was asked to witness this historic event, which included the presence of Archdiocese of Little Rock Bishop Anthony Taylor. What was most interesting to me was that the new church included marble altar, ambo and holy water basin – made by a Catholic liturgical specialist – Fynders Keepers – based in Stilwell, Kansas! The altar was ritualistically blessed during the dedication Mass.

In any event, it was a quick, two-day trip, six-and-a-half hours each way between Oklahoma City and Jonesboro.

On Saturday morning, driving to Jonesboro, I stopped at the Arkansas Welcome Center near Fort Smith (they are very friendly, have great bathrooms and a roaring fire in the fireplace!). I chatted with the woman (a native of Houston) who was in charge of giving out maps and brochures and plenty of information. I told her I was specifically interested in a brochure on Devil’s Den State Park in nearby Washington County, where Fayetteville is located.

I mentioned Devil’s Den not only because of its spooky history, I had just received a new book in the mail a week earlier (it was recommended to me on Amazon, although I was previously unfamiliar with it) – the just-published Incident At Devils Den (sic) by Terry Lovelace. I had not read it yet, but the preface of the book was engaging enough: “Devils Den State Park in Northwestern Arkansas is a beautiful place. Folks who love the outdoors can appreciate its near perfection. But, beneath the scenic forests and limestone outcroppings there lies a mystery. People from Devils Den go missing. A lot of people. Those missing souls go somewhere. The mystery is where?

But because I was in the middle of several other books related to my book research into the 94th meridian west, I set it aside – not realizing I would be getting back to it immediately upon my return from my trip to Arkansas.

"Incident at Devils Den" by Terry Lovelace.

Yesterday morning, I picked up a copy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (where I was an news intern – at the Fayetteville bureau – in 1996) and saw entertainment reporter Philip Martin’s take on season three of True Detective, filmed in Northwest Arkansas, an area I am quite familiar with, having lived there and attended college there as well. Plus, I grew up in Little Rock in the years 1977-86, right smack dab in the middle of when the events in True Detective are taking place; specifically November 7, 1980, the day actor Steve McQueen died, coinciding with a full moon.

One month and one day later – December 8, 1980 - an assassin would murder former Beatle John Lennon in cold blood in front of his home at the Dakota building in New York. Syncing with this is the fact that actor Stephen Dorff, who co-stars with Mahershala Ali in Season 3 and plays Arkansas State Investigator Roland West played the role of doomed, early Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe in the 1994 film Backbeat.  Ali, meanwhile, plays the haunted investigator Hays very well. A tracker during the Vietnam War, his face seems to betray a heavy burden he seems to be carrying.

In fact, when I met Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli a year or so ago before a show in Dallas, I asked about his contribution to the alt-rock “Backbeat Band” for the film soundtrack. He said he is still good friends with Dorff all these years later. He did not recall meeting Sheryl Lee, however, the actress who was best-known for playing Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks – a woman killed in mysterious and ritualistic circumstances in a rural area near railroad tracks. (read my Dust Devil Dreams post “Fixing a Hole (The Tao of Stuart)).”

The old railroad tracks seen in Season 1 of Twin Peaks (1990). (Alicia Fraire / Red Dirt Report)

First of all, other than some references on sync blogs – and a mention by my pal Loren Coleman – I did not know Sunday night was the night this new season was premiering. I assumed it was later this month. But here we were – and Philip Martin, in his rundown of the new season, notes that the focus of the season involves the body of a young boy found in one of Devil’s Den’s many caves, near the town of “West Finger,” which is meant to be the actual, nearby town of West Fork.

Well, I did a doubletake. While I loved Season 1 of True Detective (writing multiple sync pieces about it and the “Carcosa” links (writer Ambrose Bierce disappeared - presumably seeking "Carcosa" - and my time as a reporter in Louisiana, where I ran into some highly strange stories) and was more-or-less indifferent toward Season 2, I had not looked too deeply into the making of Season 3, only appreciating the fact that oft-overlooked Arkansas was getting a chance to shine with the new season being filmed there – and in an area that means a lot to me for different reasons.

One of them being that the strange and eerie things that take place along the 94th meridian – part of my forthcoming book The Stilwell Enigma – are wittingly (or unwittingly, take your pick) being incorporated into this HBO cult series created by New Orleans native Nic Pizzolatto, who studied creative writing at University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and had wanted to create a story in this area of The Natural State.

And having just seen the first episode, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” I almost feel as if Pizzolatto has been reading Dust Devil Dreams!

The book, written about the Devil's Den murder case, featured in True Detective. (HBO).

I won’t get too deep into the plot, only to say that just like Season One, the story jumps through time, from the date of the crime (1980) to a reinvestigation following new revelations (1990) and then to 2015 when Ali’s Wayne Hays character agrees to being interviewed by a young journalist about the case, made even more famous by a book about the case written by his late wife, whom he met while investigating the case in the first hours of the boy and his sister going missing at Devil’s Den - and it was here where ritualistic, voodoo-like dolls are discovered and things, well, get, awfully strange.

In fact, the scene where Ali's Wayne Hays character begins "tracking" the lost children up into the caves of Devil's Den, the camera makes sure to include a railroad crossing sign and railroad tracks crossed by Det. Hays. It's as if he crossed that liminal zone at the crossroads, like Robert Johnson meeting Legba in Clarksdale, nearby steel rails reflecting in the midnight moonlight. Electrical lines crackling with a certain menace.

Det. Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) crosses the railroad tracks and into Devil's Den in True Detective. (HBO)

THINGS CAN GET PRETTY STRANGE

In a New York minute, everything can change / In a New York minute things can get pretty strange

The above song, by Don Henley, originally appeared on his 1989 album The End of the Innocence. In my review of the album for the East High Messenger in Wichita, Kansas, my news reporting teacher, Mrs. Churchman, disagreed with my description of “New York Minute” as being “a slice of Americana.” But a dark slice. It’s an urban-tinged song, about a Wall Street broker who jumps in front of a train. But could certainly reflect the despair felt in small towns, too, particularly in this particular era of American history where desperation seems to be on the rise. You sense this in the first episode of True Detective’s Season 3.

You better hand on tooth and nail / The wolf is always at the door,” Henley reminds us on "New York Minute." Too true.

And this was approximately five months before Twin Peaks premiered. Henley, from Linden, Texas (on the 94th meridian west – not far from Shreveport, Louisiana – a city noted multiple times in Season 3 of True Detective) has a firm appreciation for his home territory of Cass County and nearby Caddo Lake, both areas cloaked in mystery, noted by the Caddo tribe which historically populated this area.

The Caddo also populated areas of eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas and according to Terry Lovelace, the author of Incident at Devils Den, the Caddo avoided that area – and seemingly for good reason. A lot of the pain and sorrow along the 94th is ancient. But some is more “recent,” with the American Civil War being particularly vicious and bloody in this region of the country. Banditry, torture and murder were rife in this area in the 1860’s. An echo seems to remain here.

Directly east of Devil’s Den State Park, about 50 miles as the crow flies, is Stilwell, Oklahoma. It’s a town that made headlines this past autumn as having the lowest life expectancy of any city or town in America. The reasons are many, and one suspects that town founder, Arthur E. Stilwell, a friend to everyone from Arthur Conan Doyle to Charles Schwab, and promoter for the railroad that became the Kansas City Southern, would be shocked to learn this fact, or that the other Stilwell – the one in Kansas where Catholic items are created and where ghosts haunt and Bushwhackers did their worst during the border wars of the Civil War – would have such a distinction in 21st century America, in advance of this book I’m preparing. But then, with his connections to the spirit world, who knows?

Back to my trip back to Oklahoma City last night …I passed Lee Creek Road and was soon back in good ol’ Oklahoma. I was glad. The drivers in Arkansas were acting quite peculiar. In fact, it was alarming at just how bad the drivers were. It was as if a lot of them were under some sort of spell.

Driving further into Oklahoma, a bright light flashed. Lights could be seen in the sky, in the distance, near a mountain. And by the time I was about to cross the I-40 Arkansas River Bridge, I tensed up, knowing its dark history … the fact that on May 31, 2002, this very bridge collapsed into the river after being hit by a barge. Fourteen people died.

This happened just a few months after The Mothman Prophecies was released in theaters, a film based on true events about a bridge collapse over the Ohio River – a major tributary of the Mississippi, just like the Arkansas. (I note this in my review of Loren Coleman’s 2017 book Mothman: Evil Incarnate). The Mississippi River plays a role - in a larger context - as being the river passing the city of West Memphis, Arkansas, on the other side of the state, where Pizzolatto takes a cue by including three young men who witnessed the two children before they disappeared, and just happened to be outsiders who like heavy metal music. Cue the "Satanic Panic" Moral Majority, Tipper Gore types in five ... four ... three .. two ... 

True Detective director Cary Fukunaga's "Parliament of Owls" production company logo.

I SAW SO MUCH I BROKE MY MIND

So, driving over the I-40 Arkansas River bridge, well, I had a bad feeling. I could not help but think about the lives lost and the fact that I have been plagued with dreams in recent years of me involved in an accident where my car goes off the road and into a body of water …

So, as I crossed the bridge and got to the other side, a family member in the backseat who had been sleeping and knew nothing of the bridge collapse and did not know the Robert S. Kerr Reservoir of the Arkansas River, suddenly awakened and talked about a dream of being in a car and falling into the water and swimming away. Needless to say, coming from this particular family member, I was utterly stunned. A complete sync with the I-40 Bridge collapse of 2002 (when The Mothman Prophecies film was released) and the actual collapse of the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1967. 

So, between this new season of True Detective and the Robert Zemeckis-helmed Project Blue Book - the latter being very promising and engaging (although there are informed and opposing opinions out there that would strongly disagree) - there is some really great TV out there that gives me a lot to think about. After all, the first few minutes of the first Project Blue Book involve a a dogfight between a USAF jet and a UFO - over Fargo, North Dakota! Now, if there was ever a city with UFO-sync-links and high weirdness, it's Fargo!

And speaking of the Coen Brothers, the outro music on the first episode of this new season of True Detective is Mickey Newbury singing his countercultural song "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." That was most-famously covered by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition and used in the bowling-themed dream sequence in the Coen Brothers' classic The Big Lebowski.

Interestingly, back in June, I referenced Newbury's famous song while writing a Dust Devil Dreams sync piece about the CBS All Access series Strange Angel, about occult rocketeer Jack Parsons. Hmmm ... Good to know it is renewed for a second season!

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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