The X-Files

I recently re-watched the first two seasons of The X-Files, and was soon wondering why I’d never worked my way through the whole thing, all eleven seasons of it. After all, it produced some neat little bites of weird TV, like its take on The Thing in the first season episode “Ice”, or “Eve”, about a supposedly discontinued eugenics programme that turns out to be still live and in the wild, and which packs a film’s worth of story into 45 minutes. The show came up with some pretty good monsters, too, like Eugene Tooms, who could slip through narrow chimneys and ventilation ducts, as well as build himself a hibernation retreat out of newspapers and bile (Mulder: “Is there any way I can get it off my fingers quickly without betraying my cool exterior?”); or the human-sized parasite Fluke from “The Host”, the episode with my favourite line of the series, as a sewage-processing plant manager says: “Five hundred and sixty thousand people a day call my office on the porcelain telephone.” I particularly enjoyed the more comedic episodes, such as “Humbug”, about a series of murders in a community of circus performers (where Mulder, receiving a dressing-down from a dwarf for judging by appearances, gets judged in turn, and is told he looks like a government employee), or “Die Hand Die Verletzt”, about a school PTA made up entirely of Satanists. That story, as well as poking fun at itself by having Mulder and Scully caught in a shower of frogs, also contains what is perhaps the series’ most harrowing scene, as a distraught teenage girl describes, at some length, her history of ritual Satanic abuse — made no worse when it turns out to be a delusion.

But after reaching the end of season two, I knew exactly why I’d stopped watching it. Far too quickly, The X-Files clogged itself up with its own “mythology”. To my mind, the show was best when it saw itself as a sort of anthology series, like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, though one framed as a detective show, with Mulder the believer and Scully the sceptic turning up to witness the weird and tragic events in other characters’ lives each episode. (Like poor Max Fenig, a UFO-junkie who drives around the country in his camper van chasing saucer-sightings in the story “Fallen Angel”. The pathos goes up a notch when we learn Max has epilepsy and perhaps schizophrenia, and this may be the root of his lonely outsiderism; then it goes up another notch when we learn his health problems are probably a side-effect of his being ruthlessly used by aliens who simply need a living body in certain places at certain times, and don’t give a damn about the effect on Max as a human being.)

Max Fenig considers his likelihood of surviving the episode

But that the show would always have got bogged down in its own mythology, I think, was a foregone conclusion, thanks to its contradictory treatment of two key areas of interest: aliens and conspiracy theories.

Shows like Gerry Anderson’s UFO or the US series The Invaders had focused on the covert invasion of Earth before. But they set up their rules from the start: how the aliens could be told apart from humans (they have no pulse), what they wanted from Earth (to harvest human organs), and so on. In these shows, the aliens were a single species, with a single intent. The X-Files seemed to want to tackle a different aspect of aliens, the whole Fortean spectrum of weirdness surrounding them. In alien episodes in the first two seasons, there’s no consistent picture of what these beings are, what they want, or how they operate. Rather, they’re free to be as bizarre, creepy, mind-blowing and strange as each story needs them to be, making the whole alien phenomena closer to religious visions and mental illness, fairyland and dreams, than the stuff of a science fiction thriller. Aliens, in The X-Files, seemed at first to be just one more unexplained mystery, and their unexplainedness was the point.

As the show went on, though, it became obvious it also wanted aliens to be part of a government conspiracy — in other words, it wanted these weird and incomprehensible beings to have a comprehensible side: a definite plan, and therefore a definite purpose, and so a definite form, a definite technology, and so on. But they could only be so at the expense of their other role as near-supernatural incomprehensibilities. Their “comprehensible” side, then, would need to explain all the deliberately-unexplainable weirdness that made them so X-File-ish, and that was going to take a lot of explaining. Inevitably, it was also going to generate a lot of show-mythology.

The torch, not the gun, is these FBI agents’ most important weapon, but it can only ever shine a little light into the darkness

Ditto conspiracy theories. Although they appear to be explanations of the world, conspiracy theories are really about the frightening strangeness of the world, with their air of clandestine darkness, paranoia, and vast, unseen manipulative forces. The point about conspiracy theories is not that they resolve into one single set of true-but-hidden facts, but that they present a “Big Picture” fuzzy enough to absorb all the weirdness you can throw at them (all the aliens, all the motives, all the alliances and conflicts), leaving you with a sense that it adds up, so long as you don’t actually try to add it up. To do so would destroy all that crucial-but-foggy pseudo-meaningfulness the “Big Picture” provides. Ultimately, conspiracy theories aren’t about facts and final truths, they’re about freedom from facts. They’re about the momentary high of “everything you know is wrong”, and the freedom that brings. (Not freedom from government control or alien invasion, but freedom — and a temporary one, at that — from your own hangups and disappointments, limits and shortfalls, fears and normal human vulnerabilities before the incomprehensible thing that is reality.)

Mulder can’t quite get the point

In The X-Files, the idea is that the government know “the truth”, and Mulder is trying to catch up, find proof, and make them admit everything that’s going on. But when you look at how the government in the show behaves, you realise they aren’t a source of facts and confirmations, but of rumours, contradictions, betrayals, reversals, smokescreens and runarounds. They’re just one more source of weirdness, one more entrance to the labyrinth. The moment Mulder starts trying to get to the root of these hints of government conspiracy, he enters what Robert Anton Wilson called “Chapel Perilous”: the place where there are no single answers, just an endless multiplication of weirdness. And so, conspiracy theories became just another generator of never-to-be-resolved mythology for the show.

I think it would have been better if The X-Files had stuck to the ultimately weird nature of both its alien and conspiracy strands from the start. Sure, to Mulder the world contains individual cases of weirdness that he will investigate, hoping the “facts” he acquires will add up to a grand truth his shady superiors in the government already know, but we, as viewers, would see he’s got it all wrong: “The Truth” is not “out there” — it’s far out.

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Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki

Cover by Araki

Izumi Suzuki was part of what sounds like Japan’s post-60s New Wave of Science Fiction, in which (as in the UK at the same time) the country’s authors made a conscious attempt to move away from the commercial American style. Hers in particular became known as the “SF of manners”, though I’ve a feeling that phrase loses a lot through translation.

Born in 1949 (making her a contemporary of Haruki Murakami, whose world of jazz cafés and disaffected twenty-somethings she shares), she moved to Tokyo after winning recognition for some of her early writing, and there became a stage and film actor, as well as posing for the art-and-bondage photographer Araki. (That’s her, by him, on the cover of Terminal Boredom.) She was apparently introduced to SF in 1970, and began publishing it starting with “Trial Witch” in S-F Magazine in 1975. Her writing career seems to have gone into overdrive after the death of her ex-husband, the experimental jazz saxophonist Kaoru Abe, with whom she had a daughter. (A 1992 novel and 1995 film, Endless Waltz, depicted a fictionalised version of the couple’s stormy relationship.) Her health declined, though, and she eventually took her own life in 1986.

Scenes from Endless Waltz (1995) – much honking of free jazz, but little about Suzuki’s writing

Terminal Boredom, published this year by Verso Books, is her first English-language collection, with seven stories by almost as many translators (Daniel Joseph, David Boyd, Sam Bett, Helen O’Horan, Aiko Masubuchi, and Polly Barton). There’s no indication of when the Japanese originals first appeared, which is a pity, as I like to at least guess at a writer’s development from knowing which are the earlier stories, but perhaps seven stories is too small a selection for that, anyway.

The opening story, “Women and Women”, is set in a future where “Women have been left carefully husbanding the scant resources of a planet stripped bare by men.” The few remaining males — essential for purposes of reproduction — are housed in an area known as the GETO, the Gender Exclusion Terminal Occupancy Zone. Suzuki gets round the traditional SF exposition problem by having her narrator, a teenager in this mostly-manless world, share the sort of wildly speculative myths about adulthood teenagers in any age do. To her, “Men are an offshoot of humanity… but they’re a deviant strain. They’re freaks…”

“Which is exactly why the males have to be kept in the GETO. If they were allowed to roam free, the radiation or whatever it is they emit would make all the women around them pregnant.”

But when she sees what she just knows to be an actual boy, of her own age, passing her home one night, she’s fascinated, and starts leaving messages for him to find.

Suzuki, from the cover of a Japanese collection

Male-female relations — always of a distinctly ambivalent kind, making me think of a less intense version of that from Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains — form the core of the book’s preoccupations, but it soon becomes clear the emotional disconnection that characterises these relationships extends to those between women, too. For instance, in “You May Dream”, the narrator too-casually agrees to the request of a friend, whom she spends most of the time feeling vaguely irritated by, to enter her dreams. This is a future where over-population has resulted in lottery-chosen people being suspended in cryosleep until enough spaceships can be built to take them off-world. Sleepers can bond with one chosen person and take up residence in their dreams. The narrator thinks of her friend as her opposite, even her Jungian shadow, which might make her sound like ideal dream material, but it turns out they’re totally incompatible: “She infused a syrupy wetness into my world.” The narrator soon finds herself reluctant to sleep, because of the burden of her friend’s too-different personality.

Perhaps the best story for capturing Suzuki’s tone is the last one, “Terminal Boredom”, set in a future where mass unemployment has resulted in a habitually bored young populace too unmotivated to remember to even feed themselves regularly. “Everyone,” the narrator says, “lives in a happy-go-lucky depression”, more (but only slightly more) engaged in what they see on TV than in reality:

“Ever since I’ve been old enough to really understand the world (these past two years or so), I’ve never once cried at a scene in real life. Whenever something serious happens, I just convince myself it’s no big deal… I’ve been fooling myself this way for long enough that it’s become a habit, and now nothing affects me.”

When a woman is murdered right next to her and the boyfriend she mostly can’t be bothered to meet, they can’t quite grasp what has happened, until they see it again, on camera. It starts to feel like the sort of world J G Ballard was always predicting — a future of boredom through enforced leisure relieved by explosions of violence — only, it doesn’t have the levels of wealth he assumed would go with it.

Suzuki’s is a world that seems particularly post-counter-cultural. The book flap describes her stories as “punky and pitch-black”, but the punkiness is most definitely of the “pretty vacant” rather than pogo-dancing variety. Characters don’t have friends so much as people they habitually hang out with, and get vaguely irritated by, though not enough to make them seek out other people:

“What are your relationships usually like?”
“Totally throwaway. I anticipate the break-up and hint towards it to prepare for a smooth exit.”

Japanese cover to her 1978 collection, Women and Women

Some of Suzuki’s characters (if not all of them, at some level) are just as dissociated from themselves. In “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, one of the narrators is a woman prematurely aged by a drug she overused, who approaches the still-young man she once had a relationship with, only to find he doesn’t recognise her, or at most thinks she might be his ex-girlfriend’s mother. In “That Old Seaside Club”, the narrator says she’s 19, but is haunted by a failed adult life she surely has not yet lived. “Night Picnic” is about a family who think of themselves as the last surviving human beings on a distant, non-Earth planet, desperately trying to cling to supposedly authentic human ways my mimicking what they see in old movies and read in old books. (As all the cultural references in this story were American, I wondered if this might have been a satire on US culture taking over Japan’s.) In “Forgotten”, the key difference the narrator’s alien boyfriend notes between humans and his own kind is that humans forget while Meelians don’t, which is why “we haven’t had a war on my planet for two millennia”. “Whose life is this? It’s completely empty,” says one narrator, of her own life, and it’s a quote that could fit any of her stories.

I’d like to read some more stories by Suzuki, though perhaps I wouldn’t read them back-to-back, as that malaise of disaffection can be hard to read too much of. A biographical introduction would be nice, too.

(Another story, “The Walker”, translated by Daniel Joseph, is available at Granta, though it’s quite different in feel from all the stories in Terminal Boredom.)

Suzuki’s 1978 collection, Teatime Anytime, in the only scene from Endless Waltz that shows her books

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Joyland and Later by Stephen King

Hard Case Crime was founded in 2004, to revive the good old days of hard-boiled crime fiction, bringing out obscure books from the genre’s classic authors and new works from current writers, packaged with painted covers in a gleefully lurid pulp look. Publisher Charles Ardai thought a cover-quote from Stephen King would draw readers to their stable of what were mostly little-known names, and sent him (via his accountant, apparently) a parcel of their books. King came back not with a quote but an offer to write a novel for them. The Colorado Kid (which I’ve not read) came out from Hard Case in 2005, followed by Joyland in 2013, and Later in 2021. While The Colorado Kid is purely a crime story, the latter two novels feature at least a touch of the supernatural (it’s mostly peripheral in Joyland, but central to Later), and I recently read these two, intrigued to see what King made of the hard-boiled crime genre.

cover by Glen Orbik

Joyland is set in the summer of 1973, when 21-year-old Devin Jones, newly heartbroken after his first serious girlfriend dumps him, gets a summer job at Joyland, a North Carolina amusement park. He mucks in with everything from mopping out ride-cars to “wearing the fur” (dressing up as the park’s mascot, Howie the Happy Hound), and during his time there saves two lives thanks to skills picked up in a basic first-aid course. He also learns that the park’s Horror House ride (“There’s no Tunnel of Love at Joyland, but Horror House is most definitely the Tunnel of Grope”) is haunted by the ghost of Linda Gray, killed by a recently-acquired older boyfriend — a man who, it turned out, had killed other women at other amusement parks over the preceding years and comes to be dubbed the “Carny Killer”. All that’s known about him is he had a bird’s-head tattoo on his hand, and wore two shirts on the night so he could cast off the blood-soaked one after cutting Linda’s throat.

When his friend Tom sees Linda’s ghost, love-gloomy Dev puts off college and stays on at Joyland after the tourist season, intent on seeing her for himself. He gets to know Annie, daughter of a wealthy radio-preacher and faith healer, and her son Mike, who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and is unlikely to see out his teenage years. Annie has broken with her father (who saw Mike’s disease as God’s punishment for Annie’s sinful ways), and was, in her youth, a prize-winning sharp-shooter — something you just know is going to come in handy plot-wise. Mike, meanwhile, has second sight. His mother calls it his “intuitions”, but Mike knows there’s a ghost at Joyland without having been there, and thinks he can free her.

cover art by Paul Mann

In Later, the ghost-seeing kid is not a secondary character but the narrator. This is Jamie Conklin, who regularly sees dead people. They look just like normal people, but only he can see and talk to them. They linger for a few days after they die (looking exactly as they did at the moment of death, gruesome wounds and all), and always answer truthfully when asked a question. This proves an advantage when Jamie’s mother, a literary agent hit hard by the financial crash of 2007–2008, has her one cash-cow author, Regis Thomas, die before he’s finished the last book in a bestselling series. She gets Jamie (whose ability she believes in but doesn’t usually encourage) to quiz Thomas about what was going to happen in the book, then writes it herself and claims Thomas finished it just before he died, thus saving herself from bankruptcy. Also present at that moment is Jamie’s mother’s then-lover, cop Liz Dutton. Liz gets ousted from Jamie’s mother’s life after she brings drugs into the house (she’s couriering it for extra cash), but turns up to “borrow” Jamie when she needs to use his talents. A serial bomber, known as Thumper, has recently died, but not before planting one final time-bomb. Liz gets Jamie to quiz the dead man’s ghost so she can come up with the goods and save her failing police career, and Jamie learns that what he thought he knew about the dead isn’t true all the time, and that this dead man might be more than a little demonic…

hard back cover art by Glen Orbik

Thematically, Joyland is perhaps best summed up in the narrator’s own words: “Love leaves scars.” Dev is scarred by the loss of his first girlfriend; Annie is scarred on the one hand by a severe lack of parental love, and on the other by her deep love for a son who’s going to die; and Linda Gray, of course, is more than scarred by the secret new “boyfriend” who took her into the Horror House then cut her throat — after which she lingers, a love-scar on Joyland itself, a ghostly reminder of the dark side of fun-land.

Later is about the scars of life — particularly adult life — generally, and how some survive what life throws at them, while others go under. Jamie’s mother is hit by both the financial crash and her own alcoholism, though she fights both and gains a new, surer stability at the end. Liz Dutton, however, goes the other way, graduating from the alcoholism she initially shares with Jamie’s mother to drug addiction, then corruption, and finally becoming part of the dark side, the drug-supply network itself. Jamie, a kid at the start of the novel, who progresses to early teens by the end of it, is faced with a too-early introduction to all these adult secrets and life-messiness. He certainly sees some pretty dark things in the book’s final section, in the home of a drug baron with some nasty predilections.

In both books, I think, the most interesting character isn’t the narrator, nor the kid-who-sees-ghosts, but one of the female characters. Annie Ross in Joyland is spiky at first, and slow to warm to Dev, but obviously devoted to her dying-but-full-of-life son. It’s the hard-won characters who are often the most intriguing. Liz Dutton in Later is a woman making her unintended way down the path of evil, but is never too far gone that she isn’t a recognisable human being (when most of King’s more villainous types, once they become evil, also become pretty much inhuman). She’s always working on a plan to set everything right, if she can just get her head above water, but instead only gets in deeper and deeper every time.

art by Gregory Manchess

It’s interesting King started off his involvement with Hard Case Crime by writing a straight crime novel, but soon brought on the kids who see dead people, as if he just couldn’t hold back the Stephen King-ness any more. In fact, I’d say neither book really fits what I assumed was the hard-boiled crime narrative Hard Case seems to peddle, and are closer to just normal King novellas, like those collected in Different Seasons. (“Apt Pupil” from that book would certainly make a better fit with Hard Case, I think.) But, they’re still fun — and short (for King) — novels. Later even seems to join up with It when it brings in the “tongue-wrestling match” of the Ritual of Chüd as a means for defeating demonic entities. (And this is, apparently, based on an actual idea in Tibetan Buddhism, of “Chöd”, a means of achieving enlightenment through self-induced terror.)

Neither book has the mystery-thriller-style tight plot I was expecting from Hard Case Crime’s pulp styling — Joyland is still setting up characters at the halfway point, and Later feels quite episodic, though both have satisfying conclusions — but they’re certainly readable in the usual King manner. I’m tempted to try out a book or two from Hard Case’s other writers, if only for more of those wonderful covers.

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