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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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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The Haunting by Margaret Mahy

1986 paperback, art by Alun Hood

Researching Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows for a recent Mewsings, I was intrigued by the book that won the Carnegie Medal the year after it, Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting, which was published in 1982. Mahy, it turns out, was another who, like Westall, won the Carnegie twice.

The Haunting opens with young Barney Palmer seeing a ghost. He’s not entirely shocked, as he’s seen something similar before — though these were more by way of extremely vivid imaginary friends he’d had in his earlier years — but is a bit concerned by what the ghost says:

“Barnaby’s dead! And I’m going to be very lonely.”

Barney’s full name is Barnaby, after his great uncle, and he can’t help wondering if the ghost is telling him he’s going to die. When he gets home he finds his two sisters (both older) waiting for him, mostly silent Troy (the oldest) and her wordy opposite Tabitha (who intends to be the world’s greatest living novelist). They’re bursting to tell him the news: Great Uncle Barnaby has died. Partly in relief, partly in fright, Barney faints.

1984 Heinemann HB

Great Uncle Barnaby Scholar is a relative on the children’s mother’s side. She died giving birth to Barney, and the Palmers haven’t since had much contact with the Scholars, particularly after the kids’ father remarried (to Claire, who, contrary to all YA novel expectations, is a wonderful step-mother, loved by her step-children). One of the reasons, perhaps, the Palmers have seen so little of the Scholars is that the Scholars are an off-putting bunch, largely due to their matriarch, Great Grandmother Scholar, a judgemental and unforgiving old woman whose intensely controlling way with her children has left them all slightly damaged. As Great Uncle Guy says:

“My mother wasn’t a woman who enjoyed having children… She would have preferred to have a set of chessmen, I think.”

And:

“She clipped and pruned us as if we were a family of standard roses.”

It turns out one child escaped her clipping and pruning — at least for a short while. Not present at the funeral, and not mentioned till the subject can’t be avoided, is Great Uncle Cole, the boy who ran away and was, it seems, drowned shortly after. He and his mother didn’t get on (they were “at war from the moment he was born”), and he’s since become, as Guy says, “a guilty secret, and it’s always been easier just to be silent.”

Orion PB, 2018

It’s evident, though, that Great Uncle Cole is still around in some form, for he’s the one haunting Barney. This is confirmed by a scrapbook Barney finds while at the Scholar household, containing a photo of Cole that looks exactly like the ghost he saw — and which immediately spawns inky words, writing themselves on the page before his eyes: “Barnaby’s dead! And I’m going to be very lonely.” After this, Barney finds his world increasingly invaded by visions and messages from Cole, as well as the constant awareness of his presence:

“Someone was walking behind him — a long way off — still hidden in a misty distance but coming closer and closer, holding out a hand lined with the map of another world — a magical world, wise and beautiful perhaps, but not Barney’s own.”

The visions are:

“…little pictures, coming and going without warning… things that someone else was seeing… They were given to Barney as presents, as promises, for the person who was seeing these things thought they were beautiful and wanted to share them with someone.”

But they’re scary all the same, because Cole makes it clear he’s coming for Barney, to claim him and take him away, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

Apple PB from 1987, which may be spoiling part of the plot

But while Barney lapses into despondency, his would-be-novelist sister Tabitha is keen to do something, because, in an unusual move for a ghost story, she also saw the writing appearing around the photo in the Scholar scrapbook, and needs no convincing it’s real. The only reason she can’t immediately enlist adult help is that Barney insists their stepmother Claire shouldn’t be told, because she’s pregnant, and Barney (whose birth resulted in the death of his natural mother) is terrified of causing Claire any worry in case it increases the chances that she might die, too.

Cole, Tabitha learns, is or was a “Scholar magician”, a type the family produce every generation or so, someone with “powers and peculiarities” that “have nearly always brought misfortune on them and on those around them”. They can make things happen, induce visions and create objects out of thin air. Cole’s powers seem too strong for Barney to resist, and he tells Barney he’s a Scholar magician too, and so is best separated from his “normal” family, just as Cole himself had to escape his.

The Haunting treads a line between the comic (usually when in the company of Tabitha, to whom everything is material for her novel) and the despondent (for Barney), and builds up to something like a supernatural equivalent of Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, where a family get-together, plus an unexpected guest, results in a whole host of long-held secrets tumbling out into the open. (None of The Haunting’s were complete surprises to me as an adult reader, but may well have bowled me over in my early teens. Still, the revelation scene was very satisfying.)

Puffin 1999 cover, by Mark Preston

In essence, The Haunting is about how a family can become entirely skewed by its need to repress some innate characteristic. To all outward appearances such families are entirely “normal” — perhaps, even, a little too normal for comfort, being too regimented and controlled. Here, of course, that characteristic is magical ability, but I tend to read it as a metaphor for other, similar tendencies families can feel the need to repress, particularly in more buttoned-up times, such as creativity, sensitivity, particular emotions, or even all emotion. All of this is centred on Great Grandmother Scholar, who is unrepentant to the end, even when everything’s explained and in the open:

“I’m not one of your weak, whining ‘sorry’ people. I’m too old to be sorry for anything now.”

The Haunting was made into an hour-long children’s TV film in New Zealand (Margaret Mahy’s homeland) in 1987, as The Haunting of Barry Palmer. Perhaps because it was a co-production with a US network, it has some good effects for a kids’ TV show of the time (it seems to have had a slightly higher budget than an equivalent UK show, anyway), and only alters the plot to bring a bit more explicitly magical conflict on screen. (It can be seen, cut into 10-minute segments, at NZ On Screen. It’s probably on YouTube, too.)

(There seem to have been a few supernatural/science-fictional kids’ TV productions in New Zealand around the same time, and it’s a pity they’re not more available in the UK. There was Under the Mountain in 1981, based on Maurice Gee’s novel about telepathic twins, and the TV-original Children of the Dog Star in 1984, which features those two 80s standbys, unscrupulous property developers and child contact with aliens. I wonder if there are more. Do tell me if you know of any.)

Mahy’s second Carnegie win was for another supernatural YA, The Changeover (1984), and odds-on I’ll be reviewing that in Mewsings some time soon.

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