Saturday, June 04, 2005

The X-Files, H.P. Lovecraft, and the Legacy of the Wierd

Having just finished reading "Against the World, Against Life"; the immensely talented Michel Houellebecq's essay on the works of American Gothic fantasist H.P. Lovecraft; followed by a sleepless night occasioned by reading one of the two Lovecraft stories included in the volume ("The Whisperer in Darkness", for those seeking insomnia); I was forced to think of the X-Files.

Like many children of the '90s, I had my moment of X-Files fandom. Now, I never went to conventions, bought comic books, or spent my time writing pastiches of the series in which Agents Mulder and Scully finally ended up in various erotic entanglements. But I was a loyal viewer who waited anxiously for the next revelation or the next piece of conspiratorial malfeasence displayed each week; until, of course, the series collapsed into unfathomable labyrinths of strained paranoia which became more comical than frightening.

Reading Houellebecq on Lovecraft, however, has made me realize the impetus behind this affection for such a pulpy and often ridiculous television series. I'm not sure there are two cultural phenomena more closely linked than what Houellebecq (with the French talent for intellectual hyperbole) calls "the great texts", and the first three or four years of the X-Files; both of which, if we are to accept Houellebecq's analysis of Lovecraft's ethos, which I do, constitute a rejection of life and the world; and percieve humanity not as wanderers in a beautiful if empty cosmic but as helpless victims of a world filled with horrors.

It has been noted before, I'm sure, that the X-Files and Lovecraft's "great texts" share the quality of existing within a coherent and consistent mythology. What has not, perhaps, been noted (or noted only on some obscure sci-fi website of which I remain thankfully unaware) is the extraordinary similarity between these two self-contained mythologies. The world, both that created by Lovecraft and that of the X-Files, is populated by unknown alien beings who have come to earth for unknown sinister purposes. They remain obscure and hidden, though they reveal themselves through traces comprehensible to those who know what to look for. They tend to manifest themselves in dark, unpopulated woods and icy wastelands (both Lovecraft and the X-Files, fascinatingly enough, postulate alien cities in the Arctic). Both works (the X-Files perhaps more prominently) postulate that these visitors are conspiratorially involved in the world of humans, in anticipation of a coming, apocalyptic denouement to their machinations. Both (as Houellebecq emphasizes) display a surprising chastity and distaste for the topic of money; and despite the famous erotic tension between the X-Files' leads, both are essentially sexually monastic (as, apparently, was Lovecraft) and foresake all worldly achievement in the pursuit of hidden knowledge, as do Lovecraft's protagonists.

It is notable as well that both Lovecraft and the X-Files manage to evoke fear and horror at things which, if one thinks about them, ought to be comically silly. Lovecraft's Old Ones are essentially winged crabs with octopus heads; and the X-Files aliens, when they briefly manifest themselves, are gray-skinned, big eyed humanoids with no noses. And yet we react with terror and not laughter. This is accomplished, in both cases, by style and not substance. Both Lovecraft and the X-Files understood the value of negative space; that it is not the things lurking in the shadows but the shadows themselves which terrify us. And both are equally aware of the importance of language; the reassuring tone of scientific reminiscence ever-present in Lovecraft's uber-Victorian prose and the calmness of the X-Files' criminological beaurocratese lend a sense of verisimilitude to the actualities of horror which cannot but speak to us in our age of expertise as oracular truth and science as the one arbiter of reality. In this, most of all, perhaps, the X-Files is Lovecraft's heir. Whether Lovecraft was a great writer or not, he was the first to realize the importance of appropriating scientific discourse to selling the macabre in the modern age.

Where the two meet most completely, however, is in their grasp of the totality of horror. As Houellebecq notes, in perhaps his most fascinating observation, Lovecraft does not introduce his terror by degrees; but plunges us wholesale into a complete universe populated by the minions of Cthulhu and the Old Ones; just as the X-Files begins with the premise that the earth is ridden with murderous contortionists, cannibalistic conjoined twins, entire towns populated by vampires, and, of course, a rapacious alien race manipulating human actions to their own dark ends. What both assert, in their own way, is that the world, as it exists, and has existed from time immemorial, is a chamber of horrors.

Houellebecq interprets this, in Lovecraft's case, as a wholesale condemnation of the world and of life itself. In this, the X-Files may not completely qualify. Its two lonely wanderers do, after all, end up together; and there is at least the implication of hope. Of course, given the forces ranged against hope throughout its universe, this may be a gesture towards futility; but it is nonetheless a gesture which Lovecraft never makes. The "truth" the X-Files seeks is finally revealed, and that is, supposedly at least, enough. It is not so for Lovecraft, whose protagonists often state at the outset that their recollections are destined for oblivion, just as they are, and perhaps we are all better off for it.

What must strike one, despite Lovecraft's Victorianisms and the X-Files' deference to ancient superstitions and legendaria, is the extraordinary modernism of both of these phenomena. All horror is, in my opinion, ultimately about evil; but it is only in the context of modern horror that one finds the theme that the world itself is evil; that is to say, good may exist, but evil is the supreme power in the universe. The world, for all intents and purposes, has been given over to Satan.

For a world which has seen Auschwitz, this is not entirely surprising; although Lovecraft, who wrote in the 20s and 30s and was, after all, a sometime admirer of Hitler, could not have been working in this paradigm. He did, it seems, anticipate it, and for this he has to be given some prophetic credit. The X-Files, for its part, is an inheritor, and perhaps an obsolete one in an age when evil now seems less all encompassing and the forces of good are roused to something like their full powers (though I suppose the Bush administration's more violent opponents would disagree with this assertion; and perceive Lovecraft, and his heirs most of all, as prophets of the truist kind) but it nonetheless must be given its due for, perhaps, closing a macabre circle, and writing a final chapter to an era of exaggerated but nonetheless endlessly fascinating despair, and for doing so, moreover, in something quite resembling the script of its originator.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, it gets me thinking that Mulder and Scully are like Estragon and Vladimir, and are "waiting for Godot" only in this case, Godot is an alien.

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Anonymous The Shadow said...

I haven't read Houellebecq's essay yet, so my understanding is based entirely upon your description of it. However, I've read the same basic claims from others--e.g., Michael Moorcock--who seem to have only a superficial knowledge of Lovecraft. Lovecraft was an atheist writing about a universe that was not evil but simply indifferent to humanity. Read Lovecraft's essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" if you want to understand his outlook better. Based on your description, I don't think that Houellebecq understands him well.

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