Cult horror author Thomas Ligotti explains why his nihilistic take on the sci-fi series never made it to TV
Their search for truth has seen them do battle with vampires, zombies, aliens, and elasticated mutants hungry for human offal. But what would Mulder and Scully make of a case that brought them face-to-face with “the strange and awful truth” of existence? “Crampton”, an unproduced screenplay for The X-Files, offers a clue: co-written by cult horror author Thomas Ligotti in 1998, the script plunges our detective leads into a world of illusion, suggesting conspiracies of a different kind.
If only the 2018 iteration of The X-Files were so ambitious. Last week, the new series premiered to middling reviews, following a first rebooted season that could not have felt more like a period piece if Mulder and Scully had rocked up wearing corsets. The original X-Files, of course, remains a hugely influential show and pop-cultural motherlode of pre-millennial tension. One difficulty with bringing it back is that television has become so much weirder since then: Black Mirror continues to mine a potent seam of techno-paranoia, while shows like Top of the Lake (in its first series) and The Returned evoke an otherworldly atmosphere far richer than anything Chris Carter’s show used to conjure. Even Twin Peaks, itself an influence on The X-Files, amped up the weird for its much-vaunted Return.
TV’s recent flirtation with the uncanny found its groove with the first series of True Detective, which relied for much of its unholy swagger on the character of Rust Cohle. A few years ago, writer Nic Pizzolatto revealed that part of the inspiration for Cohle’s bleak philosophising came from Thomas Ligotti’s non-fiction work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, causing dark mutterings among the author’s devoted fanbase. Less known is that Ligotti also wrote an X-Files script which, had it gone on to be filmed, would surely rank among the series’ strangest and most terrifying moments.
“In brief, we are all frightened at some level by the prospect of intense physical and emotional suffering and the knowledge that things can always get worse” - Thomas Ligotti
To stumble in on Ligotti’s world is like looking down to find the ground you’ve been walking on has become a great yawning chasm. His short fiction oeuvre owes as much to the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer as it does weird-fiction exponents Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft, and features an unlikely cast of bogeymen, from gas-station carnies and degenerate town councillors to malevolent Dadaist theatre troupes. Their presence isn’t designed to persuade us of the supernatural per se, but rather, as the author explained to The New Yorker, that “the world by its nature already exists in a state of doom”.
“What frightens me most is what frightens everyone else most, whether they know it or not,” wrote Ligotti in an email exchange with Dazed. (The writer is such a reclusive figure that he was rumoured, for a time in the 90s, not to exist at all.) “In brief, we are all frightened at some level by the prospect of intense physical and emotional suffering and the knowledge that things can always get worse. Speaking somewhat bombastically, the artist in me wants to captivate readers by what I find captivating in life and literature, while the philosopher in me wants to deliver the strange and awful truth. Horror literature very much lends itself to doing both.”
Ligotti wrote his X-Files script with Brandon Trenz, his colleague at a reference-book publisher. The script that he and Trenz concocted, which you can read in full online, concerns the death of an FBI agent from an apparent heart attack, after a man walks into the bureau unchallenged and fires a joke-shop gun in his direction. When some nearby feds tackle the assassin to the ground, they find he has transformed into a mannequin. Enter Mulder and Scully, who follow a trail to the sinister backwoods town of Crampton, where things take a turn for the truly bizarre.
Readers of Ligotti’s fiction will find plenty that’s familiar within the screenplay, from the frequent excursions into the uncanny right down to the name ‘Crampton’, which features in one of his short stories, “The Shadow, The Darkness”. But part of the script’s success is its skilful balancing act between sly X-Files humour and the creeping cosmic dread unique to Ligotti’s fiction: one scene, landing dead-centre between funny and pant-wettingly scary, features a puppet called ‘Laffo’ and a clown with a rictus grin painted on his face. “That was crucial,” says Ligotti, “since (scriptwriting) is an art quite different from the kind of expressionist, rather personal writing of my supernatural stories. We were fully aware it had to look, feel, and smell like an episode of the X-Files, which automatically put a cap on how weird or cerebral it could be.”
All the same, “Crampton” is plenty weird by X-Files standards. An early clue this won’t be your standard monster-of-the-week fare comes when Mulder and Scully examine the body of the FBI agent, Larry Johnson. After the disturbing discovery that Johnson’s pupils contract when a torch is shone on his eyes, the scene cuts to an eerie POV shot from the cadaver itself, causing the viewer to wonder what, exactly, is doing the looking.
The episode culminates in a horrifying magic performance, which allows Mulder and Scully a peek behind the curtains into a roaring black void – the Nietzschean abyss that stares back, perhaps – which the episode has been hinting at all along. It’s strong stuff, but Ligotti bristles when I suggest the scene tips the episode into the realms of the surreal – the key image, of a man lashed to a cage having impossible things done to his body, evokes something out of a Francis Bacon painting. “You’re right in that our ending was a bit more complex than that of the average X-Files plot,” says Ligotti, “but I wouldn’t say it was surreal or confusing in any way... Ultimately, the viewer knows more than Mulder and Scully about the resolution of the episode’s plot. That’s the unusual aspect of our episode. But it wasn’t, like, some artsy ‘What-the-hell-was-that?’ conclusion. Its narrative was solid all the way.”
The episode also calls to mind Twin Peaks in that the plot’s central mystery – the death of Larry Johnson – is something of a McGuffin, an entry point into mysteries of a more metaphysical nature. Does Ligotti see similarities between David Lynch’s approach to the supernatural and his own? “I’m not a fan of Lynch generally speaking, though I like some scenes in everything he’s done,” he says. “He seems to think in isolated scenes rather than entire narratives. In a way, my feeling was similar about The X-Files. There were some great scenes, and even some great episodes. But as a whole, the show left something to be desired in my opinion. Then again, there’s no doubt it had something that captured the imaginations of TV viewers, including my own.”
In the end, Ligotti and Trenz’s attempts to get the script produced came to nothing, as the show’s makers did not accept submissions from outside contributors, with the odd noteworthy exception (Stephen King and William Gibson were both tapped to write episodes for the fifth season). The pair reworked their script into a feature-length treatment unrelated to The X-Files, but abandoned the idea after failing to find backing.
“We are disposable things of parts, just like puppets” - Thomas Ligotti
“After hellzapoppin’ shows like American Horror Story, I would have to believe that ‘Crampton’ would have a better reception now, if we could only get the script read,” says Ligotti. Still, “Crampton” remains the author’s lone stab at writing a screenplay to date, and Ligotti feels persuaded he has neither the “temperament or peculiar talents to write for either TV or film”.
Perhaps he’s right in a sense. Even True Detective wound up blinking in the face of Ligotti’s troubling worldview, with Cohle succumbing to a severe bout of Hollywooditis in the series finale. (“True what?” says Ligotti when asked what he made of the show. “I don’t make anything of anything.”)
Another question about Laffo, the puppet in the episode, elicits a long response that takes us to the heart of the darkness enveloping Ligotti’s work: “Whatever anyone else may say, I say that we evolved as puppets of largely unknown forces by which we’re controlled. We place a premium on pure survival above all. That fact determines all your actions… If we were honest, we would realise, among other terrible truths, that life is not precious. We are disposable things of parts, just like puppets. And there’s nothing we can do about it except dispose of ourselves in one way or another.
Buddhist philosophy and ego-denying drugs like LSD and peyote may offer brief respite, but even these consolations, he argues, have their limits: “Once you come back to yourself, or what seems to be yourself, you’re back in the torture engine that turns the wheel of life. One cannot live without suffering. It’s crucial to our continuance as individuals and as a species.” That’s because humans, in the Ligottian worldview, are an evolutionary misstep, and our attempts to impose meaning on the world are doomed from the outset. As a character in the episode, misquoting the series’ tagline suggests, “The truth is… there is no truth.”
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race will be republished this year by Penguin