From time to time, Titan Books are kind enough to send me advance copies of upcoming novels I express an interest in. When they do, I’ll be reviewing them here on Cultural Conversation.
You may have heard the name David Quantick over the years.
You may indeed have seen him as a talking head on more than a few clip shows providing a comedic or acerbic bent, but in reality he is one of the most quietly esteemed comedy writers in the UK of the last thirty years, from the influential and dark work of Chris Morris such as The Day Today, Brass Eye and Jam, through to a fruitful union with Armando Iannucci on The Thick of It and most recently in the US, Veep, which has seen Emmy Awards coming his way.
The latter two projects are mentioned on the cover of All My Colors, a title itself handily Americanised as this sees Quantick—in his first slice of prose fiction—playing in the American cultural wilderness as he brings to bear a caustic, snappy slice of satirical, melodramatic horror. The story of Todd Milstead feels like what would happen if you threw H.P. Lovecraft, The Twilight Zone, Stephen King and 80’s Richard Briers-starring comedy Ever Decreasing Circles into a blender.
Naturally this is, in no way, a bad thing.
MULDER: Mass hysteria. Salem. McCarthyism. What happened to the precious presumption of innocence? Which is rooted in a very democratic ideal.
There is something familiar and unfamiliar about ‘Familiar’, one of the last truly stand-alone ‘monster of the week’ tales The X-Files will likely ever do.
Anyone who has followed Chris Carter’s series from its inception will be aware that his show was divided between the ‘standalones’ and the ‘mythology’ episodes. At the time, back in the 90’s, fans lived for the mythology, the ongoing story of Fox Mulder & Dana Scully against the conspiracy to cover up the existence of alien life, and far darker deeds beyond. Time and distance however, for many, have seen the standalone tales grow in currency; in a world now built on the kind of serialised storytelling The X-Files flirted with, while still keeping to a model ripe for syndication, fans have craved from the revival season a truly stand-alone story. One where Mulder & Scully arrive in a small town, investigate some weird deaths, and find themselves embroiled in the strange and spooky. It’s taken almost two revival seasons, but ‘Familiar’ gets us there.
Oddly enough now, however, what once was considered a standard, typical X-File, has become essentially the aberration. If you look at how experimental both revival seasons have been, from comedy episodes or Hitchcockian espionage homages, down to episodes like last week’s ‘Followers’ which pushed the envelope the furthest the show has gone in a long time, ‘Familiar’ stands out because it’s now *unfamiliar*. Benjamin Van Allen’s story is almost a throwback, a relic of the original series The X-Files was built on, and were it not for certain fairly indirect but potent allegorical references to modern-day political Americana, you could position ‘Familiar’ in one of the early seasons of the show. It might sit quite well nearby ‘Die Hand Die Verletzt’, perhaps its most intrinsic bedfellow. For that reason, alone, it feels uniquely old-fashioned.
The latest season of Stranger Things, Netflix’s nostalgic 1980’s-set adventure, took an interesting left turn toward the end of its run. The second season had built on the first, continuing the story of a group of teenagers in Hawkins, Indiana, 1984, after they uncovered a conspiracy of government scientists awakening psionic powers within innocent children, with the express means of opening a doorway into the ‘Upside Down’, a dark, demonic reflection of our world. Arguably the breakout star was Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, an androgynous young girl raised by an amoral scientist she named ‘Papa’, before escaping and being taken in by teenager Mike and his party of 80’s geeks.
The Goonies meets The X-Files, right? That and about a dozen other touchstones, from Spielberg’s E.T. through to Stephen King’s Carrie. Eleven proved to be the character who leapt into the popular consciousness with a measure of innocent vulnerability and youthful verve, and it makes sense for creators The Duffer Brothers to give Eleven her own character journey across the second run, in far more of a pointed way than the rest of the ensemble. It’s through Eleven that we find an interesting narrative choice played out by the creators in the second to last episode.
Stranger Things season two operates in a logical manner, developing character arcs for the group – Dustin adopting a monstrous pet, Lucas’ teenage adoration for tomboy and new team member Max, Steve breaking out as the star of the second season, moving from popular jackass to true, underdog hero. So by the time we reach the end of the sixth episode, ‘The Spy’, the scene has very much been set for an epic climax to the story; Will is possessed by the ‘Mind Flayer’ shadow monster, Eleven discovers the truth about her mother and family past, and Hopper sees the government lab in Hawkins being to be invaded by legions of ‘Demi-gorgons’, the monster lap dogs of the Mind Flayer essentially. The first season had eight episodes yet season two has nine, simply for the fact the two-part climactic beat is forestalled in order to squeeze in an episode not originally part of the season tapestry – episode seven, ‘The Lost Sister’.