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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

Oct. 2, 2005

They "Got To" Carl Kolchak: What Happened to All the Conspiracy Guys?

All right.  It's official.  As the author behind a little paranormal history book called The Franklin Conspiracy, I have now found myself characterized in at least two reviews as a member of the Lost Franklin Expedition "Lunatic Fringe".  In a review of David Solway's Franklin's Passage, reviewer Russell A. Potter refers to the wide range of previous works published on the Lost Franklin Expedition.  Among these he includes "Jeffrey Blair Latta's conspiracy-strewn strands of the Franklin 'lunatic fringe.'"  Then too, in a review of my book itself, David Owen likewise categorizes me as a part of the "lunatic fringe".  That's two times.  And, I figure, if I read something two times, it's probably true, right?

But here's the thing.  I'm not just a member of the Lunatic Fringe -- I am the Lunatic Fringe.

The theory put forward in The Franklin Conspiracy is so completely out of left field, as it were, that I feel safe in saying no one previously even comes close.  What happened to the Franklin Expedition that vanished into the Canadian Arctic in 1845?  I don't want to give the story away (I do have books to sell, after all), but suffice it to say that my "solution" reads like an episode of the X-files, Roswell and Oliver Stone's JFK all rolled into one.  Between a vast and sinister conspiracy involving both the British Royal Navy and the Hudson's Bay Company, alien visitors to the Canadian Arctic, and a dimensional portal with decidedly unpleasant side effects, I figure I've pretty much covered all the paranormal bases.  But none of these things were derived from some already existing stock of Franklin lore provided by a putative "Lunatic Fringe".  There was no Lunatic Fringe.

To be sure, there were a few fairly far fetched theories.  But, previous to The Franklin Conspiracy, no one breathed a word about aliens vis-a-vis the Franklin expedition.  Hey, why should they?  It's not the first solution that pops to mind when you read about a bunch of Brits perishing in the far north.  Same goes for dimensional portals.  As for the idea of a conspiracy to keep Franklin's fate from being discovered... although there were those at the time who hinted at a concerted effort on the part of the Royal Navy to delay the search until the trail had grown cold, no one previous to the Franklin Conspiracy went so far as to suggest a conspiracy as vast and long lived as mine.  One Franklin scholar suggested Franklin and his 129-man crew perished because of poorly canned foods.  Botulism.  Another suggested lead poisoning, also from poorly canned foods.  Some scholars accused the local Inuit of murdering the hapless explorers.  But nothing seemed to answer all the questions.

So, I decided a radical solution was called for.  Aliens.  Why not.  So long as it fit the known facts, I was prepared to entertain any possibility.  So, there you have it.  I am the Lunatic Fringe.  I don't mind.  In fact, I rather like it out here on the Fringe.  For one thing, there's plenty of elbow room.  And, by and large, things are a lot more interesting.  After all, wasn't the Lunatic Fringe where you found such fictional heros as the X-Files' Fox Mulder and the original Conspiracy Guy himself...dogged investigative crime reporter Carl Kolchak, played by Darren McGavin on the TV series The Night Stalker (1974-75).

Which reminds me of the reason I sat down to write this week's editorial.  Last night I watched the recent remake of The Night Stalker series -- and I was struck by a disturbing revelation.  I just have to share it with you.  Big surprise, huh?

If you've seen the new Night Stalker, you know not only have they replaced Darren McGavin in the lead (although he "appears" briefly, his image inserted through the miracle of modern computers) but they have completely rethought Kolchak's look and personality.  The original Carl Kolchak was Mr. Everyman, an average guy dressed in battered hat and rumpled seersucker suit, forever lugging around his portable tape-recorder and sticking his nose where it didn't belong.  He spent half his time creeping around spooky places looking for monsters that only he believed existed, and the other half trading tirades with his boss Tony Vincenzo, who predicably refused to run his stories because he didn't believe in monsters.  Or so he said.  Certainly Kolchak had his doubts about that.  He was convinced the local government knew all about the monsters but was doing everything in its power to cover-up that secret, including silencing Kolchak.  Hence, why he was the original Conspiracy Guy.

Flash forward three decades.  Appearance wise, the new Carl Kolchak is the exact opposite.  Young, brash, slickly dressed, he could have stepped out of an ad for GQ Magazine.  What the newspaper pays him, I don't know, but it must be honking huge based on the place he calls home.  You could play football in the living room and still have room for a concession stand. 

But none of that is the reason for this editorial.  That came at the very end of the pilot episode of the new Night Stalker.  It was then that it happened..  It was then that The Line was crossed.  What Line?  The line that defined the original Carl Kolchak, the line in the sand by which he lived, if he were a samurai we'd call it his bushido -- in a sense the whole fecking raison d'être of the original series!

In the original Night Stalker, each episode Kolchak investigated some new monster with the ultimate goal of publishing his story in the newspaper for which he worked.  He wanted the public to know THE TRUTH.  Usually, he was stymied in his efforts either by his editor Tony Vincenzo, or by more shady forces in suits, but we could assume that at least a watered down version of his incredible adventure would make it into print.  At the very least, if the story was covered-up, it was against Kolchak's wishes.  He did everything he could and sometimes that just wasn't enough.

So, what do we find at the end of the new Night Stalker?  This fine fellow tells us that someday he will let the public know all about the monsters he uncovers.  Someday he will.  But, for the time being, this new Carl Kolchak plans to keep those stories under wraps, donchaknow.  Seems he's afraid of looking silly and maybe losing his job.   Best not to rock the boat.

Uh huh.  Sure.  Good thinking.  But where have we heard that before?  Let me think now.  Where...oh yeah.  The bad guys!

I can remember a time when good guys like Kolchak didn't worry about rocking the boat.  They wanted to rock the boat because they knew the boat was full of holes and it needed a good rocking.  (I know.  That's got to be the lamest metaphor ever, but I'm working to a deadline here.  Cut me some slack.)  In those days, it was only the bad guys who made speeches about covering-up stories and how it was better to wait, not push things just yet, not panic the public, not step on any toes... yadda, yadda, yadda.  Later.  Later, but never now.  Whether it was editor Tony Vincenzo, or the X-Files' "Cancer Man", they were all cut from the same dark cloth, all speaking the same excuses.

That was The Line the original Kolchak wouldn't cross.  He wouldn't be a voluntary part of the cover-up.  The public had a right to know, dagnabit; whether they panicked or not, whether it cost him his job or not, the Truth would out.  And now, some three decades later, the new Kolchak breezes over that line like the Road Runner zipping and beep-beeping over some trap laid down by Wile E. Coyote.  Like it was nothing to him.  Like it was manufactured by ACME.

It's the sort of joke that'll make you cry.

I grew up in the 1970s, a time when a little paranoia was seen as a good thing.  From All The President's Men (1976) to the China Syndrome (1979), the message was loud and clear.  Trust no one.  An attitude which reached its peak in the early 90s with the X-Files (1993-2002) where "Trust No One" became one of its several mottos along with: "I Want to Believe" and "The Truth is Out There".  But for those of us of a certain persuasion, from the start the X-Files seemed like pretty familiar territory.  It might just as well have been subtitled:  X-Files: Son of Close Encounters

But it wasn't just the emphasis on alien abductions and lights in the sky that linked X-Files to Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  There was that, sure.  But, like the X-Files, Close Encounters was also about government deceit and cover-up as it depicted the US military's heavy handed (and largely effectual) effort to keep secret humanity's first encounter with extraterrestrials at the site of Devil's Tower, Wyoming.  I remember being deeply impressed by the scene which essentially drew The Line.

The hero, played by Richard Dreyfuss, having violated the military's blockade around Devil's Tower in spite of their claim that the area is contaminated with deadly something-or-other, is being forcibly evicted.  They dump him into a helicopter along with several others -- people who, like himself, have been summoned by the fast approaching aliens.  Gathering his courage, Dreyfuss tears off the gas mask he was told to wear and takes a deep breath.  In an instant, he has proven -- the army is lying to them.  There is no deadly contaminant.  As the helicopter prepares to lift off, Dreyfuss urges his co-contactees.  It's all a lie.  The government is trying to get rid of them. 

Soon the whole group begins squabbling, some in agreement, some not.  Then, one of the passengers asks: "But if the government doesn't want us to know, then we shouldn't know."  And there it was.  The Line.  Crossed like nothing.  Beep-beep.

Now, all this griping about the new Night Stalker and its reinterpretation (its co-opting) of Carl Kolchak, would be of little more than passing interest were it not for one thing.  The new Kolchak is but one in a whole crop of new "heroes" embraced over the past decade virtually all of which have decided to cross The Line.  Whether it's Men in Black (1997) with its super-secret organization protecting us from alien visitors even if it means erasing our very memories to hide the truth, or the heroine of the TV series Alias who works for the secretive CIA,  or the scientist heroes of the new alien invasion series Threshold, secret conspiracies are all the rage, and the heroes are those who perpetuate those conspiracies rather than those who expose them. 

Why this state of affairs has come about isn't hard to guess.  If there was one last gasp in the corpse of healthy paranoia, it was called The X-Files.  But someone noticed that, ultimately, there was something limiting about an underdog hero always trying and failing to expose a conspiracy.  A lot more fun to follow the guys on the winning team, the guys in the know, the guys keeping the secrets... for our own good.  A lot more interesting to follow the adventures of "Cancer Man" than of Fox Mulder.  And that is what we are seeing.

Cancer Man has become the modern hero. 

And yet, it was during one episode of the X-Files that we first got a hint of this dark reality around the corner.  The central theme of that series was a belief that only good could come from exposing the Truth.  That was Mulder's and Scully's bushido.  But then there was one episode where some convicts escaped from prison contaminated with a deadly pustule-creating disease.  To my horror, our heroes agreed that, in that case, the public was best served by being kept in the dark.  Otherwise, there might be panic, donchaknow.  And so, Mulder and Scully, having told us again and again that concealing the truth is wrong, wrong, wrong, effortlessly breezed over The Line, Line, Line -- and we are all left the poorer.

And now, this. Our worst nightmare has been realized.  They got to Carl Kolchak.  Paranoia is truly dead.

But then, why should you believe what I have to say?  I am the Lunatic Fringe.


Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

For a review of the Kolchak comic book, check out Kolchak: Tales of the Night Stalker!

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