The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost (2016)

Well. It’s a hefty tome, and a beautiful physical object. Engaging, frequently a page-turner. Often funny, and pleasantly studded with familiar voices. But whatever I was hoping for, I didn’t really get it. 

The book is presented as a dossier about the town of Twin Peaks, including notes by an archivist and reproductions of original documents of various kinds. It is by Mark Frost, co-creator of the TV show with David Lynch. It tells the whole history of the town, from the days of the native peoples, right through to the events surrounding Laura Palmer’s murder. And it bugs me.

It isn’t the inconsistencies. Yes, it’s inconsistent with the TV series in lots of ways, but none of them are obvious, and consistency doesn’t matter anyway. (The three classic tie-in books were similarly inconsistent, and Fire Walk With Me was also inconsistent with the show, so just chalk it up to a collective dream and move along.)

It isn’t the Zelig/Forrest Gumpian appearances of varied historical personages – even L. Ron Hubbard! Frost’s project appears to be giving events in Twin Peaks greater significance against the backdrop of American life and its ongoing mysteries. It isn’t really what I’m looking for, but it is coherent with some of the threads from the show which made clear American authorities were aware of strangeness in the town, and the subplot around aliens and flying saucers is a major focus of the narrative. 

What bugs me is more the fact that, considering how big a canvas Frost is working with, it all feels so insular and referential (and deferential). The same names crop up over and over again through the town’s history. Almost everyone interesting in this lengthy book was either on screen, or directly related to someone on screen. With the opportunity to point at a wider canvas full of the unknown, Frost repeatedly loops back to the same established ground.

Now this isn’t exactly inconsistent with the TV show which kept the focus relatively tight, going to the same circle of characters over and over again – as a TV show must do, to keep its contracted cast busy on screen. However, the same pattern feels myopic and overdetermined here, like fan fiction. Consider by contrast Lynch’s film Fire Walk With Me, which obsessively included the vast majority of the characters from the TV show, but also featured many entirely new characters and situations in prominent roles. In fact, most of the TV characters were left on the cutting room floor. Even those earlier spin-off books filled out their world more than here. 

This focus on the TV characters creates some secondary problems. The urge to feature them was no doubt strong because of their distinctive, memorable personalities, but Frost has varied success transferring them to the page. In particular the writings of Deputy Hawk, Hank Jennings and Audrey Horne all feel off-kilter. If these characters were not quite so indelible, Frost might have got away with it.

Also, frustratingly, the book doesn’t provide many answers to the TV show’s many cliffhangers. (One notable exception is the reveal of who survived the large explosion in the final episode.) Despite a framing device that has the evidence of events from 1989 being discussed in 2016, very little is revealed beyond what we saw on screen. So if you’re hoping this will carry you across the decades and set you up for the third season of the show, you will be disappointed.
Mark Frost, and the publishers, have doggedly insisted that this book is a novel. I guess we might as well call it that, but it feels like its own sort of thing. While there is one central thread across the varied tales in the book, it doesn’t real feel like a narrative as such – there is little to root for in the central character’s journey, and what transitions he experiences are very superficial. The book tries too hard to make a dramatic mystery of the identity of the archivist, but the mystery is inert – knowing who it is changes nothing and adds nothing to the experience, it is just obfuscation for its own sake. Frost is a skilled storyteller (I am very fond of his novel List of Seven for example) but here the many interesting pieces of the book don’t come together into any richer whole. 

So do I recommend this book? There’s plenty to enjoy (the account of a scout camp featuring young versions of some minor characters is a creepy highlight) and it is a beautiful physical object. Still, I end up feeling quite ambivalent. While it is “canonical” (for whatever that is worth), I think it is best viewed as an entertaining homage rather than a new revelatory piece of the wider Twin Peaks puzzle. As a fun celebration of the show, it fits well alongside the rather silly Guide to Twin Peaks and the earnest but necessarily limited Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and Autobiography of Dale Cooper. It is nice to have clear accounts of tangled storylines such as the Josie Packard/Catherine Martel rivalry (inconsistencies notwithstanding). I am glad to have it on my shelf. But it is undeniably inessential. 

I guess my ultimate take is this: I wouldn’t expect David Lynch will have read this book before making the new series. I don’t think that would be a problem.

 So that’s it, then. One for the curious aficionado, not to be taken too seriously.

Twin Peaks (USA, 1990)

Twin Peaks is widely regarded as a missed opportunity. Made by David Lynch as the pilot for a planned TV series, it was salvaged into a film by adding an ending sequence. The film’s roots in television are obvious, introducing a sprawling cast of characters – some of whom don’t even get lines of dialogue, such as the mysterious Log Lady. If an ongoing series had been made, it would have been delightful to learn more about these characters, but sadly we had to wait a few years until Mulholland Drive to get a proper taste of Lynchian television.

As it is, the film is often seen as a failure. The ending sequence does appear disconnected from the extensive busywork beforehand – after introducing character after character, each with their own problems and conflicts and each a potential suspect in the central murder mystery, the film abruptly reveals the murderer to be someone we haven’t even seen before, who is hiding out in the basement of the hospital. The murderer’s partner/foil shoots him, then apparently dies of a heart attack, and that’s it, except for a strange and dreamlike coda in a red-curtained room that is widely regarded as inexplicable.

However, I think Lynch has given us all the clues we need to make sense of this film. Let’s take a look.

The bulk of the running time is spent exploring the town. As mentioned, nearly everyone seems to have a secret – not just the teens caught up in Laura Palmer’s strange life, but the adults too. (Notable exception for contrast – the adorably literal sheriff’s receptionist Lucy who seems incapable of leaving anything unsaid, secret or otherwise.) The film is also named for the town. The fact that none of these characters is involved in the crime seems at first to be a pointless rebuke to murder-mystery expectations, but I believe the message is the reverse – that in some sense the town itself is responsible. The film’s focus on the network of secrets and sadness in the town suggests that these secrets in some way caused her death. Laura is the homecoming queen and loved by all – but she clearly is caught up in terrible things, and this picture-perfect town is implicated. (The Norwegian investors subplot, for example, makes perfect sense through this lens – Laura’s death stains the town so much they walk out on the deal, and the town, immediately.)

We get more evidence that the townsfolks’ secrets are the cause of the murder when we meet Mike and Bob at the end of the film. They seem ordinary enough on the surface, but these two men are clearly meant to be interpreted as strange, magical beings from somewhere else (there are two worlds, as the magician’s chant reveals). If Bob could hide in Laura’s room while her mother looked for her, he is clearly using some otherworldly nature to do so.

Mike tells the story of how they lived among the people, above a convenience store no less. The film seems to be telling us that Mike and Bob are drawn to people like the ones we have been watching for the previous ninety minutes – deeply flawed and full of secrets. Or, to flip it into the kind of magical logic suggested by the killer’s use of rituals and magic chants, the town’s many secrets bring down dark spirits upon their head, with Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen/drug user/friend-of-prostitutes-and-murderers, as the incarnation of the town’s dual nature and the prime target for sacrifice.

While Mike has reformed from his murderous ways, Bob promises to kill again, provoking Mike to murder him. The case seems to be resolved, but it is clear Cooper is unsatisfied. As candles blow out, Cooper makes a wish – and we immediately cut to 25 years later.

The meaning of this cut seems clear: his wish was to understand the strange logic of what he witnessed in Twin Peaks. He has spent his career on this quest, and finally, as a much older man, he has found his way to the somewhere else. There, he meets a spirit wearing the form of Laura Palmer. (Bob claimed to catch people in his “death bag”, which presumably means he steals the form of his victims and carries it back to the second world.) The spirit, we are told, is full of secrets. She whispers into Cooper’s ear the answers he was seeking. Credits roll.

I don’t make any grand claims that this film approaches the thematic coherence of later works like Lost Highway, but I think it holds together a lot more thoroughly than most give it credit for. Indeed, from my perspective there is only one piece of the film that remains with me as both unexplained and deeply disturbing. 

The final sequence of the film begins with Laura’s mother remembering that she had in fact glimpsed Bob in Laura’s room that morning. As she screams in terror and calls for help from Laura’s father, we can see over her shoulder a mirror on the wall. And, blurry but definitely visible in my Blu-Ray copy of the film, we can see a face in the mirror – and it is unmistakably that of Bob himself. He is apparently right there in the room watching as Laura’s mother loses her wits! Creepy as hell.

In any case, this film is recommended, and not just so we can imagine what a Twin Peaks TV series might have been like. Instead, let’s appreciate it for what it is – a satisfying and complete film in itself.