The X-Files is probably my favourite television show of all time. I was a kid when it started, and only ever saw a few episodes during its original run, but in early 2015, my wife and I started watching it on Netflix. Since then I’ve watched all 218 episodes, both movies and even listened to the audiodramas with Anderson and Duchovny. I acknowledge that the first 5 seasons are infinitely better than the later ones, but even bad X-Files is still pretty good (mostly).
When I discovered that Thomas Ligotti, one of my favourite horror writers, had written an unproduced screenplay for an episode of my favourite tv show, I was intrigued. The screenplay is actually credited to Ligotti and Brandon Trenz. Trenz was a friend of Ligotti’s. I don’t know how much input he had on Crampton, but his name appears after Ligotti’s on the cover. Maybe this is just because Ligotti is the bigger name. Thankfully, this screenplay is easily found online.
I won’t give away plot details for those who want to read this, but I will say that it’s similar to standard X-files fare in that it involves seemingly paranoid characters that believe in a cabal of shady yet powerful antagonists. It’s not an agent centered episode, but Mulder, Scully and their relationship all come across as genuine. Although the story is very Ligotti-y (Ligottiesque? Ligotti-ish?), it was very easy to imagine this as an X-Files episode.
That being said, this might have been a bit much for 1998 X-Files. By that stage, the series was heading into its “funny era”, and this episode would have been one of its darkest. I’ve seen articles about Crampton that refer to it as “the X-Files episode that was too bleak to air”, but realistically, it wouldn’t have aired even with a happier ending. (The show didn’t accept submissions from authors unless their names were Stephen King or William Gibson.) The difference between Ligotti’s story and most X-Files episodes is the nature and scope of the conspiracy. In the X-Files, the conspiracy is palatable because it’s orchestrated by the government or a government agency. The show has the decency to provide a target for the sense of paranoia that it induces. Ligotti and Trenz offer their audience no such comfort. Things are scary, dangerous and out of control, but that’s because of the nature of reality, not the failings of a government agency.
If this had been made an episode, I think it might have jarred audiences (the show was the most popular on television at that stage and had a huge viewership), but if it was filmed right, I reckon it could be remembered as one of the show’s best episodes. It feels cohesive and unsettling, and would have fit right into the series as a standalone episode.
When Ligotti and Trenz realised that their screenplay wasn’t going to be used, they reworked it into a screenplay for a movie. Durtro Press, David Tibet’s Publishing House, put out a copy of the movie version’s screenplay in 2002 alongside a collection of songs inspired by the screenplay and recorded by Ligotti himself.
The movie version is longer, and it allows parts of the story to go into more detail, but aside from the addition of two informant characters, the plot is essentially the same up until the ending. Even the ending isn’t all that different from the original. I read the extended version only a few days after reading the X-Files version, and I enjoyed it just as much the second time. The unanswered questions are more niggling the second time around, and while that may sound like a bad thing, it really isn’t. Ligotti is a philosopher as well as a writer of fiction, and he clearly understands the potency of horror that stems from unanswered questions.
The music is quite interesting. The collection of songs is titled The Unholy City. Ligotti has collaborated with Tibet a bunch of times, and he seems to be into artier music than me. I probably wouldn’t listen to it again, but the lyrics are enjoyably bleak and bizarre.
Both versions of Crampton are great. This is unsettling, weird horror. If you like Ligotti or the X-Files, you need to check this out.