The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
So, the new season of Twin Peaks is upon us, unfolding darkly. It’s as good a time as any to dive into Mark Frost’s remarkably produced tome, which offers a little in the way of backstory before we spool up for whatever he and Lynch have planned for the sleepy burg and its inhabitants.
The first thing to note is that this isn’t a novel per se. It’s billed as that, though it presents a collection of documents: a dossier. This should be unsurprising if you’re familiar with other tie-in works: both The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes (the latter written by Frost) were fictional but presented in the manner of documents – a teenager’s diary and a fastidious man’s audio transcriptions. And yes, it may appear slightly gimmicky, but there’s so much effort put into maintaining the idea that one can’t help but go along with it.
(If you would like to read a more straightforward novel by Frost, I’d suggest the excellent pair he’s written featuring Arthur Conan Doyle as the lead, The List of Seven and The Six Messiahs. They’re delightfully serious while maintaining a decent amount of pulp glee; the guy’s history of writing for police drama makes these eminently consumable.)
Key to the suspension of disbelief necessary to consume the book (and Twin Peaks as a whole, let’s face it) is the level of detail this project has seen. I’m surprised it was as inexpensive as it was, as it’s hardback (with a fancy stock belly band) and features recessed geometric Owl Cave imagery and a watching owl. Its green heft conveys the air of a ledger, of bound reports.
Inside, the designers have gone with forest tones rather than full colour: alongside black, there’s brown shades (to match the sepia shadings of old documents), greens to echo the woods around the township, and reds for highlighting.
The conceit is that you’re holding a report on a bundle of documents found in Twin Peaks. Throughout, there’s notes from Agent TP – Tammy Preston, as both the current run of the show and the book itself reveal. She’s combing her way through a cache of documents found in a locked box, assembled by someone calling themselves The Archivist. The work opens with a memo from Gordon Cole, encouraging Agent TP’s investigation, and from there the collection begins.
The materials assembled cover a range of times, from the era of frontier exploration through to the current day. The information is presented in the form of clippings, letters, declassified (or stolen) documents and more. The roots of The Stuff Which Goes On In That Town extend a lot further than we had anticipated.
The book has a largely conspiratorial lean: Frost dines out on the idea of Majestic-12 and the Roswell Incident, creating a paper chain that goes all the way to the political heights of Washington. Expect cameos from a couple of presidents, known entertainers and an array of astrophysicists. Jack Parsons is there in all his society-disapproved glory. Nixon. Ike. Bohemian Grove! And all the way through, a green ring with strange markings, a hint of fir in the air.
(A more timely real-person inclusion? Turns out the town’s blow-in Black Widow seductress had a fling with a blow-dried property magnate. Ahem.)
The instigator of a lot of this information – not The Archivist, mind – is a lesser character from the show. What’s great about the selection of this person is that what goes on in the work seems to fit with the person we’ve seen on screen. It’s a secret life in a town filled with secrets, yet one that does not seem improbable. After all, if you had connections with secretive government agencies, you’d probably not tell your neighbours about them either, right?
Ah, neighbours. Here’s the real meat of the book. The conspiracy stuff is excellent framing, and provides a wider context for the world of Twin Peaks – one that seems to fit in with Lynch’s in-the-moment meditative approach, curiously – but the joy is the detail we’re given about characters we already know. The power-play between the Packards, Martells and Hornes is defined. We find out about the Bookhouse Boys (and the football team that featured many of them). And importantly, Frost shows his affection for the characters: Toad, who only appears as a garbage-guts in the early days of the show, becomes a football hero. Andrew Packard’s conniving is shown to be in existence at an early age. And such tangential characters such as Carl from the Fat Trout Trailer Park and Agent Sam Stanley are fleshed out. These aren’t necessary, no, but they deepen fans’ involvement with the world. The attention to detail is great – except for that one picture of Norma and Ed labelled as being shot in the RR when it’s plainly in the Roadhouse.
(Yeah, I know. But bugger it, one error is fine.)
(The most touching part of the book for me was the way Margaret Lanterman, the Log Lady, was given the maiden name of Coulson, in tribute to the recently-departed Lynch stalwart who played the character. It’s a small gesture, but full of meaning as, without Coulson, there would be no Margaret. It’s a lovely tribute.)
The identity of The Archivist is something left up in the air for the bulk of the book. I don’t want to spoil who it is, but I was mentally pointing the finger at a bunch of townsfolk, until it was revealed, in a way that made me wonder why I hadn’t guessed who it was at once. I found as I read I’d formulate and reject theories – about this, and other things – which I think is Frost’s intent: we read the book as if we’re there with Agent Preston, sifting through what we think we know, to try and discover the truth.
Of course, the book also has an important role in the ongoing experience of the show: it serves to plug some narrative holes. We hear more about Harry Truman’s brother, forgiving his appearance in the current season. We find out what happened in the wake of the bank explosion at the close of Season Two. And we find out a little about what happened to Cooper after the events in the Lodge. Some of it changes stuff that we already knew, but not in any enormous way – spellings are corrected and backstories polished – and the result is deeply satisfying, at least for a fan like me.
This book is one I couldn’t necessarily recommend to someone who hadn’t seen the first two seasons of the show (as well as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me at a minimum, as it assumes a lot of knowledge about the program. It would make sense without the knowledge, as a lot of context is provided for the documentation specifically dealing with the show’s characters, but I feel the stabs of recognition – the aha moments – are a big part of its appeal. It could be that new viewers could read it first and then have those moments while watching the show, but given that I’m a show-first-book-later consumer, I find it hard to imagine. Still, as a work evoking lifetimes of research, conspiracy and hermetic intrigue, it’s a book worth checking out.
The Secret History of Twin Peaks: A Novel provides something of interest to anyone holding a fondness for the tiny town with a dark heart. I absolutely guarantee you’ll enjoy it if you enjoy the show. I know that teenaged me would have completely lost his mind over a motherlode of extended lore like this – adult me was delighted – and I can’t wait to see what Frost’s second instalment (due after the current season concludes) brings.