As an novelist, the question I’m most often asked actually isn’t where I get my ideas (a shame, as I’ve got a peppy answer to that), but when I’m going to write another book like Only Forward. It happened twice the other night. As this was my first novel, written over a decade and a half ago, I have to fight not to come back with a tetchy “When I work out a way of being twenty-six again, okay?” The question I get asked almost as much, however, is why my work so often features a conspiracy. This is since I’ve been a thriller writer. Before that, when I wrote noir science fiction, I was asked why my novels always revolved around a hidden realm.
They’re the same thing, I eventually realized. And so is the supernatural. And so is crime.
It took me a while to understand this. I tend to write with wide-eyed naivete, blurting what’s in my head rather than trying to promulgate any long-term agenda or plan (short-term plans are ambitious enough: I’m seldom sure what I’m having for lunch). I’ve gotten used to being apologetic for having written in a variety of genres, and for publishing under two names. Only in the last few years have I started to become bullish in declaring that I’ve been writing the same thing all along. I’ve been trying to pull aside the veil, basically, to show there’s another veil right behind—and to keep going through veil after veil, in fact, until I find what I’ve been looking for: the sense of wonder that comes from finally confronting a question that has no answer, and never will.
I’m not claiming this to be a ground-breaking insight. I recall having conversations somewhat along these lines years ago with Ralph, my extraordinary agent, who died a month ago, suddenly and far too young. Ralph Vicinanza was a rare agent (and man) in very many ways, including the profound spiritual faith he had in the power of storytelling. He understood that trying to grasp and celebrate the ineffable was fiction’s fundamental purpose, whatever guise that story took, which is perhaps why he was prepared to be tolerant of me skipping back and forth between genres like some crazed mountain goat with a sugar rush.
Because…they’re all the same, the good genres, the cool ones, the ones that make us want to get up in the morning and write, or read, or dream. Science fiction may be the field most associated with a search for a sense of wonder, but it’s there in conspiracy thrillers, too, and the supernatural and quality horror, and in crime, especially noir. To many, the idea of killing someone is incomprehensible; or if not the idea, at least how terribly easy it can be to get to there from here, and what the hell happens next. Crime outlines this journey. When it’s good, however, it also leaves the door open to the unknowable, the black shadows in humankind’s heart. The novels of Jim Thompson are my favorite example of this. Though his characters often have the archetypal power of chess pieces, the board on which they move seems deliberately unbound, as if to say, “This is who we are, what we’re like. But…who knows why? Who knows what our limits are, or what lies on the other side?”
I don’t think we actually want that question answered, either. We don’t want to see the monster, or be told its chemical composition—it’s enough to know it’s there. When life was harsh, and brutish, and very short, it was those rare moments of the ineffable that raised our spirits enough to keep us hunting berries and running after buffalo. And now, when—in the privileged West, at least—the circumstances of our lives are relatively cozy, and comfortable, and long, it’s these sparks of wonder that keep us from getting bored: but that also help us to deal with the fact that, sadly, ease still does not protect us from pain and fear and death. Our belief in conspiracy may be at its strongest, after all, when someone we care about dies. For those first horrific days of grief, before the psychic scars begin to form, all we want is to undo the done and turn back time. We want this so very much, in fact—cautionary tales like “The Monkey’s Paw” notwithstanding—that we believe it simply must be possible, and that the mechanism is merely being hidden from us, by someone, for some dark purpose. By the ever-present Them, the ones who caper and laugh at us from the other side.
This is true too in my most recent novel, Bad Things, due out in paperback any day now (don’t feel you have to read it…merely buying it will suffice). Bad Things is a thriller, of a suspense kind, but also touched by the supernatural. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say this: Anyone who’s gone walking into deep, old woods knows there’s something out there. You feel it. You know it. My most recent experience of this was earlier in the year, when my wife and son and I were driving in the forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. We stopped to stretch our legs. We got out and stood around. It was very quiet. Very still. Very, very still. Weirdly fucking still, in fact. It was beautiful, too, but the feeling of being back in the car a few minutes later was nonetheless not entirely unwelcome. It doesn’t matter whether this unsettledness is simply due to unfamiliarity with this type of surroundings, or cultural distance, or the rare shock of being away from humankind’s works. Functionally, there’s still something out there: if that’s how you feel, at the core of your being, then it’s true in the most meaningful sense of the word. One of the mistakes Big Science makes, when it comes to trying to deal with what people feel and believe, is to pretend that something has to exist in order to be real. This is why it doesn’t understand religion, or ghosts, or our need for the untrue. But as Clarke Ashton Smith said: “Only the impossible has any real charm. All things that can happen have been vulgarized by happening too often.”
As a species, we want to be charmed. We insist on it, in fact. I doubt there’s a culture on the planet which, at its heart, doesn’t pledge allegiance to something unprovable and probably plain wrong—be it a religion, cosmology, or founding myth. This isn’t ignorance, some deplorable hangover from the bad old days of yore before we got so smart and developed a million ways of measuring magic out of existence. I recall the afternoon at university when I and my fellow slackers were introduced to epistemology, the study of what constitutes “knowledge.” The first formula our tutor proposed was that knowledge is “justified true belief,” and while it’s possible to poke some pretty deep holes in this (if you’re a hardcore brainiac, and have a lot of time on your hands), it’s not a bad rule of thumb. If you believe something, and that belief is shown to be justified, and the thing you believe happens moreover to be true, then you kind of do know it.
But…it doesn’t work the other way around.
You can’t believe something that you know. Knowledge both supersedes belief and undermines it. And that’s why gods require belief from their adherents, rather than stooping to providing proof. This tendency isn’t a weakness, but a core feature, the glue that binds us to the things that are not there. With knowledge you don’t have faith—and faith is what gods require. Faith is the gods’ food: they buy it in tins from transcendental supermarkets (except for the more on-zeitgeist deities, who insist on organic faith, and buy it from the New Age deli counter). It’s often proposed that religions were invented to explain the unexplainable. I disagree. Gods demand faith precisely because for a long time they were the key way of celebrating our need for wonder and the unknown. We were not trying to do away with the hidden and inexplicable, but rather seeking to preserve and revere it. God is a great big We Don’t Understand Everything…And That’s Okay.
We want to believe. We don’t always want to know.
I’m not religious—at least in the sense of cleaving to any recognizable faith—but I too need to believe, and to be charmed by the universe. As a result, I increasingly find that my willingness to believe in a given idea has little to do with its likely truth value, and more with whether the world seems more interesting as a result. That’s precisely why I enjoy conspiracy theories, and tales of the paranormal, and murky noir. I savor them as you might a fantasy novel, set in a recognizable modern world, but with some of the rules changed. I was lucky enough to do a little traveling in the Soviet Union back in the Brezhnev days (my father, an academic, was doing some work there, and spoke a little Russian, too). It was utterly fascinating, and we met some lovely people. It was also…really weird. It was Other, and the Other always says an awful lot about the You. Conspiracy theories have always done this, too—and are still doing it now that socialism’s shared world narrative is out of print and its formerly mysterious denizens have become greedy, cellphone-obsessed wasters like the rest of us.
Most conspiracy theories aren’t true—but that doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. The point is that they explain the unexplainable, appearing to give us a glimpse behind the veil—and through doing this stimulating the sense of wonder for which we have such a deep inbuilt need. Trying to disprove or discredit everything that’s untrue is like cutting down all the forests to show there’s nothing intangible living in there. “Aha,” we’ll think. “But if there was a forest, then there’d still be something lurking in it”…and from these hidden shoots all the trees regrow, until dark, silent woods surround us once more. Richard Dawkins’s dreary disciples can rail all they want against the infuriating persistence of our fascination with the unseen and unprovable: the rest of us want it, and need it—and we’re going to damn well have it, no matter how much we have to tweak the paradigm to keep it alive.
Heaven or Who Killed JFK or Ghosts or The Moon Landings Were Faked or Why Does That Man Keep Killing People or Little Gray Men or The Bad Things That Live in the Woods—they’re all the same. They’re the hidden, the uncanny, the inexplicable, the delicious we-don’t-know. They’re the heart of us, our lust for fiction and mystery writ large—and the day we understand everything will be the day our species dies.
I don’t want to know the truth. I want to know what’s interesting. Tell me that. Tell me lies.
Just make them good.
Michael Marshall Smith is a screenwriter and the internationally bestselling author of The Intruders and the acclaimed trilogy of The Straw Men, The Upright Man, and Blood of Angels. He lives in London.