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Novelist Megan Abbott on How Twin Peaks Cast a Rich Shadow Over All of Her Books

TWIN PEAKS - Pilot - Season One - 4/8/1990Homecoming queen Laura Palmer is found dead, washed up on a riverbank wrapped in plastic sheeting. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLaughlin, left) is called in to work with local Sheriff Harry S.Truman (Michael Ontkean) in the investigation of the gruesome murder in the small Northwestern town of Twin Peaks. (AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANIES, INC.)
Photo: ABC

I was a freshman in college when the first episode of Twin Peaks aired. I remember watching it in my dorm room on my tiny portable black-and-white TV. And surely it’s a trick of memory, but I recall it as if a portal opened up before me, into a place not just dark but intimate, jarring, erotic, troubling. I remember feeling like I wasn’t watching the show so much as the show was watching me.

In the years since, I’ve rewatched the full run of the show countless times and can make a strong case for Fire Walk With Me, the feature prequel. I’ve visited Snoqualmie Falls, where many of the show’s exteriors were shot, for the requisite coffee and pie. So I jumped with joy yesterday at the news that Twin Peaks will be returning for a limited run on Showtime in 2016, 25 years after it went off the air. But the debt I owe the show is not just as an ardent fan. As someone who recently published a novel about a small town, a stricken girl, and secrets, I’m strikingly aware how much Twin Peaks has influenced my writing — has, in some ways, written itself on my writing.

When Twin Peaks began, I was taking my first creative writing workshops. I was a lover of the gothic and the hard-boiled. But the fashion at the time was minimalism — stripped-bare Raymond Carver style or spare, cool irony. Nothing I wrote seemed to fit. (I remember one student writing in the margin of one of my admittedly pulpy stories, “Isn’t this a bit much?”). Twin Peaks flew in the face of both the fashion and the “rules” of fiction writing (and I’m not talking about its supposed plot problems in season two, which, in my opinion, holds up better than you remember). It was a show that mixed genre with abandon, that used dreams and visions to advance story, that alternated freely between broadly comic and searingly tragic. For a writer, it felt like permission to write one’s own rules, and also to dig deeper. To plumb one’s own furtive obsessions. To embrace the idiosyncratic in oneself.

I grew up with a love of both noir and the melodrama. While seeming opposites (the dangers of the mean streets versus the high drama of home and hearth), both are fixated on desire and its expression/repression. Noir is about the private world, a place where our ids run dangerously free, while melodrama springs from the tension between those private desires and our public faces. Along with other genres, like classic mystery and supernatural horror, we see both noir and melodrama commingling in every episode of Twin Peaks, and Laura Palmer herself embodies them: the cheerleader and homecoming queen with a troubled family life is also the wild young woman, running on cocaine and rough men and danger. Getting lost.

Tonally, while noir may seem forever cool as it’s reinterpreted by David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh, melodrama has had a harder time of late, frequently derided, or misread as camp. But many moments on Twin Peaks that have been dismissed as “goofiness” owe a far greater debt to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s love of melodrama. I’m thinking here of the wild sobbing of Sarah and Leland Palmer, Laura’s parents. As with so much of classic melodrama, when you watch it now, in our post-ironic, still-ironic age, you may find yourself laughing. Uncomfortably. All that feeling, laid so bare.  

Often, multiple tones mix deliriously in the same scene, such as Laura’s funeral. When Leland throws himself on his daughter’s casket, we have high melodrama. Yet when the hydraulics fail and the casket begins to move up and down with Leland’s body still gripping it, we turn to black comedy. And when one watches the series a second time, knowing what happened to Laura, a third, far more deeply upsetting nuance emerges.

Indeed, nothing is simple in Twin Peaks. In a small town, we all wear the face we’re supposed to, but those faces say little about who we are, what we feel. We’re all “filled with secrets.” Upstanding good guys like Sheriff Truman and Ed belong to a secret society. Laura’s mother has psychic powers. Sexpot Audrey is a virgin and a romantic. And Laura. Most of all, Laura.

It has now become a TV cliché (and a troubling one): shows built around the discovery of a beautiful young woman’s body and the erotic, violent mysteries she seems to contain and conceal. Twin Peaks was not the first to do it (and its most prominent debt is to Laura, which the show acknowledges, even naming a bird after one of its characters), but what other show has granted so much power and weight and complexity and ambiguity to the “lost girl” herself?

In noir, characters like Laura are femme fatales. And as such, they mostly exist as projections of male anxiety and hunger. They have no inside; they are all surface. Laura, however, is a depth so immense we never reach bottom. In turn, it isn’t just the men on the show who are haunted by her. Everyone is, including her best friend Donna, who both loves and hates her. Their complicated dynamic is one I’ve unconsciously riffed on in more than one of my novels because it says so much about the way young women form their identities. For instance, in the twisty friendship at the center of my novel Dare Me, the “good girl” turns on her ruthless-but-loyal best friend in order to stake out a place for herself.

Few shows before (or since?) have given such compelling power to very young women — to Laura, Audrey, Donna, Shelley, and Madeline, Laura’s identical cousin (cue Patty Duke and Vertigo) — all of whom aren’t just beautiful, but richly contradictory, exploring the question of whether they are good girls or bad. And it’s not the men but the girls themselves playing with these notions, trying on masks, disguises (remember Donna, wearing Laura’s dark noir sunglasses and playing the bad girl with James?), which is what you do when you’re that age. And they ally themselves with each other and they are bold and brave (both Donna and Audrey play detective, go undercover).

It’s also a matter of style. What writer couldn’t learn about atmosphere, suggestion, and the power of the uncanny from the shuddering pines and swaying stoplights of Twin Peaks? The way sound, light, the clicks, and shudders of objects can create fear, stoke the unconscious. Who can forget Sarah Palmer at the top of the stairs, the ceiling fan thudding wildly behind her haloed head?

But perhaps the deepest mark Twin Peaks made on me is the value it places on the unconscious, on the way dreams and vision can deepen narrative and suggest larger resonance. There’s a rule of fiction that tells you never to have your characters dream; it’s lazy storytelling. But Twin Peaks shows that, when used with purpose and cunning, a dream is so much more than a dream. It’s a tunneling into something darker and stranger and truer than we’d ever access otherwise. At their most powerful — and the lingering resonance of its uses on the show point to this — dreams can create a direct line between the show and viewer, the book and its reader. In Twin Peaks (and most of the Jungian Lynch), dreams are a way to tell larger truths, not just about the dreamer but about his or her world and circumstances, maybe about the power of storytelling itself. Consider the final episode’s famous dream sequence. Her smile as hypnotic and mysterious as ever, Laura Palmer promises Agent Cooper, and promises us, “I’ll see you again in 25 years.” Of course, she was right.

Megan Abbott is the author of seven novels, including Dare Me and The Fever.

Twin Peaks Has Cast a Shadow Over All My Books