“John Coultre sat alone in his room on Christmas. He believed in sacrifice, but sometimes he longed for a second chance.”
–CSM, “The Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.” The X:Files Season 4 Episode 7.
Yesterday I watched a particular episode of The X:Files for the second time, mostly because I didn’t know what to make of it the first time I sat through it. The plot is thus: Frohike, a member of The Lone Gunmen, invites Mulder and Scully over to discuss a serious lead he’s been following regarding an American citizen whose made his life entirely alone, who has been driven to protect his country by any means necessary, and what this has done to him. That man listened in from the third story of a warehouse across the street, puffing on a Marlborough, setting up a sniper rifle, aimed at the Gunmen’s front door. He listened to his life laid out before him for all to examine, including his partner’s son, Fox Mulder.
First, his parents, his father an ex-pat traitor and Communist defector who died in the electric chair; his mother was a chain smoker who died of lung cancer before our Citizen was ten months old. Then, his teenage years. He spent his time reading, with no friends. Next, his military career, in which it is revealed that he has committed a number of assassinations, off the record. He is recruited for the assassination of JFK in 1962, successfully setting up Lee Harvey Oswald to take the fall. Next, at a gathering of all of his Right People, he assigns himself the task of assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. in an attempt to curtail King’s call for African Americans to abandon the war in Vietnam. Then, in 1991, Fox Mulder opens the X:Files. Dana Scully is assigned to reign him in, and the CSM goes home alone on Christmas to write. Deep Throat contacts him that night to inform him of an extraterrestrial making first contact, crash landing on American soil, leaving its withered body in critical condition. Deep Throat and the CSM flip a coin to see who will assassinate the alien in the best interests of national security. Deep Throat shoots the alien in its containment field, and the CSM goes home to write. As the episode comes to a close, the CSM receives his first ever offer to publish, which he takes. He writes his letter of resignation and picks up a copy of his finished work, serialized for the first time, only to discover the publisher had changed his ending. By the end of the episode, he doesn’t have the stomach to kill Frohike.
What Prompted All This?
“A dream is the answer to a question that we don’t know how to ask,” Dana Scully, “Paper Hearts”.
Indeed. Why go to the trouble to analyze the man who has caused my favorite of all fictional characters so much pain and misery? Why bother at all with the man who is responsible for Agent Scully’s cancer (later), Agent Mulder’s infection with the Black Oil alien life form, the deaths of two American heroes and many others? I might have been able to hate Cancer Man before this. I might have been able to lay all of the world’s suffering readily at his feet, and admittedly he deserves credit for that as well. His and Bill Mulder’s program goes on at the expense of others, in the name of national security. So much of what Cancer Man is responsible for warrants our hatred and lack of respect. However, it is entirely impossible for me to write him off as a monster. He and I have a great deal in common, and it is this disturbing common ground that has given me pause.
Last night, I had a dream about Cancer Man. Yes, yes, say what you will, “Ashley, you be trippin’ again.” “Why would you dream about Cancer Man?” I dunno. Beats Grendel after watching Beowulf. In any case, while I can’t remember exactly what happened, or why I seemed to be in a strange, educational setting, I dreamed that Cancer Man was looking out for me, and had only my best interests in mind. He helped me with my chemistry homework–a nod to my roommate’s frustration with a cruel, ironic twist that I can’t remember his advice. I thanked him, and I thanked him for being so kind. He burst into tears for reasons I can’t fathom, and I calmed him down. I knew, in my dream state, that I had a friend in this man. We had common ground, similar feelings, though I’m quite sure I’ll never have the weight of JFK on my shoulders, or Martin Luther King Jr. The first time I watched “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” I was struck with the enormity of the task Cancer Man and I had set ourselves to. In that moment, I realized I shared a profound kinship with Cancer Man.
Cancer Man was a writer.
One Man’s Success is Still My Failure.
Cancer Man made an attempt to build an identity for himself in lieu of the one he gave up to pursue the life of an “extraordinary man”. He wrote in his considerable spare time. When he was not watching empires rise and fall, he wrote the story of John Coultre, a man who spent his life protecting the world from alien invasion, a glorified, romanticized version of himself. From what I can gather, he wrote at least three novels, each of them turned down for publication. Really, for a plot element set in 1991, even I have trouble imagining how that could be possible. Genre fiction was gaining momentum. Like Brian Lumley and Stephen King before him, Cancer Man– or Raul Bloodworth–should have been snatched up. I can only imagine that he was sending his stories to all the wrong people. He had to have been doing something wrong. I suppose it doesn’t matter how interesting your life is if you can’t articulate it.
His lack of success was unfathomable to him. How could a who could order the death of anyone in the world with a word not figure out how to publish his work? Only now, sitting here writing this, did I realize that all of his power was meaningless in the face of his one dream. His dream to publish his work on his own merit never allowed him to use his considerable political power to strong-arm his way into fame, to build a life for himself. He could not use his power. His writing was his way out of the Game. In many ways, Cancer Man has succeeded where I have failed. In my darkest hours, I have stopped writing. When my life chances seem to dwindle, I put my writing down and wonder why I bothered in the first place. A failed artist himself, it is not hard for me to see Cancer Man smacking me upside the head, preferably with hand and not the side of a .38.
He received a rejection letter from a publisher, who told him bald-face his work was crap. His face fell, anguish written plain as the letters on the page. It was short-lived, though. A man as strong-willed as Cancer Man knew his work was not crap. How could it be? It was his life. Whether it went nowhere or was successful was immaterial. What mattered what that he kept going. He never stopped, even after receiving a heinous rejection letter as his only Christmas present. Cancer Man succeeded because he never stopped trying. He put away his rejection letter in a drawer, like so many others before it, and sat down to write. This is where I have failed. I have stopped trying. I have not had the heart to submit anything of my own, and in many ways Cancer Man represents everything I should be embracing. When that box of chocolates is empty, and the meaningless brown paper is all that’s left, we have only ourselves and our wasted life. The problem is, I don’t feel his life was wasted. The better part of it was, but the part of him that was so human, so full of self-loathing despite all the power in his hands, the part of him that kept pounding out one rejected story after another is where Cancer Man shines.
John Coultre sat alone in his room on Christmas, he wrote. Did Cancer Man know he was John Coultre? Was that his real name? Why did he sit alone? Had he nowhere to go? As Frohike pointed out, it’s plain that he did not, and even if he did in reality, in his mind he has been alone his entire life. He believed in sacrifice, but sometimes he longed for a second chance.
When the publisher of the smut magazine contacts him to publish one of his John Coultre novels, Cancer Man becomes an entirely different man. His face, alight with excitement, is handsome in its own way. His movements are erratic, and all of his careful cunning is swept away. The man who witnessed the execution of an alien being, who shot his own partner in his home, suddenly is incredibly naive. He’s laughing, though near tears. His hands shake. He commits every sin known to the writing world. He accepted publication without reading the fine print; he agrees to the terms of the publisher’s payment without a contract. He relinquishes every ounce of control over his story, essentially writing this shady publisher a blank check to do whatever they want with his work. Just listening to the voice over the phone as it lied to him, telling him “many aspiring authors get discovered in his publication” made me sick; there was so much sleaze coming out of that phone that I nearly busted my face when it spilled out of my roommates’ large flat screen television. I wanted to weep for him. I wanted to try to stop him. I wanted to protect a killer, a monster from making a serious mistake that would cost him what was left of his integrity. I have not published, but I came pretty close in high school, and that experience taught me a lot. I would never have talked to a smut publisher in the first place, and I would never have committed to anything without a contract. In the end, they altered Cancer Man’s story’s ending, crushing his dream once and for all. At last, the world that he had worked so hard to shape had finally proven itself to be as unmovable and cruel to him as it was to everyone else.
Cancer Man’s writing, whether he realized it or not, was his second chance at a life of meaning, a life that enriched instead of mocked, a life where he was known and praised, not hated, feared and shrouded in shadow, the lines of his face deepened by darkness, aged before his time through muted misery and chain smoking. I believe that Cancer Man’s salvation laid in his writing, and like any man, he could only take so much. Should he have been expected to continue after finally having his dream realized, only to watch it crumble into someone else’s waiting hands to profit from? Should we have expected his forgiveness? Did we expect him to roll over and die? No, we did not, on either count, but he did. He hardened his heart, rolled over and took what the world offered him as his only reward for a lifetime of misery and wasted time. When the world bit the hand that fed it, his hand, the one that held back the flood, he bit back. He tore up his letter of resignation and went back to his peers. He would never make this mistake again. He would never again give in to his fantasies for a better life. He would never relinquish control.
Conclusion: An Extraordinary Man
What makes Cancer Man different from any of us? The heinous crimes he is responsible for–chiefly the one in which he is a key player in the alien colonization of our planet–set him apart from his fellow man, so much so that in the show he is never given a name. We have no idea who he is, only the barest of details crammed into an hour of showtime, that he had a brief love affair with Mulder’s mother, that he is both Mulder’s enemy and his savior. What makes Cancer Man extraordinary is the underlying facet of the human condition, the desire to be remembered, that drives him. What makes Cancer Man extraordinary is the fact that the same man who shot JFK without hesitation also grinned like a fool when he knew he’d written a good, frighteningly accurate line, “I can kill you anytime I want. But not tonight,” as he listened to an MLK speech in his room, when he knew King would have to go.
What makes Cancer Man extraordinary? His humanity. The fact that he has been ground under the heels of society no less than any other struggling artist makes Cancer Man not just a man to be pitied, but a man that can inspire confidence and persuade his fellow writer that despite whatever he may believe, life is not like a box of chocolates; we can be what we want to be, that we don’t have to pick and choose from the crap that surrounds us, and that what we choose will invariably shape the way we are remembered. Cancer Man might have been successful in his youth; he might have never touched a gun, but that is not who he was. The same zeal that shaped his political career–for lack of a better term–also shaped him as a writer. What he could not have known was that his refusal to relinquish control made him a better writer than he ever could have imagined.
The X:Files continues to be my source of inspiration. From Brad Dourif’s character in “Beyond the Sea”, whose story comprises exactly half of my own novel, to the various themes presented in episodes like “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”, The X:Files has no shortage of material for me to peruse, no lack of excellent writers whose own footsteps I one day hope to follow in. Cancer Man’s character reminds me that I have a chance to carve a place for myself, that I will be remembered even if he is not. Most pitiable of all is the fact that my chances are more likely to become a reality than Cancer Man’s. For Cancer Man, there is only one way of life: to be perpetually, endlessly alone, a reality that I am fortunate enough to not occupy. I owe so much of my inspiration as a writer to The X:Files. I remember trying my hand at my first story, almost eighty pages from beginning to end. Losing that story to a mere technical problem was the first time I realized that nothing is fair, and nothing is sacred. Tonight, Cancer Man has rekindled my refusal to give up. Tonight I remember the Friday nights I spent alone in a darkened garage, watching The X:Files, and writing. Tonight I pay homage to one of science fiction’s great villains, a most extraordinary man.
Edit December 27, 2017
You can find out more about Cancer Man and his origins here, just in time for new episodes of The X:Files on FOX coming January 3, 2018.
I still want to believe.