What Is Josh Gates Really Searching for on "Expedition Unknown"? Plus: Ten Years of "Cult of Alien Gods"
On Monday the History Channel broadcasted Roanoke: Search for the Lost Colony, and if we can judge by the ratings, there seems to be a cap on the number of viewers interested in conspiracy theories about early American history. The show, weirdly listed as Time Machine (apparently the official name of the documentary anthology series occupying the Monday at 9 PM ET time slot), scored 1.3 million viewers, with 400,000 in the coveted 18-49 demographic. That means that the two-hour show had slightly more viewers than the 10 PM showing of FX’s critically acclaimed Fargo, which drew 1.2 million viewers, with 400,000 in the demo, but had only half the viewers of WWE Monday Night Raw on USA. Anyway, the interesting thing is that these numbers are just almost exactly the same as the average viewership for Ancient Aliens over its last few showings. We’ll know more about the current draw of crazy conspiracies when Hunting Hitler debuts next month alongside the new season of Curse of Oak Island.
Meanwhile, over on the Travel Channel, Josh Gates’s Expedition Unknown has been chugging along for several weeks now, and I have hardly had a thing to say about it. I tried, and I really thought that this week’s episode, in which Gates went hunting for strigoi, or vampires, might have provided something to… I almost said “sink my teeth into,” but that pun is just a bit too on the nose. But Gates’s trip to Romania to look for strigoi was virtual remake of the Destination Truth episode he did many years ago on Syfy in which he also went to Romania to hunt for vampires. In both cases he found nothing and spent most of the time highlighting how nice everyone is and how crappy the infrastructure of rural areas of Eastern Europe is.
Previous episodes this season looked for Blackbeard’s treasure and Genghis Khan’s tomb and failed to find them, but nevertheless managed to show me material I had seen on other cable TV shows, and not that long ago.
This made me stop to think about why I was having such trouble finding anything to say about a series that has the same form and some of the same content as the similar shows on the History Channel and the Discovery networks. The problem, I think, is that Expedition Unknown, in its second season, has ceased to even pretend that it is “investigating” anything. In the first season, Gates tried to make arguments for historical mysteries and to talk to people who, for better or worse (think: Brien Foerster) were trying to solve mysteries. In this season, Gates’s show has abandoned the argument and investigation in favor of emphasizing its travelogue aspects. The “mysteries” are now little more than topics that vaguely frame visits to three or four locations determined by recent news reports and online articles that the producers happened to have read before shooting an episode. For example, in this week’s episode, the vampire discussion had very little depth, and more time was given over to exploring a ruined communist-era Bulgarian auditorium (recently featured in an online article I recall reading last year, along with knockoffs on other websites) and a crappy bridge. That’s fine if you’re coming to the show for armchair tourism of the rougher parts of the world, but it would be better if Expedition Unknown were more honest about its lack of interest in the topics it supposedly seeks to explore.
Overall, Expedition Unknown’s second season has the feel of a retread, a “been there, done that” instant rerun that revisits sights from previous series, reads out loud articles I’ve already read online, and generally has less depth than Wikipedia entries on the same subject. Even so, the program is well-shot, generally enjoyable to watch, and decent TV “wallpaper.” I guess I just need to adjust my expectations from “engaging” to “entertaining” and leave it at that.
I would be remiss if I let October expire without mentioning that this month marks ten years since my first book, The Cult of Aliens Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture was released. It’s amazing that ten years has come and gone so fast, but I have mixed feelings about this. While I remain proud of the book, it’s hard to look back on my early work without imagining how I would have written it very differently today, knowing much more now than I did then. But I tend to feel that way about everything I write.
More to the point, it’s hard for me to feel excited about celebrating a book that generated a lot of problems. First and foremost, Prometheus Books, the publisher, was not entirely clear or honest in their plans for the book. The result is that after a small initial royalty payment based on bookstore orders, for the next nine and half years the book has technically been losing money against those royalties due to the difference between how sales and returns are counted for royalty purposes. Worse, due to some technicalities in the contract I was too young and naive to have understood at the time, they got away with paying me just $0.24 per copy, instead of the $2.00 (now $2.50) they had promised me. Ten percent of the cover price, my ass. I haven’t been paid a dime since 2006 (as far as I remember—I’d have to check the royalty statements to be sure of the exact year) despite a decade of continued sales. If I am lucky, I might get a royalty this coming year.
The contract also stipulated that when the book went out of print, the rights would revert to me. I will never see those rights again, despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much call to keep printing copies. From what I have heard from other Prometheus authors, their books remain “in print” forever. The only way I will see those rights again is for them to go bankrupt.
I had wanted to work with them to allow me to produce a revised and updated tenth anniversary edition; however, they have not returned my emails, calls, or letters since 2007, except when legally obliged to do so to update information for their IRS tax reporting purposes.
When I wrote the book in the summer of 2003, I sent book proposals to literary agents and publishers, and after a year of trying, Prometheus was the only one of dozens to say yes to the book. Even then, publishers only wanted crazy conspiracies, and a couple of agents and editors even asked if I’d mind changing to book to explain that the aliens were real. Prometheus was my only option, and I had rather little choice but to take their contract or leave it if I wanted to be a published author in an era when blogging was still in its infancy.
And when the book was published, the complaints started rolling in. The biggest complaint I received after the release of the book in 2005 was about the cultural background I cast fringe history against. I had suggested that America in the early 2000s was at the beginning of a decline. Actually, I didn’t say that as much as I reported that this was the diagnosis of the famed historian Jacques Barzun, who had concluded as much for all of Western civilization in his 2000 doorstop of a book From Dawn to Decadence. The year 2005 was the height of the housing boom and the Bush-era neo-imperial overconfidence, just before everything really went to hell. Looking back at the letters, mostly from angry old conservative white men, it’s funny now. As soon as the subprime mortgage bubble burst and the Iraq and Afghan Wars seemed destined for unsatisfactory conclusions, no one complained much about the idea of decline. Indeed, it’s now such a truism that presidential candidates like Donald Trump are running on the idea that American decline can be reversed through yelling loudly.
On the plus side, The Cult of Alien Gods was much more influential than its sales figures might suggest, and its central idea about the interplay between fringe history and the Lovecraftian thread of speculative fiction is now so widely accepted that I’ve had some people accuse me of writing a book based on something “everybody already knew”! That’s a compliment, I guess!
So, here is to ten years of The Cult of Alien Gods. I’d say to buy yourself a copy, but, really, anything else of mine that you buy sends more money my way, so why give Prometheus added profit?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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