…I got a Facebook author page.
You can check it out for older work I’m re-sharing, as well as some newer stuff eventually.
Hope everyone is enjoying their summer. There’s stuff to come…
…I got a Facebook author page.
You can check it out for older work I’m re-sharing, as well as some newer stuff eventually.
Hope everyone is enjoying their summer. There’s stuff to come…
(A version of this essay appeared in my Scrapings, Etc newsletter)
So, I went to Greece. Cool, huh? I had some family to visit, so I left some worksheets for the sub for my class, the lady and I got someone to watch the cat, and we went for ten days.
While we were there, I went through my old stuff, things that my family had packed up from when I was a kid and when we lived there for a short while. Some of the stuff I found included the old comic books and novels I’d read summers, stuck there as a kid without any of the things that as a teenager, I wanted. No cable TV, no girlfriend, no air conditioning, no fast food…you get the idea.
So I read.
I read a lot. I read all the books my parents would let me buy or buy me as summer reading, I’d read old favorites I’d drag along with me, and I’d read the comics and the books I’d find in English (and sometimes in Greek too) for sale for cheap in the capital of the island I’d buy with beer and ice cream money. What I would also do is start going through my parents’ books, the stuff they’d have brought along or left behind there in this little old house out on an island in the Mediterranean. There was a ton of Tom Clancy books, there were a lot of John Grisham books, there was also Shibumi by “Trevanian” (which I’ve re-read a million times, more on this later possibly). There was also See You Later, Alligator, a spy novel about CIA agent Blackford Oakes by Willam F. Buckley, Jr. I don’t know why I latched onto this novel so much to re-read it ever year, every summer, without fail, to the point that I almost immediately fell upon it when we got there this year again automatically.
Buckley, a notorious neoconservative, the founder of the National Review, and all-around ugly person, was in a weird way, a major impact on my teenage years thanks to this book. A sort of “secret history” spy novel about a CIA mission negotiating with Che Guevara after the Bay of Pigs that is the REAL reason we discovered USSR missiles in Cuba, triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s not half bad if you take into account that Buckley was trying real hard to create a sort of American Smiley in Oakes, a pre-Jack Ryan “Cold War(rior)” just like Le Carre’s character. It sort of works, in a way, as the book isn’t very action-driven and relies very much on that whole “game of wits” aspect of espionage literature that Le Carre specialized in, highlighting some of the very real and very tedious ways that espionage actually worked during the Cold War.
That alone couldn’t have been the reasons that I clung to that book though, not as a 15-year-old Greek-American kid into punk and comics spending summer in a place where I sorta spoke the language and sorta knew people, desperate to get back “home.”
The book pits Buckley’s character Oakes alongside another CIA asset, a former KGB agent-turned-CIA operator Cecilio Velasco, against Che Guevara in post-Bay of Pigs Cuba. A significant point (to me) is that Oakes and Velasco sit for over a week in a sort of limbo at a surreal beach house setting, swimming and sitting and doing nothing, wondering why they’re summoned on this secret meeting to basically sit and do nothing. Oakes reads Agatha Christie novels in Spanish to teach himself the language, and Velasco smokes a lot, something that spies apparently did in the 70’s and 80’s by the shipping container. Things happen gradually (in particular that the whole negotiations are a front to distract the US from noticing the USSR bringing in nuclear missiles to Cuba and that it’s Oakes who alerts the US to it), but that limbo period of pre-action always stuck with me, year after year, re-read after re-read.
Part of it, I think, had to do with the isolation. The characters (Oakes in particular) feel constrained by the isolation, by the lack of distractions, and that when his own distractions run out or fail to calm his brain, he finds paltry little else to appease him. I guess now we can definitely see that it’s Buckley’s attempt to illustrate just how much better or culturally-better than the commies Oakes was, but reading about spies stuck at the beach in the oppressive heat with nothing but a limited collection of books and a limited understanding of the local language, to me, was this weird parallel with my own life at the time, stuck at the beach in oppressive heat with a limited cache of books to read, no TV, limited radio, and a limited understanding of the local language (I’m better at speaking Greek now, but I’ve been working hard to not lose it as a language the past few years…another story).
Buckley’s politics have never influenced me, even though his disdain for Communism and the obvious American Superiority Complex of his stand-in protagonist is super-obvious in hindsight. The book’s one real redeeming value of the story, an interesting type of Cold War spy story, isn’t even entirely due to the author, considering how much of it resolved around a real-life world crisis. Still, that weird way that he created not a story or characters, but a particular setting, one that had no real practical story purpose other than to create a setting for sociopolitical debates as well as a growing attitude and edge of psychological annoyance revealed to be (according to the character of Velasco) a deliberate attempt at subtle espionage as well as social engineering to gain some sad little bit of upper hand.
I can’t say that Buckley’s writing style ever influenced my own either, but I feel like that bit, the beach house for spies, always sticks out in my mind as the kind of spot, the kind of weird setting that of course is somewhere, of course happens, is something to aspire to as a writer. You want to create something so weirdly memorable, something obviously ridiculous but necessary in your fiction that it’s something people remember and going back to. They go back to it summer after summer, like clockwork.
The copy at this old family house is now yellowed, coverless, the title page slowly shredding into nothingness. The paperback spine is still there though, and most of the pages are still intact, not falling out and disintegrating. I thought about saving the book, bringing it back to New York with me, to preserve this weird artifact of my childhood and teen years.
I left it where I found it, instead, next to the touchtone phone on the little table in the hallway of that small stone summer house my grandfather watches over most of the time, for the next time I get back there.
If you’re a newsletter subscriber, you got this early, but if not, it’s OK. This is just a little short story I wrote to scratch an itch recently, and extended and polished up when I was having work done in the apartment and was just sitting here with no internet and only half the electricity working.
The story’s a little bit Poe, a little bit Lovecraft, a little bit all over, but I like how it came out, especially in terms of voice and sentence structure (if that makes sense).
“The Iron Space” by Costa Koutsoutis
(This is pretty spoiler-heavy for a lot of more recent horror movies, so be forewarned)
My girlfriend and I watched The VVitch finally, a movie I’d been pumped for and got a lot of good hype.
The VVitch got a lot right about what works in scary. The idea of a slow creeping Satanic influence on a hypocritical and faith-challenged (a huge part of the story) Puritan family where so much of the story is tied into their day-to-day life creates not so much a sense of fear as a sense of depression, one punctured periodically by sharp but horrific moments that cement It’s incredibly bleak, right down to the little things like the perpetually washed-out look of Puritan clothing, even the very landscape. Also, the score works brilliantly, building in almost uncomfortable ways to peak scary loudness while other times being nonexistent.
Interestingly enough, a movie that it reminds me of was Crimson Peak (which I really liked), another movie I really liked that ultimately, only really suffered from the three-pronged wrongness of bad marketing/audience expectations based on marketing/the current horror market. Crimson Peak was basically a classic gothic romance/horror movie, marketed as some sort of supernatural ghost story. From what I read, it definitely created a backlash against the movie because of the way that the movie was presented to a potential audience versus what the film, which is gorgeous and wonderful and spooky and very much in the vein of stuff I like, actually was.
In that way, The VVitch probably suffered from that false-but-necessary marketing that mars horror movies these days seeking an audience. People expected, I think, a traditional horror film, a traditional “Satanic possession” in the vein of The Exorcist, (which is excellent) or even more recent stuff like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (which I’ll admit to not having seen in a while).
Whose fault is that though? I mean, so much of modern horror is basically about ramped-up jumpscares, violence, gore, and panic moments, despite the rise of different horror that is definitely creating a niche for itself as smart and weird in a non-conventional way. The mainstream horror movie market is pretty much all about those shitty jumpscare moments, and if you want to sell a movie to those theaters, you kind of have to press with the scary bits, not the smart bits. There’s a reason a movie like It Follows, which was one of the legitimately-scariest horror movies I’ve seen in years, is such a little indie hit, because trying to pitch it as a horror movie to be taken seriously as opposed to the hokey joke that the twist (the demonic curse passed on like an STD) could easily be is hard. It probably was hard, which sucks, because like I said, It Follows scared me so intensely, being less about sex than about existential terror. What good is life if you’re constantly in an unknown fight to try to defend it, never knowing just how far ahead of that creeping death you are.
That kind of thesis in a movie isn’t easy to sell in a trailer. A scary movie is, in pop culture consciousness (partially a self-crafted niche), a good time, an easy fun time to get a quick adrenaline rush. The idea that a horror movie should be a movie to think about a concept that relates not to external scares but to internal fear and insecurity is a hard one to sell, which leads to this sort of “movie not what was advertised” situation, which can sort of suck. I understand when a film isn’t what you expected in a negative way, ruining a film experience.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that a genre like horror be allowed to breath, and that we try to not get so bogged down into a trap of the same old monsters, the same old horrors. Bringing different kinds of horrors, be they sex-transmitted demons, murderous & haunted incestuous twins, or the unspeakable terror of a new world and its natural evil, they can be just as shocking as possessing ghosts and serial killers and found-footage demons.
There’s also an element in The VVitch related to this in the movie Valhalla Rising, where the last 1/4 of the movie takes place in what’s presumed to be pre-colonial North America. Even before that in the movie though, we’re made intensely aware about how after all the axes and swords and blood-feuds and fanatics, the real enemy, the one we always fight and never defeat, is the earth around us. VR, a Viking-esque movie that’s not really action, horror, or psychodrama, reads largely about fate and acceptance as a singular spoke on a very large wheel. There’s even Christian fundamentalism here too like in The VVitch (in the form of early Crusaders hoping to somehow sail to the Holy Land), men who are, like the family of The VVitch, consumed by the futility of trying to fight against the earth, either killing each other or being killed by the First Nations people who live in this land that the characters refer to as Hell (implied to be North America).
That’s basically the root of the true horror of The VVitch, that their world is out to get them. It just so happens that evil, true Satanic evil is a part of that natural world. Weirdly enough, that sort of verifies The VVitch, which is so deeply rooted in Puritan fear and uncertainty. It’s not about jump scares, it’s about deeply-felt uncertainty not just about everyday life, but about everyday spiritual life, which was the daily fight against the influence of sin. The corruptions of witchcraft is ultimately secondary to just how shitty their lives are, and how much of it is this family’s fault through their (initially) unfailing radicalism.
Good horror is about the uncertainty of life. It’s about finally coming to an understanding that there are horrific things out there that can do so much, that have so much power over you, you’re no longer the top of the food chain. You are not the ultimate power compared to a good horror movie scare. You’re just a speck of dust, a girl praying furtively that she be good despite the rhetoric fed to her, despite the temptations to give in to laziness and selfishness, despite the lure of evil all around her.
(A version of this appeared in my “Scrapings, Etc” newsletter)
I’ve been in a cryptoid state of mind recently, especially concerning some of my personal favorites, the Dover Demon, the Jersey Devil, and Mothman. There’s something so weird about the implications of these beings, balanced against the dopey culture of those obsessed against them. In a way, cryptoid creatures are reminiscent of a faint sort of genetic memory we might have, a memory of an older era when we were constantly afraid of everything that was around us, because it could affect us in some way. It’s a reminder of our true place in the food chain. Sure, we’re a species with civilization and weapons and fire, but there are still beings out there that can trigger a reminder in us that we aren’t necessarily the alpha predators of the cycle of life we claim to be.
I know that cryptid and cryptozoology subculture can be serious stuff, but there’s also the “weirdo” elements of it that I enjoy, tied into these sort of circles of belief of things that are outside of the circles of learning. We can’t really learn much about them, because there isn’t a lot out there on them outside of weird information the we can’t either verify or expound on because it’s mostly nonsense.
At the same time though, there’s more here than just looking at weird stuff that crackpots post online or self-publish as pamphlets. There’s a sad elegance there, like it’s a look into an ancient world that isn’t there anymore, either dying out, or closing itself off.
Arthur Machen wrote and published “The Great God Pan” (which you can read at the link) in 1890, though the slightly longer novella version was released in 1894. Despite being critically savaged as basically pornographic, it’s developed its place in the horror canon. HP Lovecraft loved it, and “The Dunwich Horror” is basically an extended homage to the story. Stephen King’s “N” is also a tribute to the story. Machen’s attachment to the supernatural and the idea of there being some level of “unseen” world is part of the reason, incidentally, that he’s credited with the idea of the “Angels of Mons,” a myth about a cadre of angels fighting alongside and protecting British soldiers at the Battle of Mons, a WW1 battle.
It’s basically about the horrific effects of a late-night experiment revolving around being aware of the supernatural world. The central focus, ultimately, of the story is about a young woman who ends up being more than she seems, and who is ultimately revealed to in fact, be partially supernatural. Furthermore, she’s supernatural to the point of being that kind of “alpha predator” that you’d associate with being a cryptoid-type being, something that we’d consider myth but knew enough of to fear.
There’s also a heavy element of taboo and unnatural sexuality to the story, with implications of non-Christian pagan magic powered by occult sex (“orgies” comes up in the story, to be precise, which always seem to be the root of any weirdo sex magic myth). Considering the story’s era of publication and the ideas of unnatural sexuality being seen as a the fearful “other” to ostracize, it makes sense. And really, fear is at the root of it, isn’t it? I mean, the reason that Lovecraft loved this story and then used it as an influence on his story, which is explicitly about the dangers of ancient and unknown knowledge. Machen’s implication here in the story is that older religions are in fact representations of actual existing things and beings, and that to be aware of them draws you into something shouldn’t be recognized as existing, not just because it’s dangerous, but because it’s a reminder of an era of history that we fought our way out of.
The title of the story is (spoiler alert, again) a reference to the Greek supernatural/mythological creature Pan, who encompasses several facets of life worshipped by the ancient Hellenics. We all know Pan as the satyr, an image that art has traditionally assigned to a character or person that represents pagan wanton sexuality. It didn’t come from there only, a lot of early Hellenic depictions of Pan (or satyrs in general) as being sexual demons (metaphorically). Hell, tons of Greek mythology is rooted in sex, sexual violence, and fear of sexual violence. It was seen (and still is, arguably) as a sign of savagery, of a lack of civilization and modernity.
Pan was the god (or demigod, depending on what you’ve read) of travelers (or maybe that’s his father, either the god Dionysus, or maybe the god Hermes?), the god of the woods (in particular, the uncharted parts of forests), and more importantly, the god of madness. His exact origins are unclear, either through being an older pre-Pantheonic Greek god, or either because a lack of interest has made any sort of documentation of him by ancient writers not the priority others like Zeus or Athena were.
Pan’s cry (or maybe it’s a blast from his musical instrument, the “pan pipes”) can cause madness among those who don’t respect him, causing people to run blindly into the woods until they either die from the shock, or come to their senses and slowly die of starvation deep in the forests, far from roads, crops, and home. The sight of him could drive men mad as well, as well, because he’s occasionally depicted as being not only half-animal, but also impossibly well-endowed sexually, another sign of his savagery. He’s got a penis like an animal, not a man (look into the historical reasons behind all those small dicks on classic statues for more on that one).
I read about Pan when I was a kid for the first time in The Lion in the Gateway by Mary Renault (my favorite telling of the Persian War) as well as an ancient old paperback collection of Greek mythology I’d inherited from my dad. In Renault’s book, she tells a version of the story of the Athenian Pheidippides, who incurred Pan’s favor by giving tribute during his run, inspiring the godling to fight against the invading Persians at the battle of Marathon. Again, depending on the translation of the story of Marathon you read, Pan (or sometimes, Pan alongside the ghost of Theseus, which is what Renault’s book claims) fights the Persians to rally the Athenians.
Pan’s role there is very clear. He is an ancient and semi-forgotten god, a bestial one that is implied to have been forgotten because he’s a representation of pre-civilization. Pan lives in the woods, where men no longer dwell. We’d moved on to the cities and the towns, and no longer feared the madness of being lost in the woods. In the same way, Machen uses Pan as a representation of that pre-civilization fear, of non-“enlightened” man. Pan is forgotten in all but name in the story, but is, in a way, brought back as a horrific power thanks to the ill-thought experiments that start off the story.
In a way, cryptid beasts are Pan, sort of. They’re a representation of a fear we used to have, and in a way they’re the last type of old gods we used to create to fill in voids in knowledge and understanding of the world. The Dover Demon or Bigfoot are the new “older” gods, forgotten things we used to worship and fear. Our lack of understanding of what they really are, which has faded for whatever reasons, causes us to create these stories and treat them as bizarre things we can’t understand, or that they’re aliens, or mutants, or whatever.
What if they’re like Pan? What if they’re something that has always been there and we were actively aware of, but over time, the horror of not being at the top of the food chain made us work hard to actively forget them? Lovecraft was drawn to this story because it tied in so deeply to his overall themes of the power of forbidden knowledge. His old gods, Ancient Ones, had influenced the world ages ago but had been forgotten for good reason. They were literal gods on Earth that caused madness to just look on them. “The Call of Cthulu” is literally about how men go mad gazing upon a hiding, slumbering god’s semi-submerged ziggurat and the behemoth inside, something lost to the Pacific millennia ago.
If we ever do find those cryptid beasts, will we go mad too? Are they like Pan, sucking and leeching our sanity from us with an inhuman scream? Are they from the non-Euclidian R’lyeh of Lovecraft? Or are we just going to take some more blurry photographs to post online?
(A version of this piece originally appeared in my “Scrapings, Etc” newsletter)
Not only have I been thinking a lot about mysteries these days, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about horror and suspense. In particular, I’ve been thinking a lot about how horror works, what’s scary, and what it is that makes me really like something scary.
I’ve been a big fan of weirder and weirder things over the years, like the movies of Ti West, for example (House of the Devil is still one of the best movies I’ve seen in ages, and The Innkeepers was pretty great too), and my girlfriend and I watched the 1977 Japanese arthouse horror weirdo movie House (aka “Hausu“) recently, which was wonderful in its fucked-up visuals and sheer ridiculousness. Most traditional horror doesn’t really do much for me, and I find myself feeling particularly bored at gorefests and jumpscare-stuffed remakes. It’s why my recent video game experiences like Firewatch have been so good, because in there (for example) the brightness of the setting combined with the intense loneliness of the game’s story makes it, when playing, intensely fucking scary. Zombies and weirdo ghost children jumping from the shadows aren’t really that interesting anymore. I want to constantly be on the edge of my seat, wondering what is coming next, and why am I in a constant state of dread.
So that being said, I’ve been seeking new ways to challenge my sense of self, which is something I feel horror definitely should be challenging, with audio podcast dramas and story readings (as I said before, Limetown was great & I’m enjoying Alice Isn’t Dead, and once in a while No Sleep has some great stories), as well as those really messed-up [Adult Swim] infomercial/experimental horror movie things they do, which, honestly, are so oddball and shocking that I feel like they’re pretty genius, in the vein of the first two V/H/S films, which I adore (the third I can take or leave, but the second one’s ode to Fire In The Sky is amazing).
On the other hand though, when it comes to more “modern” horror, I’m on the fence about the web horror “phenomenon” of Creepypasta, mostly because it tends to be either oddly derivative of pre-Internet urban legends, or just not all that original or good at times in general. However, you can’t really deny the power of Slender Man, and I know that the whole point of these stories is to be web-based and web-sourced unreliable “rumors,” in a classic urban legend/modern horror form…anyway, yeah. I’m a fuddy-duddy.
I recently read this piece at Kotaku though, that is probably the weirdest scary story from that corner of the Internet done right, about traversing an abandoned MMO alone and encountering one single lone person in there, which is probably weirder than just going through the whole thing completely alone. It also brings to mind something I saw William Gibson address in one of his books briefly, about abandoned websites (as well as this piece on unseen/low view YouTube videos). It embodies the things that I really find interesting in a modern web-based scary story, which is that there are voids out there that can cause deep self-reflection, and in that self-reflection (or in people who dive deep into it) we can be disturbed in what we find. Just what are the limits of empty abandoned ether out there? Is it a world, in a concrete sense, that’s alternately overcrowded and abandoned in huge swaths? The idea of being alone save for one other person in a whole world, and that you only periodically will cross paths with just strikes me as so intensely scary.
Who is this other person? What role are they playing in this world/MMO? Also, how can you trust whether or not you really are alone? what if they’re out of your visual range but you’re in theirs? What do you say when you’re the only two players in a world that’s meant to be heavily populated? It just strikes me as a perpetual dream state, and the dream state is both a place to get real deep in your own head, as well as get the shit scared out of you.
The scope and implications of realizing the size of an empty world is something cool in an almost Lovecraftian way. One of the things I enjoy about reading Lovecraft is the sense of a greater world we aren’t aware of as humans, and that sometimes it’s better to not know what else is out there.
Sometimes, it’s better to not think too hard about it.
I threw together a new Twine puzzle/game called “Waukegan.”
It’s a little simpler than the last one I made, but it’s less a story/game and more of a statement of clues to get you to solve a puzzle. It’s not quite as long as the last one, but I’m hoping to build a little weird collection of Twine games and stuff. Have fun, or not. Whatever, it’s just games.
It was St. Patrick’s Day recently.
It’s been almost a year since my paternal grandfather, who I’m named after, passed away. He actually died on my birthday, which was hilarious in hindsight but depressing to deal with at the time. Nothing crashes a good teaching day like that sorta news, but whatever.
He loved corned beef and cabbage on St. Paddy’s Day. Corned beef, boiled cabbage, and boiled potatoes. As a kid, I could never understand why. Corned beef smelled fucking terrible to me, as did the cabbage. It was a boiled monster creeping into my grandma’s dining room once a year, so I’d complain and not want any and they’d let me eat whatever other leftovers were in the fridge, be it two-day-old pasta or tuna salad or something like that. It was a tradition.
My grandfather came over from Greece as a young man for a variety of reasons, chiefly to find work but also to get away from an impending famine and the blight of the Axis Powers in Europe. He worked in various high-rise office buildings and apartment complexes in Manhattan, doing plumbing and HVAC work. He raised my dad, my aunt, and my uncle in the Lower East Side before they moved to the house in Queens my grandmother and parents live in now, the house I actually more or less grew up in. He smoked on and off, drank coffee and cognac, hosted New Year’s and Christmas celebrations among his circle of friends and relatives, and watched John Wayne in The Quiet Man and Charleton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy.
My grandfather loved corned beef and cabbage.
When you get older, the human palate starts to change, triggered by both your natural growth but also the slow death of the billions of tasting sensors on our tongue. Your food sensitivity (and thus your smell sensitivity) are off the charts as a small child, which is why kids love sweets but hate sour or bitter foods like say, vegetables, for the most part.
As we get older, many people develop tastes that are difference from the tastes they had as small kids. Sours and bitters (two different things as far as I’m concerned), salty, and spicy all become things we respond to positively in our food, probably because they can still trigger intense reactions in the taste buds we still have at that age.
I had weird food tastes when I was younger, in hindsight. I didn’t like sauce on my spaghetti, I didn’t like hot food, and, like a lot of kids, there were reactions to weird textures. I liked bread and rice mostly, sweets obviously, hot dogs, and apples. Now though? Oh man, bring the tangy, the sour and the spicy and hot and oily.
Obviously there will be weirdo kids like me who ate their veggies and some people will never like spicy stuff or hot sauces, but for the most part, this explains why my dad puts vinegar on all his stews and soups and sops it up with bread. It’s why my brother consumes the sour fish cooked whole in oil cold at four AM. It explains why I love pickles, black coffee, sriracha, and the hot sour peppers in oil my grandma makes.
It’s why I love corned beef and cabbage.
Corned beef’s got a surprisingly light taste to it, considering the natural protein density of beef. The boiling of the preserved meat, cured in salt, gets that bright pink-red color going, and it’s fatty to the point that boiling it makes the fat so soft it can be scraped off with a spoon. It shreds like pulled pork, so slicing it is more or less a formality, you can tear into it with a fork. With mustard smeared on it and served with sliced pickles (something I did last time I ate it), it’s actually delicious. Boiled potatoes covered in salt (something else he did) are always great, and thinking back, I’ve actually liked boiled cabbage since I was a teenager. It works best, I think, as a wrap for dumplings my grandma makes, but that’s another story. Again, with mustard and pickles, because why not?
When I went over there recently, I just wolfed all of that down. My mom and my grandmother were there and commented that I usually didn’t like it, and were a bit surprised I was excited for it. My grandmother was pleased, though, probably because, as I said out loud to them, I knew it had been his favorite food.
Considering everything my grandmother would cook for him, and she cooked a lot (still does), I don’t know why he liked it so much. Was it a wartime thing, or was it just something that he was exposed to when he came to New York, where it was a cheap and popular meat, and he took to it? I used to think it was an old man thing, like so many other things he did, including the mustache, cheating at cards, the occasional casual racism (despite his weirdly progressive personal politics), and sneaking smokes after his first surgery to remove a benign cyst from his knee.
I still don’t know why he liked it, almost a year after he died and about two years or so since he could eat it. Cancer slowly ate away his appetite for solid food over the past few years, at one point I had to basically chide him to eat toast to keep his blood sugar and energy levels up so he didn’t collapse randomly around the house.
The first thing of his that I got after the funeral was his electric shaving razor, which my grandmother handed to me still in the box. He’d bought it but never used it, soon after he’d started to go downhill and she shaved him with a hand razor, until his pain was too much for that. Then, she gave me his old trimming kit, for brushing and trimming your mustache. This was a little more personal, and it’s something I legitimately treasure as well as use.
A few months later, she came back from going to Greece for a while, and she brought a bunch of his things back to the US, which she gave to my dad, his brother, my brother, and myself. I got one of his pocket knives, a Swiss Army knife he probably got from the Marlboro catalogue. I can’t help though but think that maybe I got more from him over the years that I didn’t really think about. There’s the love of old movies, like The Quiet Man with John Wayne. I did’t get the card-playing, but I did get the on-and-off smoking and I definitely got the constant books and reading, scattered all over in piles.
There’s the post-church/family event tradition of the only drink being Scotch on the rocks, which definitely started with him. I know I got the love of fried eggs with ham in the morning and the nonstop downing of coffee like water, and even though a lot of family will tell me I tend to favor my mother’s father more in terms of demeanor, like my dad I got my grandfather’s sense of humor, which terrified me as a little kid but I snorted at when I got older.
I guess I also got corned beef and cabbage.
(a version of this appeared in my Scrapings Etc email newsletter)
So I recently listened to the first episode of Alice Isn’t Dead, the new podcast from the Welcome to Night Vale guys.
WTNV is, in my mind, the beginning of this modern phase of audio storytelling, a collection of stories interwoven into a narrative of a town of weirdos with odd pathos that makes it connect with a wide variety of people. It’s the small-town Americana we all crave and seek out in metaphorical ways through lifelong searches for community and connections, so I think that’s a huge part of the draw of it. When I first stumbled across it, the weird spookiness of the thing was what connected me to Cecil Baldwin, local community radio host in this strange desert town. The creators have, despite the eldritch inclinations of their world, distanced themselves from the “standard” nerd weird horror callbacks to Lovecraft, but have been vocal in their influences from other non-conventional literary sources. Fink and Craynor have both mentioned Shirley Jackson, which made me giggle like an anime schoolgirl, and for that I love them.
There’s also, in a weird sense. a tie-in to another piece of “classic” American literature I love, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a loose collection of stories focusing on the denizens of the town through the lens of a single inhabitant’s life. I read it in college in one of Mark Bobrow’s English classes at Hunter (where I went to school) and I hope to one day try to teach it just as well. I’ve dipped my toes into it, just never the whole thing.
I’m rambling. Sorry.
I moved away from eventually, but have recently come back to Night Vale, catching up (literally as well as metaphorically), and that’s how I found out about Alice Isn’t Dead.
The last thing I wrote about was about mysteries, and about what it is that makes a good mystery. My belief is that sacrifice is what makes a good mystery, where something really deep and personal and important, in both a literal and metaphorical sense, needs to be given up to make the mystery work. It’s what needs to be given up to solve the mystery, so that even in the end if you win, you’ve still lost, somehow.
The driving engine of this kind of fiction is rooted in conflicts like that, where we encounter exchanges of personal elements and get to see real raw things, where the literal roots of people show us how they talk, how they interact, and how they think and love. It’s what makes the vignette aspect of WTNV so interesting, to get these brief but really intense bits off life and personhood, all vaguely connected. It’s what made Winesburg, Ohio so interesting in college.
I’m hoping it’s what makes Alice Isn’t Dead interesting as well. There’s only one episode so far, but the mysterious and weird beginning, combined with the fact that I think it’s meant to be a one-shot closed story gives us, ironically, the flexibility to go deep into the sacrifice that a good mystery requires. Unless of course the sacrifice has already been made, and the story is about the fallout. Who knows. I do know that I’m definitely tuning in.
The idea of a mystery story is kind of a conundrum, if you think about it. They’re impossible because in a pure form, you can’t understand the problem of the mystery before you. It must be solved, but even then the mystery has to be good enough to be almost unsolvable for it to be a draw.
How do you solve something unsolvable in a story? The easiest way is to introduce a flaw in the mystery. Have a deus ex machina. Something to cheat, to magically help “fix” the mystery at the end so that you can make it work and still preserve the status quo of our protagonists.
Or, you can so it the hard way.
The best way, the real hard way to solve a mystery is to require a sacrifice. A deep and good mystery is one that you can’t solve from the surface. You need to get deep into it. You need to bury yourself in it’s world. You have to give up something of yourself, either literally or metaphorically, to find the root.
To find out what happened.
How the hell do you sum this all into a consumable story? How do you solve an unsolvable mystery in a way that people can connect with?
The LIMETOWN podcast, from creators Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers, manages it. I don’t know how, but they manage it. Journalist Lia Haddock and her journey to find out the truth of what happened to the town of Limetown, a community of people living by and working in a secretive research facility, is a fascinating and impossible mystery.
It’s a fascinating mystery that plumbs some interesting depths, reaching for some weird cliches of mystery, sci-fi, and at the fringes, horror. Something happened the night the town went wild, and three days later it mysteriously became a desolate ghost town. Why? Why were they doing there? And why are the survivors, or “citizens,” reaching out now?
The sacrifice is great. The sacrifice here is even greater than we’d think is Being given, because Lia pays for the truth. She paid for it with her life and her freedom, taken by strangers to be the insurance, the bait, the backup harvest.
We can all still walk away. That is the warning in the final episode, but there’s another warning in there as well. “No damn cat. No damn cradle.”
No damn cat.
No damn cradle.
Vonnegut’s words, encompassing a massive wonderful joke played on us all, that in the end, the things we think are there are in fact, not there. Life is a trick, a set of string meant to distract us from the bigger thing. We pay attention to the string, looking for the cats and looking for a cradle, but failing to realize that the hands and the face are what we need to be looking at. The mechanisms of the joke, and the face that laughs while we struggle.
Limetown, the town of the story, is not the mystery here. Sure, it is in the surface, but the real mystery here isn’t about this town, this testbed of research into artificial telepathy through biomedical implants. The real mystery here isn’t the connection between the main character of Lia Haddock and the mysterious root of the Limetown technology itself. The real mystery is about the sacrifice. It’s about the sacrifice that Haddock is willing to make to get to the truth, to see beyond the cat, beyond the cradle. The very usage of this metaphor, from Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle, is meant to imply the distraction of someone from the larger issues at hand through a complex but ultimately shallow and useless structure.
Here, the useless structure is what happened that night, the night that Limetown burned as un-implanted townspeople rioted and killed implanted friends, family, and neighbors. The story that the “citizens” tell is important, yes, but it’s the cat’s cradle. The real thing that Lia doesn’t realize until its too late is that Limetown, as the mysterious and horrific woman from the end tells us and her, was only the beginning. It was only one of many. The work must continue, with or without Lia’s uncle, Emile, “the man they were all here for.” But if the work must go on, then they will need Emile.
To get Emile, they need Lia, a trap she’s basically walked into through her sacrifice for the story. She sacrifices her logic, her consciousness, and her own safety (albeit without a full sense of the true danger) for the sake of the truth, and she feels almost until the end that the truth is worth it, no matter what. Of course, her discovering exactly what happened to non-implanted people, the hideous truth of men and women and children turned to slurry and poured down the drain…was it really worth it?
I think that’s why I find this story all so fascinating. The unraveling of the story into a bigger and bigger structure, only to see the true evil at the end, in a twist that in fact makes perfect sense, is why this works so well. It’s what makes Limetown such a concise and really interesting mystery. Yeah, it’s Serial meets “The X-Files”, but it’s also very much its own thing, something much more important and valuable as a mystery.