Trash(y) Fantasy

fqtragz4bz4bud7yu9y0It’s sort of part of the package, really. Punk rock, comic books, science fiction and horror movies, and fantasy novels/games. It’s the stuff that gets thrown into the soup that creates guys like me. At least that’s how I see it, that weird wishlist of things from the backs of comic books put into human form with black t-shirts and too many thoughts about owning a sword.

Still, despite the fact that I really love the genre and definitely consider it a huge part of my web of influences, I didn’t actually read that much fantasy as a kid, when I think back on it.

I read Tolkien, but I didn’t really like it, too caught up in the language. I read and enjoyed C. S. Lewis, weirdly, I don’t know why, but I had all of his “Narnia” books, reading and re-reading them religiously (pun intended). Of course there were comic books, an inherited stack of Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian and The Savage Sword Of Conan from the 70’s that blended the no-man’s land nihilist fantasy of Howard’s creation with pulp insanity. I read King Arthur stories in a ratty Penguin Classics paperback a lot (I had a bunch of those, but that’s another story). I read a lot of Raymond E. Feist, who I randomly stumbled upon in an English-languae bookstore in a foreign country randomly (I still consider him a master and constantly go back to his work for comfort reads.) Through Feist, I found Janny Wurts and a few other people, but for the most part I didn’t fall as crazy into so much of the genre (which is vast, wide, and deep with both great stuff as well as a lot of shit) as I feel like a lot of others who are avowed fans of the genre did. I never read “Dragonlance” stuff, I never read any “Shannara” or “Wheel Of Time” books (gasp! I know, I know), and I never heard of any of the “A Song Of Ice And Fire” books until the TV show (I’ve since read them and they’re alright, but the TV show actually works better).

It’s weird to think of fantasy novels as intrinsically a huge part of me because of that, like I’m a poser in a weird subculture for a subgenre that catered to people who forever felt like posers. Still, they kinda are, and I think it’s because I think back on how some of the first forays I took into reading work that pushed me away from just male authors and cliched stuff was in fantasy, in particular the work of Robin Hobb, Jeanne Kalogridis, and Jacqueline Carey. Those three (Hobb and Carey in particular) were instrumental during my late teens/20’s as fantasy writers, authors I searched for.

Hobb’s “Farseer” trilogy was amazing, a perfect turn on conventional fantasy tropes in an arguably better take that Martin does (in particular the whole “bastard of nobility” thing). I vaguely remember seeing ads for the first book, Assassin’s Apprentice, in the back of other books I had, and reading her books about Fitz and his world, a complex world that led to dumb broken messy endings and broken people who don’t mend, who suffer and have to live with consequences, something that fantasy (and fiction) at that time, in my experience, hadn’t really exposed me to in that type of escapist writing, the kind of stuff I craved to help calm down my brain. Fiction was always about wrapping up loose ends for a story to finish in a grandiose fashion, and leaving those ragged ends frayed and unable to be incorporated into an ending acts leaves a heavy impression on someone who is constantly used to those types of complete endings. I loved, and still love, that there are no heroes in Hobb’s books about her character Fitz. The heroes are other people’s stories, hers are about the others, the people at the fringes with messy lives and no grand plans or huge endings. They’re about real people, as real as they can feel in a world with dragons and magic telepathy.

Then for some godforsaken reason I ended up in a B&N browsing the “fantasy” section and, fucking Satan forgive me, I stumbled upon the work of Jacqueline Carey, a frankly bizarre alternative medieval Europe that delves heavily into espionage, queer-themed BDSM,  and anathema Christian theology. To this day I don’t know what possessed me to buy those first two books of Carey’s first trilogy of work, “Kushiel’s Legacy”, because I was probably mortified the clerk would look at me weird for buying what I felt was basically smut.

It kind of is, to be honest, like my exposure to Kalogridis’ work, which I felt was horror but looking back, is basically early vampiric smut that I threw myself into one summer when it was all I had to read (along with a dog-eared copy of Puzo’s The Godfather, which I found…weird, but that’s another story).

How the fuck did I read all this stuff, which borrows liberally from a long history of bodice-rippers and before 50 Shades of Gray introduced housewives to what BDSM actually meant?

Don’t answer that, the answers are a little to obvious and I don’t wanna admit that right now.

Anyway, going back to those books, these bodice-rippers, smut wrapped up in battles between Viking stand-in cultures and some sort of analogs for what I think are Lutheran warrior-priests, they’re…kind of groundbreaking, actually. Carey’s research kung-fu shows in a lot of the work, not letting what bogged down a lot of detail-rich fantasy happen where story suffers. Also, despite basically being softcore porn with swords and magic, there’s an interesting point to observe in her work, in that the offshoot of Judaism that replaced the rise of Christianity in her alternative-history world is a notably queer and socially progressive one, with a lot of thought (at least in my mind at the time) put into creating a faith that somehow put “have sex with whoever” at the top of “how we show our version of God we love him” list. And when I say “whoever,” I mean “whoever,” with same-sex relationships being a norm of her work, and you know what?

That’s probably the first time I saw that in genre work. It was in Carey’s trashy romance fiction that I saw it normalized, stripped of the “queer villain” or “foppish side character” tropes that fantasy fiction conventionally depended on. Interestingly enough there were also elements of queer nontraditional romances in Hobb’s work between the protagonist Fitz and another character (so not just some side characters), and while the world she created wasn’t the all-accepting fantasy land of Carey’s, it did deal with the fallout of that kind of “nontraditional” relationship and how others might see it, explain it, and care or not care about it.

Those two (three if you count Kalogridis and her “Diaries of the Family Dracul” series) were probably the last “straight fantasy” (no pun) authors I discovered just randomly pulling at titles on the shelves of a bookstore, a practice I don’t really do much anymore. They’re not even “old pulp” trashy as books, they’re just kinda trashy, and Cary and Kalogridis skirting dangerously close to the line “out” of the genre (something that actually helps those works stand out by not being bogged down by genre expectations). Well, Robin Hobb isn’t trashy like Carey’s “fifteen different words for bodices” trashy, but once you get beyond the stuff she does to advance and challenge her genre it’s still a whole bunch of other fantasy tropes, with fantastic stretches of magic and battles between grim swordsmen and plucky boys with wolf sidekicks.

Fuck it, I still love ’em. I love my trashy fantasy novels, the ones that, like so many other pieces of media, helped carry me through some weird times, a lonely childhood, and continue to be something I can go back to for a quick nostalgic fix, a form that I can slide into again like a sword into a scabbard.

I brought that original trilogy of Carey’s books from my parents’ house to our apartment recently, re-reading sections of it in bits and pieces. I re-taped the cover of one of the three books back together, the spine of the paperback long-disintegrated. Know what? It still holds up, in all it’s faux-porny romance goodness, complete with cliches about sword-fighting warrior priests and everyone wearing doublets, an article of clothing I constantly have to re-look up because I never remember what it is.

 

No Maps For These Obituaries

 

I wrote this essay for something, but it never went anywhere and because it was like five, almost six months ago, I’m gonna put it up here. I really liked finishing this, and it was the culmination of something I’d been trying to get out for a while.

~

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About five years ago my brother told me that someone we’d gone to school with, years and years ago, had died. He and his girlfriend (the older sister of another schoolmate) had overdosed on heroin (I thought about it recently and counted how many people I knew who had through the years descended into serious drug abuse and it sorta shocked me, but that’s another story.)

It was a lifetime ago, knowing those people, when the guy and his friends alternated between picking on me and being friendly with my circle of friends, who were a few years younger. Sometimes thinking back on that period of my life, my childhood basically, it feels like the movie on the childhood of someone completely unlike me.

I’ve thought about that random conversation a lot since then, especially throughout working on the Internet, writing and publishing on the Internet, and communicating with people on the Internet. I’ve thought about it a lot as well as I’ve periodically had nothing to do and decided to see if old friends I’ve lost track of were out there, throwing names into search engines and social networking platforms. It’s not an obsession or anything, because honestly half the time I’ve forgotten people’s last names through the years, forgotten how to spell the names I did remember, and constantly tell myself that just because I have a bizarrely-obsessive hoarding mind that keeps memories like old user manuals in junk drawers, others don’t do that. I managed to track down my 3rd-grade “best friend” recently because his complete name came to me as I sat at work, and it was a surreal thing to see his face on the computer screen, older and yet, familiar enough that I could remember us at his house, playing in his room while our moms chatted, mine offering her a friendly ear as his parents divorced. At least that’s what I remember, and who knows if that’s even a true memory at this point?

Am I a memory that randomly comes up in their minds too? Did he ever think about me? Did any of them? Or have I completely faded from the collective memory of some people, no matter how hard we might try?

One friend I’ve actively looked up a few times online I’ve never been able to find, and I’ve probably been stuck on it because not only does he have the same name as someone relatively-famous, but also because I have a possible way to actively do it, but don’t want to intrude on it. I’m “friends” on the internet with his younger sister, a peer-mate of my younger brother.

I hesitate though, mostly because of basic civility, feeling like it’d be weirdly crass to just ask. Should I actively reach out to her to ask whatever happened to her brother? I’ve tried to look her brother up because, for lack of a nicer or more multi-depth way of saying it, he changed my life. He was the one who introduced us all to punk rock in the eighth and ninth grade, the beginning of a series of transformative waves in my life that made me the man I am today. It’s strange to look at someone like that, a peer who may not even remember who I am.

And like the ones who OD’ed, what if they died? Do I want to be the asshole who ends up reminding someone about a family member that’s no longer with us?

Writer and former cartoonist Ed Brubaker, probably best-known these days as one of the writers on the HBO series Westworld and the comics Kill Or Be Killed and The Fade-Out (both with artist Sean Philips), once said something in an interview that, though I paraphrase it and butcher it constantly in re-telling it, always sticks with me. When asked if he’d ever revisit or re-release his own early work, the comic Lowlife, he said sometimes things should remain in the past. Old work is old work for a reason, because you move on and improve from it.

It stuck with me. It’s the twenty-first century and nostalgia is in full, almost downward effect at this point as we obsessively archive, re-release, and redo (like the aforementioned Westworld, which I’ll admit to loving, or the big Hulu.com news to have the complete run of The Golden Girls, which I’m intensely excited about), we have a hard time letting go. We don’t even want all this stuff we save and revisit at times, but because we can, because post-World War 2 when the ability to archive and look back with nostalgia, we do it because we can, because now that things can be saved, they’re treasured, and things that are treasured are treated as archives of better times, times where we forget the bad and fetishize the good. Nostalgia, right?

There are, arguably, some times when it’s not necessarily “bad” and can even be healthy mentally, socially, and spiritually even. My grandparents, like a lot of Greeks, were refugees fleeing their home villages during World War 2 to avoid the Italian occupation, the Nazis, and impending famine, leaving almost everything. In the case of my paternal family, they went to Turkey, Egypt, and finally Ethiopia to wait out the war, briefly returning before coming to the US. Old property, old homes, old farmsteads and friends were left behind to create new lives here in New York City. First, in a mostly-Greek community in downtown Manhattan before moving to Queens, where, over time, a lot of those old friends from the old country came and also bought homes. Years later though, can you blame my grandparents for being nostalgic? For wanting to go back and find those old fragments of a former life, the life before they came to the US? The old properties, old family photos and toys and mementos, were left to literally rot, in some cases, before being rescued.

It’s not nostalgia here with blind and non-critical fondness, because if I asked my grandmother about what life was like then, in an area of Eastern Europe that still had dirt-floor homes and wells for water, she’d definitely point to her kitchen and indoor bathroom and TV. It’d be more like trying to maybe maintain a connection that was broken too soon, broken unwillingly. It’s probably not even nostalgia in the strictest sense, but an attempt at repairing a part of life that was tragic, sad, and taken away against their will. Still, when I sit down and hear her talk about old times, when she or other older Greeks who came to this country go back and refurbish old homes and properties and put the old photos in new frames up on the walls, there’s a level of fondness attached to it all, even if they know deep down it maybe wasn’t all that great. Youth can be a hell of a drug.

That desire for keeping what came before and bringing it around again every so often even influenced us, collectively, in a professional way. I’m a writer and teacher, and one of the ways that I promote my writing and shop it around is by making sure I can point to an archive of work, a backlog of stuff both old and new. When I just wrote for a living, I was regularly making sure that archive was accessible, that old work, old stuff, representations of older lives in some cases, were out there, easy to find. It didn’t matter, in a way, that some of it wasn’t as good as the newer stuff (it really wasn’t, I’ve come to realize. Woof, that old stuff is bad).

I gave up. I think it’s time to recognize that sometimes, old friends are the past, especially after over twenty years at this point. Human memory is a chemically-insecure and awful and almost tragically-flawed archiving tool, making us romanticize even the worst of times for us. While some friendships can last that long, and while some stuff from our pasts is worth revisiting, be it work or relationships or even the structure of how our life worked, just because it existed in a moment of space and time, doesn’t mean it needs to remain. In the end, as cliché as it might sound, I’m going to give up on trying to find out what happened to that one friend, the guy who basically changed my life and set it on the path that it is today, and let that mystery rest.

It’s better this way.

 

Enjoy My Short Story “Stations”

I couldn’t find a home for this story, but enjoyed working on it. Enjoy!

~

It was raining outside, the new kind of rain happening ever since they came and broke the sky, the kind we were warned against being out in. My tea was steaming and I clicked the recorder on, sitting at the kitchenette table in my apartment in the dark.

The maps are useless by now. 

A lot of people do still ride subways regularly, myself included, but it’s not the same. You can still try it, but not only did a lot of the tunnels flood and collapse, but the fare’s…it’s not like money, get it? 

You know, something happens to you. Or someone you know. Or to something you do. Me? I can’t, well, I can’t play anymore. I used to like, play music right? This sorta post-minimalist folk, just a little guitar, some synth stuff I could do on the computer, throw it up online. I had maybe a hundred downloads? Nothing crazy, but these days, sorta how I’d take the edge off, throw it up online and get a tiny following, nothing crazy. Anyway. 

Right, post-scarcity and all, we have the time for stuff like that. Mostly I nanny for families with money, the ones who rode most of it out on Long Island and owned half of Brooklyn. Whatever, I like it and it pays and I get to each their food. Anyway, I had to start trying to make it out of Brooklyn and into Manhattan regularly, and the bodega guy told me the subway still works, right? 

It doesn’t matter why I had to, I just DID, right?

The ways that hands can show you something about a subject are subtle but they were consistent in their movement, and the non-blinking was starting to show about a half-hour into our first meeting, there in the coffee shop-slash-breakfast spot now built into the remnants of a clothing store. The mannequins were still up and half-dressed, some half-destroyed and on the floor from what was probably a wave of looting back when…they…first showed up in the sky and battled and fell to earth. All that’s left on the mannequins the place has incorporated into the décor, which are now bolted to the tiled floor, are weird hats and too-thin blouses that make no sense, nevermind being a few decades behind fashion-wise.

I’d found this contact after a few weeks of digging around, asking questions, begging for favors and oddly, trading a toolbox to a fixer who claimed he was leaving land to join some new colony that was being assembled around an old offshore oil rig in the Pacific. It was small, but with the way that the skies felt and looked ever since they came and broke everything, more and more people were unsure of the land, of the ground beneath their feet. There’d already been rumors of herds of strange things that roamed the plains and forests in the Midwest, in the wilds that were growing up around the highways and freeways between cities.

Me? I was happy here, secure and comfortable for the most part, where we were less hiding in fear from the changes they brought and more learning to live with them. New Yorkers always were resilient like that.

The tape continued playing and I started taking notes. Anyway I can’t anymore, the energy for it, the spark for it, it’s like gone right? And not in a way where like I literally can’t look at a guitar or whatever, but like, it’s just not right. It’s not RIGHT she repeats and hands still enough to bang the tabletop.

It’s like, not on-Euclidean but more like, nonlinear and non-temporal? It’d been like this since they showed up and changed the sky, feel to the ground and changed it underneath us, right? The subway has become like, you know? It’s the blood vessels to the city? There’s a few fixed points, spots you always know you can get a train or at least find a platform where someone’s willing to help ya, but until you do it that first time, you just, you gotta take that risk and the plunge so you can Know, you know?

Some people thought that the big hologram ads on top of buildings kept them away, some thought they drew them in, so of course they were constant targets and scenes of micro-pitched battles between religious groups, roof-hugging hobo cults, and corporate security armed with rubber bullets and portable sonics.

I don’t play anymore. I can’t, the like, the mechanic isn’t there? No, more like the endorphin or Dopamine release when I hold the guitar isn’t even there, more like. That’s what it costs me to ride the subway, to Know. 

To Know. The emphasis she’d put on that last word, I could almost tell that she meant for me to capitalize it. To Know, as opposed to know. What did I need to Know about the world, about the subway tunnels ever since they came and changed the very essence of the world, the fabric of the flesh that was the monster of the earth beneath us?

I knew what had happened when the survey men first tried to go into the subways after their remains had seeped into the oceans and earth from the first falls, titan bones, broken teeth, tentacles and limbs like mountain ridges changing the way we looked from space. We all “knew” in as much as humans could know when information was sparse, fourth-hand, and always ending badly. Tunnels full of brown water and black light and the dust that fell from giants, dust that was like a fog to insignificant insects like us. Underground wasn’t the first part of the planet to change when the new gods had come, but it was, some were arguing, the most changed.

While our planet’s surface, the cities and roads and forests and deserts, were broken and shifted by falling titanic corpses and footfalls, the underneath was changed differently. I remembered a coworker, a younger kid, telling us of how before he and his dad had made it to the city, coming across fissures that leaked light, light solidifying into fully-formed trees with vivid red and yellow leaves. We’d found out people called them smoke forests and that they were some kind of semi-sentient, ethereal Venus Fly Trap, snapping shut into a fog that sucked anything solid within its radius back into the fissure in a scream of sucked-in air and light. Someone posted a video of smoke forests catching a stray dog online and it was horrific to watch. I couldn’t watch, I hate watching things like that about animals.

In urban areas, the big still-standing cities, it was different but the same, in a way. The light columns were the first to come and the easiest to avoid, the green light columns that appear out of nowhere, and if you try to walk through it, sucking you up into the sky like some sort of magnet, up screaming in an instant. They come and go, most people avoid them. Still, you get drunks once in a while not noticing them at night, caught up in what we thought was maybe how they feed themselves? Like, a trap for food, an elevator right up into that broken sky for them. Stuff like that.

Something still runs the subways in New York City, but no one knows how. Empty trains move along stops that shouldn’t be there and through tunnels that can’t exist. I’ve heard of a whole open market that exists on a lower set of platforms at times square. The elevated platforms and train tracks in queens are constantly shrouded in fog.

If you need to go and know where you want to go and know where a station might be, you can pay the toll at the gate, an altar of sorts of metro cards and cell phone boxes and stones, you can risk it.

Or you can pay a toll ta really Know, to be able to really ride.

Those who do though, those who Pay For It to Know, heart they pay is permanent and deep. And it keeps drawing you down underground more and more, over and over. I clicked the recorder off. Two days later the source is gone, not answering her phone and someone tells me they saw her go down a subway station entrance.

Until you only ride. Until you never come back above ground, like you’re a new part of the new veins of our new changes word, the new market and economy of semi-permanent subway riders and hustlers and homeless men paid to act as mobile hotspot and wifi broadcasters in the shadows of above ground. When I first started looking into this, a source told me they’d met someone who ended up not seeing the sun for almost three years. Not that there’s too much to see since they broke the sky, but still, the human instinct for the openness above us is hard to shake off. How much of an allure could this new weird underground have, really? I mean, we were so far from understanding anything about what had happened to the world when the sky broke and they came, and barely learning to get by and adapt to it all. To give it all up and let that weird new order swallow you up? It was one of the things my paper was trying to do, what most publications these days were trying, filing report after report of what we could learn about this new world. We got most of what we needed to work and to keep the wifi going from the big supermarket chain that had stayed going, and we’d put the physical copies in their stores, slowly building up a little territory we tried to keep in the loop when it came to serving, moving around, getting by. We weren’t like the big websites, the big circulars that kept up some semblance of dumb news and entertainment writing lists and fake-news puff pieces, but we got by.

The subway piece was big, me and three other people had been working on it after hearing the rumors of the trains somehow working and about the underground markets. After years of no subways, after the horrific things we’d heard about the first responders and the military and cops dying down there at the hands and mouths of things no one could describe? We jumped at the chance.

Screw it.

I left instructions and whatever I could put together into some kind of map and itinerary with my boss and partner, all the “active” station entrances that were somehow fixed I’d gotten from that poor girl. I threw some stuff into a backpack, I swept my hair back into a ponytail, found the most humdrum comfortable outfit I could, and took a deep breath. The cat in the hallway, one I shared with my across-the-hall neighbor, looked at me from his makeshift bed, and I knelt down to scratch him softly behind the ears. Cats probably were having the easiest time since the skies changed, more and more people kept them as pets because they seemed to be able to sense when things were OK.

The station was pretty close to my apartment, one of those fixed places, a fixed point. Funny thing was, I thought as I walked around the block in the early morning light, the remnants of Chelsea around me slowly coming to life, I’d never seen it before. How could I have not noticed it? I’d lived in this neighborhood forever.

I took a deep breath, stepping off the curb to cross the street towards it, expecting something to happen, a shimmer in the air or a breath of the space around me, like somehow it wasn’t totally real, a trick of light that the new light in the new air played, thanks to the broken sky above me. But no, it was there still, and the inches closing between me and it made more and more sense, clicking things in my mind that I’d buried.

Or you can pay a toll ta really Know, to be able to really ride.

Her words filled my head as I stood at the top of those stairs down. I could hear some noise down there, people talking, a low hum like a large group, maybe one of those underground platform town square markets, living forever under unnatural neon lights that never really went out. I took a step down onto one step, feeling, suddenly, the full weight of it all on me, a sudden rush to keep going. To keep going down those stairs, one step at a time and feel myself become warm and comfortable, enveloped in some kind of blanket of shift in culture, in world, fitting in where I didn’t know I needed to go, belonging somewhere I didn’t know I belonged.

Don’t.

I stopped, on that first step down, one foot raised to come down to the second.

Don’t.

A step back, unsure now. I needed to know, we’d been trying so hard to find out for sure how it all worked, I…I needed to know, needed to see it through to find a way.

No.

It was louder now, the voice was more like a stereo right by my ear that had suddenly jumped up in volume, like when a song on your MP3 player is at a higher volume naturally than the track before, old 90’s jams followed by slickly-produced modern tracks right off the digital mixing board. I stepped back again, back onto the sidewalk, staggering backwards, I tripped over something, falling back onto my ass and pack, it wasn’t right. This didn’t seem right, all of a sudden it didn’t seem right, the flight-or-fight mode fully going off in my brain, that oldest of the old instincts, one of the ones that recognized the dangerous things that were now all around us. I got up and brushed myself off, and I spit on the sidewalk, looking back at the stairs down to the subway, the sudden shock of having gotten away from something, like a weird Venus flytrap swaying in my vision making me gag and feel sick, and I realized I hadn’t eaten all day so far.

What was I doing? Why would I come here alone? I turned around and ran, ran back towards my place and threw the door closed, the sigil-scratched charms nailed on the inside rattling on their wires as I threw the windows closed and lay on the floor, starting to shake and cry, shake and cry and heave, slowly feeling my brain and body come back to me.

Weird Comfort

DOOM4-7

I have a stack of video games waiting to be played right now.

There’s the metaphorical stack, the ones waiting in the digital library of our PlayStation account, weird cool-looking indie games, some horror stuff, some puzzle-oriented stuff. Then there’s the physical stuff, in particular the copy of Horizon: Zero Dawn I dreamed about for ages ever since I saw the trailer for that game (never mind how terrible I know I’ll be at it). Oh, and don’t forget the replay of Firewatch that I keep wanting to do. Oh, and the semi-retro point-and-click The Last Door needs to get finished too.

Since I got back into playing video games I’ve been immersing myself into the wonders of all these different ways to tell stories, to It’s a good thing that my teaching schedule through the summer has given me a lot more free time, even with all the paper grading, errands, and writing I want to get done.

Yeah, about all that…

I was thinking recently, about why every time it seems like I want to unwind and play video games I go back to just replaying DOOM?

The reason I got back into playing video games is my fiancee. Chontel is far better at them, and has been playing them far longer than I have. I flirted with PC gaming in middle and high school, as well as briefly thought about Magic cards, tabletop RPGs, and figurine stuff, reading endlessly through ratty third-hand issues of PC GAMER and PC MASTER. I endlessly played on my Gameboy on family trips, annoying my mother to no end.

But what really captivated me, a young punk rock guy full of frustration and fascination with weird and dangerous stuff, stuff I saw on TV as being a Certified Real Threat? The PC games DOOM and DOOM 2, which I don’t remember how I got or how I convinced my parents to let me play our our home computer. After all, we had Star Wars games and SIM CITY, why would I need stuff like this? But somehow I did, somehow I got it, and somehow I got completely immersed. I replayed those games multiple times, I got the magic codes for immortality, for all the ammo, for all the ammo and magic keys, I was one hundred-percent immersed in that game. It was a comforting routine to get to play it during my allotted computer time, shooting and smashing demons and monsters on that Martian base. I went back a bit and played some Wolfenstein 3D, and I briefly played some Quake as well (both from id Software, the home of DOOM), but they weren’t the same. I also very briefly considered a foray into other PC gaming like Myst (don’t ask), but similarly, not what I liked or could handle. Then, when I discovered punk rock, video games to me just weren’t as cool for some reason, and then I moved to live with my grandparents, and they were entirely forgotten.

So, video games fell off the radar, apart from occasional forays into SIM CITY, my old Game Boy, and Internet-based flash games (you know, the kind hosted on websites where you click around a map/online world to earn points to buy stuff or just amuse yourself). I briefly tried to get into the first HALO game at a cousin’s house, but I told myself they weren’t for me really, I didn’t have the coordination to play, it was all Monster energy drinks and dudebros. I concerned myself with beer and girls and punk rock, with college and writing and horror movies and comic books instead (I know, I know).

When Chontel and I got together and she re-introduced me to the joy of playing games and to the plethora of SO MUCH DIFFERENT STUFF that’s out there, I was immediately sucked in. I’ve written about games a bunch of times since then, and my decision to try to get into shooting/FPS (First-Person Shooter) games that involved some level of coordination of course would draw me to a brand-new version of that old childhood favorite, DOOM.

We’ve played a bunch of games together, bought some together too, some of which I suggested because they seemed interesting to me (Virginia comes to mind). Any time I get a minute to myself though where I feel like playing some games, I throw DOOM on. I’ve even restarted all my saved campaigns from scratch in there a few times just to go back to the beginning and start over.

I relish the game, and in particular, I’ve come to realize I relish the way that the 2016 version of the game includes some throwbacks to the earlier version I immersed myself into as a kid. It’s not so much about the mechanics or the visuals really, but more the attitude and atmosphere that DOOM creates and embraces, a stripped-down and almost minimalist experience where you can work entirely at your own pace. Sure, that’s a thing that can be applied to a lot of other video games, but arguably DOOM did it first, using the stripped-of-identity-and-thus-agency nameless 1st-person view as a modern means of self-insertion.

On a more practical level though? I’m a big fan of repeat comfort entertainment, so of course finding a way to once again get that repeat comfort entertainment now in my new stage of video game life, with a direct thread back to one of my early favorites. I can’t really speak to the motives of anyone else who plays the game or who plays games in general, and overall the broad range of motives on why we play video games is a kind of fascinating topic (this on the motives behind soldiers and former soldiers that I read recently is interesting), but I know that I always think of my own motives as being less about winning, more about just detaching my brain for a while. I’m not thinking about work, I’m not obsessively worrying over things I have no control over, and I’m not letting things like current events make me uncontrollably mad and frustrated and sad. It’s a purposely-isolating thing where my complete concentration is required, enough to take me out of whatever I don’t want to be thinking about and into something else where I have (arguably) way more control. The nameless “Doomguy” space marine is less a hero than an outfit I can put on an play around for a while at a pace I control, which in the end is what comfort things are all about.

I make no bones about the fact that I’m very easily-distracted and entertained through stuff I already have and have already experienced, because to me there’s nothing wrong in re-indulging in repeat watchings when I can’t think of anything new to do. I’m a curmudgeonly old man and sometimes I’d really rather just rewatch something because I know that, deep inside my skull and odd semi-rotten soul, it helps my brain slow down. DOOM, basically, does the same thing.

Payments Due

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I think a lot about dumb decisions.

There’s the decisions to do things, the ones to not do anything. The ones that I still make as a grown adult, and the ones I made as a younger person. Who doesn’t look back and think about everything, especially when they hit their mid-thirties and wonder how they got here when they assumed life would have been so weirdly but undeterminably different somehow by now?

Not that life has been bad, by any stretch of the imagination. But between childhood and now I made some stupid decisions that forever altered the course of my life in negative ways, ways that can’t really be “fixed” per se in how I and other people were permanently affected by them. I impulsively broke off years-long friendships to get engaged and move to the Midwest with no work waiting for me and nowhere near the emotional maturity to help maintain a (in hindsight, obviously) straining-to-break relationship. I lost a lot during those years in the Rust belt and in the dumb scramble to get back to New York two years later, and the decisions that I made in that story affected not just me but also a bunch of other people. I can’t really say how they’ve been affected, because some won’t really expand on it, while others just won’t talk to me anymore.

I wonder sometimes what happened to them, and how they were affected by the things we said and did.

So…

There’s this adage about how fiction is really only two stories, both of which are arguably two sides of the same coin; A stranger comes to town, or a hero goes on a journey. Each of those two involve a choice, a conscious decision to go somewhere new, or do something when confronted with someone new, right? So, once that decision is made, the story moves forward, with characters acting, things happening as a result of those decisions and actions, and so on, and so on, and so on. It’s a spiral, a domino effect leading into other domino effects. Basic storytelling mechanics, really.

What can make excellent fiction stand out is when the flow of action-to-consequence-to-action factors in the fact that in real life, that the consequences don’t ever really make sense. It’s what makes the decisions that start these narratives dumb. We never think about what’s going on beyond one or two steps, the steps that only directly impact or affect us. Crime fiction is an excellent example of this, because so many of those stories are all about the unintended consequences of dumb decisions around either A) strangers or B) going somewhere strange.

I recently finished Silverfish, a graphic novel by crime/noir cartoonist David Lapham. Lapham is probably (at least in my circles) best known as the creator of STRAY BULLETS, a crime comic that captures tragic noir stories through the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Silverfish arguably is a spiritual cousin to STRAY BULLETS, disconnected through only the thinnest of storytelling twists really. Silverfish is a crime story where bored teenagers do what they do best..make a bad decision without thinking about the consequences outside of themselves. It boils over into a desperate night of standoffs, blood, and a crazy unfulfilled but scary glimpse into the lives of people intersecting the wrong way.

A group of teenagers decide to jokingly push the limits of “investigating” someone’s stepmom’s past by rooting through her things and trying to reach out to names in her address book. It’s petty, it’s completely not-thought through, and in doing so it unleashes mania and a lunatic with blood on his hands and (he thinks) a head full of brain-eating tiny fish). Lapham overall captures dumb decisions best, the unforeseen consequences of bad decisions being made by dumb people against bad people who react to them in ways that honestly, some of us just don’t expect. We don’t expect because we assume that since our dumb decisions are logical to us (they sure are at the time), the responses will be logical as well. We don’t expect someone to respond to a prank call with sociopathic murder, we don’t expect the step-parent we don’t like to secretly be hiding a fortune in stolen money and a decade-old murder weapon, & we don’t expect to end up running for our lives.

Claustrophobia and feeling trapped, be it in literal small space or just by circumstances (ones brought on by your or others’ shitty decisions) are a bit part of this comic, despite taking place in a couple of houses, a couple of other buildings, and even the boardwalk. It feels heavy at times, the weight of guilt from having done something wrong but not knowing just how wrong, which adds to the tension and ratchets it up intensely. That suffocating feeling we’re used to immediately popping up, a solid fuel for anxiety, is pervasive through Lapham’s work.

That lack of understanding of the wide range of possible responses we can get to a shitty dumb decision is how we get the conclusion without the resolution, the nourish atmosphere of a story’s end where no one comes out a winner. No one even really comes out of it having fully learned anything sometimes, because learning a lesson implies you were able to emerge from a situation unscathed and objective enough to understand not just what you did, but how it extended outward as a series of ripples that no one can possibly control. Silverfish ends “well” relatively speaking for a crime/noir story, but it’s still an ending mired in violence and hurt and death, and like most of Lapham’s work, we’ll never really get to see the long-term effects of it on relationships or individuals. STRAY BULLETS is rife with this as well. We just know that it’s never going to be good, because the awful things that happen because of those actions, because of those decisions, leave lasting scars, the remnants of someone paying for their actions in a way they never thought they’d have to.

I got bitter after I left the Midwest, and I didn’t stop making terrible decisions that affected others in my own story when I got back to New York. I don’t now, as much, and I’m more in control of my own narrative for the better (he writes in his apartment after work one day listening to heavy metal, with a loving partner on the couch across the room playing video games, a soft fat cat floating around somewhere), but still, fuck…the decisions in this story that led me here led to a lot of hanging ends I lost track of.

But I don’t think that matters to me, or ultimately to any good story. A brief view, a look through a window at someone scrambling desperately to deal with consequences? That’s a good story, it just depends on the moment that you chose to look through the window.

Heavy Homes

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(Lotta spoilers, so proceed with caution)

Death is dumb.

All death is dumb, it feels pointless and heartless, like somehow in some fashion life has gone out of its way to fuck you in the ass. Even when we expect it, when we know it’s coming, or what we logically and rationally know that it can’t be helped, that it might even be a good thing in the long run, it just feels like shit. My grandfather died a few years ago about this time of year and even though he lived a year over the time the doctors gave him, the last few months were torturous for him and I knew that when he finally did die, it was in a way an alleviation of the pain that I knew was racking his body along with the cancer and the constant discomfort of pissing himself and always having to lay in a hospice bed we had in the house.

It was still dumb and it still makes me sad and mad to think about it.

How people deal with death is another matter, in that coping varies so much we never really know how well people are feeling or if they can even figure out how to move on from something so shitty. The idea of coping, and the myriad of ways in which it can both help and harm someone, is the root of the video game What Remains of Edith Finch.

What Remains of Edith Finch (from developers Giant Sparrow) has been a game we’ve been anticipating for a while in this little household, so when it was available to preorder we jumped on it. A walking/exploring game (which is pretty popular these days for better or worse) where the titular character explores her weird old family house discovering the secrets of various family members, we see that the Finch house is rooted in sadness and denial and tragedy that has led varying members of the family to think they’re “cursed.” You’d think it’s true based on just how messed up the family appears, and by how many of them ended up meeting tragic ends. One poisons herself by accident as a child, while another witnesses his sister’s savage assault and murder, retreating to live in a bunker underneath the house unknown to other family members for years…for starters.

The title’s ultimately the biggest giveaway, because of the dual definitions of “remains”, in being a verb as well as a noun. As a noun, remains are a term for what’s left behind from a death. As a verb, it means to leave behind. Edith’s both left her remains somewhere (because she’s dead, as revealed at the end of the game) but also is looking at literally what she left behind in that house throughout the game via the extended flashback that is the gameplay.

Reliving the very history of your own lineage and seeing not horror, but depressing tragedy, in those stories as Edith does throughout the game gives you a real sense of why the family might think they’re cursed, and how it could feel tragic enough to actually influence people into putting a supernatural spin on it. The way that Edith actually experiences these moments throughout the book intersperses supernatural elements with reality, creating a difficult thing to interpret, with the implication of heavy subjective experiences. What really did happen? What really did cause it, and what does it mean that we don’t fully understand and get more clues and implications?

There’s a lot here in the game’s story that is left undiscovered and unsaid, employing a lot of what we’ve seen in other exploratory walking/narrative games to fill in background and story that we’re not allowed to fully know. What are the entirety of the secrets of the Finch house? What was the great-grandmother trying to tell young Edith the night they left? What’s the full story of the family’s need to identify themselves as “cursed,” which is a self-fulfilling prophecy but also a convenient excuse when it comes to not wanting to discuss uncomfortable family things like mental illness, unspoken feuds, and bottled-up feelings/aggression. While this can definitely be frustrating, at the same time it’s arguably more realistic in trying to mimic the fallibility of memory, of family memory, and of the limitations of someone’s personal patience, personal feelings, and (importantly, though another big dangling thread in this story) the limitations of being able to help someone who is suffering from mental health issues and you don’t understand why.

As I’ve mentioned before when talking about games like this, leaving some of that unspoken creates a definitely stronger line between short stories/novellas and these kinds of games and further emphasizing a game like Edith Finch’s primary role as an interactive story as opposed to a competition.

Sometimes, we don’t get over it. We just can’t. We’re scarred by death, scarred by our pasts, scarred by the burdens placed on us by other people that we’re unable to shake. We don’t always really acknowledge it, but sometimes, death wins in ways beyond just simply taking someone away. Sometimes it breaks, cracks, leaving nothing but remains. You can’t always put something back together from remains, no matter how hard you try. Edith Finch tried, and it didn’t work for her, thought it does make an interesting experience to play.

Sometimes unanswered questions are OK.

Check Out “Hit The Till” At MONDAYS ARE MURDER

I’m really excited that my short story “Hit The Till” is being featured as a part of Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder story series, available at their website.

You can read it here!

Akashic Books are a great publisher with a variety of awesome titles, including their NOIR short story  collection series like Haiti NoirTwin Cities Noir, Brooklyn Noir, and they’re the home of author Joe Meno, who wrote some of my favorite books, The Boy Detective Fails and Hairstyles Of The Damned.

Seriously, what else have you got going on on a Monday? Check out “Hit The Till” and other Mondays Are Murder stories, spread the word!

A Strange Wolf Nipping At My Heels

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So to celebrate getting a little time off, I wrote and drew a new page in what I consider my “weird workbook comic,” WORKING TITLE. Nothing really happens, it’s mostly for stretching weird strange joke and story ideas out, trying drawing/cartooning things I haven’t really done before. I’m gearing myself up to write and draw some more comics, which I haven’t done in a while, so I figured this was a good way to get back into the swing of it.

It’s weird, I always tell myself I’m not going to work on comics but I can’t help but get sucked back into it, even though I never really think they’re that good. Always learning, always trying new things, I guess, hard to shake off a way of telling stories when you actually do like doing it.

Anyway, besides this there’s some more work coming out in the upcoming weeks, so stay tuned.

Mothers

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So, I powered through Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel in a day. It was a slow work day, and I haven’t gone through a book like that in a while.

I didn’t know what to think going into it, mostly because despite the fact that I loved her previous memoir comic work Fun Home, that one’s a weird book that’s basically a critical and thematic literary analysis of not only her relationship with her father and his death, but also her own sexuality, lesbianism, and her father’s sexuality. This one was a lot of the same, but also different, in that the relationship Bechdel has/had with her mother (who died in 2013) wasn’t the entirely abstract thing that the one with her dad was.

A lot of the book deals with the history of psychoanalysis, the application of psychoanalysis and the great minds involved in it, as well as interweaving Virginia Woolf in there as well. But when you boil it down, the really important (or at least impactful to me, but more on that in a second)  elements are the ones where her intensely sloppy but passionate relationship with her mother is examined. It’s really clear that Bechdel, in trying to accurately depict her relationship with her mother, does the same thing that she did when describing what she had with her father;

Something complicated.

Still, and for reasons I haven’t fully gotten through and been able to articulate, the story of her and her mother didn’t have the same impact on me that the one with her father did. I feel, in a way, that the form in which she writes and draws about it is why, drawing as she does on a lot of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Her intertwining her own growth (or at least mental unwinding) during therapy felt, at times, kind of draining. While I understand that in a narrative sense, her own mental well-being was tied into the growing and reinforcing of a positive relationship (as much as it could be) with her mom, I personally couldn’t really find any connection to that. However, that’s also in synch with the fact that her mother is alive through the story of this book and that Bechdel actively struggles to make a connection to her mother in a conventional child-mother way, a conventional daughter-mother way. While not all of her issues (and there are a lot of issues, many of which I can’t really understand) dealt with through the book and through her therapy relate to her mother, a lot of them seem to orbit around her, at the very least.

This of course makes me immediately jump to the conclusion that because it’s a book about therapy (in a stripped-down oversimplification), I don’t like it because therapy is boring. After all, it’s just people talking to each other back and forth,* and on a comic book page. Why would anyone want to read that?

That doesn’t mean, like I said, that it’s a bad book, because there are amazing elements that are right up there with Fun Home, which I really adore. The ending of the book has the same impact that the first did, a concise moment capturing an adult realization against a childhood visual, which creates an effective stamp of an ending, something literature in general can struggle with. It’s hard to stick a landing.

What I do think though is, what does it say about me that the elements of a book dedicated to relationships and interaction which talk about the roots of how those relationships work is what I like the least? Part of me wants to admit some anti-snobbery brutalist attitude, but at the same time, I know that’s not entirely true. Part of me also wants to express it as some kind of denial thing, like I dislike the psychoanalysis because I need it or connect to it more than I care to. Again though, not something I think is actually true.

The older I’ve gotten, the less self-introspective I’ve gotten, feeling more and more self-aware of knowing who I am, what I am, and how my brain and psyche probably work. Yeah, part of it is because I’m a simple kind of person (read: boring), but part of it is also in growing more and more certain with my own sense of self. On the other hand, in the book, Bechdel isn’t sure of herself, of her own identity (constantly feeling a need to not only be there for other people but also to push herself to the limits in terms of self-introspection and self-harm, metaphorically through self-criticism).

I am aware though, that in the end this isn’t a book meant for me. I mean, it is, it’s out there, and it’s not like it’s labeled “NOT FOR COSTA FUCK THAT GUY” on the cover. However, I’m a heterosexual white male who has a set of alligator-luggage privilege for getting through life and for building my sense of self, nevermind a relationship with my family that’s drastically different with what Bechdel has/had with hers in her work. It’s inevitable that my own lens will be skewed when reading this work and when I strain to make a connection, because my brain, so used to automatically and easily finding connections to art, is floundering here, making me work for what few tenuous connections I can find.

Basically, in this book I see the shadow of who I was and who I could have been, rather than the kind of person I feel like am now. Now, at 33, I’m more confident in my self, in my role in the world, in my own power, and in my own voice, which makes me appreciate Bechdel’s work, but not connect with it. I connect with Fun Home because it’s about coming to terms with self, in the end, as opposed to Are You My Mother‘s battle between an evolving sense of self and how that strains the limits of a difficult relationship. It’s a relationship, and a book, that I’m going to come back to over and over, that I know, but it’ll probably be a slow-going process to fully be able to empathize with it, if I ever do. And I’m OK with that.

*)Cheap shot, I know.

Breaths

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Above is the desk, 2017.

Mostly paperwork, essays to read and grade, and my to-do list, but there’s usually project notebooks and whatever I’m reading or referencing. Actually, I think there’s a D&D handbook off-frame I was using as a reference for something Nightmare Party-related.

Oh, and of course the knife I keep around in the desk drawer for opening mail.

To get done;

  • THE SECRET PROJECT – Something I’ve been working on slowly. Involves working with other people. The script is haunting me, forever haunting me.
  • THE ACTUAL WORK – There’s a stack of essays to read and I’m working hard to stay on top of it all, better than previous semesters.
  • A FINAL SUBMISSION – The last of the batch of short stories and nonfiction essays I’ve been working on and shopping around, submitting since the end of last year.
  • CHAPTER 2 OF “PIONEERS” – I have…three pages of notes and haven’t even technically started yet. I should probably start.
  • THE THING ON THE THING – There’s a few blog posts to do, which I guess count as essays, with one in particular coming up next.

Alright, enough procrastinating.