Cosmic Horror vs. Urban Horror

Allegedly, Cosmic Horror and Urban Horror are different genres…however, as more and more authors genre-blend, genre-hop, and layer thematic motifs on top of each other, the lines have (thankfully) blurred.

They are more alike, my friends, than they are unalike.

Cosmic Horror

Howard Phillips Lovecraft is considered the godfather of Cosmic Horror the same way William Gibson is considered the godfather of Cyberpunk– they might not have invented it, but they sure as hell defined it.

Lovecraft’s main point of terror was that of smallness and unimportance.  In cosmic horror, an indifferent universe manifests itself in the form of aliens, supernatural foes, or other bizarro entities.  The tales recount the cruel indifference of space and time.  Nihilism begets mind-breaking terror.  The human brain can’t process our own unimportance, so we go mad.

Cthulhu isn’t an alien, Cthulhu is a metaphor for monstrous indifference and cosmic vastness.

Then again, monstrous indifference doesn’t need monstrous countenance.  The case of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese proves that.  So does ongoing indifference and complicity in a thousand areas of modern life.  In fact, for many people in the world, “indifference would be such a relief.” (Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom.)

Which brings us to the topic of…

Urban Horror

Urban Horror derives from Urban Gothic, which, of course, derives from general Gothicism/Victorian Gothic, etc.  We can trace the roots of this particular devil back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and, arguably, earlier.  The focus of these tales generally resides in dark flaws and sinister proclivities in human nature, usually with a supernatural bent.  Because of the genre’s usual examination of the darker threads of mankind’s cloth, the stories tend to be more personal and character-driven than the machinations of cosmic horror.

Urban Horror focuses its lens on mankind, not on the indifferent universe around us…or, well, maybe that’s not quite true.

In many Urban Horror stories, monstrous indifference is merely part of modern society.  A string of murders goes uninvestigated.  People go missing without anyone looking for them.  Often, agents of the law in such stories are either incompetent or on the take, just as likely to be working for the villain as against the villain.  In Urban Horror, widescale indifference is standard…and where indifference isn’t present, maliciousness replaces it.  In fact, the crushing indifference of cosmic horror is often just as present in its urban counterpart, but whereas indifference is a cause for terror in Lovecraftian cosmicism, it’s barely shrug-worthy in many Urban Horror tales.  Of course the universe doesn’t care–people barely care.

But, unlike in cosmic horror, the villain is almost always human, humanoid, or taking on the glamour/semblance of humanity.  The villains, you see, look just like us.  In many ways, they are us.

The Monster at the End of the Story

There are many commonalities between Cosmic and Urban Horror.  Crushing indifference, monstrous cruelty, and tragic disasters that go unnoticed.

Lovecraft has been dead some 80 years.  Frankenstein is nearly 200.

Times have changed, man.

Let’s look at the biggest difference I considered between these genres: the monster at the end of the story.  In Cosmic Horror, the monster manifests the cruel indifference of the cosmos.  In Urban Horror, the monster represents mankind’s darker natures, our perpetrated evils.  But perhaps even these beasts have more in common than we initially assume…

I’ve already written about the inhuman monsters grinding us away in their teeth, but I’ll go over it again briefly now.  There are vast monstrosities destroying people’s lives, and both the universe and the world-at-large are mostly indifferent to their deeds.  Most people could easily recall at least four of their names: War, Famine, Pestilence, Death.  But what about the hungry Lovecraftian god of Nationalism?  What about the festering, many-appendaged grotesquery of White Supremacy?  What about the crawling, fungal consciousness of Revenge, spreading its power airborne at the site of every recrimination?

Cthulhu is a metaphor, remember.  So is Dagon.

In Stephen King’s It, the monster slumbers for 27 years.  How long slumbers the ravening beast of Misogyny?  It doesn’t.

This is a story, in brief: a cult of killers ritualistically sacrifices victims to a squamous god of Nationalism.  Our protagonists find themselves drawn into the dangerous plot, twisting through a nightmare of localized madness.  The cult is routed.  The cult leader is the monster at the end of the story.  Our protagonists stop the cult leader.  The squamous god of Nationalism slumbers, but not for very long.  Our protagonists observe the night sky, understanding the smallness of their efforts against the vast shadows of mankind’s character.  An epilogue: two cultists escape, driving westward, vowing revenge against a system designed to oppress their beliefs.

Cthulhu, the Darkness of Human Nature

Something roars from an unseen sky and cataclysm rends the earth.  You hear screaming.  Rubble smolders, guttering black ash from outside your window.  An eruption deafens you, and some of the screams die in suddenly muted throats.  You scramble for an exit.  Desperate, staccato gunfire surrounds you.  An apocalypse rages through your town.  This happens, somewhere, almost every day.  The stars don’t notice.  Neither do most people.

Vincent: …you ever heard of Rwanda?
Max: Yes, I know Rwanda.
Vincent: Well, tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody’s killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye, Max?
Max: What?
Vincent: Did you join Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Whales, Greenpeace, something? No. I off one fat Angelino and you throw a hissy fit.
Max: Man, I don’t know any Rwandans.
Vincent: You don’t know the guy in the trunk, either.

Collateral (2004)

He attacked her with a knife at 2:30 AM, to kill a woman.  She screamed, cried out, and ran.  He followed, stabbing her two more times as she shrieked, “Oh my God, he stabbed me!  Help me!”  On the ground, then, he continued stabbing.  He used both a knife and a personal appendage, his existence a force of violence against her.  A man shouted, almost directionless, “Let that girl alone!”  Moseley fled the scene with $49.  Sophia Farrar found the raped and bloodied woman and held her until police and emergency workers arrived.  The exact time of death is unclear, but the woman died either in Farrar’s arms or in the back of the ambulance, unrevivable.  At least 17 people had heard the screams or seen the attack, only 4 or 5 responded.

The earth orbits the sun, waiting to be eaten.  One day, the sun will glower its molten countenance, spread its hungry jaws, and devour the whole world’s history.

The sun is not the monster at the end of the stories.

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Progress Blog: Random Writing Advice

Is it time for another progress blog?  You bet!  Today, I’m going to give everyone some unsolicited random writing advice!  What will we cover?  All the stupid basics!

Writing Advice is Silly

Rule #1 of writing advice: shrug it all off.  Every writer seems to have different and often contradictory ‘rules’ about writing.  People generally agree that every author should have a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style but beyond that, well, it’s just experience and opinion.  Some experience and opinion is valued more highly than others, of course.  For instance, most writers I’ve met (especially genre writers) have a copy of Stephen Kings advice/memoir book On Writing.  I’m personally a huge fan of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing.

But if we’re all being completely honest, if writing were a science, computers would already be doing it.

Thankfully, current AI only seems able to generate acclaim-worthy work with about 80% of the heavy lifting being done by humans.  So the work of the writer remains unmechanized for now.  Though anyone working in print should murder the hope of any sort of retirement, if they haven’t already.

Point being: this isn’t science.  It isn’t math.  And considering the ever-evolving state of slang, colloquialism, and grammar, particularly in the fast-paced American language, maybe we should be careful about marrying any specific rules set, especially early in the game.  But anyway,

Never Ban Words

Almost every writing-advice listicle I read includes a list of words to avoid.  Commonly, “don’t use adverbs” (see what I did there?)  Injunctions against filler words, filter words, and frilly words follow.  Passive voice?  Cut it.  Too many syllables?  Cut it.  Does it end in -ly?  You should be ashamed.

A sentence should be short, no?  Sure.  That makes sense.  But a sentence should also flow, describe, evoke, and build.  It should sound nice.  It should look nice, too.  There should be rhythm!

Arranging words is similar to arranging music.

Don’t limit yourself or box yourself in.  Step 1: write.  Sometimes you’ll use adverbs.  Sometimes there’s an aesthetic pleasure to multi-syllabic verbs and adjectives.  Even passive voice has its place.  There’s an old adage somewhere about moderation but who can ever remember it?

If you bind yourself too tightly with banned words and grammatical restrictions, you’ll shrink your toolbox.  You’ll narrow your knowledge.  Try, instead, to expand your toolbox.  Use fuckin’ everything.

But don’t bother showing anyone your first draft, because it’s probably awful.

Instead, after you’ve got it down, focus on

Editing, Editing, Editing…

Did you think writing was about writing?

Oh you poor, sweet summer child…

Writing is rewriting, as the saying goes.  Rewriting and rewriting and rewriting again, and then, once that’s done, revising and revising and revising.  Whether you’re self-published, indie-published, trad-published, or if you’re selling handbound chap books on the subway platform, it doesn’t matter.  If you’re selling your first draft, or even your second draft, you’re probably selling shit.

More than half of your first draft is garbage, I hate to say.  I usually start my second draft from scratch, from a pure-blank page, just to avoid using the same garbage prose of my first draft.  The first draft anyone besides yourself should see is your second draft.  More realistically, your second draft after a couple rounds of polish and revision.

That’s because you probably have a ton of stuff to fix.

A List of Questions, or: Fixing Your Terrible First Draft

Approach your first draft as you would approach a vile, pulsing heap of red-green biomatter squirming on your kitchen floor–that is: with revulsion, disgust, and a weapon.

If a small part of you doesn’t hate your first draft as soon as you’re done with it, I advise shelving it for a while and continuing to hone your craft by reading/writing more and more for a few months.  By the time 4-5 months have passed, you’ll have read/written enough more to be properly revolted by your earlier work.

Now it’s time to pick it up, examine it, and make with the stabbing.

I’ve prepared a list of questions for you to ask yourself as you stab.  It’s a list of questions I mutter to myself while editing and sometimes while I sleep.

  1. Are these words necessary?  (for instance, “he saw the biomass pulse, its veins throbbing with red-black fluid” likely doesn’t require “he saw,” and it can probably be rearranged to excise the redundant ‘pulse’ and ‘throb’ verbiage.)
  2. Does the sentence sound good?  (reading a manuscript aloud will help track down and gut all sorts of hiccups and arrhythmia in the prose.)
  3. What is the sentence doing?  (are we learning about the character, action, setting, plot, etc?  What do these words contribute to the work?  If they don’t contribute, kill them.  Think of editing like a sci-fi dystopian world where non-contributors are casually slaughtered.)
  4.  Is the meaning clear?  (an over-clutter of words, uncertain punctuation, or unclear noun/adjective/verb pairings can all confuse readers and destroy prose quality.)
  5. Is this shit boring?  (as Elmore Leonard put it, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”  As a director friend once put it: “The audience will forgive you almost anything, as long as you’re not boring.” — protip: if it was boring to write, it’ll be doubly boring to read.)
  6. Is this repetitive?  (Does every sentence begin the same way?  Have you used the same word too many times in a page, or, heaven forbid, in a paragraph?)
  7. Is there a volume issue?  (Does the lurid text border on purple?  Does the simplicity threaten austerity?  Are the words too much, too little?  This is the most subjective measurement, but very important.)
  8. Why?  (Admittedly, I mutter this question to myself all the time, usually as a hollow whisper, a mournful murmur.  “Why?” I ask, about everything, about everything all at once, from one horizon to the other.  It’s also an important question about writing, though.  There should be a ‘why’ behind just about every word, sentence, and paragraph on a page.)

I think that’s a fine list to start with–though the more one writes, the longer and more complex the list becomes.  I do believe that covers all the basics, however, and some of the intermediate steps.

Don’t Stop

Write several times a week.  Read at least a little bit every day.  Take classes when available, if affordable.  Show your second and third drafts to people and don’t shout down their criticisms (it’s very important, when asking for criticism, to listen to it.)  Probably truer than any other piece of advice, “practice makes perfect.”

Read great writers.  For quality of prose, I adore Cassandra Khaw, T. E. Grau, and Leni Zumas.  For tight pacing, humor, and pulp craft, Raymond Chandler and Charlie Huston.  Victor LaValle mastered the art of music and aesthetic long ago.  A thousand other authors await your eyes, if you go looking.

Read voraciously and write viciously.  Edit with unparalleled self-loathing.  Brainstorm with fervor and madness, outline with enthusiasm, and write like a toothless speed freak.  Review your work like an IRS auditor.  Study the craft as if there’ll be a test on it any day now and you’ll be killed if you fail it.

That’s my advice.  To hell with banned words and meditation.  To hell with a thousand articles condemning adverbs and POV-filters and purple prose.  To hell with anything that constrains your toolbox.  Those tools are there for a reason, we just have to learn when and how to use them.

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Video Games for Writers

Hello, imaginary friends, and welcome to my process blog.  Today, I’m going to write, believe it or not, about some good video games for writers to play.  Besides reading, obviously, video games are my primary source of entertainment.  This isn’t to speak ill of television or film, but to speak well of the VG media.  Video games are involving, challenging, entertaining, increasingly mature, and more daring than ever.  The better ones involve fully realized characters, involved (if sometimes needlessly complicated) plots, and an amazing sense of pace.  The best of them can even teach us something about the creative process–structure, story, and keeping the attention of the generally inattentive.

(As usual, I will throw in a writing prompt at the end.)

Without further ado, I will present my admittedly biased list of games that writers should play.

Alan Wake

Alan Wake makes the list in part because the main character is a writer, and because writing (and the creative process in general) is a key element of the plot.  Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything.

Alan Wake also makes the list because it shows how media can be flexible, experimental, and still engaging and fun.  Alan Wake is a video game presented as a TV-esque episodic, the plot of which centers around a novel (and the creative process that produced said novel).  The game contains elements of all three media…and it doesn’t stop there!  It also plays with mixing and melding different genres. Mystery, horror, thriller, and action genres are all twined together throughout the gameplay and story.  The game is a wonderful example of story over structure.  It doesn’t care to adhere to any specific genre, any specific medium, any specific tropes or expectations–it mixes and matches with reckless abandon, and it’s a game that’s all the stronger for it.

A writer can take a lot away from that.  Alan Wake may primarily be an action/horror game, but it uses motifs and tropes from action/comedies, mystery thrillers, even buddy-cop movies.  It doesn’t force its story (or gameplay) into a media- or genre-specific toolbox, it just keeps opening more toolboxes.  You can do the same thing!  Write a Lovecraftian action-western!  If you run into a dead-end, open the pulp-noir toolbox and fish something out.  Another dead-end?  Open the buddy-cop toolbox.

Alan Wake also makes another important point: you can only pull all of this off if it’s still fun, if it’s still internally-consistent, and if you can keep your audience’s attention.  It does all of that, by the way.  It’s fun as hell.  I recommend playing it not only for its willingness to open all the toolboxes, but also because it’s a roaring good time.

The Stanley Parable

Sometimes, your characters will surprise you.  So it goes in The Stanley Parable, a fun little playable-essay on video game design, narrative structure, and the wild unpredictability of characters.

In The Stanley Parable, you play the role of Stanley.  Your time in the game is narrated by an exacting, well, narrator.  The narrator is trying to tell a story.  Unfortunately, you’re just as likely to work against the story as you are to work with it.  Since you’re the player, after all, you get to make the choices.

I think this is a remarkable game for several reasons.  First: it’s funny as hell.  Second: it’s a real hoot to play through.  Third: it captures, very well, the struggle a narrator can have with their characters.

As writers, we develop characters to be people.  We want them to be complex, to have depth and consciousness, to have contradictions and flaws.  We want them to be as human as possible.  And if we’ve done our job well, they will occasionally surprise us.  I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve written up an outline only to realize, halfway through, that one (or more) characters would never ever follow through with it.  They go ahead and do what makes sense for them and I’m left to scrap the outline and start again.  It’s very frustrating.

A very similar relationship evolves between Stanley and The Narrator.  As Stanley, you are the character.  Yes, you could do everything the narrator tells you to do.  It’s quite easy that way, actually.  But, ultimately, it feels sparse, boring, uninvolved.  You go through the motions without real meaning, rolling your eyes half the way, and the ending becomes a kind of mockery.

I won’t give away more.  It’s a playable and replayable game and I hope you give it a spin.

The lesson is this: well-designed characters will surprise you.  Don’t try to hammer them back into shape.  The more you try to force characters to fit your outline, the less human they will seem.  If you deprive your characters of agency, they become boring.  Readers want human characters.  Characters who make their own decisions (or seem to, at least).  Realistic characters with agency and contradictions and a sense of self!  So don’t fight them too much, or the whole thing will break down…

Spec Ops: The Line

In an action game, you expect to kill people.  You expect firefights and explosions and huge set pieces.  Fierce enemies, intense action sequences, and high-octane plot lines.  What you don’t expect?  Moral consequence.  Judgment.  Guilt.  Intellectual and emotional confusion.

Spec Ops: The Line is an action game that hates action games.  It’s a game that changed the way I thought about war.  And it’s a done-and-done-again adaptation of Heart of Darkness.

My experience with Spec Ops: The Line is lengthy and complicated.  It shocked me into doing research on veterans’ affairs, moral injury, PTSD, and the alarming ways in which we, as a nation, discard our returning soldiers.  It sounds shallow and awful and trite, but this game drove me to interview veterans, to read essays and forum posts, and to pore through articles and books.

It started when I shot a civilian in the middle of a heated, three-way firefight.  She was running through a maze of alleys and Walker (the POV character the player controls) had been harried from all sides by assailants.  I turned a corner, saw a figure charging at me, and reacted.  Then I watched as a woman screamed in pain, dropped to the ground, and died while clutching the wound in her stomach.  Before I had time to come to terms with what I’d done, someone else was already shooting at me.  I had to keep moving.

Things got worse from there.

But I won’t make this article about my The Line experience.  That could be an article in and of itself.  The point I want to make is this: this game changed my emotional response to the world around me.  I’d read Heart of Darkness and seen Apocalypse Now, but it was Spec Ops: The Line that dug its claws into my heart and tore it up.

Are you worried that you’re writing a story that’s been done before?  Don’t be.  Heart of Darkness has been adapted into at least two different films.  Its plot has been mirrored and paralleled in countless novels and novella.  There are callbacks to Heart of Darkness littered all through our media.  I’ve experienced plenty of them.  But this one hit me like a Mack truck.  So if you’re working on a project, and you’re worried it’s been done before…stop worrying.  You never know.  Yours might just be the one that changes someone’s life.

Metro 2033/Metro Last Light

Setting.  Setting is very important.  We’ll have a process blog entry on that point, soon enough.  But setting is also very difficult in storied sci-fi/fantasy settings–it has to be delivered without too much exposition.  Readers don’t want history lessons.  They don’t want long explanations.  They want more story.

The games (based on the Metro 2033 series of novels, which I own but have not read yet) do an incredible job with setting.  At one point in Last Light, an old, gray-haired man is doing shadow-puppets for a group of children.  As the show went on, the children stopped recognizing the animals.  Many of them were extinct.  The old man became exasperated, trying to explain beauty to people who had never seen it.  Eventually, he gives up and tells them to go home and come back the next day.

Most of the setting and world-detail of these games is provided by such events.  A slew of graffiti on a subway wall, a group of children chasing rats with sharp sticks.  A corpse found in the sewer with a hole in its head, an old gun clutched in its rotting hands.  A family who tries to kill you…and when you kill them, first, you find a chopped up corpse in their fridge.

You don’t really need to know the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of these things.  The ‘what’ is enough.  Nobody moans a history at you, nobody drunkenly recounts the long tale of the apocalypse.  Nobody needs to.  The tale is there to be seen.  And if there are strange creatures, unholy mutants, and desperate ghosts in the subway tunnels?  Of course there are.  The world has made it clear that this is not mankind’s kingdom any more.

Play this game because it does the best job of expressing setting and history of any game I’ve ever played.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange is one of the most heart-wrenching, emotional games I have ever played, and I have played a lot of games.

The main character of Life is Strange gets a special power: she can reverse time.  But while most games outfit you with an ability to go tangle with great forces and perform amazing feats, Life is Strange just puts you in the shoes of a teenage girl trying to navigate life.  The reverse-time ability doesn’t let you fight monsters, it just lets you make different decisions.  When you see a police officer harassing a young woman, what do you do?  (1) take a photo as evidence?, (2) intervene directly?, (3) ignore it?, (4) do any of the above, but then backtrack and investigate what really happened?  Each choice leads to a very different set of consequences, and reverse-time powers or not, you’ll have to choose one of them sooner or later.

There’s a lot to learn and unpack from Life is Strange.  There’s the fashion in which the player can rough-draft and brainstorm their decisions.  Or the way it uses magic realism and supernatural sci-fi to tell a deeply intimate story.  It does an excellent job of making small things seem huge and of creating a real, living world that these things happen in.  Life is Strange is, in my biased opinion, the most necessary game on this list.

But the most powerful lessons it has to offer are about character and consequence.  The entire game is character driven, a mess of people with tangled motivations and relationships, each of them complex and flawed and hurting and a little bit beautiful.  It’s a great lesson in giving depth and humanity to even the seemingly background characters.

It’s a greater lesson in the nature and gravity of consequence.  Super powered or not, Maxine Caulfield is still just a semi-normal person trying to navigate a semi-normal life.  And that’s what gives the game its emotional power.  Despite the seemingly magical abilities, we can’t foresee or prevent our actions from having consequence, sometimes to extreme effect.  We can’t be heroes, we can only do our best.  So it goes with a character in a story: their actions should have consequence.  Great consequence, unforeseen consequence, heartbreaking or affirming consequence.  Their actions, however small, make ripples in the world.

If you want to know more, play the game.

Writing Prompt

Write a story outline framed entirely as character choices.  Try a flow chart!  Open with a situation (“Zumi runs down a hallway until she reaches an intersection,” for instance) and then branch through the outline by following the protagonist’s choices.  (If she turns left, what happens?  If she turns right?  When the thing chasing her catches up, what if she fights?  What if she runs?  Etc.)  What happens to the story/outline when protagonist choice is the most important factor?

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Why Dark Fiction?

Hello, imaginary public, and welcome to today’s process blog entry: “Why Dark Fiction?”

Some time ago, on the internet, while discussing writing with a bunch of fellow writers (whom I’ll likely never meet in person), I was posed a question by someone who had actually read some of my work.  At first, I was stunned, because who reads my work?  But, then, I decided to answer the question.  The question, in essence, asked why I so rarely included ‘redemptive’ endings in my stories.

I assumed (s)he was asking about the ending of No Grave, because it seemed like a safe assumption to make.  My short stories don’t allow for a wide variety of endings, to be honest.  A story entitled “A Black House Rots North of Town” does not seem to promise a happy ending.

But it’s a fair question.  It taps into a kind of debate that I’ve seen people get involved with, before.  Especially in genre fiction–fantasy and sci-fi and such–where part of the allure is escapism: what ending do we provide an audience?  Are authors obligated to leave the audience at-ease?  Are we obligated to try to improve their real-life suffering by providing fictional easement?

My answer is unsurprisingly non-committal.  Mostly, my answer is an awkward, uncomfortable face and a series of tense, shrug-like gestures.  A few sounds akin to words like “eh?” and “maybe?” and “kinda?” and “iunno?”  Luckily, I mostly see this debate on the internet, where I’m able to scroll past without comment.  When asked about it on a forum, I provided a neat, clean paragraph that hardly covered my actual opinion.

But today, I’m throwing in my 2-cents.  And a writing prompt at the end.

Stop Reading Now If You Don’t Want No Grave Spoilers.

Seriously.  I’m not going to get too specific, but you’ll know the approximate ending if you keep reading.

Assuming you care.

Which, if you don’t, that’s okay, too.

Alright: last chance to stop reading.

Seriously, you can scroll down to the writing prompt and skip all this.

Still here?

Great.

So, several people I’ve spoken to regarding No Grave have some issues with the ending.  It’s a bit dreary.  The ‘good guys’ (to the extent any of them can be called ‘good’) sort of lose.  Or, at least, they certainly don’t ‘win.’  Whatever that means.  And the main character makes a choice that is deeply selfish in the face of great evil.  (For the record, I would probably make the same choice).  Perhaps worse: once the selfish choice is made, she’s not particularly effective at carrying it out.  It all seems pretty unpleasant.

Well, sure, but that’s the point.

I find it therapeutic actually.  Because, in real life, we lose all the time.  Or we make choices that don’t pan out.  Or we try to save people and they die anyway.  Et cetera.  Mostly, we’re very small and weak and human.  We fail probably more often than we succeed.

And this is the important part: that’s okay.

Tristan makes a terrible mistake and tries to salvage it and it doesn’t work.  Nicole commits to a losing proposition after essentially being pressured into it and she gets scared and doesn’t do it.  Cyrus pursues his own interests selfishly until he sees how far people will go for each other and then those people get fucked because of him.  Even though he tries his hardest to turn over a new leaf and save them, it’s just too-little-too-late.

So what happens, then?  Everyone packs it in, tail between their legs, goes home, and eats a bullet.  No, wait, that’s not what happens at all.  They take their moment, they mourn, they cry about it, they feel guilt and pain and suffering and then they pick themselves up and get ready to try again.  They’re getting licked out there and they huddle up, count off, and prepare to hit the field.  Once more into the breach and all that.

As far as I’m concerned, their failure is a message of hope.

Let me explain.

Escapism vs. Hope

‘Escapism’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘complete fantasy.’  I don’t need to tell a story where the good guys win.  I don’t think the ‘good guys win’ formula is terribly hopeful.  Optimistic, sure, but not hopeful.  Hope isn’t hard to do when you’re winning.  Hope is hard to do when you’re losing.  And that’s the narrative I’m building.  Losing isn’t the end of a thing and neither is failure.  Loss and failure are just things that happen.  People make bad decisions, selfish decisions, wrong decisions.  People fuck up.  Then they try again.  Most of us will probably die with works unfinished and we hope others pick up where we left off.  The world spends a few months raining shit down on us and we hope we do better next time.  Hope isn’t in a victory, it’s in the attempt.

I have no desire to sell the ‘good guys win’ narrative, or any narrative of false optimism.  Or any narrative that feels false to me at all.  Sure, sometimes the good guys will win, I’ve definitely written and outlined stories where that’s what happens–because that’s what makes sense.  But in the main, that’s not the product I peddle.  My type of escapism doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, or a ‘redemptive’ ending as it was put to me.  But I don’t think people need those.  I don’t think they’re particularly helpful.  I don’t think they’re necessarily useful in easing real-life suffering or imbuing an audience with a sense of hope or wellness.  Instead, I aim to say: “hey, so, things suck right now, shit happens, whatever, but you shouldn’t give up.  Pick yourself up, brush it off, and try again.  Hold out for next time.  And the time after that.  And the time after that.”

Or, perhaps, in this trying era, Maya Angelou put it best: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”

There’s a common saying that things are always darkest before the dawn–so maybe my stories aren’t about the dawn.  Maybe my stories are about the darkness getting darker and the characters having the strength to hope that the dawn breaks soon.  To have the strength to use gas-station bics and old, beaten matchbooks to make their own dawn because they don’t want to wait anymore.

And sometimes the darkness takes one of them, and all the others go out and gather sticks and build a pyre and set it ablaze and that inferno is its own dawn, for a while.

Good guys don’t always win, but they always keep trying.

That’s the narrative I’m selling.

Writing Prompt!

If you feel like doing some writing today, try this one out: write at least one (1) page where the story begins with the character failing.  Bonus points if the character fails because of their own stupid mistakes.  After the failure is complete, what happens next?

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Ghost Towns, Economics, and Horror

Hey there fellow humans *nudge-nudge, wink-wink* — as I’m no longer writing weekly-ish fiction to post on the blog, I’m transitioning into writing about process, theory, etc., as I work on non-blog projects.  Today I’m writing about ghost towns, economics, and horror, as the post title suggests.  Also, there will be a writing prompt at the end, for anyone who wants one.

Witness: The Ghost Towns All Around Us

The United States is littered with gutted towns and ex-cities and places of complete, desolate abandonment.  This relates intimately with, surprise surprise, economic opportunity and geographical marketshares.  That is to say: when Detroit was rich with middle-class jobs, Detroit was a metropolis, and when those jobs fell apart and vanished, well…what is Detroit famous for, today?

A personal anecdote: once upon a mid-day dreary, I found myself on the outskirts of what looked to be a vast stretch of empty and derelict buildings.  I urged the man in the driver’s seat of the car to pull into the emptiness so I could take photos of the buildings in decline.  As we drove down cracked, uneven streets and ogled block after block of ruined architecture, we slowly came to realize that the place was not, in fact, abandoned.  In the center of the far-reaching desolation, we found an actual population.  A white-haired man, shirtless, smoked a cigar in a lawn chair.  A gas station had its hours painted in white on its front door; it was open three days a week.  There was something that looked like a convenience store, where a handful of graying residents spent money primarily on canned goods.  We discovered, just on the outskirts of this population center, a building with four brick walls, no floor, no ceiling, and no doors or windows.  A bog had settled across its bottom.  The fellow who came with me discovered that it was full of fire ants.  He’d worn sandles that day.  We fled after this discovery, leaving this haunted place in our rearview mirror.

The vacated properties suggested that thousands of people had once lived there.  Now, it seemed, the population hovered somewhere in the low triple-digits at best.

Or, in 1986, in an introduction to Studs Terkel’s Hard Times:

Smokeless chimneys. No orange flashes in the sky. Empty parking lots. Not a Chevy or a Ford to be seen, not even for those with 20-20 vision. An occasional abandoned jalopy, yes, evoking another image of the thirties. Ours was the only moving vehicle for miles around. A stray dog; no humans. And it wasn’t that cold a day. In fact, the weather was unseasonably mild, accentuating the landscape’s bleakness.

Written about South Chicago, of course.

And places like these?  They’re everywhere.  I think the one I mentioned above was on the road between Pittsburgh, PA and Cincinnati, OH.  But there were similar places en route to Louisville, KY, too.  And I’ve seen smaller examples clustered around the Amtrak line between NYC and Rochester, NY.  Everywhere.

Desolation and Cosmic Horror

Cosmic horror is making horror literature great again (AHEM).  According to many literary critics and essayists, we are currently in the midst of a “horror renaissance,” and the horror genre is once again “good.”  I roll my eyes every time I read this allegation, but I’ll save that reaction for a different blog entry.  The real point is that the people who write book reviews and vote on awards and etc. seem to think that the horror being written today is better than the horror that was written 20 years ago.  Why?

Well, cosmic horror is having a pretty big comeback.  The list of well-respected and even well-known cosmic horror authors seems to be growing yearly, and hints of cosmic horror eddy around the edges of plenty of new urban fantasy and dark fiction, as well.  The fear of the vast unknowable and, even moreso, of forces acting on us beyond our control of comprehension, seems to be scoring big points right now.

Gee, I wonder if these things are related.

Here we have towns and cities gutted and demolished and sundered by vast conceptual forces their denizens can’t control and almost nobody seems to completely understand.  Would I relate globalization to Cthluhu?  Would I relate the complex worldwide politico-economic system to Azathoth?  Well, yes, of course I would.  Huge, unstoppable forces that grind away at entire populations without seeming to care about or even notice them?  Duh.

The anxiety of being destroyed by forces we can’t stop is, well, highly prevalent in today’s world.  Whether it’s government, economics, war, poverty, terrorism–these vast, powerful concepts seem, from ground level, to be tearing us apart as if we were meat fed to a grinder.  And how to combat them?  Our mouths gape for answers, but we are silent.  And all around us, miles of rusted sheet metal and slouching brick buildings shuttered by particle board.

What monsters lurk in the bones of our dead cities?

And So Your Editor Says “Use It”; Or: Fictionalizing Anxiety

Show somebody emptiness, and they will find a way to fill it.  The night sky is mostly void, but we apply it a meaning that fits us.  To some, awe; to others, anxiety.  The same goes for abandoned factories, gutted warehouses, long tracts of empty suburbs, and eternally-unfinished housing developments.

Horror authors have long excelled at creating environments that, themselves, feel hostile.  Whether it’s Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” or literally anything Laird Barron has ever written, hostile settings and landscapes cloaked in dread have been key facets of horror writing since forever.  In olden tymes, when people read stories by candlelight and shifting shadows danced on their peripheries, authors tended to take it a bit too far (looking at you, Poe), but the tradition has always been there.  And as cosmic horror becomes more popular and more acclaimed, it seems it always will be.  At least for a while.  If we survive that long.

Which brings me to the “process” part of today’s blog entry, and a “fun” writing prompt for anyone who cares to partake in it.

In my Oceanrest writings, soon to be expanded, I’ve created a fictional city in Maine that has suffered much the same fate as dozens of other towns and cities in the United States.  Once, it was important; now, it wheezes on an iron lung.  Boom town, bust.  And while I’m not trying to write much cosmic horror in the vein of Lovecraft or Ligotti or Aickman or any other huge name in the genre, I enjoy the concept that my stories take place in a similar setting.  That is: the setting is one of cosmic dread and unknowable forces, but people still have to pay the damned rent and that seems more important.  And so I try to use words to express these inexpressible anxieties.  In Oceanrest, economic depression is a monster eating the town from the outskirts inward.  Its teeth are trees and its tongue is the ground itself breaking the streets into gravel.  Squatters live between its fangs like plaque bacteria.  To the wealthier people in city center, this is unnoticeable.  To the poor people on the fringes, this is terrifying…but there are more pressing concerns.  Like where to beg the next meal.

Of course, in this fictional world, there are also more literal eldritch deities squirming under the skin of reality, but that’s neither here nor there for the most part.  They are a far less immediate issue than the very real poverty that is eroding the town of Oceanrest.

That’s that for this “process blog”-slash-“horror theory” entry.

Enjoy a writing prompt: write a page (at least) in which the setting, itself, is the monster and/or primary antagonist.  Perhaps begin with Studs Terkel’s line, “Ours was the only moving vehicle for miles around.”

 

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Happy Podcast Day!

I learned that today, September 30th, is National Podcast Day.  That’s a thing, now.  This is the world we live in.

Also, tomorrow is October 1st.  We’re heading into October Country.

In celebration of these twin events, I’m going to make a little list for those in search of dreadful podcasts.  I would say these are my favorite horror podcasts, but, it turns out, I only have 1 podcast in my entire library that *isn’t* a horror podcast…so these are my top 5 favorite podcasts period.

If you’re an avid podcast listener, you will not find any of these entries surprising.  If you aren’t, however, maybe some of these will suck you in.  Let’s get started.

The NoSleep Podcast.

This somewhat came out of left-field for me.  When I first heard of the podcast, originating from stories posted in reddit’s NoSleep section, I kind of rolled my eyes at the idea.  I thought to myself: “I’ve read a bunch of those stories and most of them aren’t very good.”  But then, one day, I boredly decided to give it a shot.  As it turns out, the NoSleep Podcast is pretty damned good.  Talented narrators give well-acted voice to some of the better NoSleep stories ever posted; and the stories aren’t actually limited purely to reddit’s NoSleep section.  Of course, not every story is brilliant, but there are some real gems in there, and the skill of the voice-over artists lend credence and quality even to the weaker tales.  NoSleep also introduced me to several other podcasts, most notably Pseudopod.

Award-winning, good quality, and run by one of the damned friendliest group of human beings on earth…the NoSleep Podcast is worth a mention on any list.

Lore.

Myth, mythology, urban legends, folk tales…every horror story we tell is our attempt at explaining what seems, to us, to be inexplicable.  Our monsters are secret motifs, totems for the real evil lurking in the world around us and, frighteningly moreso, within us.  Lore is a podcast dedicated to exploring the roots of our scary tales.  I highly recommend giving it a listen.  I’m only seven episodes in, myself, but I’ve been having a great time.  If horror theory is of interest to you, or if you just want to hear some terrifying true stories, I highly recommend giving Lore a listen.

Welcome to Night Vale.

What?  I’m a fan of one of the most popular Weird podcasts in history?  SHOCKING.  Who would’ve thought?!?

Welcome to Night Vale, of course, isn’t really dreadful or horrific.  It’s, at times, creepy.  And sad.  And uplifting.  But, mostly, it’s bloody funny and extremely weird.  Well-written and well-performed, there’s a damned good reason this podcast is as popular as it is.  I’d be surprised if anyone reading this hadn’t yet heard it, but if that somehow happens to be the case…change that.  Change that, now.

The Black Tapes Podcast.

Fun stuff.  I blazed through the first season at light speed and have nearly caught up through the second.  I ache, waiting for more episodes.  I’m putting off listening to the last 3 of them, making them last the way a junkie might: scraping off a line only when needed, hoping to find a powdery surprise at the bottom of a pocket, some forgotten baggie lost in the laundry bin.  Like the junkie, I hope against all hope: I know there’s no hidden stash secreted away, but toss my room over searching for it, anyway.

The Black Tapes follows the lives and work of several interesting characters as they argue, fight, and compromise; as they deceive each other and themselves; as they help each other.  A paranormal mystery?  A story of faith and belief?  The application of scientific method to a series of unrelated incidents?  These questions clash and conflate throughout each episode, and the darkness eddying around the edges is both real and surreal, both concrete and…maybe not-so-concrete…

Straight up: get on this shit.

Alice Isn’t Dead.

Written by part of the same creative team behind Welcome to Night ValeAlice Isn’t Dead is a brilliant ride through bizarre America, a paranormative road trip through the vast emptiness of our country…and that emptiness has a lot to hide.

Alice Isn’t Dead was, by far, my favorite podcast experience ever.  Ever.  And, for a third time, for emphasis: ever.

Our narrator leads us on a journey through love and fear, through desolation and determination, through the big empty and the things living within it.  Small towns.  Bizarre events.  A lurking horror wheezing rank breath through a mouth full of twisted teeth.  Thrilling, touching, and affecting.  Once, while walking along Central Park South, someone ran into me when I froze mid-stride while listening.  I stuttered an apology and didn’t hear the man’s response over the more-important sound of my headphones.

If you listen to one podcast ever in your entire life, I would recommend this one.

Obviously, if you listen to multiple podcasts, I would recommend all the other ones, too.

That’s how lists work.

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Paris; November 13th, 2015.

It’s times like these that I really question the value of the continuation of the human species.

I have just heard about the attacks on Paris.  I was blissfully ignorant until half an hour ago, when I stepped away from my keyboard after hours of writing and revising to check out the news, my e-mail, social media, et cetera–and, of course, I didn’t get past the news.  The human sickness rears its head, the most diseased organs of it blatantly showing in our open wounds.  My mouth hung open in…what?  Surprise?  Disbelief? Despair?  Anger?  All of them. Nausea, above all else.  The first wave of it hit halfway through the first article I read.  My dinner, eaten in comfort in my writing nest, started to kick against the back of my throat.

It keeps happening. Again and again and again.

Or maybe just “still.”

Maybe this is the new normal.

Maybe, in one way or another, it always has been.

First, I want to…I don’t know what.  Offer my prayers to the vast cosmos?  Send my deepest condolences through Twitter?  Cry into the drink I just poured myself to numb the raging things inside my body?  Find every Parisian in the world and hold them, falling to our knees sobbing against each other’s shoulders?  What, if anything, can I do?  Donate my next pathetic royalty check to…where?  Amnesty International?  This is just too big for me.  There’s no verb I have at my disposal that would seem strong enough.  Our powerlessness in the face of this tragedy unites us.  We cannot resurrect the dead.  We cannot rewind time.  We cannot go back and fix the errors of history.  We can only mourn and cry and drink and wake up and try again, tomorrow.

Tomorrow, oh, shit, tomorrow…

I fear for tomorrow. I have visions already brewing in my head.  Tomorrow.

I think of the mosque bombings after the Charlie Hedbo shooting.  Makeshift bombs and grenades crashed through mosque windows, thrown by who-knows-who in an attempt to accomplish…something.  But what?  And why? Directionless anger?  Lust for revenge?  These things are inside of us, I know.  They’re inside of me, too.  But I’ve never thrown a bomb into someone else’s church service.

Tomorrow.  Tomorrow may be a very bad time to be a Muslim. Has anyone even claimed responsibility for the attacks, yet?  I don’t believe so.  Do we even know the political or religious beliefs of the attackers?  I haven’t heard.  But what do you think the assumption will be?  What do you think everyone is thinking, right now?  When people start looking for someone to blame, where do you think the fingers will point?

So, Muslim brothers and sisters, stay inside tomorrow.  Lock your doors and board up your windows.  The huns are coming.  Get ready for the talking heads across the so-called “civilized world” to start giving people permission to attack you.  You know.   You’ve seen it, before.  Get ready to hear the question “does Islam promote violence?” for the millionth time this decade.  Get ready to have the actions of under 1% of your total population make a political sideshow out of your day-to-day life.  This is the new normal.

Tomorrow.  Tomorrow, an unmanned drone will drop bombs on people eating lunch.  It’s estimated that the bombs are far more likely to kill civilians than militant/terrorist threats.  It’s estimated that as many as 90% of the casualties to date, of drone strikes, have been civilians. A woman sweeping the floor is dead seconds later.  The floor is gone.  Nothing is left.  This is the new normal.

Tomorrow we will get the final death toll.  It will be difficult to imagine and harder to stomach.  You will look at the number of the dead and realize it’s larger than your entire social circle.  You will stare at the number and realize that it’s you and everyone you love…your whole family and all of your friends.  The funeral business is booming.  So many graves.  How do we always end up digging so many graves?  This is the new normal.

And, in the end, what are we going to do?

Drop more bombs?  Send in an army?

Who digs the grave for the woman in Afghanistan?

Who digs the graves for all the soldiers?

Still.  Again.  Still.

Where does it end? Drop the bombs, breed the terrorists. They don’t grow out of the cracked desert like weeds, you know.  They crawl out of rubbled streets and poverty.  They search for meaning in a world that refuses to give it to them.  They build up resentment and anger and hatred, not unlike some of our homegrown “mentally ill” mass shooters, until something comes along they can hang onto.  They put on the uniform.  They join the club.  Someone puts a gun in their hands and tells them they can change the world.

Picture, if you dare, a few thousand James Holmeses walking around, hoping to change the world.

Tomorrow looks pretty grim.

There’ll be more murder, I guarantee that.  In Paris, in Afghanistan, in Colorado–there’ll be plenty more murder and it’ll keep on coming for a very long time.  The death toll will shift and change and the headlines will look different depending on who dies and where, but don’t worry, the funeral business will keep booming. Bombs will drop.  People will die.  Young men with old Kalashnikovs will pour lead into crowds of people…and bombs will drop, again.

I’m sick to my stomach. Mankind is a wretched animal.  We’re all just rabid pit dogs, gnashing our teeth, hungry to tear each other apart. Or, worse, we’re the victims, the losing dog, the one at the end of the fight with its jugular torn open.  We’re just people struggling to live our lives, hoping that things will be better tomorrow and never knowing when a bomb will fall out of the sky or a man will open fire on a theatre or someone will throw a makeshift explosive through the window of our temple.  We’re both.  We’re the winning dog and the losing dog.  Even our victories are defeats.  Nobody proved that like Bush.  “Mission Accomplished,“ yeah, right.

And here we are, again, digging graves.  Again.

Still.

And now what?

*****

There is no easy answer. There is no answer, at all, in my opinion.  Sometimes force needs to be met with force.  I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that we are at war–I may be a far-left liberal, but I’m not delusional–but what can come out of said war except for more war?  How many people will we bury before it’s all over?  How many civilian casualties will go uncounted in dusty countries?

How do you stop young men from killing people?

My drink is empty. The above question haunts my mind. Across the globe, from the littlest (and 294th) mass shooting in the United States to the largest terrorist attack in years, young men are killing people and we don’t know how to stop it. They act alone, as in Aurora, or in large tribes, as with ISIL.  We can’t bomb them all.  We certainly shouldn’t end up bombing over 700 civilians just to get 20 of them.

My heart is so ragged from thinking about the world.  My heart is a broken flag hanging from an abandoned ship.

I think often of Heart of Darkness.  A “novella” technically, but also fierce philosophical journalism.  It’s an acute observation of our nature.  Joseph Conrad might’ve written fiction, but every damned word was true.

I remember the scene on the river when all the ships starting firing cannonade into the treeline. “Shelling the bush,” I believe it was called.  It was blind-firing, utter and rampant destruction wrought of paranoia and policy. The corresponding scene in Apocalypse Now, I think, was the carpet-bombing of the Vietnamese forest.  The corresponding news article in Bush-era America was the “targeted” bombings in Iraq.  And, now, the drones–90% of the dead are innocent, remember.  90%.  We’re just shelling the goddamned bush.

Still.

And wasn’t Osama Bin Laden our own Kurtz?  Worked for us for long enough until, one day, he didn’t, anymore.  Until, one day, he became the teeth at our throat.  And when we hunted him down, finally…what did we expect?  A superhuman creature, demonic and virile, waiting to eat our soldiers?  No.  An old man, half-dead, with dry, cracked lips, on the run, locked away, barely able to rasp out his last words.  “The horror” indeed.

And still, here we are.

Still.

We’ve been fighting this war since I was a child and we’ll still be fighting it when I’m dead.  I know that much, now.  I’ve come to terms with it.  The new normal.  “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”

I can write no more.

I have just watched updates on the Paris situation online and I can write no more.  I can barely string two words together.  The face of mankind is hideous to me, tonight.  I want neither to serve it nor even to look upon it further.

Beautiful Paris, to gaze upon such ugliness…

I am sorry.  I am so sorry.  I hope there is a beautiful humankind waiting for you, tonight, a beautiful humankind riding along in ambulances and working double-shifts in hospitals and working the sirens on firetrucks.  I hope there is a beautiful humankind there to hold you when the dust settles.  I hope there is a beautiful humankind waiting to help you recover, tomorrow.  I hope it lifts you up in its arms and lets you cry on its shoulder, that it listens to your stories, that it looks through old photographs of your loved ones and is there to cradle you through tears of mourning and remembrance.

I hope this, for you.

And tomorrow, I hope young men prove me wrong.

But I’m not sure they will. I don’t have the faith left in me, tonight, to be sure they will.

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On Horror and Meaning

A lot of people write about horror as something divided into the two categories of dread and terror, or terror and horror.  I often find myself thinking these terms don’t really tell the whole story, don’t really capture the breadth of horror.  Dread, here, refers to anxiety, psychological tension, or the sensation that something is going to happen. Horror, by comparison, refers to that which is gut-punch fear, the witnessing of the graphic crime, the description of the act itself, the grueling nature of the pain.  I believe that there is a lot more to horror as a genre than these two things, and that the make-up of horror relies on a wider palette than just the use of these tools.  I think, when talking about horror, it’s equally important to talk about meaning, about symbolism, context, and character development.

I am hard to shock, and generally not a fan of the grotesque.  It isn’t overly difficult to describe a troubling scene in detail, having done it myself a few times.  The right word selection, the right phrasing, the timing, these are things of instinct and structure, of research and implementation.  Often, scenes of the grotesque rely too much on mere-shock, something becoming quite pedestrian, these days.  Using the proper word might make the audience uncomfortable with a scene, and indeed discomfort is often important to the genre, but what is the meaning of any of it?  This is an issue I’ve had with several horror authors (though authors are still so far beyond the Hollywood system of torture-porn I believe they should give themselves a pat on the back just for existing): the gruesome descriptions don’t have the support of meaning, appealing instead to the gut-level, the instinctual.  I either don’t care about the characters, or don’t see the link between the characters and the horrors they experience.

What do I mean by that?  Let’s deal with some examples from multiple media.  In The Shining, for instance, we get to witness many layers of madness and struggle as they unravel.  Jackie Boy has some issues he can’t work through, alcoholism for one, slowly crumbling to them over time, losing it bit by bit until the very last frayed lash of his psyche finally snaps and the rest of him plunges into darkness.  I barely notice the haunted hotel as anything but metaphor, in his section of the story, an extended underpinning for his unresolved conflicts and uncontrollable vices.  Maybe even an excuse.  Wonderful.  After letting me watch his collapse, Mr. King could’ve written virtually any horrific thing in the world, and I would’ve read it and believed it. It had been earned, deserved.  The character and plot had been built up to the point where it established meaning, consequence, symbolism.  Or take, for another example, the Silent Hill games, informed through the character Alessa, which have monsters and settings of tremendous literal and symbolic meaning.  An abuser becomes a monster, a walking wasteland, spreading foulness everywhere it goes.  Besides being a terrifying visual, the backstory of it, the symbolic meaning as it relates to the character, is fantastic.  By pairing the gruesome with something cerebral, something emotional, it becomes not only a monster, but a statement.  It informs us.  This is what was done to me.  Wonderful.  Well-earned.  It has meaning to the characters involved.

In a way, (whilst the mind is on video games) Spec Ops: The Line skirts the boundaries of horror. It never goes full-horror, being in its medium a third-person shooter, but it brings the same kind of meaning.  You hunt a monster.  You do what has to be done to survive, to find him.  You do these things even when they are monstrous. When finally confronted with the face of the monster you sought, you realize you aren’t any better, that you’ve stared too long into the abyss.  It’s like looking in a mirror.  Heart of Darkness.  Nietzsche.  Context, character development, meaning. Without seeing the beginning of the character, half-honorable and driven, searching for this monster of a man, we can’t possibly appreciate the slow decline, the degeneration, the grotesqueries. It only means something if there’s a foundation of character, story, and symbolism.

That’s what is often  missing from the dialogue of terror versus dread, from essays on horror.  Themes, motifs, development, build, crescendo.  Symbolism!  Let me be discomforted by the distorted and warped things birthed from damaged psyches, let me be thrilled by the growing despair, the long fall, the unraveling madness.  Once in a while, instead of having the protagonist-as-victim, have the protagonist-as-perpetrator, let me feel morally uncomfortable.

Seeing, or reading about, the top of someone’s skull erupting in a burst of squelching brain matter and red mist has become fairly blasé.  Barbed wire wrapped around your arms and legs, pulled tighter with each tick of the clock unless you cave in to the antagonist’s demands…overdone.  Shock has out-shocked itself.  Shock has, in effect, taken the joy out of shock.  Shock value has no value.  We need meaning.  We need these things to be earned by the story.  If you start splattering people on page 5 and rocket off from there, we may end up wondering what the point is, or if there even is one.  We may grow rapidly emotionally detached from the book, film, or game.  We may shrug it off and move on.  Nobody wants that.

If you build it up, use meaning, use symbolism, take the character down bit by bit, slowly…when the shit finally hits the fan, the readers will be along for any ride you take them on.  Show us what or who the character loves, show us pre-existing conflict, show us some struggle, give us context for the content.  Then take it all apart.  Off-the-cuff example: Gail has a gambling problem, struggles with it, fights about it with her husband off and on, might’ve lost them some money some time ago, but she’s recovered, did gamblers anon, settled down, got a new place, got a dog, they’re rebuilding their lives, but she fucks up, has one of those awful days, one of those whiskey days, takes off for a weekend, racks up debt, runs away…except you can’t really run away, can you?  Soon, their dog is hanging by its entrails by the tree at the end of their street, its eyes in a mason jar on their front porch.  What about her parents?  Husband?  What happens next?  Give someone a life before you take it away.  Earn gore.  Earn terror.  Instill meaning.  The audience will be gut-punched by the dead dog (people love dogs), but now it has more narrative force behind it.  As a symbol of her recovery, for instance, or an omen of what’s to come.  You kill the same dog on page one, well, then it’s just a dead dog, isn’t it?  Even if you go into detail about the dog’s history immediately afterwards, it’s too late, you’ve already wasted the image.  I just opened the book, saw a dead dog, and reacted.  The reaction is spent.  Taking five more pages to tell me how great the dog was and how important the dog was to its owners…well, it’s already dead, so I guess that sucks?  Start the book with a heated argument, husband asking where she’s been, her saying it’s not his business, husband storms off, dog keeps her company with its soft, glassy eyes (the kind of eyes that love her even when she knows she’s fucked up)…all of a sudden I already want that dog to live.  Find the symbol, find the metaphor, find the character development, use those things as tools to build tension and plot, to earn terror and gore.

Or, go the monster route: if you’re just throwing monsters are a protagonist, why?  Is it Lovecraftian, where the monsters represent the vastness of the cosmos, the objective irrelevance of mankind?  Are they metaphorical for the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) psychological issues, physical deformities, insecurities, phobias?  Are they mythological?  What are the important areas of the myth, to you?  What is your interpretation?  Do they exist to compel your characters to act a certain way, or to live in a certain setting (any monster-based apocalypse, for instance)?  What relationship do the monsters have to the story?  What relationship do they have to the characters?  How do they affect the setting?  What are they doing?  What rules govern them?  If you’re throwing monsters into the mix, you should have a very intimate understanding of why.  If you’re throwing monsters into the mix because they are cool, that is an acceptable reason, but you need to pay attention to what that means for the narrative, the characters, and the setting.  Don’t waste your monsters.  Make them mean something.  Otherwise they’re just prop pieces with claws.

You can’t batter a character who isn’t fleshed out. There’s no meat to tear off, no blood to spill.  Hollow characters crinkle like the dried husks of dead roaches, and when they blow away, nobody cares.  Graphic violence takes time and energy to read.  Nobody wants to read the paragraph-long description of the wounds a boring character sustains.  Nobody wants to read 5 pages of gore every 15 pages of plot and character development. It’s tedious.  There, I said it.  I finally just came out and said it: gore is tedious.  Turn the abuser into a walking wasteland, doing to the world what he did to his victim’s psyche.  Curse your characters.  Curse your monsters.  Make the world a nightmare.  But don’t just do that.  Focus on earning it.  Focus on making it mean something, either to your characters personally, or the reader symbolically.  Focus on context, on setting, on character development.  Let dread and horror be the goods you buy with the earnings you’ve made on meaning and development.  Use symbolism.  Create depth.  Make your horror about something.

Just one man’s opinion, but clearly a passionate one.

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Message from 2139

Full Piece Here.

Body Text:

Hey, guys, I was just grabbing my mail yesterday when I found this thing.  It was inside a beaten-up envelope smudged with ashes and what looked to be the blood of the innocent.  It had a variety of stamps on it, and the address read ‘WHEREVER THE PEOPLE ARE,’ which further confused me because I’m not sure how the mailperson decided my apartment was such a place.  I opened it up and what I read astounded me.  I want to clarify that this is 100% totally not a hoax, flim-flam, trick, prank, or deception.  This is also DEFINITELY not a farce or a satire on the tragic relationship our culture has with corporate power structures and neo-conservatism.  This is, again, a totally legit document that was delivered to my door for reasons unknown to me.

It reads:

“Greetings, 2014.  My name is Columbus Jesus Webster, and as I think this memo into existence it is the year 2139, I sit in my comfortable cubicle under the watchful gaze of my supervisor.  I am writing you to discuss the way of life we have, now, so that you will have a greater understanding of how your actions might affect the future.

I understand that in the year 2014, you still have the vestigial power aggregate known as ‘The United States Government.’  I am pleased to inform you that such a power structure no longer exists, though we still have a House of Representatives and a Corporate Senate.  The House represents the various interest groups within a company (those of us interested in longer lunch breaks, for instance, as 20 minutes is a very short time), and the Senate comprised of representatives chosen by the Executives after a rigorous application process.  Since the establishment of this system in 2086, we have solved the national healthcare issues that currently plague you.  The corporation is now responsible for 0% of a citizen’s healthcare!  All health-related costs must come directly from the employee’s pocket, except when forbidden by our religion.  Those medical services and goods forbidden by our religion are illegal to purchase, but they are legal to sell and, indeed, our leaders accrue profits from their sales.  I hope that sounds as attractive to you as it does to me.

The official religion of our country (now known as The United Companies of Conglomo) is one you are only vaguely familiar with, now, called ‘Conservatism.’  The scripture, a series of ancient bumper stickers and corporate pamphlets pasted together over the pages of a book from some inferior religion (I believe at some point the book was called ‘The Bible,’ though most of it is now unreadable—save for certain parts of ‘Leviticus’), is primarily concerned with issues you have not yet resolved.  For instance, I understand that you are currently embroiled in debate over birth control.  The corporate senate has resolved that issue — women are disallowed from deciding whether or not to have a child.  An Executive, analogous both to your “employers” and also your “priests,” will inform a woman when she is and is not going to have sex or become pregnant.  When it is time for her to be pregnant, she will continue working through the maternity process (as no leave is given), before finally retiring from her job to be a full-time care-unit for the child.  This usually occurs between the ages of 30-35.  The concept of female autonomy has been dealt with, as well: no female is autonomous.  As males are a superior sex, they are given preference for all jobs, corporate positions, and religious roles.  This also means that our divorce rate has declined spectacularly from your era, as it is nearly impossible for women to hold jobs, and therefore they are entirely dependent on their Household Heads (“husbands” they were called in your time.)

As a jobholder, my life is very easy.  As long as I do not get sick, I make a steady, almost uninterrupted wage.  I live and work in the same building, in the arcology known as Google Town.  My rent, utilities, groceries, insurance, maintenance fees, holo-bills, neural-net access, and various et cetera are all drawn automatically out of my paycheck, which rarely ever varies.  With what money I have left over, I often go to the Google-Plex or stop by the bookstore Barnes & Google to make a purchase.  It is the only bookstore in the entire arcology, as holo-reading, auto-reading, and never-reading have replaced most people’s libraries.  I occasionally visit one of the many Google-owned pubs in the area.  My personal favorite is Any Google in a Storm, where Google employees receive a 20% discount, and every customer is a Google employee.  The staff is also comprised only of Google employees.

After dealing with the issue of women’s rights (they have none, of course), the next people we dealt with were those of the “lesbian gay bisexual whatever” persuasion.  It was decided that, generally, these people were workplace disruptions and anti-Conservative, and that no employer would have need of them.  The more Orthodox corporations (those who adhere most closely to our scriptures and listen most attentively to our singular news station), herded their homosexual populations out into the streets, where the unmaintained buildings have fallen into disrepair and destruction (much like your current “Detroit,” a city I’ve read about in my history texts.  I’ve heard that the people who lived there destroyed it, despite the hard work of a virtuous political system.)  Google is less orthodox in their observance of our religion, and so there are a number of homosexual people who live in the lower levels of the arcology.  They are kept away from the general population in case they decide to force their agenda on us.  I sometimes feel bad for the homosexuals, as many of the apartments on the lower floors are no larger than a closet, but I know it’s for the best for everybody that they stay there.

By the year 2014, you are probably aware that racism hasn’t existed for half a century, and any remnants are really more related to class.  The correlation between race and class isn’t so much a byproduct of hundreds of years of abuse and dehumanization as it is, say, pure coincidence.  Things have continued in much the same way since your time!  While a decent percentage of our working and ruling class populations are ethnic/urban/etc, most of the minority population lives out on the streets with the homosexuals and the unemployed non-ethnic proles, scavenging the desolate landscape beyond the walls of our arcologies for food and goods.  This isn’t to be conflated with racism, of course, because the ethnic/urban members of our working and ruling classes, as the exceptions to the rule, prove that anyone can achieve greatness (though it is admittedly more likely if you’ve inherited it through generations of substantial wealth).  I’m sure the Executives don’t even see color, anymore.  Though, to be honest, the Executives don’t see much of anyone.  They only receive reports on advancements and output and make decisions based upon those.  So, I suppose what I meant, is that the Supervisors don’t see color, anymore, since they’re the people watching everyone constantly.  They judge us all based on our merit.  No one here is a racist.

As you can gather, we now live in a perfect world, where our corporate benefactors have resolved many of the social and economic issues you now struggle with.  Of course, the unions had to go immediately (but they were already well on their way), and we’ve turned Saturday into a work-day to make sure that profit margins remain acceptable, but these are minor costs to pay for such a comfortable lifestyle.  On my day off (Sunday, when we celebrate the rhetoric of our founding fathers, like Bill O’Reilly), I sometimes peer out of my bullet-proof window and look down on the proles meandering the desolate unemployed streets, burning fires in hollowed-out garbage cans and living in half-collapsed warehouses, and think about how grateful I am to live in this wonderful era.

Okay, my supervisor has just left.  The real reason I am writing this is so you will STOP THIS MADNESS.  My paychecks are very irregular, with random deductions made for ‘improper neural-net usage’ and ‘profit-risk analysis,’ and often I take pay cuts for reasons I never learn about, only to have my wages return to normal weeks later.  The employees are powerless.  We can do nothing to stop these things from happening.  We have no real representation.  The House elections are all bought and rigged!

This world is not what it should be.  I can feel the walls crushing in against my body.  I smell oppression everywhere.  I smell it in the stale scent of air conditioning.  I smell it on the Super 200 suit my supervisor wears.  I smell it in the artificial parks they’ve constructed, since going outside is too dangerous for employed citizens to do.  It’s awful, and it’s all around me, the reek of it, the constant rancid stench.

The proles are restless.  They have begun carrying signs, scavenged poster board mounted to long sticks and metal poles, and even with the security squads patrolling the street I get the sense that things are not safe.  It seems that despite their most rigorous efforts in their stop-and-frisk policies, the police can’t maintain control!  I suspect it is only a matter of time before bloodshed is incipient, and I will not stand for it!  Or, rather, I hope you won’t stand for it.  You see, I really need this job, and I can’t afford to lose it, so I won’t be doing anything.  I’m scared.  I’m hoping that there are some of you in the year 2014 who are less scared than I am.

Luckily, an underground fringe organization called ‘Scientists’ has informed me that not only is global climate change real, but that The United Companies of Conglomo’s decisions have opened a rift back through time.  I only hope that I can get this memo through the temporal rift back to an era when people can still change things.

Please, do whatever you can to stop this nightmarish place from existing!

GOPspeed.”

Super-weird letter, right?  Well, anyway, I’ve got this really important yoga thing tonight, so…I think I’m just going to throw it out.  I just wanted to show people in case, I don’t know, someone else felt like doing something?  Whatever.  #livingforthepresent.

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Response Essay: 5 Things Women Can Do To Be More Attractive to Men

Full Article Here.

Body Text:

It is really hard to “get” a man or whatever, apparently, and that’s exactly why there are thousands of articles in dozens of magazines and blogs that deal with this exact issue, because obviously “getting” a man is the major priority in women’s lives and it needs to be addressed from every imaginable angle by every writer who has a keyboard. Otherwise, a woman might “have” to be single for an extended period of time, and that is a terrifying, unimaginable concept that nobody should ever “settle” for.
Okay, that entire paragraph above was a lie. I told it because I am a man, and men love to pretend like we have some kind of magical aura that makes us super special and definitely worthy of being chased after by every woman in the world, and we lie to ourselves and to women and to everyone else who happens to be listening in hopes that you will all pretend we’re magical, too. We are the unicorns of the gender kingdom, sure enough. Sorry, that was also sarcastic. I can’t control it. It just happens when I am furious to the point of physical illness with the bullshit that the mouths of my fellow men spew out like so much jager vomit. It happens other times, too, such as “always,” but for the purposes of this essay, we’ll focus on that first example.

As a man, I am here to continue to convey to women what men are looking for from you, because that’s something you should care about. I will attempt to be more honest than a lot of other men, because I assume you want to date someone who isn’t shitty—a detail that many of these articles and op-ed pieces leave out. Why? Probably because shitty men run literally everything.

Here are things you (women!) can do to be more attractive to people who don’t actually suck.

1. Be Yourself.

I know that this goes against what all the magazines are trying to tell you, and also bloggers, and also mainstream media, and also your mother who keeps telling you it’s time to settle down—but it turns out that if you aren’t being yourself, you will end up crawling out of your miserable bed one morning and looking in the mirror and realizing that you’ve altered the very core of your personality, of your entire life, for *someone else* because you thought they wouldn’t like the real you. I want you to know…that’s insane. That is absolutely insane. Don’t do that. No one you will ever meet in your entire life should be worth more to you than you are. Case closed. Case fucking closed!

Anyone who isn’t shitty will meet you, the real you, and because they aren’t shitty, they will like you (the real you), and you will hopefully like them (because you will have common ground/similar ethics/similar desires/similar—oh, I guess ‘similarities’ is a good way to summarize this), and nobody even has to pretend to be a caricature or a fictionalized neutered version of themselves to accomplish it, because you will have genuine connections. AMAZING CONCEPT.

There is also the possibility that you don’t want to meet a guy, or a gal, or whatever. THAT IS ALSO OKAY! It will happen, or it won’t, or maybe you’ll invent a world-changing technology or fantastic art that rocks culture to its very core, and as long as you’re doing the thing you actually want to do, that’s awesome. Go you! People will appreciate that.

2. Stop Reading These Articles. Even This One. Right Now! Close the Window!

Seriously. This is poisonous. Even the one you’re reading right now, in its own special way, is poison. These things are written to brainwash you into believing you aren’t good enough, or aren’t cool enough, or just simply AREN’T ENOUGH. This is a lie, just like all those other lies men like to tell you, and have somehow convinced other women to tell you as well (somehow = generations of brainwashing, marginalization, and abuse, JSYK).

There is nothing these articles can offer you except self-doubt and insecurity. I bet even reading the first note of this article got you to think “am I not being myself, enough?”—I would bet on that. Real money. Not a lot of it. I have $4 in my pocket, right now. But that’s not the point.

The point is that buying a certain brand of make-up, acting more submissive (ew), learning to cook (because men can’t cook for themselves, obvi), doing your hair a certain way, and any other et cetera of shallow nonsense will not actually help you to find someone who isn’t shitty. I’m not sure if the same rules apply to finding someone who *IS* shitty, so if you’re looking for shitty people, maybe those are helpful dating tips, but this isn’t about finding shitty people. This is about finding someone who likes you because you are the person you are, and that’s that.

3. Be Subversive.

As a woman, it will be simple for you to be subversive. All you have to do is exist on your own terms without allowing yourself to be defined by other people, especially men. Congratulations, you are now subverting social norms, and people who aren’t shitty are probably okay with that because social norms are, generally, pretty shitty.

Now, because the instructions are so simple, some people out there (probably men who are reading this article for kicks) might think that this is easy. It is not. It is not easy because everywhere you look almost every second of every day, you will be bombarded with media messages about how you should look and/or dress, who you should idolize, and how you should behave. Men on the street will also gladly provide their input and opinions, often without you even having to ask! Because of this, leading a life in which you define yourself can be challenging, and at times extremely strenuous. Someone who is not shitty will understand and be supportive in these matters. If you’re a male reading this right now, and you are not supportive in these matters, you’re probably shitty.

<3

4. Do Whatever You Want With Your Style!

Do you love make-up? Do you hate it? It doesn’t matter! You can do whatever you want because it’s your fucking face! I KNOW! IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE! The same thing goes for clothing, such as dresses, jeans, leather jackets, business suits, gowns, skirts, shorts, skorts, or jorts! You can wear any clothing you want! Someone who is not shitty will not judge you for it! The people judging you are probably shitty, and you would end up hating them anyway. They are not worth pursuing. They will probably treat you as if they have a breadth of wisdom that they can impart on you, because you are the mental equivalent of an unlearned child and know nothing of how to comport yourself around civilized members of society. That’s shitty. They’re shitty.

Do not take fashion advice from someone you did not ask for advice from. If you ask someone for advice, and they provide you with advice (because you asked), you can feel free to accept or deny that advice as you desire. And then you can go ahead and do whatever you want, anyway. If someone really cares that much about how you’re dressed or what your make-up looks like, they are probably shallow and easily put off. I’d bet they argue a lot. Are these people really worth the effort? (Survey says: probs not.)

5. Don’t Let Someone Else Control Your Life.

This is very similar to point 1, but more specific. So there you are, being yourself, not letting the world drag you down with its incessant clawing at your personal values and appearance, pursuing the things you want to do, and et cetera…and suddenly you find someone who seems to be not shitty! You start dating this apparently not shitty person and all of a sudden he wants you to stop being friends with Someguy or hang out less with Somegirl or don’t go to this rally in DC because IDON’TKNOW. You’ve addressed these issues through intelligent, calm conversation and this guy is not very compromising and…

And then it hits you!—This guy is actually shitty! WHAT? I DID NOT SEE THAT COMING.

I will restate the major underlying point encapsulated in Step One—there is no one in your life who should be more important to you than yourself. Or, put another way, “Bro, he’s not worth it.” Or, put a third way, “kick that shit to the curb.”

When someone else exerts control over your life in ways that make you uncomfortable, don’t put up with it! By not putting up with other people’s bullshit, you strengthen your resolve and willpower, and who doesn’t want stronger resolve and willpower? Nobody. Plus, by claiming control over your own life, you’ll be better suited to guide it (and yourself) towards the things (and people) you most want to do.

Best of all, it also means you’ll be more apt to…

6. Stand Up For Yourself.

The ultimate turn on for non-shitty people everywhere! Not only are you subverting cultural norms simply by being yourself and not allowing other people to alter or change that person, you’re showing your willingness and capability to fight to keep that person your own! THAT IS EXTREMELY SEXY (to non-shitty people)! Always remember that you are a force to be reckoned with, and that you have an equal share in a relationship dynamic that your boy/girl/whatever-friend has. You are not owned, you are not theirs, you do not need to back down because surrender is not what compromise is about. Subservience is way last century, and non-shitty people who are around today are probably not looking for it. Confidence, fearlessness, and self-esteem are the things you’ll need in the 21st century! Welcome to the future!

Now, I can’t guarantee that following these incredibly difficult steps will mean your *next* relationship will be your last one, but I can guarantee that you will meet less shitty people if you follow through with them. I know this is asking a lot from you, and that most of the items on this list are extraordinarily challenging to accomplish, but as a man who is into women (and only a little bit shitty, I promise), I can say with a certain degree of intelligence on the matter that these things are worth doing in pursuit of people who don’t suck. Plus, there is a fair chance you might actually end up as a happier person. Who would’ve thought?

As an aside, I would like to say that pursuing non-shitty people and people who don’t suck may not necessarily yield immediate returns. Even following this carefully curated list, there is a large range of men between the categories of “not shitty” and “actually awesome.” But don’t fear! In your tireless pursuit of finding the perfect mate, these tactics will take you far, and will result in never having to “settle” for being alone.

(That was sarcasm, again. Not sorry.)

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