On Marginalia

Since life circumstances dictate otherwise, I can’t do a Halloween story this year, but in lieu of that, I’m going to provide you with a review of a game that came out this week, Marginalia by Connor Sherlock and Cameron Kunzelman.

There will be extensive spoilers for the game, which you should purchase and play beforehand if you want a totally “fresh experience.”  Got that?  Okay.

Marginalia is a horror game, or rather more accurately a “creepy” game or a “spooky” game, as by the end of the story it’s not quite clear if what’s happened (or what is still happening) is horrific in the precise sense we normally understand that term.

The narrative, such as it is, is delivered in Dear Esther-like voiceovers from the person into whose shoes you appear to have stepped.  You find out that the narrator’s boyfriend, Eric, has disappeared.  Eric seems to have been a historian, or perhaps an art historian; the narrator references his papers, which chart a particular fascination with late medieval and Renaissance art (especially as it was related to the occultist trends of that era) in parallel with the history of a region known as Kestlebrook.

This is where you are.  Kestlebrook.  Horror games very often operate through claustrophobia but Marginalia boasts a rather expansive Unity-made open world that, nota bene, made my laptop chug quite a few times in its attempts to render the numerous trees and vast mountainsides upon which you find yourself.

“The porter drew a map for me on the back of a brochure. In smudged pencil he showed me where to turn from the main road onto a dirt road and then where to leave the road entirely. I left the streetlights behind me and traveled into the dark.”

This narration is, to an extent, a little disingenuous.  You’ve left civilization behind, like Eric before you, but here in the wilderness you are struck by the sudden appearance of something unnatural — no, not in the horrific sense, but literally, manmade: a streetlight, a light post, a lamp.

It stands before you glowing red.  Is this an intentional quotation of Narnia?  Perhaps.

Finding the lamps rewards you with context and exposition delivered by the narrator.   Finding one means you can peer into the near distance and, more than likely, locate the warm glow of another.  The game inverts the normal claustrophobia of horror with this dynamic.

A world stretches out around you, but the lamp is a place to go, something to do.  You cling to these extrusions from the landscape — never mind that it becomes increasingly unclear why they are here, why there are so many, why they are all lit — because they are familiar.  They are not the wilderness.  Here at the margins of civilization they promise you won’t get lost, they are a sign that your path has a purpose and an end: someone was here before you, someone made a path for you.

You wander from point to point, triggering voiceover clips that inform you of the narrator’s history and through which he informs you that this deserted valley — devoid of human life, devoid of animal life — is historically the site of anomalous occurrences and sad accidents.

If you look carefully you will find other lights: low purple-blue torches which trigger different voiceover clips.  These purple lights are harder to see in the darkness, lower to the ground, and harder to follow; I’m not sure if I’ve found them all.  I don’t know if doing so impacts what happens later.

The procession of lights evokes, to me, certain aspects of the Fatal Frame series: wandering an empty space littered with the forgotten votives of an abandoned ritual.  The lamps morph into lanterns strung among the trees.  Festivity, or something like it.

But the lights disappear, and your landmarks — the things that draw you on and on — become rocks.  Obelisks.  Standing stones.   Primitive, and more insistently nonhuman, less comforting.

Some of them are carved with runes, which glow red.

Suddenly most of them are carved with — not simply runes — but lines, glowing red lines that visibly run from one outcropping to another.  Yet soon the lines come unmoored from the rocks, are freestanding beams of glowing red that sprout fibrously around you, flashing in arcs over your head.

The sound becomes frantic, the narrator irate, he calls this stuff machinery – built by whom, I wonder, and is it technology or art, utilitarian or aesthetic, are these ruins or are they perfectly preserved or newly built, and I remember the narrator related to me Eric’s passing mention of a figure who stepped out of a painting and disappeared into the throng of human life.  The game grows musical, electronic organ beating in time to the flashes of light, and it is unclear if I hear this music as a player for atmosphere or if this place is singing to me.

There is a doorway, or something like it.  You go through it, of course.

You thought you were on the margins of civilization and clinging to safe familiarity, but this has led you into something else entirely.  These are not the margins of our civilization and the wilderness around it, but the margins of our world.

the uncle who works for nintendo, aftermath

So I definitely did not expect what happened last week.  By which I mean I did not expect The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo to get quite the attention it did, starting with a link from Cameron Kunzelman, which apparently tossed the game to Kotaku and after that Polygon, slamming my hosting to death and necessitating me taking the game down for about five hours while I rewrote the code to stream the sound files from a CDN.  Shortly after, however, we were covered in The Verge, Wired, and Joystiq. Wow.  Wow wow wow.

In addition to all the links and brief write-ups, the piece has so far warranted at least two longer pieces of criticism, the first being Emily Short’s and the second Alex Pieschel’s (the same Alex, by the way, who wrote the article on glitch aesthetics that heavily influenced the game itself).

I did my own write-up over on Tumblr, in response to a player’s question about my use of gender in the game, which also gives some insight into my design process, my intentions, and the way these things often go awry outside a creator’s purview.  As I promise there, I’ll be updating the game sometime in the future to iron out some typos, implement a new sound macro, and hopefully rebalance it to encourage choosing a female friend more often.

This will happen sometime after I get a head start on my prospectus.  I kinda let that slide a bit.

I’d like to thank everyone who’s played so far, all those who have passed around links, all those who’ve commented here, on tumblr, and on twitter, or those who’ve sent emails.  It’s a rather strange feeling to have something that is so offbeat and personal be praised by so many people.   Here I’ll also publicly thank my partner, who was incredibly understanding when I spent last Wednesday night hurriedly rewriting my game’s code instead of eating dinner with her, and who’s been supportive throughout this process.

I’d also very much like to thank those people who paid for their horse armor unlockable content via Paypal.  I don’t make much money as a grad student, and it’s kind of nice to get some gas money out of a weird text adventure I made.

the uncle who works for nintendo

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My new Twine game, the uncle who works for nintendo, is now available for all to play.  It will take some time to get through one game, maybe 15 to 20 minutes at its shortest.  It has five possible endings.

The original commissioned artwork (some glimpsed in the above thumbnail) was made by the talented Kimberly Parker, who was absolutely amazing to work with.

The abstract artwork was made in the program Icosa by Andi McClure.

My inspirations are listed in the credits game itself, but I think it is appropriate to repeat them here:

Lights Out, Please by Porpentine, Vicky He, John R., Meghan, Jericho Bull, Ashley, Carli Velocci, Kitty Horroshow, Stephen Wilds, Aisley, Cathleen Macdonald, Sarah, and Kira, and the original story by Kaitlin Tremblay that preceded the collated anthology

Her Pound of Flesh by Liz England

You Were Made for Loneliness by Tsukareta

The Yahwg by Emily Carroll and Damian Sommer

History Lesson by withoutpillow

“Glitches: A Kind of History” in Arcade Review #3 by Alex Pieschel

My game uses a horror framework to think about misogyny and emotional abuse and manipulation, as it was (is) fostered particularly among children in the broader culture of videogames.  If you follow games culture at all, there are some resonances with current events here, and given that, I think it would be remiss not also to point you toward Liz Ryerson’s blog, which hosts not only excellent games writing, but some of the most incisive commentary on our recent troubles.

Special thanks goes, as always, to my beta-testers: Spam, Matt, Jeremy, Dan, Ivy, Alex, Harrison, and Victor.

Conspiracy and ‘False Activity’ for the Gamers

I do not have the time, desire, or stomach to completely recapitulate for you the queasy mess that is the ongoing clusterfuck called “GamerGate.”  Here’s an overview.  Additionally, I will defer to two of the finest critical voices on games I’ve encountered, Liz Ryerson and Daniel Joseph, who between them explain quite well the dynamics of the whole thing.

On Twitter, Jason Hawreliak observed that while the hubbub seems to have died down significantly since Zoe Quinn laid out some harsh justice, the fact remains that many die-hards still populate the hashtag, harassing devs and writers (including, still, Quinn herself), and generally hoping to either weather the storm of their disgrace or somehow effect a resurgence in the misplaced anger that fueled this particular hate machine to begin with.  While you’re at it, read Zoe on Cracked about her experiences.

As Jason noted, one thing this means is that the conspiracies born amid the earlier stages of the debacle have become increasingly elaborate and abstruse.  This makes sense, as I say in my reply to him: conspiracy theories aren’t made to be disproved but actually revised and reincorporated into an overarching mythology of conspiracies, providing the thinker with any number of ways to “explain” particular facets of the world.

John Brindle observed how the logic of the conspiracies, the searching, sorting, and winnowing of evidence, has seemed to dovetail almost effortlessly with the logic of playing a videogame.

As I say in my response to Jason’s tweet, I tend to conceive of this conspiracy-weaving through a psychoanalytic lens, and in particular through the idea of “false activity,” which I fork from Zizek.  Conspiracies are a method of constantly delaying “action” because there is always more to the situation then at first seemed apparent: we cannot do anything yet, because we haven’t sounded the depth of our imagined rabbit hole.  And this is particularly important since, in pursuing the bugbears of conspiracy theories (unscrupulous women game developers, or fluoride in your house’s tap water) you ignore more pressing, institutional issues: the fact that mainstream ‘games journalism’ has always been figuratively in bed with AAA developers, or that your civil liberties are being daily eroded by militarized police and an oligarchic government without any help at all from mind control agents in your kitchen sink.

False activity is a necessary corollary to “interpassivity,” an idea which Zizek himself forks from philosopher Robert Pfaller.  To contrast with the more acknowledged idea of “interactivity,” interpassivity is when objects begin to do things for us, in our place, rather than at our behest (this latter condition being the ideal of ‘interactivity’).  Zizek’s go-to example is the laugh track in a sitcom: the show itself laughs at its own jokes, so we don’t have to, and thus some of the heavy burden of paying strict attention is alleviated.  We are in fact allowed to “unwind” or relax.

For Zizek, then, “false activity” is the point at which the subject (sometimes willfully) misrecognizes an interpassive relationship for an interactive one, and vigorously attempts to treat it like one, but in so doing really prevents any action from taking place:

people not only act in order to change something, they can also act in order to prevent something from happening, so that nothing will change. Therein resides the typical strategy of the obsessional neurotic: he is frantically active in order to prevent the real thing from happening.

Here we arrive at my overall point: that “GamerGaters” or whatever we want to call them, are precisely in this position.  As mostly men, cisgender and heteronormative and white, the rise of socially conscious game developers, writers, queer folks, and women and PoC in gaming threatens them into a position where they feel “passive” in the arena of life where they have most often felt “active” (recall, here, points made by Ryerson and Joseph).

The result is the generally false activity of #GamerGate, of spinning wheels and ginning up controversy in the hopes that, by doing all this, absolutely nothing will happen, absolutely nothing will change.

This structure of activity is, I would further allege, one derived from (or at least strongly reinforced by) videogames themselves.  As I’ve increasingly thought and argued in my work on games, they are often profoundly tedious despite being marketed as endless fun.  As some of the voices of #GamerGate cry, reviewers often score the “fun” of a game subjectively, but rather than understanding that enjoyment is obstinately subjective, the Gaters call for more objectivity, as if the marketing copy of games (endless fun for you, forever!) could in fact be true.

Here we see the interpassive face of a medium whose primary selling point is its claim to interactivity.  To choose a rather unfavorable analogy, it seems that games have partly worked by indoctrination.  “I told you I was fun,” the game says, “the commercials said I was fun! So you definitely must be having fun!” And for a thousandth time your space marine is shot in the head by a shrieking 14-year-old on the other side of a continent.

So the “gamer” response is not to call for better games (that is, to interact with the medium and its industry, as many indie developers and writers are in fact doing — interaction with others at all has fallen under suspicion of ‘corruption’ for GGers) but rather a demand to materialize a sublime-impossible artifact of videogame advertising, and to that extent not so the industry can change, but so it can finally be what they thought it was all along: a boys-only playground.  Upon fulfillment of the above conditions these people, in their vociferous cries for action, can in fact remain the passive consumers they have always been, and always wanted to be.

“Tear it outta the sky!”: Stuplimity, Affect, and Games

In the fall of 2008 I was a sophomore in college.  I had a friend who reliably purchased hot new AAA videogames, and it was our custom after dinner to retire to his room and play something or other for a few hours, rotating play responsibilities while the rest of us chatted, made remarks about the game, discussed classes and campus life, and so on.

This friend purchased StarWars: The Force Unleashed.  At a certain point in the game, you are tasked with pulling a Star Destroyer out of the sky with the Force.   As with so many other parts of the game, it was a lengthy quick-time event that made an elaborately choreographed scene marginally interactable.  Here’s a video:

What was important about my friend’s game is that it glitched.  At the final stage of the event (about 3:30 in the video) the player avatar locked into place, the icons indicating the player needed to use the analog sticks appeared, and a crackling disembodied voice commanded him to “Pull it outta the sky!

And then nothing else happened for probably more than an hour.

The game didn’t freeze, the music didn’t stop, my friend could still move the analog sticks and influence the movement of things on screen, and every few minutes the game would remind him, as if he had somehow wandered off or forgotten, to “Pull it outta the sky!

My friend, a tenacious game-player if there ever was one, kept at it.  We watched as he became increasingly agitated, leaving him to stew in silence as our conversation drifted away from him and the television in the center of the dorm room.  On the screen was something that I imagine we might only ever see again if Samuel Beckett somehow got a job writing one of the new Star Wars films: a snarling Jedi caught in cinematic stasis, a waggling Star Destroyer suspended indefinitely in front of him while the brass blared heroically all around: –We must pull it out of the sky!Oh, but we couldn’t.  –But if we did?Could we?

I don’t know how long it took us to suggest to our friend that maybe it was a glitch, and to reload from a prior save, but this event became sufficiently notorious in our social group as to constitute its own in-joke, a tendency to shout a misremembered “Tear it outta the sky!” at one another during moments when we were feeling frustrated, irritated, or overwhelmed.

This has all been a roundabout introduction to the issue of affect and games, and in particular the ways in which videogames often seem to confound the epic and exhilarating with the banal and irritating.  This precise confusion has been described by Sianne Ngai in her book Ugly Feelings, under the neologism of “the stuplime” — a bizarre crossroads of the unpleasant, thick, and “stupid” with the vast and terrifying wonder of the Kantian sublime, where the human mind is supposed to successfully recognize its own inability to grasp the totality of, say, a mountain or a storm, and then takes comfort in its own self-conscious boundedness.

Contrasted to that, as Ngai explains it, the stuplime is

…a bringing together of what “dulls” and what “irritates” or agitates; of sharp, sudden excitation and prolonged desensitization, exhaustion, or fatigue. While the Kantian sublime stages a competition between opposing affects, in which one eventually supersedes and replaces the other … stuplimity is a tension that holds opposing affects together. … Stuplimity reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality … yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition. (271)

I obviously would like to suggest that stuplimity has something to offer the study of videogames.  I am not the first person to do so; in an insightful article on “the digital sublime,” Eugénie Shinkle invokes Ngai to describe the affect of gameplay as one of potential  stuplimity, of boring and repetitive tasks punctuated by moments of heightened attention, energy, and exhilaration: “…this suggests that we situate videogames in the context of the general waning of affect that is said to characterize postmodern experience” (6).

It is Ngai’s contention that stuplimity is a specific and symptomatic affect of our contemporary late-capitalist world, which is why it warrants the neologism.  Indeed, if she is correct in this, and if I am correct in my hunch that stuplimity describes game-experiences with an uncanny accuracy, then the fit might be because the videogame is the late-capitalist aesthetic object par excellance.

Shinkle’s search is, as I indicated, for the elusive “digital sublime,” and in the end she asserts that stuplimity will not get us there, because in games “the two affects [ie, astonishment and boredom] are not collapsed into one another but continue to exist, in tension, as discrete categories” (10-11).

Shinkle contrasts the stuplime with Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow,” which accounts for the large expanses of repetitive or abstruse gameplay we may endure without actually becoming irritated.  A good example here might be how many people, at a certain time in their lives (particularly the 90s) were able to buckle down and grind through thousands of random encounters in Japanese RPGs with nary a grumble.

But Shinkle does not simply argue for flow over stuplimity, pointing out that both of them rely on an implicit notion that “the technology itself – software and interface – disappears into functionality” (8).  She then turns to the issue of a game’s “failure event,” which breaks flow.  This, then, is why games (for Shinkle) do not “collapse” the affects of astonishment and boredom, because a game that is “working” will result in an experience of flow.  What Shinkle calls the digital sublime, then, is always ultimately an accident, a moment when the game as artifact retreats from the player indefinitely:

In failure events, both the game and the technologically-enabled posthuman self cease to exist as such. Instead, the subject is confronted with a mute technological artifact – a featureless surface that bears no decipherable relationship to the unimaginably complex workings that it conceals. Contemporary digital technology lacks the capacity for representation that allowed nineteenth-century artifacts to function as sources of awe in and of themselves. As objects, contemporary digital technologies are destined for obsolescence, their production driven less by a wish to celebrate human ingenuity than by the late capitalist imperatives of novelty and innovation. (9-10)

Shinkle’s digital sublime relies not on the hopeless muddling of boredom and astonishment, but rather irruptive moments when digital artifacts at first cast us off and, contrasted with Kantian natural phenomena like storms and mountains, we recognize them as “banal” consumer products, things made for us but which exist in some inscrutable and frankly-not-very-exciting way beyond us.  (In this sense I think Shinkle’s idea resonates to some extent with Tim Morton’s idea of the hyperobject, especially as it describes the styrofoam trash that stuffs our landfills and will outlast us all.)  As Shinkle summarizes, “In the contemporary digital sublime, the experience of the limitless potential of human ingenuity is
lodged within artifacts whose material existence is fleeting and insignificant” (11).

And yet I think, in the search for the sublime, Shinkle brushes past far too quickly the potential insights of the stuplime gaming experience.  I find myself returning to the moment when my friend could not tear the Star Destroyer from the sky.  On the one hand this is precisely the failure event Shinkle discusses, the moment when the game seemed to clam up and resist my friend’s attempts to act on it or with it, and we recognize it as banal, overhyped, mass-produced Star Wars merchandise, indistinguishable from any copy in any other Xbox anywhere else.

But on the other hand, the object was not at all “mute” — the icons were there telling my friend to use the analog sticks, the game itself kept urging him to “pull it out of the sky,” the Star Destroyer bobbed like a cork in the sea, and yet despite all of this happening, nothing actually happened.

Or rather, nothing happened in terms of progression through the game.  Outside the game, my friend became increasingly and obviously angry; my other friends and I became increasingly bored and increasingly uncomfortable about our friend playing the game; in the end the experience was so affectively strong that it left its mark on our group dialect, and many years later, brought me to write this blog post.

Not only that, but games can be affectively deadening, irritating, and uncomfortable even when they work correctly.  This seems to have become more pronounced lately in  gameswriting, especially regarding AAA titles.  Consider Leigh Alexander’s excellent critique of BioShock Infinite, which describes her dismay at encountering a gamespace that is technically excellent, artistically ambitious, and yet at the same time unsatisfying and hollow:

I’m in the land of the Vox. Some shantytown. A man stands on a crate, preaching about the misfortunes of the working class. I want to snap a picture of the juxtaposition between the way I always want to listen to him and the way I am always waving a gun in his face, and so I put the controller down and held my phone up to the screen. As I am picking the controller back up, my finger slips, and I shoot him by accident.

What Alexander describes here is not a failure state.  It is the way the game is supposed to run — you are supposed to be able to shoot that street preacher.  Someone somewhere in the game’s development thought, “The player may want to shoot people on the street.  We won’t force it, but we’ll allow it to be a possibility.”  But for Alexander — who by this point is quite disenchanted with the game, anyway — it is merely one more absurd setpiece of murder in her episodic journey through a game consisting almost entirely of instances where you brutally murder strangers on the street.

We might also look at Paul Tassi’s review of Call of Duty: Ghosts.  Calling the game “modern military shooter fatigue incarnate,” the flat affect of his opening line succinctly encapsulates the stuplimity of videogames: “I’m in space. I’m shooting a machine gun, in space.”

His follow up: “I don’t know what else is left to do at this point.”

One might fairly object that these are unfavorable reviews.  They are, of course, rhetorically positioned to figure their objects as stuplime; in a “good” game, or at least a game the reviewer likes, there is less attention devoted to issues like this because the player either buys into the game’s absurdity in a sincere way or the gameplay (which, almost definitionally, will be somehow repetitive) produces the “flow” necessary for “proper” enjoyment.

To further crowd an already populated essay, let me point out the phenomenon of the cynical video review — I think most specifically of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation, or James Rolfe’s Angry Video Game Nerd.  Croshaw’s persona as a reviewer is predicated on him being sardonically unimpressed with most games he plays, delivering his comments in a brisk but generally disinterested tone.  The Angry Video Game Nerd’s format, while focusing on vintage or classic games, relies on being similarly unimpressed, though Rolfe’s delivery is considerably less manic.

In both cases the reviewers repeatedly present their positions of darkly humorous cynicism as being a viable viewpoint to take in regard to videogames.  They form a counterpoint to the “hype machine” of the enthusiast press and, I suspect especially in Croshaw’s case, earn a sense of “authenticity” in their opinions among viewers.  Both seem to be chronically on the verge of echoing Tassi’s weary observation: “I don’t know what else is left to do at this point.”

What is left to do?  The answer is actually quite simple: review another game!

What if the tired cynicism of the video reviewers, the tone of floating distress that invades written reviews of bad games, illuminate something fundamental to the aesthetic experience of videogames?

Ngai again:

Inducing a series of fatigues or minor exhaustions, rather than a single, major blow to the imagination, stuplimity paradoxically forces the reader to go on in spite of its equal enticement to readers give up … pushing us to reformulate new tactics for reading. (272)

Is this not how games function?  Are not all games just a little bit boring, chains of “minor exhaustions,” challenges and puzzles and unfamiliar mechanics, requiring us to chip and click and press and shoot our way forward again and again and again?  In reviews where games are figured as boring or bad, are we not simply seeing highlighted and disparaged the very mechanics that, in another configuration in another game, might become a part of the “flow” of gameplay, perhaps unpleasant or imperfect but “natural”-feeling enough to keep us from giving up?  Might not any “bad” game mechanic, if pulled into the proper assemblage, or experienced by a certain player, come off as rather tolerable, if not outright “good”?  In short, what if all games are basically stuplime?

I have already brought up the example of the JRPG as a game whose tedium might be subsumed by the trance-like state of flow.  I was one of those players who experienced their share of very grindy JRPGs in the 90s, and I hold fond memories of all of them — but I question whether this was the result of flow, or rather the result of a selective memory and a selective fondness.

I certainly don’t think I have the patience to play through Final Fantasy VIII again, despite the fact that it’s one of my favorite games.  I remember, in fact, being bored and irritated by extensive bouts of grinding in it and just about all the JRPGs I played.  I continued with these games so long as it seemed possible to make the next non-grindy section of the game more palatable; I continued to play JRPGs so long as I had a taste for melodramatic stories about teens with nebulously environmentalist or anti-fascist messages looking sad and/or beautiful while staving off cosmic catastrophe.

This is all to say, pace Shinkle, that astonishment and boredom do in fact collapse into each other during gameplay.  There are certainly instances where one is winnowed from the other: boredom overcomes all and the player quits, or those moments of heartfelt wonder and astonishment.  But I would argue that, for the most part, games are experienced precisely in the middle of these two extremes.  Games are filled with “gray” time — unremarkable time, filler, which we may or may not recognize as such and may or may not care about, given a variety of external factors.  The game does not cede to a pure functionality, but rather the player’s affect and attention exist in tension with what the game asks or requires the player to do.  (Consider the varied responses to David O’Reilly’s Mountain [scroll down to the website logos for reviews] for some rather lucid expressions of these tensions.)

My friend did not restart Star Wars: The Force Unleashed immediately because he genuinely could not tell he had entered a failure state.   It bore none of the more egregious marks of a glitched game, and it had occurred in the already vastly narrowed playspace of a quick-time event, without any of the hallmarks of that event being failed.  We waited so long to restart because we could not “comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality” — ie, because we were inoculated to games as complex systems designed to present challenges, to urge us to “stop” or “give up the fight,” while hiding the fact that progress was indeed possible, implicitly demanding we try anyway, that we attempt a new tactic, keep attempting the QTE, or (eventually) reload a save.

Is there, then, a fundamental way in which games teach their players to embrace a certain type of stuplimity: “Do this.  Keep doing this.  Now do that. Oh, you messed up — try again.  Yes, again.  Do it again.  You may not like it, but the cool stuff’s ahead — I promise”?  And perhaps the player sees it — or thinks she sees it: that cool stuff, that Thing, the payoff, the promise of affective astonishment hovering just ahead, bobbing helplessly in the air, waiting to be pulled down to her with just the right combination of button presses.

Blogging the Quals: Oops

Oops! I guess I’m still blogging the quals, even though I forgot to blog them all for the past several weeks!  I became too obsessed with reading and getting stressed out due to my upcoming move.  But in good news, I finished reading last week!  Woo!

I kept all my notes in a Twine document.  Here’s what it looks like:

imfinished

WOW. Okay.

Right now I’m busy drafting my exams questions, and am scheduled to go through the exam itself on September 24th.  Excellent.  I’ll leave you now with another picture, a long quote from a source, and a brief reflection.

1986-26-287

In the introduction to Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass note that in vanitas paintings, as in most of the vanitas tradition, objects are collected, lumped, and represented precisely to underscore their transience in relation to the absent subject:

By their title (vanitas vanitatum, Eccles. I.2) and by the symbolic encoding of things represented (signs of transience and morality), they exhort subjects to renounce objects.  But can such a sequestering hold?  We have reproduced N.L. Peschier’s unusual vanitas painting [above] precisely because the subject finds its way back into the picture, at the top of the pile of objects, in the upper-right hand corner, head tilted like the skull beneath it.  Even in more typical versions, the omnipresent skull itself serves as a reminder of the common materiality of subjects and objects. (1)

All seems well and good here.  The authors  point out the ironic effect of paintings like these: that they themselves incite what they disavow, by becoming “collectibles” for  educated elites, or later on, museums, thus further suggesting an inextricability of subject and object in particular as an effect of the artistic process.  In fact, we might be tempted to say the subject is not even “absent” since, as any good Foucauldian reading tells us, the subject is constructed virtually by the painting, a medium for the gaze that gives the object its meaning.  Hold that thought, though.

I am curious about the claim that “the subject finds its way back into the picture.”  In the hard copy of the book I read the painting was reproduced in black and white, and hence harder to suss out, but the image I inserted above makes its abundantly clear that the “subject” that seems to appear in the upper-right corner is not a human subject at all, but a statue: another piece of artwork, bronze or perhaps terra cotta, whose pose mimics the stony human skull below it.  Directly horizontal to this statue, we discover another “human” reappearance, a sketch posted on the wall (perhaps a Peschier self-portait?).  Neither of these figures meet our gaze; they turn away, to  elsewhere, to spaces outside the frame: to places we cannot ever, will not ever see.

So I will go one step further than simply saying this painting becomes what it renounces: I want to say that it embraces it.  It embraces its own objecthood.  The things in the painting (subjects, in one sense of the word, a sense that cannily denies the necessity of the human) exist beyond us; the painting itself will exist beyond its painter, its collector, the school group that sees it in the museum.  The viewer virtually constructed by this painting is one who meets no sympathetic eye.  Rather than urging us to disavow art, Peschier’s painting suggests the ways in which art disavows us.

 

the writing process

Last week I posted my story “Empty Houses” on this blog.  Doing so reminded my good friend Spam about when I first wrote and workshopped the piece in the IRC channel I’ve been hanging out in for almost a decade now, so she jumped back into the logs of yesteryear (approx. 2008) and excavated the following snippets of conversation.

I reproduce them here because 1) they’re hilarious, and 2) they emphasize the work and good humor that goes into revising and making writing better.

It is perhaps self-evident — but I will put this out here now for clarity — that my alias in these exchanges is “Hoot.”  Thanks to all my other strangely named friends for their help and support throughout the years.

<sushi> Man, Hoot
<sushi> That first “when” is unnecessary
<sushi> uglies up an otherwise decent sentence
<gte> What you shave a bit and now you’re Ernest Hemingway
<Hoot> yeah what
<Hoot> with the distance between them when factoring
<Hoot> in the driveways being something like a quarter of a mile
<Hoot> also removing the when from that makes the sentence not make sense?
<Hoot> unless you mean something else
<Foiba> and i would’ve thrown in an “either” after ‘verdant fingers”
<sushi> Replace it with a comma
<Foiba> but now i’m ernest hemingway
<Hoot> hahaha


<sushi> “He held cradled a shotgun in both hands.” is really awkward… how about “He held a shotgun cradled in his arms.” or “He cradled a shotgun in his arms.”?
<gte> “He cradled a shotgun”
<gte> “like a long, hard, thin baby”
<Hoot> gte that is gross sounding
<gte> when I write it is pretty much stomach-turning
<gte> for many different reasons
<gte> so I don’t do it often
<sushi> gte’s is better
<Hoot> yeah I am going to use it
<Hoot> in an edited fashion
<gte> for the love of god don’t use similes
<sushi> It’s like a psychological insight into the dude’s character
<sushi> Like the gun is a coping mechanism
<Hoot> actually it’s not, he wouldn’t like babies
<Hoot> that’s why I’m trying to come up with something that better suits him
<gte> “He cradled a shotgun like a long, hard, thin baby, which is to say he was shaking it violently and cussing between the blows he incessantly rained down upon it”
<Hoot> hahahaha
<Foiba> see, that can be your trademark, Hoot
<Foiba> shakin’ babies
<Foiba> via firearms
<sushi> “He cradled the shotgun like a fine Cuban cigar, waving it under his nose to savour its aroma.”
<Hoot> [Writer Trademark]: Strangely Hilarious Child Abuse
<sushi> hahaha
<Foiba> “I can’t tell if he hates babies or hates guns.”
<Foiba> “I think it’s safe to say he hates both equally. Maybe babies more.”
<sushi> He hates their necessity, Louie
<Hoot> that will be the main feature of literary criticism of my work
<Foiba> “I need another kid like my old one needs a hole in his head.” “… What?” “With this gun.”
<Hoot> “The GUNS AND BABIES CONUNDRUM has stumped scholars for generations.”
<tarosic> hahaha you have to convince them that you hate guns more but that it just gets transferred to your hatred for babies when people read it
<sushi> hahahaha
<Foiba> “What I’m saying is that I want to kill the baby I hate with the gun I also hate. But I don’t know which one I hate more?”
<Foiba> END OF CHAPTER
<tarosic> and then Hoot was full of hate
<tarosic> and a baby
<tarosic> or a gun
<tarosic> or a baby with a gun?
<tarosic> a storyworld built on armies of 9 month olds crawling through trenches engaged in full scale warfare, but written about very derisively
<sushi> hahahaha
<Foiba> “I kept her from the doctors, for they couldn’t possible have understood this problem more than I have. A Cyclopean, eldritch babe, born with a shotgun for a left hand.”
<Foiba> “As soon as he was born, he commandeered my dirt bike and did a badass jump over the creek.”
<tarosic> “God how i saw him mewling in the night and dreamed of crushing his head with a rock
<tarosic> “
<sushi> “The pink and wrigglies crawled through the trenches. They didn’t need a reason to crawl. Anymore than they needed a reason to shoot their guns.”
<tarosic> “At least skullcrushing through bludgeoning made some sort of visceral sense… not like shooting someone with a gun”
<Foiba> “Before he jumped the creek, he used the dirt bike to do badass burnouts to spell the solitary word ‘CYCLOPEAN'”
<gte> The lonely voice of a golden retriever echoes in the distance
<Foiba> “And then a tinyurl that ultimately lead to a You Tube of a Mr. Rick Astley.”
<sushi> Subtle literary references like that make book scholars jizz
<Hoot> noooooooo golden retriever
<tarosic> hahaha the baby armies used golden retrievers as their cavalry

<Hoot> well, I now have my ftp with the campus network functioning
<Hoot> just in case we ever want to do another Tell Hoot He Uses Too Many Goddamn Commas Evening!
<sushi> Too damn many, Hoot
<Foiba> i’ll fix your commas, hoot
<tarosic> Seriously, Hoot, I cannot, nay, will not stress this enough, your comma usage, it, it, it just exceeds sane limits.
<Foiba> (with badass dirtbike jumps)
<Hoot> hahaha
<Hoot> Replace all extraneous commas with dirtbike jumps.
<sushi> Yeah, you put the “punch” in “punchtuation”
<Foiba> “I don’t know exactly what the hell is happening in this narrative, but it’s pretty fucking awesome.”
<Mechant> pretty, fucking, awesome
<Mechant> p,r,e,t,t,y,, ,f,u,c,k,i,n,g,, ,a,w,e,s,o,m,e,

<Hoot> At the beginning of the third week the strange people came and the dirtbike squalled like a demon as it shot off the ramp and into the air a rushing and like some sort comet the bike twirled in the sky before smashing down to earth in a blazing trail of glory unsmiling throng that poured through the valley and down the hill toward the town. 
<Foiba> “We never thought it was possible,” the townspeople said as the dirtbike did this badass flip over the haunted creek
<Foiba> “That the townspeople could rise from the grave,” and do badass jumps over their forgotten graveyard, “and wreak vengeance upon the living.”
<Hoot> hahahaha


<Hoot> man my own ending pisses me off
<Hoot> (just finished my reread)

<Hoot> oh damn better get to bed
<Hoot> sushi if you are still here, later I WANT A FULL REPORT (over how many commas I don’t need)
<sushi> I like the use of “walkers”
<sushi> If you want I could print this off and do a full edit for you tomorrow at work
<Hoot> haha, I will have you and Louie slaving away for me
<sushi> Could you send me the .doc?
<Foiba> you can compare mine and sushi’s edits and choose the best
<Foiba> (mine)
<sushi> steel cage match of the edits
<Hoot> sushi what is ur emailz
<Foiba> i can’t guarantee that your new ending won’t have a dude blasting “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” while doing a badass dirtbike jump
<Foiba> just sayin’
<Hoot> that is all right
<Hoot> we have to make great sacrifices for art

Empty Houses

This story was originally written around 2007,  when I was 19, and was published in the summer of 2010.  It was the first short story I ever sold, originally available on the website for the horror zine Dark Recesses, which appears to have gone under and then resurfaced with new management. The story is no longer there (the site was totally redesigned), so I’m reposting it here for posterity.  I’ve turned to writing scholarship and criticism more generally, but my fictive impulses still find their outlet on this blog and, obviously, my Twine games.

Empty Houses
by Michael Lutz

The house high on the hill was new, state-of-the-art it was once called, a behemoth of glass walls and cool white stone, and it was in immaculate condition. Every morning Argus stepped out of his closet and offered a cheerful greeting to the Housemind, which did not have the capacity to respond, but Argus said hello anyway.

On Mondays he mowed the lawn.

On Tuesdays he inspected the basement and cleaned the walls.

On Wednesdays he washed windows.

On Thursdays he went to town, for though he’d been told not to bother buying or preparing food he hadn’t been ordered to stop his weekly sojourns. He now walked a mile and a half down the hill to Sweetgum Street, stood for a few moments as if admiring the minivan that had been smashed into the light pole there since June, and returned home.

Friday mornings were spent in the attic running diagnostics on the Housemind while Friday afternoons were occupied with making unanswered telephone calls to neighbors who hadn’t visited recently.

Weekends were for inspection of the house’s interior: changing bedclothes, dusting the places the Housemind’s tiny drones could not reach, making sure the canned foodstuffs left in the pantry were not souring.

Every day after making a final once-over of the house and its grounds, Argus bid the Housemind goodnight and stepped into his closest at ten o’clock, leaving the empty house to bask beneath the blackened and pock-marked moon.

*

One day in September three men, a woman, and a small girl came down the dusty yellow road, heading toward town. They were each dressed in rags and coats. Two of the men pushed shopping carts piled high with cans, boxes, plastic bottles, and a half-dozen or so coloring books. A large bearded fellow led the way, cradling a shotgun in his arms expectantly. One of the men pushing the carts also had a shotgun hanging at his side, but the other man and the woman carried only pistols. It happened that this day in the lonesome September was a Monday. Argus was mowing the lawn as the party appeared over the hill. The leader, when he first saw the glitter of sunlight on Argus’s head, shouted something and swung his shotgun to the ready. The young woman cringed, pulled the child to her. The small girl jingled like a set of keys due to a band of bells looped around her neck on pink string.

The other two men readied their firearms. Argus recognized the signs of danger and did what was appropriate: his hands came off the handle of the mower and reached out, empty, alongside his head.

“Christ, Burt,” said the second man with a shotgun, stepping around the leader to get a better look. “He’s just a tinman.”

Burt grunted, the haggard growth of beard on his face rippling like the pelt of a snarling cat.

“He’s mowing the goddamn lawn, Burt. I’m near blind and even I can see that,” the other man said, fingering the rim of a pair of cracked spectacles resting across his nose. “And you know as well as I do that it doesn’t affect mechs, the only thing they got to worry about is being smashed up by the caravans. And besides, what’s buckshot gonna do at this distance?”

The bespectacled man dropped his shotgun and stepped forward to stand between Burt’s barrel and Argus. “We don’t mean to hurt you,” he called, squinting through the cracks in his glasses.

“Thank you, sir,” Argus replied.

“That means you can put your arms down.”

“Of course.”

“Keep on doing your work. We’ll talk more when we get down there, yeah?”

“If you wish so, sir.”

*

“Hello,” Argus said to the group as they drew abreast of him. He stopped the mower and bowed his head. “My name is Argus of the Allendale family. I am sorry to say Mr. Allendale is not in right now. In accordance with the Mandate, the family has vacated the premises until further notice. If you should like to leave a message, I will be more than happy to relay it to Mr. Allendale upon his return.”

The bespectacled man wiped a dirty hand across his brow. “We don’t know your Allendale. We’re travelers, you might say, all from out east. My name’s Jack, from Ohio. This is Burt from Illinois, then Ray from Vermont.” The men nodded.

“And then,” Jack continued, “the pretty young lady is Judy and her cousin Terry, who we picked up on our way through Kansas.”

“If you will pardon me,” Argus interrupted, “while I am most pleased to meet all of you, if you have no business with Mr. Allendale, I will have to say goodbye and get back to my chores. If you are solicitors I should have you know that even if you choose to leave a message Mr. Allendale will not respond.”

Jack returned his attention to the tinman. “Look, I’m sorry, we’re not salesmen. Or anything much, really. We’re just trying to make our way out to Seattle. They say there’s still people there. Not like the caravans… and sure as hell not like the walkers.”

Argus cocked his head to show puzzlement. “I am sorry. I do not understand.”

Jack’s eyes widened as he and his fellow travelers exchanged looks. “You don’t know?”

“I do not know what? I am sorry. I do not understand. If you wish to leave a message for the Allendales I will be happy to relay it to them.”

“Of course he doesn’t know,” sighed Burt. “He’s a goddamn tinman, Jack. He’s not gonna be any use.”

“When did… when did the Allendales leave, Argus?” Jack asked.

“The eighteenth of April, in accordance with the Government Mandate. The sabbatical is indefinite.”

Terry, who until now had been studying the tinman with a mixture of deep interest and deeper unease, turned to Judy. “He’s been alone all this time?”

“It’s all right,” Judy said, hugging the girl. “I’m sure Argus’s been okay with being alone, haven’t you, Argus?”

“I am performing optimally.”

“Argus,” Jack said, “you have to listen and understand something. You know about what happened, right? In New York? And DC?”

“Of course,” Argus chirruped. “What would you like to know? I am sorry I cannot provide live news feeds, those servers appear to be down.”

“Argus, those places are gone. There’s nothing there, it’s all burnt up. Hell, even… haven’t you looked up at the moon? You don’t know anything about that, Argus?”

“I am sorry,” said the tinman. “I do not understand. Would you like to leave a message for Mr. Allendale?”

Jack sighed. “Listen, Argus, if you can help us in any way–”

“I would be happy to aid you in any manner that does not infringe on my present orders.”

“Right, of course. Now, Argus, if we left could you come with us?”

“It is my duty to tend to the house while the family is away.”

“Could you give us any weapons or supplies or–”

“If you would like Mr. Allendale’s business card I may fetch one presently.”

“No, Argus, what I mean is, if you have any weapons, any guns or bullets — or any food…”

“Food will not be served until the Allendales return. If you wish to make a dinner date, please tell me which day of the week you prefer, as well as any favorite dishes or allerg–”

“Goddammit, Jack,” said Burt, “if we need the food we can just go into the house and take it. He can’t hurt us. They programmed that into them.”

Argus swiveled his head, his crystal eyes shining, to look at Burt. “You are threatening force, sir. I will warn you once more, after which if you do not vacate the premises I shall summon the authorities.”

Burt laughed. “Authorities? What authority you know of that’s left?”

“I am afraid I don’t understand. If you continue to threaten–”

“Shut the hell up!” Burt snarled.

Terry jumped, her necklace of bells jingling as she wrapped her arm around Judy’s waist. Her cousin bent down, embracing the child and whispering to her while Ray looked on with empathy.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Jack asked Burt, Argus forgotten for the moment.

“I’m trying to make sure we live long enough to make it over the damn mountains, Jack. It seems one of us is gonna have to–”

“You’re making sure we live, Burt? Cause last I remember, it was us who made sure you lived. Remember St. Louis?” Though he was the smaller man, Jack spoke sternly. He held Burt’s eyes with his own for a long moment, waiting, and then–

Burt looked away, chuffing.

“Argus,” Jack said, “we understand if you can’t help us. You do what you have to do.”

“Of course, sir.”

“But listen… there’s something behind us. Things behind us. We managed to outrun them because they’re not very fast, but they can track you, they just smell something and have to follow. They — they used to be people, but not anymore. I don’t mean like the caravans… Jesus, I don’t know if this makes any sense to you.” He cleared his throat.

“They’ll look like people, Argus, and I don’t think they’ll hurt you because of what you are, but they’re still dangerous for normal folks like us. So if you can somehow tell the difference between us and… whatever they are… you could…”

“I could what, sir?”

The man’s mouth tightened. “Destroy them.”

Argus paused. “I see, sir. Would you like to leave a message for the Allendales?”

Jack let out a long stream of breath. “Sorry, Argus. We’ll be leaving now,” he said.

“Goodbye sirs, miss, and little miss. Please return when the Allendales are here to receive you.”

Jack had only taken two steps when he stopped, his attention caught by something in the distance. “Argus?”

“Sir?”

“Who lives across the road there, in that old house by the pond?”

“The Clemms, sir.”

“You mean they’re… inside?”

“I imagine not, sir, due to the Mandate. But to be honest they have no Housemind for me to communicate with so I am uncertain. They haven’t answered any calls lately.”

“I see. Goodbye, Argus.”

“Have a pleasant walk.”

*

At seven o’clock, just as the sun was beginning to set and the western horizon to glow over the mountains, there was a rapid knock at the door. Argus, who had been cleaning the dust from the crystal, placed a wineglass delicately on the kitchen counter, dried his hands, and went to answer. “Hello,” he began while opening the door, “my name is Argus. I am sorry to say Mr. Allendale is not–”

“Argus,” said Jack, “we need your help.”

Beside him was Ray, hand clutched to his chest and the sleeve of his ragged jacket stained a deep crimson. Behind him stood Burt, looking as dour as always, and further away Judy attempted to soothe a wailing Terry.

“What is the injury?” said Argus.

“A bite, a possum bite.”

“I am qualified to give first aid and dress wounds. Please, come in.” Argus stepped aside, holding one hand out to welcome them.

*

“If I start to go, promise you’ll shoot me.”

“You’re not gonna start doing anything.”

“There was something wrong with that possum, Jack.”

“It was starving, that’s all.”

Ray hissed through clenched teeth as Argus poured disinfectant over the shallow but bleeding gash on the back of his hand, the liquid sizzling as it dribbled down the sink. Jack leaned in the doorway to the spacious bathroom. “Is it gonna be okay, Argus?”

“It appears superficial. I would still recommend seeing a doctor as soon as possible, however. There is a clinic in town. The Medicmind there tells me there is a free appointment slot as early as tomorrow morning. If you like I can make a res–”

“That’s unnecessary, Argus, but thanks. We’ll get to a doctor… at our next stop.”

“Of course. And the next time you and your friends go out hunting, please be sure to remember that opossums often ‘play dead,’ when they appear to be dead when in fact–”

“I think I learned my lesson, Argus, really,” Ray insisted.

“The bleeding has slowed. Excellent. Please, just a few moments more.” Argus patted Ray’s wound dry and wrapped it in clean white bandages. “Change the dressing daily and be sure to apply disinfectant,” he said, releasing the young man’s hand.

“All right, yeah, no problem,” said Burt, who had been watching silently from behind Jack. “Let’s just get out of here.”

The four of them walked to the front room, where Judy and Terry were looking at pictures hanging on the wall. Every few seconds the pictures changed or switched places in their frames. Some were loops, like the one of Mr. Allendale and his son standing together on the beach, laughing and holding a fat catfish between them. “Do you think they’re still together?” asked Terry.

Judy chewed her lip and was saved from answering as Argus, Ray, Jack, and Burt entered. “Oh, hey,” she said, “what’s the diagnosis?”

“He’ll live,” Burt said, and Ray gave an uncertain frown.

“Well,” sighed Jack, “we’ve been a bother for far too long. Even though it’s late, we’d best be on our way.”

“It was a pleasure having you here.” Argus escorted them to the front door and waved goodbye as the travelers walked out into the night, the sound of Terry’s bells growing fainter as they disappeared into the dark.

*

The following night the alarm went off. Wake up, the Housemind shouted in Argus’s closet, wake up wake up in the pantry wake up wake up.

Soon he was in the pantry holding the intruder by the neck. “Hello again, sir. You are on private property,” Argus said. “The Housemind informs me you have broken the lock on the back door. The local Crimemind has been contacted and the authorities are on their way. Until then I shall restrain you, but please remember that I will not injure you.”

“Go to hell,” Burt growled, the mane of his beard bushed up around his face by Argus’s silver hand. “Go to hell, you mindless piece of–”

“This conversation is being recorded. It may be used as evide–”

Burt swung one leg out, hooking it around the back of Argus’s knee, but the tinman did not even waver. “There are no police coming! Not anymore!” Burt shouted.

“I will detain you while we wait,” Argus told the man, his fingers looped about the man’s neck like a steel collar.

Two hours later, Burt was sobbing, his neck chafing and his fingers sore from clawing at Argus’s hand. “Please, I just — I wasn’t gonna do anything, honestly, I just wanna get back to the others… let me go, please…” His beard, puffed up in a mane around his head, was becoming damp with sweat and tears.

“I was ordered not to tolerate trespassers. If the authorities do not arrive I have the option of presenting you myself.” So Argus wrenched Burt’s arms behind his back and they walked out of the house and all the way down the hill to Sweetgum Street, past the minivan smashed into the light post, past the old grocery store and its sickening stench of rotted vegetables, right up to the municipal building and into the sheriff’s office. They passed through a side office where, in an ergonomic chair, was perched a uniformed skeleton, its head thrown back and a revolver still clutched in one withered hand. A dark brown butterfly was unfurled across the wall behind it.

Burt tried his best to vomit at the scene but Argus was unaffected. He saw only that the station was deserted for the time being, so he fished the keys out of the desk with his free hand and unlocked one of the two cells in the back. Again Burt begged to be let go: “Please, the others don’t know where I went. In the morning they’ll be worried about me.”

“They may come to the Allendale residence searching for you, at which time I will gladly redirect them here, explaining that you broke the law and therefore are obligated to meet with the police.”

“But the police aren’t here! You saw that thing in the office…”

“I do not understand. You will remain here until the police arrive. I will return daily to meet with you. If the authorities are not here, I will act as your caretaker until they arrive, at which point you will be transferred officially into their custody. If your friends have any objections I will advise them to wait as well.”

“There’s no one coming, Argus!”

“The authorities have been contacted and are on their way. I will return home now and visit you again tomorrow.”

Argus was good to his word. The next day he came to the station again, saw that Burt was asleep in his cell, and prepared lunch from the stocks at the empty house on the hill. When the man finally awoke he did not speak, but only accepted the food and ate in morose silence. No one came for him, and for the next two weeks Argus’s routine was expanded. He walked to the station and fixed Burt’s meals in between sets of chores at the house.

Once Burt asked if he could watch television to alleviate his boredom, and Argus complied. There was a small portable set on a rolling cart in a cabinet down the hall, but after Argus went through the trouble of wheeling it down and plugging it in Burt was dismayed to see that no channels were broadcasting save one, a skewed view of an empty news desk. The scene, though live according to the logo in the corner of the screen, was completely still and silent. “Shall you watch this?” asked Argus.

“No,” Burt whispered. “No. Turn it off. Take it away.”

“As you wish.”

*

At the beginning of the third week they came, an unsmiling throng that rushed down the hill toward the town. They shuffled and stumbled over the lawn of the empty house, each one moving with mysterious purpose, drawn by a force beyond an outsider’s perception. They staggered past Argus without even seeming to notice him. One might bump into his polished metal chest every so often, to which he offered a polite “Pardon me,” but they never replied. He couldn’t quite understand why no one responded to his medical advice when he commented on a gash across the forehead or the obvious fracture of an arm or leg.

Many of them had swarmed the municipal building, he discovered later. It was a hassle pressing through to get inside, but soon he made his way to the solitary cell. He found an entire silent horde pressed up to the bars, their arms flailing madly within the bars’ confines. “Please, ladies and gentlemen, move,” he said, pushing them out of the way.

Burt was gone. Something had been splattered across the floor and the walkers at the bars were scooping up handfuls and shoving it into their mouths. Argus returned with a mop to clean up the mess but when he unlocked the cell door the strangers poured past him, swarming the mess, and no matter how much Argus complained they refused to move. When the throng finally fell back there was very little left for him to clean up.

*

The walking throng thinned over the months but did not stop. The weather grew colder; there came a hard snow. Drifts were up to fifteen or twenty feet, and though the house on the hill stood far above the worst of it Argus could not go to town even if he were ordered. In dips between the drifts, pallid green fingers poked out of the snow, frozen in curls. The Clemms’ old home across the road collapsed with a shriek near the end of December. A family of mice took refuge against the cold in the basement of the house on the hill, which kept Argus busy for some time.

Spring came, and with spring came the thaw. The ice on the small pond by the Clemm house thinned and cracked. The curled fingers reaching out of the snow drifts blackened and dripped away, leaving only white bones; there was a rancid stink that, though it did not bother Argus, triggered a latent process in the Housemind across the way, and soon the house on the hill was puffed full of an artificial floral scent.

Then the snow melted in earnest and flooded down into the Clemms’ pond. There was so much runoff the pond grew higher until it was more akin to a lake. It enveloped the ruins of the Clemm home and carried them down the hill, whisking away the skeletal corpse of an opossum that had lain on the kitchen floor since the prior September.

Argus came out when the ground was clear and began his chores, raking away dead leaves and branches and whatever bones hadn’t slipped away in the thaw. He bleached the stone walls, cleared the gutters, and polished the windows. The house had been empty for a year.

*

The third group of travelers came in early August, heading east. Through the house’s expansive back windows Argus saw them as they entered town: a wagon piled high with bags and pulled by a team of horses, followed by smaller but similar wagons carrying weary-looking women and men. Many held their arms protectively around young children, at least one of whom jingled when she moved — though perhaps that was only the sound of the chains binding the legs of these riders to their wagons.

The entire procession was surrounded by two-dozen or more men on horseback, all carrying guns. From his vantage point Argus watched as the menagerie stopped at the old grocery store. Several men smashed the windows before ducking inside and emerging with plastic sacks fattened by cans. The bags were piled onto the wagons before the procession began to move again and the men on horseback spoke to one another, pointing up the hill. Argus saw the gestures, and even though the distance was enough to make him indiscernible to the people below, he thought they were greeting him.

He waved in return as the caravan shifted direction, moving up the hill.

On Guy Fawkes in Hell

I missed last week’s blogging the quals, but I’ve managed to keep ahead of my schedule a bit.  So here’s what I’ve read in the past two weeks:

Theory

Protevi, John – Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic
Artaud, Antonin – The Theater & Its Double
Bataille, Georges – Visions of Excess
Foucault, Michel – The Order of Things
Copjec, Jean – Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists
Butler, Judith – Bodies That Matter
Agamben, Giorgio – Homo Sacer
Bennett, Jane – Vibrant Matter
Morton, Timothy – The Ecological Thought

Primary Texts: Drama

Milton, John – Samson Agonistes
Anonymous – Two Lamentable Tragedies
Preston, Thomas – Cambyses
Dekker, Thomas – If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil is In It

My little thought for the week comes from the Dekker play; it ends with a scene in Hell during which various characters from the play proper are submitted to torments, but also, because this was 1611, includes a guest appearance by the illustrious guy Fawkes:

 

In this little snippet, Fawkes is named and discussed by the various demons who surround him in Hell.  The interesting thing about this is that Fawkes does not realize he is in Hell; every other mortal seems aware of their situation, but Fawkes seems a bit mad.

This is due to his punishment, which the demon Shacklesoul explains: Fawkes “Digd cellars to find where hel stood” and now for all eternity believes himself to be in the cellars beneath Parliament, perpetually on the verge of lighting the gunpowder kegs but never actually doing it.

It might be fruitful to speculate why Fawkes is the only person in Hell given such a special treatment — specifically, to never know he’s in Hell.  With Fawkes  traitor and hence doubly abject, Dekker perhaps seizes this opportunity to highlight his own support of James (since the play, overall, is quite critical of James and his court, and in bad need of a balm).

Yet what is also interesting to me here is the rather proleptic (and of course coincidental) way that the scene predicts the appropriation of Guy Fawkes as a revolutionary for “Anonymous” and his deployment in other aspects of modern consumer culture: an emblem of political upheaval locked into a moment of fruitless action and paranoia, always on the verge of lighting the fires of revolution, but never actually doing it.

the peace and safety of a new dark age