Horror and Necropolitics: An Overview of Two Arbitrarily Chosen Films

Before I get started on this, I need to explain a bit about how this piece of criticism came about, to establish my rhetorical situation.

About five years ago at Wal-mart, on a total whim, I purchased a multi-DVD set of 50 “classic” horror movies, wherein classic means “a few famous things in the public domain and a bunch of stuff that costs nothing or next to nothing to license.”  There’s some good stuff in there – like the original Night of the Living Dead, Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, and Carnival of Souls – but for the most part it’s filled with B-movie shlock like The Killer Shrews or Creature from the Haunted Sea.  At the time my plan was to watch every single one of these movies in alphabetical order and write reviews for this blog, but the plan never came to fruition because it was conceived through boredom rather than any actual drive.

However, I decided one good possibility for my Patreon would be to return to these films and, using a random number picker, select two arbitrary movies and attempt to write a comparative analysis of them.  That’s what happened this month, serving up the films The Vampire Bat (1933) and Bloodlust (1961).  The films themselves are totally different in content; the former is a post-Dracula vampire picture while the latter is an awkward ripoff of “The Most Dangerous Game” and, I’d argue, a primitive slasher film ancestor. Unexpectedly, however, they both have in common a central concern: who gets to decide who dies?

Critical theorist Achille Mbembe considers the term necropolitics as a set of political moves, the “ultimate expression of sovereignty” that resides “in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.”  So, for example, the power of the state to order the execution of criminals, or from a critical animal studies perspective, the assumed right of humans to enact wholesale slaughter via factory farms, and things of this nature.  Of particular interest for Mbembe is the explicitly authoritarian valence of necropolitics, the version of it that arises in societies ordered around “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations.”  (Think here, of course, of Nazi Germany, but also the many colonial enterprises worldwide and their projects of enslavement and exploitation of certain populations.)

This is heady stuff, but for now we can consider the barest bones of Mbembe’s conception in order to think about what these two not necessarily very good horror films can tell us about the orientation of popular, white American necropolitics over the span of some thirty years.  We’ll begin at the beginning, or at least in 1933, and The Vampire Bat.

Elevator pitch: a small German town is overcome with panic after a rash of mysterious murders in which victims were left exsanguinated with small puncture wounds on their necks.  The city fathers insist that a vampiric curse has returned to plague the town, pointing to local history and folklore to prove it, while police inspector Karl Breettschneider believes there’s a more rational explanation.

The town’s suspicion turns toward a man with intellectual disabilities named Herman, who has no home but wanders the streets and survives on alms.  When he overhears a local connecting the rising bat population in town with the vampire episodes, Herman insists that the bats are his “friends” and “soft like cats”.  As the local then insists, re: Herman, he “prowls the streets all night, just like an animal” and “never works and never bathes, and yet appears well fed always.”  While Herman himself is not played in a particularly savory light (unlike more recent ideas of Oscar-baity depictions of disability in film), he’s also clearly not harmful, as the objection he looks too healthy for a homeless person is patently absurd: he’s cared for by the community, and indeed, the first (witnessed) death in the film is of an old woman who fed him and employed him in minor jobs.  Yet Herman’s proximity to this charitable dead woman only bolsters the town’s suspicions.

The Vampire Bat is doing something very interesting with vampire mythology here.  Lugosi’s Dracula was only three years old at this point, fresh in the public memory, and the idea of suave, composed, and aristocratic vampires was really starting to gel in the popular consciousness.  Of course, these ideas derived from Bram Stoker’s novel, which uses the figure of the Count to embody industrial Britain’s fears regarding a decaying but not entirely dead Continental aristocracy.  However, if you dig back far enough into vampire folklore, you find that as the superstition emerges in the Balkans and Prussia it is particular to the peasant class of those regions.  That is to say, our earliest recorded “vampires” in history were not aristocrats but peasants who supposedly had died but came back to life and looked unusually healthy.  Signs of a possible vampire, indeed, were also generally signs of good health: shining eyes and a ruddy complexion (this is aside from appearing after a reported death and drinking blood, of course).

To reduce a complex historical phenomenon to a simple read for the purposes of argument, it’s easy to see how a myth that pathologizes healthy looking peasants benefits, more or less, the aristocratic power structure dependent upon those peasants by providing a mechanism for the laboring class to be suspicious and resentful of itself rather than its masters.  What’s fascinating about The Vampire Bat, then, is that post-Dracula the filmmakers are revivifying an older version of vampire folklore, as the suspicions of Herman’s unusual good health indicate.

The finale of the film presents a final, bizarre turn of the screw, as a lynch mob descends on Herman, who jumps to his death from a precipice.  It is assumed the vampire problem is solved, and yet – just after Herman’s death a final murder has occurred.  The revelation of the final act is that Breettschneider’s acquaintance and the local doctor, Otto von Niemann, presented thus far as more or less an ally, is actually the murderer.  Sort of.  He’s also, inexplicably, a hypnotist, and he has been mind-controlling his servant to kidnap local people in the night, drag them to his laboratory, and then draining them of their blood – using the similarity to a vampire’s MO to divert suspicion from human agents.

But why does Von Niemann need all this blood?  Because, as he explains, in his experiments he has “created life” and the organism he has somehow conjured is incomplete and not self-sustaining: it needs blood to survive.  The specifics of this are glossed over and the whole turn of events is incredibly weird since, when it is revealed, the “life” Von Niemann has created appears to be a large immobile rock in an aquarium.

How this thing constitutes “life” in any sense of the term is certainly questionable.  And yet, though I might be giving the film too much credit, I think that’s part of the point: Von Niemann justifies his actions by saying he must protect and sustain the new life he has created, and yet how is this thing, this horrible immobile clod, considered exceptional or sacrosanct “life” when compared with the human life of Herman, his caretakers, or the doctor’s other victims?  The vampire, in the end, is metaphorical: Von Niemann’s Promethean technocratic delusions are parasitical upon the community he inhabits.  His role as a doctor doubles his role as a necropolitician: he is there to heal the sick, but in fact grooms some of his patients for inevitable, instrumentalized slaughter for the sake of his weird barnacle child.

Bloodlust comes a number of years later, and yet there are some striking similarities to consider.  As already mentioned, it’s a ripoff of the classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game” – a group of four “teenagers” (they all look considerably older) are on a boating trip and, because the captain of their rented boat gets blackout drunk, they decide to canoe to a nearby island, which they think is deserted.  However, it turns out the island is host to Dr. Balleau, a wealthy eccentric, his wife, another drunk man they keep around for some reason, and a crew of servants/bodyguards in Venetian gondolier cosplay.

It turns out Dr. Balleau, whose home is decorated with stuffed and mounted game animals, has decided he needs to hunt something more challenging (humans, of course) and the two dudes of our group of hero teens are his next quarry.  (Since his wife and the drunk dude are having an affair, he has them killed, and kindly informs our leading ladies he will merely keep them as sex slaves.)  The teens (fine, we’ll call them that) are led into Balleau’s secret trophy room, where he has taxidermied his wife and her lover, as well as two other men (one of whom, I will note as an aside, is the only person of color to appear in either of these films).

Both of the hunts prior to his wife and her lover, Balleau explains, were inmates at a nearby island prison who were smuggled out by a certain boat captain – indeed, the teens’ captain, who has tried to sever ties but, it is suggested, grapples with what he’s done by drinking heavily.  Anyway Balleau’s men somehow extract him from his boat and now he’s here, but he’s a huge asshole to the kids and won’t help them, instead striking out on his own (and getting killed).

As I mentioned before, one of the most “acceptable” sites of necropolitical action is the execution of prisoners by the state, and this is a function that Balleau has taken upon himself.  As he tells our heroes, one of his previous hunts was a repeat rapist, and so deserved to die – the irony here, considering his plans for the two central women in the film, is apparently lost on him.  He has installed himself as his island’s god and hence inhabits what theorists of necropolitics and biopower call sovereignty’s “state of exception” – he can, in short, dish out punishment, but under no circumstances is he subject to it.  This gives the lie to his own description of the game, wherein he insists “my life will also be subject to how the hunt goes…”  Indeed, Balleau’s occupation of the island, giving him ultimate control over a geographical space, enacts precisely the sort of colonial necropolitics Mbembe theorizes.

But there’s a backstory here.  Balleau explains that he was once a “scholar” and indeed, he worked at a museum, preparing and designing exhibits.  And then, he says, came “the war,” where he was enlisted as a sniper.  He was disgusted to learn that he took “pleasure” in killing, and as he explains in one of the funniest, overdone lines of the film, the pleasure “became a passion, which became a lust – a lust for blood!”  Bravo.

The second half of the movie involves a lot of running around and is, to be entirely frank, boring.  At one point Balleau leaves his closest henchman for dead, and he loses track of the teens.  However, they ambush him later that night, having hidden in his secret trophy room in the darkened exhibit he had reserved for their corpses.  This is the point at which Balleau truly does becomes “subject to how the hunt goes,” revealing the uncanny side of the state of exception: being exempt from all punishment means you are also exempt from all protection.  The henchman left for dead earlier now returns unexpectedly and murders Balleau, pressing him onto the mounting spikes of the teens’ would-be exhibit before dropping dead of his own wounds.

A quick read of this whole thing: there’s a suggestion here of Balleau carrying forward or embodying the horrifying trauma of World War II and its related atrocities, bringing these “teens” into confrontation with a mode of existence they, in their historical innocence, have been spared.  Achille Mbembe’s theorization of necropolitics and necropower, taking as it does the modern context of globalized warfare, ends with his idea of “death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead” (think here of slavery in the US, or apartheid in its South African and Israeli forms, where whole populations are rendered pseudohuman in the eyes of state authority).  Despite some anachronism, I would argue that Balleau operates as a vector for precisely such a world: he holds within him the bloody storm of war and unleashes it upon these innocents.

And yet the teens – as we call them – are not, in the end, overly scarred by their encounter.  They are called to enact relatively little violence, and indeed spend most of their time avoiding it.  The final act of victory is not theirs but that of Balleu’s forsaken servant.  And here we have another unexpected alignment with our earlier film The Vampire Bat.

When Von Niemann is killed at the end of The Vampire Bat it is not the police inspector who does the need, nor one of the handful of supporting characters: it is his own servant, the man he has been mind-controlling into bringing him victims.  Both here and in Bloodlust there is an easy gloss of how evil is doomed to eat itself, that it is basically unsustainable and its own instruments will destroy it.  That’s all well and good, but it’s perhaps not totally accurate.

Both films present as their villain someone who unwarrantedly assumes a necropolitical mantle – Von Niemann’s mad scientism and Balleau’s postwar bloodlust – but also suggest that these actions are self-effacing, rather than outgrowths of a basic power structure endemic to society.  Neither the teens of Bloodlust nor the police inspector of The Vampire Bat must dirty their hands with necropolitics – by deciding and acting to kill their antagonists – because the basic fantasy that underpins both narratives is that we simply don’t have to, we are not a part of this system, and this system will deconstruct itself.

Indeed, both films argue that the servants of these systems will, in their final and noble moments, destroy them, losing their chains and their lives in one fell swoop and erasing the monstrous potential of their futurity.  But what both narratives attempt to disavow – and yet, in some ways, must acknowledge if only by curious exclusion – is how the four white teens on an island vacation and the police inspector are themselves always already beneficiaries of a society in which scientific nihilism and postwar trauma have space to grow and fester, feeding off our lives even as our lives are fed by them.

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A Gathered Meeting

The reader accustomed to my stories likely enjoys them (if she enjoys them) for my lack of personal presence in them, and because of this I apologize in advance for what I have to say now.  The fact of the matter is, in my line of work one travels occasionally, sometimes great distances, and sometimes one encounters something which is worth recording for posterity, even if it is part of the generally uneventful plot we know as reality.  These isolated events themselves are no more or less meaningful than those which constitute the grand tapestry and yet, as I see it, offer interesting moments where the embroidery of life, as it were, becomes tangled and strange, and so while it is no more or less meaningful than anything else it is at least interesting insofar as it is different, perhaps revealing some vagary in the process of construction.  But I am drifting.

About a year or so ago I was attending a conference at a university in the north of England.  The expense of the trip on a graduate student’s means was considerable but the theme of the conference matched some research I had done on the poems of Aemilia Lanyer and I was at the point in my career where the paucity of conference presentations on my curriculum vitae was beginning to gnaw at me.  In an attempt to offset the costs of travel from the States I ended up booking some fairly lengthy and circuitous flights there and back, which were offered at something of a discount for their inconvenience; one result of this, other than considerable jetlag, was that I overstayed past the actual length of the conference by a day, meaning I had an entire Sunday to spend on my own.

While that may sound luxurious, the fatigue of both travel and conference attendance meant that I would have been happier on my way back home to my own bed rather than spending another night in my hostel.  Still, rather than lying in my bed and listening to the comings and goings of a group of undergraduate Glaswegians, I decided to get out and do something this final day.

It was not an exciting event: Quaker meeting for worship.  I say this self-deprecatingly, as I personally find the traditional Quaker method of worship – silent waiting for an hour – rejuvenating and peaceful.  I run the double risk here of taking for granted that my reader knows about the peculiarity of Quakers or, on the other hand, that she cares to hear about it.  I will explain, then, what I think needs to be understood for what follows to make something like sense.

The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, traditionally interpret the common Protestant call for a “priesthood of all believers” as a rejection entirely of authoritative hierarchy and ordained clergy.  Meeting for worship traditionally consists of an hour of silence wherein some may be moved by the Spirit to speak messages; today individual Quakers will differ on the specific interpretation of the Spirit as a sign of Divinity or a more humanistic element, a lability that appealed to me when I first came to them some years ago.

The sect sprang up in the aftermath of the English Civil War, when Protestant fervor was given comparatively free reign in that country, and its historical proximity to and outgrowth from my scholarly field of the Reformation and Renaissance perhaps plays some part in my affinity for it.  The Quakers had a strong presence in the North and, since I was already there, I sought out the oldest established meetinghouse in the area for my attendance that morning.  The persecution of the Quakers (and all religious nonconformists in England) mean there are few structures that date originally from the time of the sect’s formation, but it happened that a short bus ride took me to one of a handful that had been established (quite boldly, and in defiance of the law) in the late 1670s.

Due to a misreading on my part, however, I took an early bus and arrived an hour before the time meeting was scheduled to begin.  It was early in the year and while not terribly cold, certainly not comfortable enough for me to wait outside.  Already a bit numb from walking a fourth of a mile up the road from the bus stop, I found myself faced with a handsome painted stone structure with a low wall out front, surrounded by a garden that was doing its best to wait for spring.

The meetinghouse had been expanded and refurbished a handful of times, according to its website, but it still maintained the simplicity that is customary of Quaker architecture, which is to say from the right angle it could have passed for a very old, though large, farmhouse.  Strolling through the front gate I knocked a few times at the front doors and received no answer (the parking lot to the side of the building was empty but I thought I might as well try).  Faced with the idea of walking all the way back to the town center to sit despondently in a café, I decided to wander the grounds for a bit.

Around back I discovered the first curious thing that day: a fire-pit, set twenty or thirty feet away from the meetinghouse, and piled high with gently burning timber.  I had caught the scent of wood smoke as I turned the corner and thought perhaps some nearby farmer was clearing brush, but it seemed singularly unlikely that a fire would be burning behind an empty meetinghouse.  I stood there a moment, confused but grateful for the warmth, and I gazed into the wooded area beyond the meetinghouse grounds, expecting to see someone – perhaps a caretaker tending to the small graveyard between myself and the trees – but there was no one.

Hands in my coat pockets, elbows tucked to my sides, I turned back to the building, thinking an early bird invested with the day’s care of meeting might be watching me through a window.  Again, I saw no one.  A knot of wood in the fire cracked and the structure that had been built of the fuel – an odd thing, I now saw, an delicate structure of ragged wood and twigs piled together in a cone with the fire coiling through the center – slumped to the side as bright dots of flame glittered up into the air.  Aside from that loud pop and the low crackling of the fire, I realized everything was quite silent, almost peaceful, and I recalled how in the old days Quakers met at no certain time, but rather congregated in their meetinghouses when and for as long as they felt called by God – which was often.

At that moment I understood something of that, I think, that desire to stay in silence for as long as possible, and I stood by the warmth of the fire and took in the smell of the smoke for a bit longer.  In the distance I heard a dog begin to howl – or bay, I suppose – and three or four more joined in.  The noise broke my concentration and I stood there, frowning, and trying to think of what situation I was overhearing.  Within a few seconds, however, the howls stopped, and I was left standing and listening to nothing except the fire.  I decided to move off around the house, completing my circuit.  Turning the corner, I discovered a bicycle tucked behind a shrub near the front door.  So there was someone present – they just hadn’t heard when I knocked the first time.

I knocked a bit more forcefully, and the door was a few seconds later opened by a middle-aged bespectacled man with long, graying hair.  I said I was visiting for meeting but had accidentally shown up a bit early, and he apologized for having missed me.  He explained that he was busy preparing for fellowship – a sort of short, after-meeting snack and coffee hour that occurs following meeting – and apparently hadn’t heard me from the kitchen when I knocked the first time.  His name was Terry and he’d been a member of the meeting for most of his life; he showed me where to hang my coat in the foyer, gestured to some pamphlets on the history of the meetinghouse piled on a small desk, and apologized for having to return to the kitchen to oversee his cinnamon rolls.

At this point I had some time before meeting began, so I grabbed one of the brochures to skim while I investigated.  Like most purpose-built meetinghouses, the center of the structure was a large square room with wooden benches arranged in rows (in this case, three) to face what was once a large black coal or woodstove but was now a less imposing gas unit, beside which stood a small table bearing a stack of books.  The information in the brochure was the same as what I’d read on the website regarding the building’s construction and refurbishments throughout the years, though it was interesting to compare the pictures with what I saw in front of me.

Again, like many old meetinghouses, this one had originally been built with a divider to demarcate men and women’s seating.  Despite the early Quakers’ radical views on the equality of the sexes, especially when it came to authority and revelation, they had still observed certain (to the modern mind) backward notions about the proper conduct of Christian worship as they understood it.  The separate sides (and, usually, separate entrances) for men and women worshipers was one of these.  The divider (a waist-high wall) had been taken down around the middle of the previous century and the hardwood refinished, but the line of discoloration was still visible running down the center of the meetinghouse floor.  The wood just didn’t quite match.

Above, a gallery offered seating for those times when the meeting was more fully attended (Quaker numbers have dwindled considerably), and I expected everyone who showed up that morning would fit on the ground floor.  Still, I went upstairs simply because I could, and while standing there I found myself catching the smell of the fire from the back of the building, and I closed my eyes and took a moment to appreciate the feeling of being simply where I was.

I was also, however, still a bit jetlagged, and I think I might have been falling asleep when I was startled from my reverie by the front doors opening and the sound of several people entering at once below.  After a moment, I descended to introduce myself.

The new company were all about the same age as Terry but less preoccupied and hence much more interested in me.  I didn’t catch all their names but two, Georgina and Fatima, were particularly interested in my presence as an American and as an academic.  Fatima, a tall but slight doctor, had been to Boston once or twice, and she shared with me her memories of the city (which I appreciated insofar as she also found it somewhat overwhelming) while Georgina, a shorter but rosy-cheeked woman, told me of her deep but unprofessional appreciation for Shakespeare (Midsummer was her favorite and she was desperate for my opinion on the matter; I told her I was most personally partial to Macbeth and she replied “At least it’s not Hamlet!”).  Other people I was introduced to included Fatima’s husband Greg and, when they arrived, Alice and Judith, a couple maybe a decade older than myself, and their two school-age children.

In short time things were more or less arranged for meeting to begin, and more and more people trickled in.  I was surprised to find the meeting more populous than I had imagined, with enough children to warrant a First Day School class separate from the larger group, though we were still not enough to take sensible advantage of the upper gallery.

Quakers are historically averse to rituals but, personally, most of them have small habits they perform when centering for meeting.  Mine involves, if I can manage it, sitting near enough a window that I can trace the edges of the light outside as it falls and is projected over the walls and floor.  It was cloudy that day so there was little opportunity for this, but I sat near a window anyway, at one of the benches on the outer edge of the room.  A few spaces away from me sat one very thin older man I hadn’t met, but other than that people tended to cluster near the center of the room in the first and second rows.  I saw Fatima and her husband off to my right, and Georgina and Terry not much further away.  Yet looking directly opposite (most meeting rooms of this type are laid out symmetrically) I saw the bench corresponding to mine on the far side of the meetinghouse was totally empty.  I felt keenly my own presence as the visitor here (was my companion on the marginal bench also a first-time attendee?) but as the meeting fell into silence, I pushed the thought away and closed my eyes.

I will spare the reader the particularities of what one does in silent meeting for worship and the substance of what occupied my thoughts that day.  I listened to the breathing of the few dozen people seated around me, the coughs, the creaks of benches, and waited.  When one is in meeting and able to center down into the deep meditative state that is the aim (or at least one aim) of Quaker worship, it bears noting that one sometimes loses track of time.  So I don’t know if it was five minutes later, or perhaps fifteen minutes later, when I opened my eyes and adjusted myself in my seat and noticed the bench on the far side of the room was no longer empty.

It’s not uncommon in any meeting for a few people to filter in a little after the beginning of meeting proper, since timeliness is not a renowned Quaker virtue.  So that someone was there was not the strange thing.  What was strange about him was how he was dressed, in a very dark red shirt of a very old style, and a broad-brimmed black hat.  This was, more or less, traditional Quaker clothing, dating back to certain habits of comportment immortalized in the packaging of oatmeal containers.  But that this man was dressed so, while surprising, was not terribly odd: I’ve been to meetings host to more traditional and conservative Friends who still observe, in moderated form, dress codes that really began to slip out of fashion in the late nineteenth century.  I wasn’t aware of this presence in Britain (where by and large Quakerism lean more liberal in comparison with some American elements) but it was not something that seemed outside the realm of possibility.

Still, because of his dress I fixated on him a moment, though he had his own eyes closed and his delicate face turned upward as if basking in an imaginary sunbeam.  He was a slight man, with only a hint of a beard, really almost feminine in some way I couldn’t quite articulate.  After this moment of taking stock, I closed my eyes again, and more time passed.

Later, someone near the center of the room felt moved to speak.  As is my habit, when I heard the tell-tale shifting on the bench, I opened my eyes to watch.  Fatima’s husband Greg, a large man with a kind face, began to speak about his concern over recent government actions against immigrant populations and what more the meeting could do to provide shelter, which was certainly a common enough anxiety back home.  As he spoke, however, I noticed that the man across the way had been joined by a second party.

It was a woman, also in old dress – black with a white bonnet.  She sat beside the man as if they had arrived together, and for all I knew, perhaps they had.  Their eyes were open now, like others in the room, and they were looking at Greg as he delivered his message.  When he had finished and sat down, they turned to look ahead once more, and as they did so (I think) they saw me staring at them.

I think but I am not sure.  I immediately glanced away, staring at the spot on the floor where the discolored plank split the floor of the room, and burning with embarrassment, closed my eyes.  I wasn’t sure if the couple would find what I did rude, but I felt terribly uncouth nevertheless.  The incident unsettled my equilibrium and I found myself unable to center down again, and so I simply kept my eyes closed for the remaining eternity of meeting.

The session ended, as they usually do, with a scattered shaking of hands and greetings.  I shook the hand of the man who shared my bench and the people seated before us and, glancing across the room again, saw the far bench was now vacant.  This unsettled me further, since I imagined I’d offended the man and woman, but I tried to put it out of my mind as a round of announcements of upcoming events began before the fellowship hour.

Later, the crust of a cinnamon roll in one hand and an empty coffee cup in the other, I excused myself from a conversation and slipped back through the building to the kitchen, where the coffee machine was hissing contentedly.  I tossed the crust of pastry in the bin but poured myself a second cup, and it was as I stood there in the empty kitchen, listening to the murmur of conversation down the hall, that I realized I could quite clearly see through the windows over the kitchen counter the back garden of the meetinghouse.

The firepit was there, but it was empty, and surrounding it was a stone terrace lined with three wrought iron benches that I did not remember seeing at all.  Beyond that, the woodland was still there, though perhaps – and here I am, if you excuse the phrasing, surely uncertain – it seemed thinner than it had before.  Between that and the back garden the graveyard was still in plain view, the simple headstones stuck up from the earth like uneven teeth, and I saw a figure rapidly moving away, over a small hill and out of my line of sight.

I say “figure” because that is about as well as I can describe it, based on the speed with which it moved and the view I had of it, though I suppose if pressed to be more specific, I’d say it might have been someone running.

It was also at about this point that I realized if Terry had been in the kitchen while I was standing by the firepit, he would have plainly seen me, and I him.

I stayed to help clean, since I had nothing else to do that day, and ended up washing plates and coffee mugs with Georgina while Alice and Judith’s children played with a few others in the back garden.  After some amount of small talk I decided to move orthogonally into what concerned me: “The yard is lovely,” I said.  “Very picturesque.”

“It is,” Georgina agreed.  “We all get together and go over the garden in the spring.”

“That firepit,” I said, “how often do you use that?”

“Summers, mostly,” she said.  “We have evening programs and it can get chilly.  Bonfire Night too, of course.  Sometimes Christmas if the weather’s not awful.”

I nodded.  “It must be very nice.”

“Oh, it is,” she said, passing me a mug, which I dried and then placed on a folded towel.  The look she gave me when she did so, however, was strange.  “See anything else interesting?” she asked, in a knowing way.

I still felt the need to be diplomatic.  “Do you have any attenders who wear old-style plain dress?”

She shook her head, smiling slightly.  “Not that I’m aware of.”  There was a beat of silence as she passed me another mug.  “So you saw them, then?”

“Them?”

“They come from time to time.  We give them their space.”

It was unreal to have this woman frankly admit to something that seemed to me so anomalous.  “Who are they?” I asked.

“We don’t know,” Georgina said, shrugging.  “Records aren’t always clear about this sort of thing.  Sometimes the records don’t even exist anymore.”

“There was a fire, too,” I said abruptly.  “In the firepit out there.  And earlier I saw something in the graveyard…”  I trailed off, not sure what I was even trying to convey.

Georgina continued to wash dishes and I continued to dry them, the sounds of the children’s laughter filtering through the glass of the windows.  I tried to detect any hint of wood smoke, and found none.  “My first visit,” I said, finally, “and I meet your local ghosts.”

Suddenly and loudly, Georgina laughed.  It startled me, so out of proportion it was to anything that had just transpired, but she turned to me and smiled with a gay indifference that, as I understood it, closed the matter for further discussion.

“Oh,” she said, beaming, “but Quakers don’t believe in ghosts.”

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What Work Was: Labor and Play in Night in the Woods

You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.

-Philip Levine, “What Work Is

Night in the Woods is a game released by studio Infinite Fall not too long ago.  Normally in these essays I talk about something that’s either really old or at least old enough that no one cares about spoilers, but this essay will be different in that I’m dealing with something relatively recent.  To that end you may want to note that I am going to be discussing aspects of the game’s plot in some detail, and if you want that experience fresh, you better bail now.

So, again: Night in the Woods is a game released by studio Infinite Fall, consisting of a team of Alec Holowka, Scott Benson, and Bethany Hockenberry.  I’ve described the premise to others as a bit like a Rust Belt version of Richard Scarry’s Busytown.  It takes place in a world where everyone is an anthropomorphic animal, rendered in simple but charming illustrations reminiscent of children’s books, but the location of the action, a quietly dying east-not-quite-Pennsylvania hamlet called Possum Springs, is the precise opposite of Scarry’s thriving metropolis.  The mines closed long ago and when the player character, Mae, arrives suddenly home after dropping out of college during her sophomore year, she discovers that the local supermarket has shuttered as well.

In my hometown the local grocery store was sold during my first-year of college.  “They’re Indians,” my mom said, with no particular tone, but the fact this was observed at all was a tone in and of itself.  In my rural Indiana town of about a thousand people, there was at the time only the one store.  One of my first good online friends, who lived near Philadelphia, once mentioned to me over AIM how weird it was that I would say “going to the store” rather than specifying which one.  This was the first time, perhaps, that I realized how small my world was.

The store closed the year after the Indian family took it over.  I met them only once, when I asked them if I could use their fax machine.  The building has been empty since, but hey, a Dollar General opened down the street.

Soon Mae reconnects with her friends from high school, dour goth Bea (who is running her family’s hardware store after her mother’s sudden death and her father’s nervous breakdown) and manic troublemaker Gregg (who is working at a convenience store so he and his boyfriend, quiet and thoughtful video store clerk Angus, can save up enough to move to the city).  As my descriptions indicate, the game’s point of emphasis is primarily its characters, their personalities, and their interactions.  But inextricable to character, in the game’s perspective, is work.  This is true even for Mae’s parents: her father has worked a few industrial jobs before taking up the deli counter of a Wal-mart-ish box store, while her mother does admin work for the local church.  Characters you meet on the street are on their lunch breaks from their telemarketing jobs or waiting at the social security office.  This is a game concerned with what work is.

In my senior year of high school I worked the deli counter at a Wal-mart.  I was 18 so I could legally run the fryers and machines.  College was on the horizon and a lot of things were uncertain.  Since the divorce about six years earlier my mother’s finances had been a little scattered; within a year or so she’d lost her job as a gas station manager, a job for which she suffered a torn rotator cuff due to reaching up on a high shelf for cigarette packs multiple times a day (she still can’t fully lift that arm).  She had eventually gotten a job in the same Wal-mart I now worked in, across the way, in the bakery.  But when it came time for me to apply for financial aid I found that she hadn’t filed her taxes for years, a prerequisite for any of my applications.  She wasn’t making enough for it to matter, and she was working so hard and so often, she said she didn’t have the time, and it had never been something she felt compelled to do.  But now it needed to be done.  So I learned to do — and then did — my mother’s taxes.

Mechanically Night in the Woods is fascinating for the way it layers its thematics of labor and employment over the experience of gameplay.  Mae, who has just returned from dropping out of college, is literally unemployed, and the game provides little firm direction in the normal sense of the term, what designers call the “core loop” of actions that the player undertakes.  Other characters talk about their jobs, can be met at their jobs, but Mae is granted a certain ambiguous freedom to wander around Possum Springs as she (or rather, as the player) desires.

Essentially how the game progresses is that every day Bea and Gregg are working at their respective jobs, and Mae can go visit them to ask if they want to hang out, which moves into a sequence of some evening activity — band practice, going to the mall, smashing fluorescent light tubes in a parking lot, and so on.  The player can do this as soon as Mae wakes up in the morning, making for a fairly brisk run-through, but time is not exactly of the essence.

The game models Mae’s unemployment by emphasizing the player’s freedom relative to her friends.  Whereas they stand behind counters and talk about how bored they are, Mae can wander by the old canal, or climb trees and tip-toe across powerlines to reach the roofs of buildings downtown.  For the most part there is no spur to exploration in these platforming sections; the player simply decides how to make use of Mae’s time.

What you find yourself doing, after a while, is building a routine.  Mae gets up in the morning and talks to her mother in the kitchen.  She wanders downtown into the canal and shoplifts a pretzel from a vendor for the baby rats she discovered when she broke into the storage room of the municipal building.  She feeds the rats.  She talks with her retired high school science teacher about star-gazing.  She listens to a high school acquaintance’s poetry.  She visits the homeless man living in the woods outside the church, and talks with the new pastor about God.  She eavesdrops on some workers outside the local bar.  All of these things and more can happen, and precious few of them are required.  The player’s lack of concrete direction mirrors Mae’s own aimlessness, orbiting the uncertain reasons for which she dropped out, and her friends’ quiet resentment toward her (from their perspective) frivolous and selfish choice to scuttle an opportunity they never had.

My scholarship was a miracle.  They put my face on a billboard, along with the other winner.  Full tuition paid to any in-state college or university.  My work at Wal-mart, and a mom willing to let me mooch a few months out of the year, meant I’d saved up enough to pass through the summers when I lived at home.

My friends were working at gas stations or delivering pizzas while taking class part-time at the local state university satellite campus, half an hour away.  The school I chose — which was in the same town, also half an hour away from home — was a private liberal arts affair, and the vast majority of the students were from far out of town.  My roommate’s parents were professors.  He didn’t know how debit and credit cards worked, so I explained the ones his parents gave to him before they left.

During a safety convocation during our orientation week, a campus security guard with a thick Indiana drawl pronounced “motorcycle” in a way that made all the other students at the assembly snicker — motor-sickle.  During Q&A people kept trying to subtly maneuver him into saying the word again.

For a lot of reasons, but these were some of them, I felt very alienated at school.  My old friends were too busy to talk to me and everyone new I met was someone who would blithely mention things I had no way of comprehending — travel to Europe, vacations, high school internships — or, potentially, mock me for being ‘basically’ a townie.  What do your parents do? Oh, my mom’s a bakery manager at Wal-mart and my dad does machine maintenance at the casket factory.

My untreated anxiety and depression was boiling and to this day I cannot think of a moment where I have hated the world and everything in it more, and more personally, than standing in the dining hall alone and seeing that rush of bodies and hearing that chatter of voices and passing my tray off to the guy who worked in the kitchen who probably said motor-sickle which was the way I’d said it too before, many years before, when television helped me unconsciously train myself out of it.  And why had that happened, Michael?  Why did that happen? I saw a therapist for the first time that semester.

I returned from my first year of college, aimless.  I read ten books a week and, on weekends, sometimes, met up with high school friends.  But we didn’t hang out as often as we used to.

Night in the Woods is a narrative-heavy game, but it’s also not quite an adventure game.  Choosing to hang out with, say, Bea more often than Gregg or vice versa means you only see more of that character’s life.  There’s no penalty, in the sense that other characters or the gameworld at large don’t judge you.  Furthermore, aside from explorations and conversations, the game is interspersed with what we might call “minigames” — short sequences where the type of actions you as the player undertake change.

There’s a nice little roster of things: guiding Mae’s hand as she shoplifts, stopping your movement when a clerk’s eye turns toward you, or swinging a pretzel around to catch the attention of all your baby rats.  Perhaps chief among these gamey elements is band practice, which you undertake with Bea, Gregg, and Angus, with Mae as a bass player in a Guitar Hero-style rhythm game that is so frustrating to play on my controller I basically gave up.  (I told Scott Benson this, and he said that’s all right, because Mae is a canonically bad bass player.)

That I basically gave up doesn’t really matter, though, as the game progresses normally regardless (characters just make passing comments on Mae’s ability).  Like the exploration of Possum Springs, these smaller minigame sequences aren’t very stressful or difficult.  Indeed, by bringing back the Guitar Hero approach, a genre I haven’t personally touched in like ten years, Night in the Woods seems to invite not play necessarily, but reflection on play.  It’s true that when I played Guitar Hero it was… mostly with friends.  Mostly before and during college.

Even Mae’s normal mode of movement evokes the platformers of my childhood, but it shears them from the context of Mario gathering coins and powerups, repurposing them for self-guided exploration.  Similarly, the unexpected reappearance of a rhythm game sequence (with an inappropriate controller, to boot) both recalls and estranges me from something familiar.  Interacting with Night in the Woods is often like interacting with an old toy from your childhood: you remember the delight and wonder of these things, and stuff still moves more or less like it’s supposed to, but you’ve personally moved on.  There’s a temptation for nostalgia, for when games were clearer, when the actions we do now seemed to mean something more: when there were win and loss conditions, things to collect, points to rack up, prizes to earn, levels to complete.

The closest the game itself comes to offering this is a roguelike you can play on Mae’s laptop — which provides that point- and goal-oriented experience, but does so only as yet another way for you to whittle away Mae’s long, aimless, unemployed hours.  In a late sequence of the game, while exploring a house with Gregg, Mae becomes frustrated with having to take multiple elevators between floors and collect materials for lockpicking: “This is like work!” she cries.

And so it is.  The game cannily walks a line between presenting players with gamey elements and, at the same time, evacuating those elements of the affective veneer of gameplay.  This is not a criticism, mind you, but I think overall part of Night in the Woods‘s project: if play and work only exist in meaningful distinction, then the loss of work is also the loss of play.  Mae’s unemployment becomes a condition for how we experience the world: as a place for interaction and exploration, but also a place where, in the absence of productive labor, our play becomes itself a kind of labor, a routinized inspection of the game’s world and characters that can (with enough repetition) overwhelm us.

This is made clear in the game’s multiple dream sequences, wherein Mae traverses jumbled dream architecture to stir up phantom musicians and receive apocalyptic visions of giant animals devouring the world.  Aside from the short minigames, this is probably the game at its most “game-like” — there are markers to help you find your way as you platform around, small lanterns that show which musicians you have summoned, and activating each musician offers the reward of deepening the complexity of the in-game soundtrack (which is incredible, by the way).

But, as is the case in dreams, and the case for the game generally, this play lacks context: the points, the score, the concrete sense of progress.  With one or two exceptions, as dreams they communicate theme and mood more than any sense of accomplishment or plot, and by the time I thought “I am not looking forward to the next dream platforming sequence” — they stopped.

By the time I graduated from college I had gotten over a lot of stuff, but a recurring moment: people I met expressing surprise that I was local.  I was never taken for a local.  Most people thought, I discovered, that I was from Chicago.  Everyone assumed I was middle-class.  I did not mention my family’s jobs often or my origins because it got tiresome to hear people say I’d “overcome” something, as if my family and the place where we lived were obstacles to jump over.  That’s the charitable part.  The other, more queasy part, is that I also didn’t want people thinking less of me because of it.

I was feeling increasingly out of place when I went home for the summers and for vacations.  I saw my old friends less and less, went out infrequently, and read more and more.  I also played videogames.  Lots of videogames.  There was no time in my life, I think, where I played new releases more frequently.  Passing the time, waiting for the next step.

I knew I was going to go to grad school and I knew that meant leaving — really leaving — for the first time.  “That’s great, Michael,” my mom said to me when I told her, and then she paused.  “So what is grad school?”  When I joined the McNair program at my college — a program specifically for helping first-gen and low-income students get into grad school — I discovered this experience isn’t by any  means unique.  My path through life had tugged me away from my friends, and now did the same for my family; my home began to feel less like home.  I wanted out.

My senior year, a man was found in a ditch outside my hometown, a plastic bag on his head, his hands bound, his throat slashed.  A drug thing, they said.

The plot of Night in the Woods is minimal but interesting: Mae and her friends discover a severed arm outside a diner one night.  Mae also begins to suspect that something is happening in the town — that a “ghost” is stalking her, and kidnapping local youths.

What might seem, at the beginning, to be merely Mae’s own breakdown takes on a grim reality in the game’s final sections.  Most of the gameplay is the aimless routine-building and hanging out I’ve described; in the climax, however, Mae and her friends descend into one of the abandoned mines to discover the weird stuff happening in Possum Springs is quite bad indeed.

A demonic cult has taken root literally under the town.  Evoking the neurotic perfectionist murder cult of Hot Fuzz, these hooded figures claim to be the disenfranchised laborers who lost their way of life when the factories and mines closed, and they are now offering sacrifices to a dark god who lives in the bottomless pit in the mines in the hope that it will return commerce and vitality to the area, that it will, in short, bring the jobs back.  That this game began production three years before the reality of a Trump presidency is really something.

Anyway.

The game is cagey about the reality of some of this.  I mean, it’s truly happening — other characters apart from Mae see and talk about the cult — but it’s not clear if anything really lives in the bottomless pit and, even if it does, if it’s doing anything to help out Possum Springs.  The cultists insist that it is, that these sacrifices are holding small town entropy at bay and soon the jobs will come rushing back, but the best evidence they can offer is that one time some flowers bloomed.  What the player has actually seen of the town isn’t exactly heartening.  But if sacrifices are left off, furthermore, the cultists claim disaster will come — floods or worse, with the eventual erasure of the town. (Here, to the odd combo of Busytown and Hot Fuzz, the game adds Stephen King’s IT, which similarly deals with cyclical evil and destruction in a town and features a character having confusing conversations with large mystical animals.  I point this out only to appreciate the effectiveness of the eclecticism.)

What is clear about the cult is that they are modern blue collar reactionaries, decrying the loss of industry as the government supposedly spends too much money helping out immigrants.  They feed to their demon the homeless who pass through the town and the less useful young people — the ones who don’t work, who go into drugs or are simply mired in Rust Belt aimlessness.  The game makes it clear that their fantasy of work is, now, only a fantasy — Mae goes so far as to wonder whether the cultists are even old enough to remember the heydey of industrialism — and it’s their dedication to an ahistorical idea of what meaningful labor is that has led them down their dark path.  They are obsessed not with what work is, but what it was.

The characters in this game are not too big for their town.  Working at a convenience store sucks, yeah, but so did working in the mines.  One was indisputably more dangerous, but that makes the other no less real.  The unpleasantness of labor, its tedium, or the risks one faces are not what make that labor dignified.  It is dignified because it is labor.  It is our labor, yours and mine.  Working to exist, and knowing that’s why you are working, is better than sacrificing others in hopes of conjuring what you imagine to be a better job for yourself.

The cult’s nostalgia mirrors the player’s — let me be honest here, my nostalgia.  My feeling that I’ve played all these little games before, but that it used to be clearer, more meaningful, that I knew I was working — playing? — toward something.

Mae reveals that she dropped out because she was overcome with a depression that took hold of her at college.  She contextualizes this with regard to her history: in high school she severely beat another kid, put him in the hospital, during a raging manifestation of depression that boiled up in her when she realized a game she had been playing was fake.

It was all scripted, she explains, and the characters weren’t real people — characters she felt so strongly about! — but just shapes on a screen.  And if characters on a screen are just shapes spouting scripted lines, where does one find the reality of people in the world with you?  How are we different from the fictions we represent for ourselves?  That this is said in a game, of course, gestures toward metacommentary: the characters themselves are just “shapes,” Benson’s simple but beautiful animated storybook animals running on Holowka’s code and Benson and Hockenberry’s writing, often reduced to silhouettes by the game’s lighting.

None of this is real.  And yet when Mae finds out the local supermarket closed my teeth clenched.  When I saw her dad behind the deli counter I remembered how much standing on the concrete floor back there strained my calves.  Smashing lightbulbs with Gregg and vandalizing an abandoned car reminded me what passed for fun in the middle of nowhere.  When, at a party, Bea tried to judiciously flirt with a middle-class poli sci undergrad my heart hurt. When Angus described his childhood pleas to a God who never answered I recalled the little boy in Indiana who, sitting alone (hiding, but not quite) in the backyard, looked to the sky and asked something to make his parents stop fighting.

If these characters are just shapes then so am I, something you might glimpse between them as they are pressed together like a tessellation.

When I was a child I was convinced the water tower in the center of my hometown was the tallest structure in the world.  We lived out in the country, across the flat Indiana farmland, but you could still see it: a column of electric blue gleaming on the horizon.

The year after I graduated college, a turbine company bought a bunch of that farmland and set up sleek white windmills to generate green energy.  When you approach the town now you can see them all, so much more numerous and so much larger than that water tower, sometimes moving and sometimes still.  At night they blink red in unison to warn aircraft of their presence, popping into view along the skyline like lightning.

Night in the Woods is a game that ends by remembering a game.  Characters quite incidentally discuss a game another character has been playing, something with obnoxious music and wacky sound effects, an older game that everyone played when they were in high school.  “All summer,” Mae says.

What the game suggests on the level of plot is that labor is changing, but it is still labor.  Mae’s unemployment and freedom to play become, for the player, a search for meaningful work in the world of the game.  But the loss of labor and a surfeit of play threatens to render both meaningless.  Play becomes labor, but without any clear purpose.  On the level of gameplay — or experience — Night in the Woods hammers home this theme by representing, again and again, vague echoes of familiar gaming templates that, lacking their original context and goals, edge toward the absurd and tedious.

It is tempting to let what is lost dictate our ideas about what should be next.  If the game argues that the cultists are caught in a reactionary fantasy, it mechanically fashions the player into someone who is tempted by a similar dream: remember what it was like to just play?  Do you want to go back to that?  This is the first choice Mae seems to make, ducking out of school to spend her days annoying teens and feeding rats.  But the game itself goes to great lengths to show how much work goes into this play, how much effort the player/Mae must expend to fill her time, and the disruptions it causes for Mae’s friends and family.

That she recognizes, along with the player, the hollowness of play elided with or abstracted from labor, suggests a hopeful turn at the end of the game.  The cultists have been trapped in the mine, a new taco joint has opened up in Possum Springs (doubtless the cult would take credit if they knew), and she finds herself ready to move forward with her friends.

The cultists are wrong not because they desire to work, but because their idea of work is a Mammon to which they’re willing to sacrifice anything.  The old jobs aren’t coming back.  The mines and factories will not reopen.  Work has changed, but their idea of labor is something other than what they’re doing, an escape from reality.  This is why, it seems, they and their dark master possess such an affinity for Mae, whom they try to persuade to carry on their order.  She is at a crossroads, caught between the child who could play games “all summer” and the young adult who, disenchanted with the play that used to seem so meaningful, is at a loss for what sort of work should follow.

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The Hogwarts of Horses

Literary scholars and historians of the future will, I think, have a lot to say about the sea-change in young adult fiction marked by the Harry Potter series. I am, technically, of the “first” Harry Potter generation, and this means that I have some memory of what things were like before — the sort of stuff we kids read, or were expected to read.

Now, granted, we might say Harry Potter is in some sense a culmination of the more ambitious strains of YA (I’m thinking here of HP’s most immediate antecedent, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs) and post-HP we’ve seen YA lit orbit around similar themes: systemic oppression, war, and so on.  Part of this is because HP (quite ingeniously) was plotted to age with its first generation of readers, accompanying them into early adulthood.  I recall reading Deathly Hallows the summer after my high school graduation with a great sense of finality about quite a number of things.

What this built-in aging process also meant was that, as the books scaled up, so did their readership, with significant crossover with adults as the books matured.  From these two perspectives — adult and young adult — the epic sensibilities of Harry Potter are perfect: they guide the younger reader into thinking more critically and seriously about the world, and they allow the older reader an escapism that nevertheless feels relevant to “adult” concerns.  I’m not saying HP is revolutionary or that it hasn’t warped the minds of a certain sort of person who is now incapable of thinking of politics outside of Voldemort analogies — indeed, the politics of the series are tepid at best — but I think it’s a fact that HP caught on the way it did precisely because of this long structural gambit within the confines of YA lit.

The series that have followed Harry Potter, the most successful of these being Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, have all taken to heart the speculative paradigm HP started.  Whereas everything was once magicians and myths and magic, there was a turn toward the future, dystopia, and science fiction.  The uniting factor is that YA lit — the most popular elements of it, at least — are resoundingly generic, in the nerdy sense.  What we might forget here — what I remember from a time before Harry Potter — is the mode of young adult fiction that we might call “social realist.”

Before the speculative turn YA was rife with series — less meticulously plotted, designed to extend indefinitely in the manner of Japanese shonen manga — that were above all geared toward highly specific audiences with very particular interests in a fairly down-to-earth way.  I’m thinking here of Anne M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club or Sweet Valley High, which use the (inter)personal lives of a cast of characters in a soap-opera-esque format to investigate a streamlined and dramatized version of their projected readers’ social reality, while also occasionally interfacing with things like divorce, peer pressure, or having diabetes.

Notably my key examples here — and the example I will discuss later in this essay, Glory in Danger, part of Joanna Campbell’s Thoroughbred series — are definitely gendered feminine.  These are stories about social conflict solved through the navigation of personal relationships and interior emotional states, which of course grubby little boys don’t care about at all (he said, having read multiple Baby-Sitters Club books).  I want to bring this up because I don’t think this is a necessary precondition for this sort of fiction, but simply the way the market played out along pre-gendered lines.  Indeed, what makes something like Animorphs work is the way it combines these emotional concerns with the parameters of its larger adventure story (rather than “what do you do when your parents are getting divorced?” the question becomes “what would you do if your mom was an alien war criminal?”).  YA has often been troubled by the fact that certain types of books are “for girls” while everything else, rather than being just “for boys,” is often seen as “for everyone” — hence why Katherine Applegate and Joanne Rowling had to masculinize their names for market appeal.

Enter Joanna Campbell’s Thoroughbred Series, which is essentially Sweet Valley High but for girls who love horses rather than classroom drama.  This makes it distinct from Jeanne Betancourt’s Pony Pals, which is more like the Baby-Sitters Club.  Anyway, the book I read in Campbell’s series is the 16th, Glory in Danger, written by Karen Bentley (the other thing about these old series: the brand and concept were often developed by a single writer and then continued by a series of ghostwriters).  When I say the Thoroughbred series is like Sweet Valley High, what I mean is an inordinate amount of the plot is given over to the various alliances, jealousies, and problems faced by a young girl on a racehorse farm near Lexington, Kentucky.

The book — in a phrase — is confusing as hell.  The reason for this is because there are so many named characters that I literally had to start keeping notes, and then I stopped keeping notes because the book is only 170 pages long and most of these characters don’t do anything despite being continuously referenced.

This is partly on me, since I came in at book 16 and most of the characters discussed are established more fully in earlier volumes.  Nevertheless, the book is also continually trying to remind and/or inform the reader about things that have previously happened.  I’m going to do my best to give you the elevator pitch of this book’s plot, along with some of the series background.

Glory in Danger is about a twelve-year-old girl named Cindy Blake McClean, who lives with her family on Whitebrook Farm, surrounded by various equine professionals and personnel.  Cindy’s best friend is a racehorse named March to Glory, or “Glory” for short, and she is allowed not only to groom but occasionally ride this racehorse despite being twelve.  Racehorses are some of the most expensive animals in the world and the absurdity of this kid being allowed to just casually take him out for trail rides is a bit of poetic license which we’ll accept for the purposes of the premise.

The plot of the book, insofar as there is one, is that Glory is doing particularly well in his races and is a strong contender for winning the Belmont.  The equestrian world is all abuzz, until he tests positive for procaine, a light anesthetic often used to dull the pain of penicillin shots for horses and which, because it reduces the animal’s sensation of muscle strain, also is illicitly used for performance enhancement.  Since Glory wasn’t scheduled for a shot, this is suspicious to Cindy and her family, but meanwhile everyone else thinks they’ve drugged the horse intentionally.  Later, when Glory somehow ingests heroin, it becomes clear that someone is working to sabotage Whitebrook and possibly kill Glory.  But who?

Part of the reason there are so many characters is, I think, so we can have plenty of suspects.  But also, there are so many characters because there are just a fuckton of characters.  The plot I just described to you encompasses probably the last fifty pages of the book; the other 120 is set-dressing and buildup.  So here’s the deal: Cindy, it is mentioned in passing early on, is an orphan.  She apparently ran away from an abusive foster home (the specifics here are never touched upon) and apparently… ended up hiding out at Whitebrook, or something.  At any rate she was eventually adopted by the Whitebrook trainer and his wife.

Parallel to all this (or maybe just after? it’s unclear), Cindy also noticed some men abusing a very fine colt, somehow, somewhere.  Through some prior-book hijinks, she eventually 1) got these men arrested, and 2) discovered that this colt was part of a prized bloodline and was actually stolen from his rightful owners.  This colt is none other than March to Glory himself, and it’s made explicit that Cindy feels kinship with the animal because of their similar backgrounds.

Anyway, the rightful owners of the horse are from a neighboring farm that’s fallen on hard times, but they’re eager to restore their names as breeders and so they allow Cindy/Whitebrook to keep and train Glory.  Now, also, Whitebrook Farm is in a frosty competition with another farm called Townsend Acres, owned by the wealthy, haughty Brad and Lavinia Townsend, who (it is established early on) tend to see their horses as merely instruments for winning races and more often than not injure them (Lavinia apparently thinks nothing of breaking her horse’s legs while racing recklessly, which again outside the fiction, is absurd given how expensive racing horses are).  The reason for this competition is because the Griffens, a family of trainers and riders at Whitebrook, used to work for the Townsends (who, I think, are distantly related to them?) after a viral infection killed all the horses at the Griffens’ farm.  It’s not clear how they eventually parted ways, but it was obviously not friendly.  Got that?  Okay.

I could go on and name the half-dozen or so vets and trainers that also show up in this story but I’m pushing the limits of my remembrance.  What we have established, however, are the most important things for this essay, namely, the extent and complexity of the narrative’s interpersonal dynamics, and the fact that the horses are almost always on the verge of utter destruction.  For Cindy specifically the precarious health of the horses (and her horse in particular) signifies the contingency she feels underlies her adopted life at Whitebrook, though this is only touched on in passing.  More to the point, however, horses in these books become mediators for and sites of human conflict.

So already we see a slight turn from what I earlier theorized about the animal as a locus of transhistorical affect in children’s fiction; the horses in these books act more or less like horses, never speaking, demanding treats, showing affection to the people who groom them.  At the same time, however, horses embody affect and materialize social relations.  Caring for horses and racing them is the most important thing in the world.  All the characters constantly launch into short, unusually informative monologues on, say, what it means when a horse has navicular, or how a horse might metabolize a brick of heroin.  Cindy is interviewed by the local paper about her horse, she is constantly allowed time off from school to attend events, and literally every other child who appears in the book (and, in their way, every adult) just cannot stop talking or thinking about horses. That is, the weird melding of human and horse is not just a thing that children do, but a thing everyone does, and a person’s moral character is reliably demonstrated by their attitude toward horses.

The following scene, which occurs shortly after Glory tests positive for procaine, is exemplary:

Cindy noticed the stares they were getting.  Most of the looks were openly cold and hostile.  She couldn’t believe how quickly Glory had gone from being the wonder horse to being in total disgrace.

“Well, now we know how March to Glory ran so fast in his first two races,” she heard an older man  say.

“The trainer probably uses drugs, too,” said his companion, a well-dressed young woman.  “He’d have to, or he wouldn’t think of trying something like this.” (97)

Only a human drug user would give a horse drugs!  Of course!  This is perfect 90s drug PSA logic, and indicates not so much how adults think but how a child might think adults think.  With this in mind — that the book is setting out not to replicate reality but build a plausible model for how a twelve year old perceives, or would like to perceive, reality — certain odd aspects of the series become clear.  The constant flows of information about people, their histories, and horse diseases are basically reconstructing the world, both for first-time readers and for returning readers.  Rather than taking the Harry Potter approach — where the Wizarding World is established and successively elaborated upon in each book — the attraction for the world of Kentucky horse-racing here is not one of escalating discovery, exactly, but one of a kind of level familiarity.

My partner, who read these books as a kid, has told me that this was indeed what was enthralling about them: the dynastic lines sketched as the series progressed (Cindy is the third main character of the series; as the protagonists age they become supporting characters and the next youngest girl becomes the new protagonist) coupled with the horses’ trials and travails provided a sense of continuity and stability alongside the necessary machinery to generate occasional conflict.

Most importantly, however, by keeping the protagonists’ ages locked in at the tweens, the series devises a clever way to make this fictional world seem dynamic and evolving without these changes ever really constituting “aging.”

One of the things YA fiction must do is set up a world wherein the normal structures of and strictures on children’s agency are modified in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. They can do this to greater and lesser degrees.  In Harry Potter, for example, adults are generally ignorant or incompetent (unless they’re Dumbledore, in which case they’re letting it all play out According to Plan while looking extremely incompetent and ignorant to the other adult characters).  The Hunger Games is built around the idea of the government forcing kids into a Hobbesian war of all where laws no longer apply.

In the world of Thoroughbred, however, rather than making children smarter than adults or forced into exigencies by adults, instead everyone is just a twelve-year-old at heart, because many of the older characters are familiar to the reader as married versions of characters whose points of view they were inhabiting three-to-five books ago.  In this sense, Kentucky in this series is like Neverland, if it were crossed with Hogwarts: a weird other-world where different sorts of rules apply, where different feelings and ways of acting and thinking are prized than in the reader’s “real” world.  And yet, much like Hogwarts, this is a place weighted with history and lineage, a place that becomes “real” as time passes and narrative accrues; but while the reader presumably ages with the world of Harry Potter (much as one ages with the world one actually lives in) the Thoroughbred series allows one to experience the aging of the world while remaining young.

Eventually, the identity of Glory’s would-be assassin is revealed: it’s the new veterinary assistant who was obviously the culprit from the beginning because he had “cold eyes” and was mean to Cindy.  I’m not saying, here, that a kid reading this book wouldn’t know this guy was bad news from the get-go — though a few red herrings suggest the Townsends, in their jealousy, might be involved.  And the Townsends at least have a ready motive (they hate Whitebrook), whereas this guy doesn’t.  But the final twist is that he is actually the son of one of the men Cindy got sent to jail for stealing and abusing Glory, and his thwarting of Glory’s career is intended as revenge.

By this gesture he is incorporated into the semi-eternal flows of animosity and friendship that the world of this series is built upon.  Indeed, the fact that his revenge is to try and kill the horse rather than, say, go after Cindy herself demonstrates exactly how everyone in this story is at heart a twelve-year-old who loves horses — since the worst possible thing that could happen would be for a horse to get hurt.

Despite their lack of epic scope, and the total absence of magic or dystopia, these novels in their way approximate another generic aspect of myth: a natural world, a familiar world, that courses with rhythms of seasons.  Glory is saved, thankfully, and within a few books Cindy will have grown up enough to become the jockey she dreams of being.  Meanwhile Ashleigh Griffen, the current Whitebrook jockey and the first Thoroughbred protagonist, is pregnant and will soon give birth to another future protagonist.

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Between the Haunted and the Weird: The Horrific Ontology of Videogames

Oxenfree is a 2016 game by Night School Studios, a point-and-click story-focused adventure game pseudo-throwback similar to something like Kentucky Route Zero (that is to say: mechanically and tonally it mimics adventure games of the days of yore but for the most part jettisons obtuse puzzling). It concerns a group of teens who go to an island in the Pacific Northwest for a night of unsupervised drinking and fun, and we all know how that sort of thing turns out for fictional teens. At the time of its release it was compared to the similar but much bigger project, Until Dawn, which also deals with the “teens in a remote area encounter bad stuff” subgenre of horror, but this is misleading. Whereas Until Dawn‘s primary reference points are the slasher films from which this typical premise is derived, Oxenfree‘s thematic antecedent is most clearly the 2001 film Donnie Darko, a deeply existential teen time travel thriller.

Generically, then, Oxenfree is poised between science fiction and horror in a way that I think meaningfully impacts how it conveys is narrative through the medium of the videogame itself. Be warned that from this point forward, I’m going to discuss specific elements and details of Oxenfree‘s story, so if you haven’t played it and care about that sort of thing being spoiled, consider yourself warned.

Oxenfree is a ghost story, of a sort.  Edwards Island, the location of the game, is a lonely tourist trap and former military base where groundbreaking research on radio and communication was carried out during and after the Second World War.  Our protagonist and player character, Alex, travels to the island with her friend Ren, her new stepbrother Jonas, Ren’s crush Nona, and Clarissa, the bitter ex-girlfriend of Alex’s deceased older brother Michael.  This entire situation is quite understandably tense and awkward to begin with, but of course, it gets worse.

The island is notorious among local youth for the anomalies that can be heard over the radio from certain locations — things that range from numbers stations to what seems to be sourceless electronic voice phenomena.  While exploring a cave by the beach, Alex accidentally contacts something — manifesting primarily as hovering, flashing triangles and angry static — that separates the group and unleashes a lot of weird bullshit on the island in the form of uncanny recurrences and timeloops (that, from the player’s perspective, are indicated by the screen’s distortion a la a badly tracking analog tape).

So on the one hand yes, Oxenfree is a ghost story — the thing Alex has contacted turns out to be the collective consciousness of a submarine crew that was sunk by friendly fire off the island’s coast after the war.  But it is also a softly science fiction-inflected time travel story — the crew are called “ghosts” but in-game exposition suggests that they did not so much “die” as get shunted out of our “dimension” (ie, the normal space-time continuum) by the accidental detonation of the experimental nuclear reactor on their submarine.  Unmoored from the most basic laws of physics and temporality, the crew of the submarine have lost all notion of individual identity and claim to have watched the entire history of the world play out to its “demise” multiple times in multiple ways, and now long for nothing more than to find their way back into linear time by possessing Alex and her friends and living the existence they feel they have been denied.

For decades the crew has been contained in their dimensional warp, but Alex lets them out with the radio she brought to hear the island’s anomalies — “you tuned into our signal” they tell her.  And I want to think for a moment about the significance of the use of the radio here, and in particular what the game accomplishes by way of placing midcentury radio technology front and center in its supernatural shenanigans.

Media theorist and philosopher Eugene Thacker has outlined a taxonomy of what he calls “dead media,” “haunted media,” and “weird media.”  Dead media, he explains, are media where “the object is no longer in use, but the form of the object remains active” (“Dark Media — An Abbreviated Typology” 129).  The example he gives here is the Victorian-era magic lantern, a device which projected still images onto the surfaces of walls and was a common attraction in certain theaters.  We no longer use magic lanterns, but the basic operative principle still exists in the form of modern projectors.

“Haunted media,” meanwhile, are when a technology “is still in use, but in a non-normative way,” Thacker’s primary example here is “the complex interplay between the photographic camera and spirit photography in the late nineteenth century” (129).  Specifically, haunted media are noted in their “disjunction … between a contemporary artifact and its connection to adjacent fields such as religion and spirituality” (129), becoming almost darkly divine in their properties.

What haunted media do allow for, in imaginary and narrative terms, is the communication between two distinct ontological realms, this world and that one, the supernatural and the natural.  However, the other potential Thacker outlines is what he calls “weird media,” in which the “human sensorium can be augmented, transformed, or in some instances, ‘see’ more than a human subject is prepared to see” by way of some media object (132).  One example here is H.P. Lovecraft’s story “From Beyond,” where a scientist perfects a devices that allows human beings to see the various horrible creatures that exist alongside us, but outside our realm of sense perception, and which also (of course) drives people mad.

Unlike haunted media, which open up a portal between that world and this one, in weird media “mediation only results in an absolute impasse, in the strange non-knowledge of the impossibility of mediation, in the way that all communication collapses” (133).  In other words, weird media show us something, but something fundamentally flawed in its communicative result: we see something just doesn’t make sense, it is there and yet refuses to cohere into anything like purpose or meaning, and the result (as witnessed by Lovecraft’s characteristically fated protagonist) is the concomitant dissolution of all meaning.

The point I would make, first of all, is that these types of media are not necessarily distinct.  For instance, “spirit photography” existed more or less simultaneously with the beginnings of photography, with trick images appearing basically right out of the gate, rather than waiting for the medium to “die.”  In other words, a medium does not have to be dead, or close to dead, to be haunted; often they are born that way.  However, a medium’s proximity to death does seem to make it useful for stories of dark media — think here of the videotape in Ringu/The Ring, which appeared relatively close to the end of the lifespan of the VHS.

At the same time, the distinction between a haunted and a weird medium is not always terribly clear.  Thacker divides them based on a selection of narratives and, basically, how those narratives play out: is the end result communication or madness?  These distinctions, however, cannot always be made — and Oxenfree is exemplary in this regard.

Radio is not an entirely dead technology, of course, but it is certainly outmoded in the way the game presents it — weighted with the context of its development during the war, an idiosyncratic feature of the island and its particular history, etc.  At first we might say that the radio in Oxenfree is haunted, as it does what Thacker says haunted media do: it opens a portal, it brings this world and that world together, and so on.  And yet communicating with the other side is not easy, and for much of the game it’s not clear what Alex and her friends are dealing with or what it wants.

Furthermore, at various points in the game Alex becomes stuck in time loops, and must synchronize the music tracks playing on a series of ghostly Magnetophons in order to return to her proper temporality.  Just as the dead (?) submarine crew live on as garbled voices on the radio, so too are the lives of Alex and her friends mysteriously tied to the functioning of old military-issue tape players.  That is to say, they are themselves mediated by the island’s weird technology, sometimes skipping back into the past (where Alex can make decisions regarding her deceased brother that, it seems, are different than the ones she might have made before) or forward into the future where they witness deaths and suicides that never actually manifest in the straightforward plot of the game.

So while these media are a conduit for the dead past, they are also conduits for the present and a kind of undead future, possible futures, and possible pasts.  Any glance at a forum or subreddit dedicated to the game will show you they are filled with theorycrafters attempting to parse out the game’s timelines into something stable and coherent, something that can be charted in a sensible order that all adds up to a “point.”

This project is troubled by a few things about the game.  First, there are multiple endings, none of which are presented as particularly good or bad (and hence, “true” or “untrue,” since games so historically tie these judgments).  Alex’s relationships with her friends may strengthen or degrade, one of them may be sacrificed to the ghostly crew in order to placate them, her brother Michael may even be brought back to life through her interference with the timeline.  The game doesn’t pass judgment on you for any of these endings in the trite way we’ve come to expect of the medium: sacrificing Clarissa is not ideal, for instance, but given the absolute bugfuck nature of what’s going on it plays out as a kind of tragic necessity.  Similarly, bringing Michael back to life doesn’t result in some condemning “don’t play with the forces of causality!” message, it just… kind of happens.  At worst it rings hollow narratively just because we’re so used to seeing the condemnation of this sort of thing in other stories.  And similarly, if everyone survives and remains friends, well…

The game ends with Alex narrating “what happened next” for everyone like any good teen movie.  As I said, outside of being erased from existence, none of the end results for anyone are particularly “bad,” some are just sadder than others.  But in the final few seconds of her narration, the screen distorts again, and Alex resumes talking about how though she’s not looking forward going to Edwards Island, it may be a fun night.

No matter what you do, the game begins again.  Except, of course, if it doesn’t… completing the game unlocks a so-called “New Game+” option, where you are treated to a bonus opening scene of Ren, Jonas, and Alex hanging out waiting for their ride.  Alex uses her radio during this scene and receives a message from herself, warning her not to go to the island; if you choose to listen to her warning, the gang stays in for the night and the game ends, its entire plot summarily averted.

Now here’s the thing: at no point in the game you play can you make Alex deliver the message she receives in this bonus scene.  EDIT:  Zaratustra on twitter pointed out that if you complete the New Game+ as if it were a normal game, ignoring the warning, you actually do get the choice to deliver this message to a past Alex — that is, you can save an Alex you have not played from looping through everything.  You save someone, but not yourself.  You render everything you have just done meaningless (because it will never have happened) but also direly important (because it had to happen in order for it not to happen).

And this is how the game, to get to my point finally, collapses the haunted into the weird, because it’s not clear what is communicating here, and what or why it is even communicating.  The game recedes indefinitely into itself in a way that is not left for us to explore.  The addition of time travel (or, perhaps, the movement between distinct timelines, much like the submarine crew blasted outside of all continuity) means that what sometimes (in Thacker’s terms) operates as haunted media (communication between two ontological orders) also sometimes devolves into weird media (the transference of madness inducing nonsense, a kind of excess of information that makes coherence impossible).

In the end, there is a sense in Oxenfree that things are overmediated, too complexly bound up in each other, done and redone and undone, until all meaningful difference is lost in a sea of noise like the analog static the game deceptively renders on my digital monitor.  For at its most basic level, Oxenfree is a videogame that is making itself known to us as a videogame, as a site of weird media, or overmediation.

As I said, some media are haunted at their inception.  In Oxenfree this is especially true, encrusted as it is with the signifiers of analog media it has supposedly surpassed and rendered “dead” (and yet, what is my wi-fi connection but a sort of afterlife of the radio technologies developed by the island’s engineers?).  But more to the point, Oxenfree is suggesting that games as a medium are both haunted and weird, constantly warping between these two poles as they connect disparate orders of communication or devolve into madness-inducing nonsense.

I have written before about how haunting can serve as a vocabulary for how players experience gameplay.  Gameplay is always already underwritten by expectations mediated to the player by prior games, and by prior playthroughs of the same game.  In its turn to the weird, Oxenfree makes this point quite literal: at various points in the story, Alex is confronted by a ghostly version of herself in a mirror.  It speaks to her, giving her advice that seemingly makes no sense (for instance, telling her to advise Michael to break up with Clarissa, despite the fact that Michael is already dead).

This is the weird: communication that runs into the limit of intelligibility.  However, as the game progresses, it becomes clear Alex’s reflection is giving her advice about specific moments that take place later in the game.  In the climax of the game, Alex finds herself “on the other side” with the dead submarine crew, and in a series of vignettes is transported to shadow versions of various locations from the game where she provides advice to herself  — now on the other side of the mirror.  Communication between the natural and supernatural, between one timeline and another: what was weird becomes haunting.

But this is what is truly remarkable: you do not have to listen to the advice your reflection gives you, nor do you later have to give advice to your reflection that jives with (or departs from) your own actions in the game.  It is up to the player to decide how trustworthy their reflection is, and in the end, to decide how they might have done things the same or differently.

In fact, what happens is this: the game searches your friends list (through Steam or whatever service) to find people you know who have already played Oxenfree.  When you see Alex’s reflection early in the game, this person’s username appears above it in bright green text in a visual evocative of an MMO.  The dialog choices made at the end of the game by your friend (in my case, an Alex who was hilariously named “Chopper Dave”) are presented to you, and at the end of the game, your dialog choices are sent along to the next person in your social circle to play the game (so if you ever see an Alex named “Richard Plantagenet” — hi).

What Oxenfree quite literally enacts here is the haunting of gameplay: your experience of it always already bears the uncanny impression of a prior playthrough that was not yours, an attempt to communicate or give advice about how you should play the game.  But this communique is fraught by all manner of weird problems: first, you have no idea what is happening, and second, you might not listen.  Thus the haunting of gameplay again collapses into weird gameplay: not communication between or across playthroughs but the potential simultaneous existence of mutually exclusive in-game “realities” connected by their very refusal to resemble one another.

Oxenfree, then, is an apt demonstration for the horrific ontology of videogames.  Not only does Alex’s endless looping through the various endings suggest the idea of replay, the game itself metatextually and mechanically links these ideas, forcing us into an uncomfortable conceptual space that narratively challenges the ways by which we defend everything from the importance of individual identity to the very possibility of meaning-making.

Are we — the mass of players — meant to stand in for the lost crew who hope to find something like “life” in possessing these kids?  And what does it mean that the game in practice so intransigently deflects what the ghosts say they want: stability, continuity, identity, linear growth.  “Oxenfree” is, after all, a cry to end a game, to signal to the players that the game has finished.  But in Oxenfree no such ending is forthcoming, and we are left to confront how one can make meaning and find happiness in a weird, haunted, overmediated world.

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News from Cropshire on the Damnable Birth of a Cat & The Book of the Tower

What you’re about to read requires some explanation.

You may notice that the highest tiers of my Patreon mention a game on which I have been working, a fantasy-mystery-adventure called The Cropshire Pageant of the Incandescent Ascension, inspired by the work of Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Thomas Pynchon.  If my Patreon ever gets me super bucks, I’ll take the time to develop this game fully: it requires a lot of stuff and might be likened to an interactive novel, rather than the relatively short nature of my previous games.  In the meantime, I tinker on it, write some scenes, and so on.

One reason the game requires so much writing is that parts of it simulate the absolutely stunning and wonderful process of archival research, meaning I’m stocking a library of worldbuilding reading material a la The Elder Scrolls.  Below, then, are two in-universe “books” from the world of The Cropshire Pageant of the Incandescent Ascension.  They are very weird, because the fantasy world they take place in is very weird, but by placing these two stories together you may be able to get an idea of how, in some ways, this fantasy world is very similar to our own, somewhat similar to other fantasy worlds you may have experienced, and maybe also come to understand the ways in which it is profoundly different.

Enjoy!

News from Cropshire on the Damnable Birth of a Cat, or the Forces of Chaos Evidenced

In the late season of the year XXXXX, there was one Jack Rollin, a third-born serving-man to a certain House which will not be here named in the town of Northbrooke in Cropshire, who by report of sundry gave birth to a most damnable and monstrous cat. Being brought before the Tribunal in that town he gave witness that unto him that in dreams for several nights had come some strange black beast, like in figure first to a bear, then the following night much like a dog, and the night after like a cat, and on the next very much like man, though furred like a bear from the first, and in all these dreams these creatures had of his body carnal knowledge. He wept and wailed most piteously for he knew in his heart that these visitations were a device of Chaos and the Silent Emperor, this last form of the beast being one of that latter Fiend’s preferred bodies as is said among people of the lower sort. His stomach, he said and some attested, had swelled for only one week, making him much afraid, for as a third-born he and his wife and were by their families matched unfruitfully.

Mistakes in the case of matching occur, might say the unbelieving reader, and especially among those who stations mean they are less attuned to the ways of the Maker and the mysteries of generation. Yet the Tribunal conferred and because he was suspected of collusion with the Dark and Chaos by reason of this execrable birth, Jack Rollin was imprisoned in the Northbrooke gaol for a fortnight while his hideous progeny was taken by one Tribune, Edward Harper, for further study. The reader may remember similar tales of such monstrous births, such as the whelping of a pack of wolves to a wife in Madenbrough, or the old tale of the Vhenish King whose first-born was an awful creature without a head and a mouth and eyes in its chest, or some such similar thing, and yet did not die but walked about for six years with its limning drawn on its breast, and they may be incredulous as to how such events could transpire. But let it be remembered that the Canticles warn of creeping Chaos which comes to us at all moments and threatens to make indistinct the clear lines built since the Fall of the Tower.

Nevertheless, the Tribune Edward Harper, being suspicious of the provenance of this cat, took to a study of it to determine its nature. He found on his own another cat, from the streets of Northbrooke, and he keeping this cat and the other in wicker traps set to his investigation. The cat of the street was tawny in color and the cat born of Jack Rollin black, but in all other physical aspects they were quite similar, with the same pointed ears and six legs, though Rollin’s cat was a good deal smaller, being more newly born. Remarkable though were the eyes of this latter beast, which were a deep azure unlike the type normally seen in cats of any sort, and without the mark of seeing as present in the eyes of the other cat, whose eyes were the accustomed yellow or orange with a band of black in the center.

In dissecting the beasts Harper found them in all manner similar, with the same organs in the same configurations. Upon burning parts of the creatures however, Tribune Harper noted the cat from the street emitted a most noisome odor while the cat Rollin birthed was sweet like a perfume. This strangeness was noted by Harper, who then boiled the carcasses in separate pots and found they both emerged again in all respects similar with no difference in the manner of having boiled.

During this time Jack Rollin, being in prison, was put to question about his allegiance with Chaos and the Silent Emperor, but expressed only the most confusion and repentance, insisting he knew not why the strange visitations had come to him night and again of the evening nor why he birthed a cat. However, it is recorded in many learned ancient authors such as Marstain and Koja that the generation between men and beasts is possible, and indeed, the very Canticles themselves record such a scourge visited upon the Tribe of Agambus during the greater reign of Chaos (Gar. 3:12-21), and it is said the Envoi itself was a union of man and beast of a most terrible character. Chaos being formless takes all forms, and the Silent Emperor uses this to sow discord among us. It is obvious that in the visitations upon Jack Rollin the Silent Emperor took a variety of forms to find what best suited the organs of generation and chanced to made good on its evil errand in the form of the cat on the third night.

Tribune Edward Harper, finding nothing more to consider about the marvelous cat, advised that Jack Rollin should be released from his bonds upon proper penance, which being done with a cropping of his ears of either side to show his past indiscretion, he was released from gaol and returned to his wife. The House for which he worked was loathe to accept him back due to scandal but we have it on good authority he has found occupation elsewhere.

And let it be evidenced to the reader that Chaos works in all ways upon us, and the passageways it takes into our hearts might well be hidden even from ourselves. For why should such a visitation be placed on a man who otherwise seemed so undeserving? First, let it not be thought there is no one undeserving! For we were born from Chaos with the Silent Emperor who dwells there still. In recording reports of this news we have found several times the mention of Jack Rollin’s relation as a cousin to the notorious brigand and rake Namuth Rollin who stood with the rebel and witch Rattling Anne in her Cropshire rising. And so it is evidenced that Chaos works upon not only ourselves but in our children, and our children’s children, should these latter be so unfortunate as to be born with a human shape. It is only through the mercy of the Maker and the knowledge of Him that we are to be saved, and only through adherence to His laws and orders may we find respite from Chaos and the Silent Emperor. Amen.

 

The Book of the Tower, from the Canticles, Translated by EMH from the Vhenish Original, for the Edification of the People, in the year XXXXX

1. In the beginning, in the time of the First World, Man had within him as he does now the desire for order which is the mark of the Maker.

2. In the land of Sinab there lived a king called Cansa, who lorded over many tribes with incredible might. And this king thought himself a holy man and so commenced the construction of a Great Tower in the city of Yingho. Many of the vassals to Cansa gladly joined in the construction of the Tower, and others were put to work.

3. “The Maker is in the Heavens,” decreed King Cansa, “and this Tower will be our monument to Him, our bridge to His light.”

4. Thus for many years the Tower of Yingho was built, higher and higher into the sky to reach the light of the Maker. For three hundred years the Tower was built, and in the three hundred and first year it was finished.

5. For three centuries the greatest kings and lowliest chieftains, the wisest of the priests, and the most learned of the scholars had debated what would happen when the Tower finally reached the Heavens and Man was allowed to meet the Maker. But the Maker, seeing his people approaching, grew angry at their hubris: for the order He had decreed meant that He and Man must always be separate, for otherwise if they stood side by side what was to discern the Maker from the Made?

6. Now it came to pass that a king, a chieftain, a priest, and a scholar each was chosen by lottery to be the first to scale to the top of the Tower of Yingho and be the first to answer the questions that had plagued all Men for so long.

7. And what they found at the top of the Tower was nothing.

8. There was nothing at the top of the Tower, no sign of the Maker, for in His rage and shame He fled beyond the reaches of the Tower to the far side of Old Night. And this was where the king, the chieftain, the priest, and the scholar all found themselves, enveloped on all sides by the Dark, without the sound of their Maker’s voice, and all order crumbled. This was how Chaos first came into the world.

9. The scholar pondered the Dark of Night and Chaos and he decided that the Maker must be sought through further study of creation.

10. The priest pondered the Dark of Night and Chaos and he decided that the Maker must be sought through prayer and meditation.

11. The chieftain pondered the Dark of Night and Chaos and he decided that the Maker must be sought through hard work.

12. The king pondered the Dark of Night and Chaos, and he decided nothing. He heard nothing. And in that silence, Chaos spoke to him, and ate away his heart, until there was nothing inside him as well.

13. The king descended from the Tower, but no longer did he speak. He brought with him the eternal quiet from the Old Night, and this was how the Silent Empire was made: The king returned often to the top of the tower to listen to the quiet of the Dark, and each time he built the Tower taller and taller, until its shadow spread across the land from one side to the other.

14. The Silent Emperor, as now he was, moved his throne to the top of the Tower, and he lorded all the dominions of Man and fields of the beasts. Thus began a time of Chaos, when Man was cast so far outside the order of the Maker that he lived in black and white, and land and sea, and male and female were not known among them.

15. The Maker saw this Chaos and fled even further from his Creation, even as the Tower grew ceaselessly out in search of Him. The people held in bondage by the Silent Emperor knew not what they did, however, for they had been told this was the way of truth and life.

16. The people lived like this for three hundred years.

17. In the three hundred and first year, the Maker took pity, and deigned only to punish the Silent Emperor and his closest adherents, and He reached forth to forge the silver Rim of Heaven to hold back the further rush of Old Night.

18. In forging the Rim of Heaven, the Maker also crushed the many towers the Silent Emperor had built. And now he is frozen in the center of Old Night and Chaos, where he will remain for all time.

19. The chieftains of the earth, who were strong of heart and loved the Maker, gave thanks for their salvation. But because they had spent so long in Chaos, where black was white and land and sea were one and none knew male or female, they were burdened with the knowledge of their sin.

20. And so the Maker spoke to them, breaking through the silence in which He trapped the Emperor, and he said: “Sin and Chaos are not eternal, only I am Eternal; you may come unto Me when the world has again achieved order as I first gave it.” And they were glad at hearing this.

21. And from this day forth the scholar studied order.

22. And from this day forth the priest contemplated order.

23. And from this day forth the chieftain worked to build order.

24. And from the ranks of the chieftains rose new kings, who knew the Order of the Maker and shunned the Chaos and Old Night of the Silent Emperor. And Man lived in white, not black; Man lived on land, not in sea; and Man knew male, who was born first, and female, who was born second. And so it is.

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Loving and Alien: Mysterious Girlfriend X

Before I start talking about the 2012 anime series Mysterious Girlfriend X I need to make something particularly clear about my goals for my Patreon-funded criticism: I want to mean everything I say.  So me writing what I did about something as seemingly weird and inconsequential as Horse Diaries: Elska is not some grand ironic joke where I expend too much intellectual effort on parsing some cultural object.  Rather, my belief is that even the most minor artifacts will convey something illuminating about how media contribute in ways big and small to how humans understand themselves.

When it comes to Mysterious Girlfriend X I have a particular challenge, as someone who came of age on the internet in the early 2000s.  There was a time when you could generate content for a comedy website simply by, say, watching an anime or playing a visual novel and complaining constantly about just how fucking stupid and nonsensical it was because, hey folks, Japan Is Really Weird, Have You Noticed????  In the days before streaming video and YouTube and so on, we got our angry criticism through text: reading someone tell you about this absurd thing that happened in a bad anime they’re pirating and hate-watching gave you all the pleasure of knowing something about How Weird Japan Is without having to expend the effort to pirate the anime or buy the weird eroge yourself.

Discarding the hyperbole and refashioned orientalism of this critical outlook can be as simple as learning a few things about cross-cultural media, Japanese history, and not treating everything as symptomatic of some monolithic culture that is “Japan.”  Basically, the aim of your criticism should not be a demonstration of How Weird Japan Is.  That’s easy enough.  The problem, when we approach Mysterious Girlfriend X, a thirteen-episode anime based on a manga by Ueshiba Riichi, is that it is confoundingly weird.

Mysterious Girlfriend X (hereafter MGX) is a slice-of-life romantic comedy story about regular 17-year-old guy Tsubaki Akira, who in the first episode of the series tastes the drool of the strange new transfer student Urabe Mikoto when she falls asleep at her desk and leaves a puddle of it behind.  There is no particularly good reason for him to do this and even he questions why he did it after the fact.  However, Tsubaki becomes mysteriously ill shortly thereafter and, on a visit to his home to deliver his homework, Urabe explains that she knows he tasted her drool, and they are now “bonded” — essentially, he must regularly taste her drool or go into painful withdrawal.  Also, just incidentally, during her first day in class when Urabe suddenly broke into a fit of unprompted laughter that caused everyone to stare at her? She explains that’s because she heard a voice in her head that told her that Tsubaki was going to be the first person she would have sex with.  Okay.  From this point on episodes contain at least one but often multiple scenes of Urabe sticking her finger in her mouth, working up a gob of saliva, and feeding it to Tsubaki. Okay.

This constitutes the beginnings of them “going out.” One way I feel about Mysterious Girlfriend X is that it is a romance story written by an alien who has watched several other anime of a similar type about blooming first loves and tried to make its own but, in the end, lacks a kind of fundamental understanding of human emotions or embodiment.  Part of this is an effect of a weird symbolic overdrive the anime often leans into.  The “drool ritual,” as the two main characters call it, is exemplary in this regard, since we always get a shot of Urabe’s lips working around the end of her finger, see the finger emerge with a thick, gleaming, honey-like spit, and then she pops it into Tsubaki’s mouth while he closes his eyes in docile communion.

That this is a fractured, symbolic transposition of the sexual act is obvious.  The show isn’t trying to hide it; in a few instances where Urabe tastes Tsubaki’s drool (she is, incidentally, vaguely psychic and can read people’s thoughts through tasting their spit) he remarks on how the feel of her mouth on his own finger is “soft” and “wet” and so on.  Furthermore, most episodes feature a dream sequence where Tsubaki imagines himself and Urabe alone in a mildly threatening deserted themepark where geysers of some vague white substance erupt from oil rigs in the background.  Part of the “alien-effect” of the show, as we might call it, is precisely this unsubtle and yet consistently unerotic symbolic vocabulary the series develops, a symbolic vocabulary that is too obvious and hence ends up perversely estranging the very acts it is supposed to communicate obscurely, because it leaves little to no room between symbol and interpretation.

Imagine, for example, an American sex comedy film, where characters are constantly talking about sex, but every time they actually said “sex” or referenced genitalia or something their mouths instead emitted, say, a David Lynchian ambiance of throbbing machinery — and the film was otherwise normal.  What begins at first as confusion for the viewer (“Why are they just obviously censoring out the word ‘sex’ or references to genitals?”) gradually develops into the feeling that something more must be going on (“This is telling me something about sex!”) before finally collapsing in the face of hermeneutic exhaustion (“Nope, this is just sex, the intransigent, incomprehensible presence of sex in human life.”)

To be clear I am not arguing this kind of estrangement is intentional, exactly, that Ueshiba and the studio behind the anime set out to create a narrative about the intensely obscure and alien core of sexuality in human existence.  Indeed, the show is so conventional that it doesn’t quite seem aware of what it is doing.  Like the Twilight series, which is derided for its lack of strong plot in favor of parsing the emotional turmoil between Edward and Bella, MGX does more or less the same, but from the man’s perspective.  Tsubaki spends the first half of the series or so asking his more experienced friend Ueno about how relationships are “supposed” to work — how do you get to know each other, when do you hold hands, and so on — only to usually find out his relationship with Urabe is never progressing in a normal fashion.  A lot of screentime is devoted to him pondering his own emotions, and his desire for a bond with Urabe that is in some way normal.

Urabe herself has no desires for a conventional relationship, or much in the way of apparent desires at all, outside a generalized affection for Tsubaki that becomes more apparent as the series progresses.  Her one strong insistence throughout the show is that Tsubaki not hug her without her permission — doing so (as happens a few times) results in scenes where Urabe develops super speed, does some wild magical girl poses, and pulls a pair of defense scissors from the hemline of her panties (where she keeps them at all times).  Now, more needs to be said about Urabe: a vast number of her characteristics suggest she has Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Her hair is unkempt, often in her eyes, and this means she does not have to look directly at people; her affect is usually flat and matter-of-fact; she clicks her pen repetitively in class and seems to have no real sense of social decorum; and, as I just explained, uninvited physical affection overstimulates her to a stunning degree.  She has little ability to develop new interests outside of “scissors” (this is what she gives as her hobby when Tsubaki asks) and all of these features come together in Tsubaki’s choice to think of her as his “mysterious girlfriend.”

But Urabe also has some fascination with aliens.  A charm on her bookbag is a tiny UFO; her bedroom has posters on the wall for Roswell, New Mexico and the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the location of the climactic alien visitation at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Does this suggest something like camaraderie?  Does Urabe perhaps see herself as similarly alien in social situations?  Is the flatness of her affect itself a kind of social performance, a mode of modulating stimuli that would otherwise overwhelm her, but which her classmates seem to understand and navigate with ease?

Yet when all is said and done, reading MGX as simply a story about a neurotypical guy working out his relationship with a girl with ASD is highly inadequate.  Part of this is because, while Urabe’s alien affinity might well be a sign of symbolic sympathy, we get no look at her interior life to confirm it; we quite pointedly never see much of her life, even her parents, though she mentions them occasionally and vaguely.  In the end it would be equally valid to interpret the various alien paraphernalia as suggesting that Urabe is literally extraterrestrial — after all, as far as I’m aware, people on the Autism Spectrum rarely if ever have magical drool that allows them to forge psychic links, or superhuman reflexes.  But again, such a reading is never confirmed: Urabe simply exists, and the show and its characters are never interested in asking more about her than that.

This is not necessarily empowering; she, along with the other female characters, are awkwardly fetishized by the camera and the male characters, who covertly take pictures and sell them to each other, discuss their relative breast sizes in the homosocial arena of the boys’ gym class, and so on.  Indeed, Urabe keeping her cherished scissors in the hem of her panties means that we are often treated to shots of her lifting her skirt to pull them out, which of course means we see her underwear.  Simultaneously, however, this fetishization is not free of the bizarre unsexiness I’ve already diagnosed in the show’s symbolic vocabulary.  What with the drool, the scissors, the panties, and the constant remarks about breast size, the show’s attempts to tap into more standard versions of the male gaze are always weirdly askew.

Freud — who was full of shit but will be useful here in a limited sense — believed that sexual fetishes resulted in the trauma of the young boy’s recognition of sexual difference.  That is, every boy thinks everyone has a penis, like him.  When he learns his mother doesn’t have a penis, however, he interprets this not as a born difference but rather as the result of the father’s castration of the mother.  Thus the penis becomes aligned with masculinity, power, and patriarchy while its loss or absence connotes subservience, a mark of shame and punishment, etc.  As Freud reckoned, a “healthy” man would eventually reformat his horror at the female genitalia into a desire; however, some people redirect their sexual attention not onto the proper object but a substitute — the woman’s shoe, her foot, her breasts, etc.  This, then, is Freud’s understanding of the fetish: it is a man’s method of attributing power to the woman (a “phallus”) symbolically, installing a hook onto which he can catch latch his desire and ignore the fact that the woman’s lack of a penis is a constant reminder of his own potential castration.

The line being spoken here is not from Tsubaki but Urabe’s female friend Oka, who has a very frank but nebulous attraction to Urabe. In the middle of the series they form their own drool bond but the representation of it fluctuates between between the sexualized version Urabe shares with Tsubaki and a more general female emotional intimacy. There’s a parallel argument to be excavated here about the mysteries of queer women’s intimacy (and its fetishization by a presumed male audience) but I’m not the person prepared to make it.

The problems with Freud’s argument here should be obvious and I don’t need to rehearse them, but I want to point out how weirdly apposite it is that Urabe keeps in the hem on her panties an object — her scissors — that function as a substitute phallus and as a reminder of the potential for castration.  In other words, even as the show wants the viewer to look at and fetishize her underwear, it juxtaposes her panties with the scissors, defusing any clean attempt to deflect Freudian castration anxiety (which, again, can be read broadly as male terror in the face of female sexuality and sexual difference).  Similarly, during the drool ritual, it is almost always Urabe who serves as the penetrative partner, conveying her spit into Tsubaki’s mouth.  It would be much simpler, of course, to just kiss — but they never do that.

The show’s vision of human sexuality is fractured.  On the one hand, there is a drive toward “regular” adolescent male horniness, a normative pattern of leering at girls and swapping stories about them before finding yourself in some regular pattern of development.  On the other hand, the actual plot of the show, insofar as there is a plot, deals with this normative drive running aground in unexpected ways on a girl who defies most normative demands.  Attempts to recapture her through fetishization — her drool, her panties — are always offset but a curiously terrifying sense of the fragility of the fetish’s process of redirection and substitution.

In the second episode Urabe leads Tsubaki into an abandoned building and makes him close his eyes.  She strips naked and, it is heavily implied, masturbates in front of him before having him taste her drool, which psychically communicates the arousal she feels for him.  But on top of that, this entire scene is intercut with shots of a dead beetle on the floor being eaten by ants.

This is MGX in a microcosm: a tortuously odd, awkward, sexualized situation that is limned with a kind of numinous dread.  What the drool ritual, like the physical act of sex itself, ultimately gestures toward is the weird lubricity and permeability of our bodies, even when we seem emotionally and mentally partitioned from one another.  And despite its glacial pace and, in the end, fairly conventional and somewhat unhealthy approach to how relationships “work,” what the show does that’s really interesting is press back on the normative drive just enough to reveal how our lives are shot through by others we don’t entirely understand, who are subject to inscrutable desires like we are, but whose manifestations of said desires never quite match our own: we all, in the end, are both loving and alien.

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The Pink Tricycle

Andrew did not see the pink tricycle the first or the second or even the third time on his way to the north side of the city. Indeed, he had been going to see his new therapist for well over a month before he noticed it, though he must have passed it many times.

What he had noticed were the apartment complexes: two of them, on either side of the road, abandoned. He had been living on the east side of the city for about a year and it was common knowledge by then that past a certain parallel and meridian the northeastern quadrant of the city fell over to perpetually hard times, more convenience stores than grocery stores, neighborhoods likely to shred your automobile tires with the scattered glass and rusted nails left in the roads where children played with (to Andrew’s thinking, at least) preternatural enthusiasm. So it was until one reached the north side which, due to the presence of the university and a shrewd and silent demographic agglomeration, remained one of the more vibrant sectors of the city, even after the factories left the rest quiet and searching decades ago.

Still, it was one thing to know the northeast side was rough. It was another to drive, for about thirty seconds, down a major artery of the city with the silent husks of abandoned apartment complexes hemming you in on either side. Andrew had noticed them because he basically had no other choice: the long, unkempt grass poked curiously through the iron bars of the enclaves’ fences, brushing the curb of the road like blind fingers; the buildings’ off-white walls were spotted, here and there, with large and generally unreadable names in audacious bubble-letter graffiti; on the first and second floors the windows and doors had all been sealed with plywood. Meanwhile the third stories — the complexes reached only that high, in each of their five or six buildings, and this still was a strange sight to Andrew, who came from a place where developments were often higher than they were wide — the third stories remained unbarricaded, dark and curtainless windows exposed to the world. Presumably the thought was whoever — squatters, looters, bored teens and general trespassers? — had the dexterity to climb to the second floor would not manage to make it to the third.

But it was on the third floor of one of the buildings to the right of the road that Andrew saw the pink tricycle. Each apartment in this complex had been furnished with a small patio area, a cement block on the ground floor and a wooden balcony about five or six feet long on the second and third floors. And on one of these wooden balconies, near the sliding screen door that led into the apartment, sat a pink tricycle of chunky plastic. A child’s toy, left behind.

That was as much thought as Andrew gave it, to begin with.

*

Andrew came to the city to work as a representative for a pharmaceutical company, and while the city itself was not in any sense an attraction, his job required him to travel across the country frequently, meaning the misfortune of living there was offset by the opportunity to leave it for weeks at a time. His therapist had remarked on the ease with which he’d transplanted himself during one of their early sessions, angling, Andrew suspected, for some sort of comment on his distance from his family.

There was not much to say. Andrew had an older brother who remained in close contact with his father, working alongside him at the contracting company that bore their name. His mother was dead, cancer in late middle age. He had never really known any grandparents or aunts and uncles, since his father’s volatility and general priggishness meant estrangements and fallings-out were common.

The therapist, a slight man with thin glasses, long black hair, and a seemingly endless supply of different argyle sweaters, took this all in and made notes on his clipboard. “I point this out,” he said, “because of what you told me during our first session.”

Andrew nodded. He had come to therapy because of what his ex had said. It was not his first relationship, but it was the one that had progressed the furthest, the first time since leaving home he had lived with someone other than incidental roommates. It had lasted fourteen months. “You never talk about the future,” was something the ex had often told Andrew, which seemed like a bizarre thing to notice, let alone complain about. “You never talk about the future, what sort of life we’re going to have.  I want to have a home with you.”  The ex, who had been taking psychology classes for a graduate degree while Andrew did an internship, was prone to pointing things out and rattling off symptoms of depression or anxiety. “You need therapy,” the ex had often said, which, in Andrew’s opinion, was a bit like a barber telling him he needed a haircut.

Still, when things ended after Andrew accepted the job with the pharmaceutical company out west, the ex had tearfully repeated the observation. “You need therapy.” Along with that: “You’re an asshole.”

And as he had settled into life in the new city, despite himself, Andrew began to wonder if perhaps his ex was not onto something. He sat in his new apartment downtown — paid for by his healthy new salary — and in its sleek, not-too-modern cleanliness it felt no different from the hotel rooms he stayed in every few weeks. His life, he began to feel, was for the foreseeable future nothing but traveling through a multitude of rooms with only minor variations, living from one to the next, living in between each room, and each fundamentally empty apart from himself. He spent several long evenings reading about depression symptoms on the internet and eventually made an appointment with the therapist in the north of the city.

He wasn’t sure if he was making progress, but it at least felt like something to do. Of course he went out to bars and met people, schmoozed with clients and rivals while on his trips, but when he was home he felt listless, and therapy provided a kind of ritualistic element to his life, something to mark the passage of time. In the first few meetings he talked about the ex, and what the ex had said, which led him to talking about his father, his brother, his mother. College, prior exes, the first big falling-out with his parents just before graduation. Half-remembered childhood anomalies, like the time he was certain he saw his father leave the house late at night — far past midnight — and, standing in the yard, click a flashlight on and off in sequence, pointing it into the moonless sky. His brother had insisted he was merely misremembering a scene from a spy film they had watched together as kids. It was almost overwhelming, Andrew thought, how much he could say about himself and yet how little he felt actually happened. “I suppose I don’t think about the future very much,” he said once. “I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it. I’m not sure I ever have.”

His therapist remained placid, and marked something on his clipboard.

*

He was on his way to therapy when he noticed the pink tricycle had moved. At first he thought he was merely misremembering. After all, as he zipped by the abandoned building, how certain could he be that he knew where the tricycle had been on the wooden balcony? But as he considered the situation he became less certain.

Andrew’s initial vision of the pink tricycle, pushed into the corner of the balcony, had been initially burned into his mind in a peculiar way. On and off again he’d found himself returning to it, thinking of the child it had once belonged to and imagining their feelings upon it being left behind. He wondered at odd times — usually when making dinner, or just on the edge of falling asleep — about the family who had lived in the apartment, taking everything but the tricycle.

And now the tricycle had moved across the balcony, pressed up against the screen door of the apartment as if it were an animal begging to be let in. After his therapy appointment, on his way home, Andrew made sure to keep an eye out for the tricycle. He was on the opposite side of the road now, making it difficult, and the sun was setting, but he managed to spot it: a flash of color against the dingy walls and gray shingles. It was exactly where he’d seen it earlier.

The apartment complexes did not have names. Unlike most places of the sort, which had signs out front welcoming you to Green Brook Place or Heritage Estates or Brookstone Commons or The Meadows at Green River or something, the chained-off entryways of either complex had no such signage, presumably taken down whenever the properties closed. When, back home, he searched online for apartments along that particular segment of the street, he found no listings, not even legacy postings regarding the complexes.

When he pulled up a street view he could see them, looming on either side of the road. The complex to the left was obviously closed at this point, its windows boarded up, but its grass was shorter, its buildings less etched over with graffiti. On the right side of the street, however, the buildings of the other complex had not yet been sealed. Andrew clicked forward, searching for the balcony that he knew hosted — or would come to host — the pink tricycle.

The balcony was bare, but the sliding door was open, allowing just the barest glimpse into the apartment, a sliver of a kitchen and a refrigerator. He clicked forward again, finding the entrance to the complex and its sign: Homes at Roselawn. He checked the date on the street view images and found they were nearly three years old.

A search for “Homes at Roselawn” turned up nothing interesting, only what would be expected of an apartment complex in that area of the city: occasional mentions of domestic disputes, a methamphetamine arrest, one fatal shooting and one non-fatal. There was no mention of when or why it closed. It was if the complex had just, one day, shut down, without any reason, announcement, or fanfare. Andrew imagined the family leaving the third floor apartment in a hurry, evicted without notice, and imagined the wailing of a child whose favorite tricycle was left behind.

*

The pink tricycle moved twice more over the next few months, from the screen door back to the far corner, and then from that corner to the opposite end of the balcony.  The weather, by this point, was beginning to change, the grass browning and wilting and the sky shifting to a perpetually dreary gray that threatened snow but only spat chilly rain.

It was probably squatters, Andrew told himself.  Someone had broken in and was living in the closed apartments illegally.  Certainly someone was living there: incidental vandals or addicts would probably do more than move a child’s toy across a balcony every handful of weeks.  Did they have a child with them?

He left a little early before therapy once to stop by the apartment and find out.  When he asked himself what he was doing — which he felt was a question posed more and more frequently these days — Andrew decided that he would, if the squatters were willing, help the occupants of the apartment find legal housing.  His job certainly paid him more than enough to meet his own needs.  Maybe he could do something with himself by helping someone else.

Andrew parked his car alongside the driveway of the abandoned complex.  The chain across the driveway meant he couldn’t go further than what was basically the shoulder of the road, but it was enough space that he didn’t fear any passing motorist would clip him.  It was only after he ducked under the chain and started walking toward the building with the pink tricycle that it occurred to him there wasn’t a no trespassing sign posted.

Suddenly he wasn’t sure if the complex was out of commission.  What if he was totally wrong?  What if families were living here, legally, behind these plywood boards?  The idea seemed absurd but not impossible.

And yet the doors were also boarded over.  He saw that now, very clearly: as he continued to walk across the overgrown, dying lawn Andrew passed the shuttered windows and doorways that showed barely any evidence of human attention.  Indeed, the doorway to his goal — the building with the pink tricycle — was likewise boarded up, with no sign of tampering.  He took a walk around the building, finding a fire exit on the far side away from the road, which was also sealed.

In reality, Andrew thought, there was surprisingly little to indicate that anyone — even the homeless or vandals — had visited this place since it closed, whenever it did close.  Because it was assuredly closed, lack of a trespassing sign or not.  He strolled back around the building, listening to cars zoom by on the road, and stopped by the corner of the building directly below the balcony with the pink tricycle.  He looked up at it, noticing for the first time how bleached its plastic was by the elements.  Had it even been pink originally?

He stared up at the balcony for a few more moments, his eyes drifting toward the sliding doors — the third floor hadn’t been boarded up, he thought.  So what if someone did climb up there?

Andrew gritted his teeth, suddenly unnerved by the fact that he couldn’t see into the dark apartment.  He remembered the image from the old street view: the screen pushed aside, a dim light within, kitchen linoleum, the glare of a refrigerator door.  Now there was nothing.  Just shadow.  Someone could be watching him and he wouldn’t even know it.

He turned and quickly walked back to his car.

*

“May I ask you something?” his therapist said, looking at him thoughtfully.  “Just to clarify my notes.”

Andrew shrugged.  “Sure?”

His therapist glanced at his clipboard.  “When did your mother switch jobs?”

“What?” Andrew frowned, not understanding the question.

“Your mother switched jobs,” said his therapist, looking at his clipboard.  “During one of our early sessions you mentioned she was a nurse.  You said both she and your father worked days.  But some things you’ve told me indicate she started working nights — and hiring babysitters, correct?  Where was your father during this?”

Andrew blinked.  His mother was a nurse? That… seemed right.  And his father… very little came to mind when he thought about his father.

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” said Andrew.

His therapist made an oddly defensively gesture with his shoulders.  “Nothing, nothing, I’m just trying to straighten out the order of events.  Your family is where you learn many of your coping strategies that manifest — sometimes problematically — later in life.  And based on what you’ve told me your family had a bit of a crisis when you were around eight years old.  You even moved out of the house.”

“Excuse me?”

“The apartment,” said his therapist, again looking at the clipboard.  “Your mother switched jobs and you lived, for a while at least, in an apartment.  Unless I got something wrong?”

“That…”  Never happened, is what Andrew wanted to say, but suddenly he wasn’t so sure.

His therapist waited a moment.  “Dissociation,” he said, finally, “often begins as a defense mechanism…”

Andrew didn’t hear the rest.

*

Andrew was due to fly to Dallas the next week for a presentation, but he called into work with the flu and said he wouldn’t be able to make the flight.  He took the week off.

He wanted to talk to his brother but when he called it went to voicemail.  “Hey,” he said, “it’s Andrew.  Do you remember when Mom started working nights?  When was that?  Anyway, give me a call.”

A new prescription sat on his kitchen counter, unfilled.  On a whim he skipped his next appointment with the therapist and received an irritated text message about a fifty-dollar fee, but by then he had been parked outside the former Homes at Roselawn for nearly an hour.  There wasn’t a no trespassing sign, so it wasn’t like anyone would have any reason to tell him to leave.

Still, though, he had to be careful.

Finally, as the sun dipped down and the corona of the city’s streetlights grew up in the sky, Andrew got out of his car and walked across the overgrown lawn of the apartment complex, the crowbar swinging easily, even naturally by his side.

It turned out to be unnecessary.  The plywood that had covered the door to the building he approached was gone, a small halogen light glowing over the concrete stoop.  Looking from side to side, thinking at any moment now someone might step out of the dark to stop him, Andrew met no resistance and finally pushed forward and opened the door.

The center of the building was a wood-paneled column containing a zig-zagging stairway.  The air had a dusty, stale quality and at least a few sheets of the paneling had fallen away, revealing the flattened streaks of glue on the wall beneath like keloid scars.  Somewhere he could hear the low thrumming of machinery, like a laundry dryer.  Somewhere else was the sound of laughter, clearly filtered through a television speaker.

The stairway was covered by a ratty carpet that did little to muffle the sound of Andrew’s crowbar when he dropped it and it skittered down to the nearest landing.  He reached the third floor and paused, looking from the left to the right to orient himself.  Each floor had four apartments, set up in quadrants around the central staircase.  Ahead and to his right, a door stood open, waiting.

He walked inside the apartment, not bothering to close the door behind him.  the only source of light was a dim, bare bulb overhead.  He was in a living room, furnished only by a couch with a severe dip in the middle situated before a TV with a dead, dark screen, and a card table with folding chairs arranged around it.  To his left was a hallway leading, he thought, to a bedroom and bathroom.  To his right an arch opened onto the small kitchen, and just beyond that, the sliding door to the balcony.

“You’re late,” said a voice.

Startled, Andrew turned from the kitchen — he’d been walking toward the balcony, he realized — and saw a woman standing at the mouth of the hallway, hurriedly putting on silver earrings.  She was a black woman, and older than him, but not by too much.  Maybe she just looked older than she was.  She wore a knee-length dress of medicinal green with a white apron folded over the front and a wide, white collar, and he recognized it as a curiously antiquated waitress uniform.

“I’m already running late,” she said, “but you should know what to do.”

“Excuse me?” he asked.

“You’re the new babysitter, yes?” she said, eyeing him severely.

He had no idea what to say to that.

“It’s self-explanatory,” she said.  “Food in the fridge, TV is mostly busted but gets a few channels.  You’ll be fine.  The child is out now, but will be back soon.  Babysitting, not rocket science.”  The woman had finished with her earrings and, after adjusting her hair, began to stride quickly toward the door.

“Wait,” Andrew said, more loudly than he meant to, and the woman stopped to look at him again, tiredly.  “Where is your…”  He struggled to articulate the idea, because she herself had phrased it so oddly.  The child.  “Where’s your kid?”

The woman cocked an eyebrow at him.  “Out playing,” she said.  “Always out playing.  And it’s not my child.  I’m just the last babysitter.”

And with that she left the apartment, closing the door behind her, and Andrew was alone in the room.

He stood for a moment in the light of the bare bulb, surveying again his surroundings.  He pulled his phone out of his pocket to see if his brother had called him and, somehow, it was dead.  He hadn’t brought a charger.

The kitchen light still worked, and when he flipped it on the glare rendered the balcony door nothing but a dark mirror.  He stepped forward, pulling it away, and felt the unusually warm, almost summery air come flooding into the apartment through the screen.  Across the street, in the other complex, he could see someone mowing the lawn in the fading twilight.  He recalled hearing that twilight was the best time to mow in the summer.

The pink tricycle was barely visible in the dark corner of the balcony, but visible nonetheless.  After regarding it for a moment Andrew grabbed one of the folding chairs from the living room and placed it in the kitchen, where he could sit and keep an eye on the balcony.

And the tricycle.  Especially the tricycle.  He settled in to wait and see what, if anything, would cause it to move.

This post was funded by readers like you through Patreon.  If you like what you read, want to see me write more, and want to get a chance to choose what I write about, please consider pledging.

HeyRyde

 

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Most positive

Andy McBarr – October 12, 2014
5star

 

When I first heard our local governments had cut a deal with the Usher company for this app idea I admit I was pretty skeptical.  I’ve heard a lot of stuff about the company and its founder and I thought it would just be no good, I used to think ridesharing services only made sense with big cities.  But on the other hand, ever since the problems in Haymeadow and then Whitbridge, our communities haven’t really been themselves.  The difficulty of finding quality hayrides as more and more people moved away was becoming apparent and I was starting to think I’d have to move too.  But then the Usher company came to the rescue with HeyRyde!! The app is still in the testing stages right now and our little towns are the testing grounds.  Need a hayride? Then download HeyRyde (lol!!) and request a ride from one of the local independent providers!  Just about everyone still in the business is working with the app, which makes it super convenient.  My first driver was from Whitbridge, which as a lifelong Haymeadow resident I was skeptical of, but he turned out to be really nice.  I think this app will bring our communities closer together, which is important given all the struggles we’ve had.  Also, they don’t tell you this in the app description, occasionally you’ll put out a call for a hayride and get one of their experimental self-driving wagons!

Erica Nicholson – October 16, 2014
5star

 

Our kids were upset because our dog and cat ran away, so the hubby and I decided to cheer them up with a little hayride!  I’d recently downloaded this app and thought it was a perfect opportunity to try it out.   What a great idea!  Our driver was a local man who was giving out hayrides to make some extra cash.  He was very friendly and even had a cooler of apple cider in the back.  Kids loved it!

Gregory Chunch – October 20, 2014
5star

 

It’s been depressing in the greater Whitbridge-Haymeadow area lately, after the riots and the fires over the past few years, but with the Usher company setting up shop in town I feel like things are finally turning around!  It’s so charitable of a big Silicon Valley company to come all the way out here to help us make ends meet.  I haven’t actually used this app but I think it’s a great idea, and I’m going to help keep the market competitive by starting my own hayride app.  Keep an eye out for Wagyn, coming soon to an app store near you!!

Amir Brooks – October 23, 2014
5star

 

Extremely impressed by the self-driving wagon that picked us up for our ride.  There weren’t even any horses! Whatever mechanical wizardry is keeping the wagons going is perfectly hidden, it otherwise looks exactly like an old farm’s hay wagon.  We took a nice ride up around north Whitbridge and everything was lovely, my date loved the colors of the leaves and it was nice not having a driver there to intrude on the moment.  When I called the Usher offices to tell them what a great innovation the self-driving wagons are I ended up talking to a woman (Charlotte) who played dumb and said the company doesn’t have self-driving wagons but I know how the tech world is, they’ve got to keep this under wraps unless a competitor steals the idea.

Alain Hardy – October 30, 2014
5star

 

the ride has been going on so long so long it’s wonderful so wonderful i never want it to end hay so itchy

Tanya Greer – October 31, 2014
5star

 

What a great experience!  Taking a leisurely hayride through Haymeadow during trick-or-treating was a perfect way to spend the holiday.  The driver even surprised us by taking us across the river into Whitbridge — at no extra charge!  It was great to see how they celebrate Halloween, even if normally I’d not want to expose my children to the snobbery of people who live there.  When I told the driver he didn’t have to bother, he said he felt like he didn’t have a choice.  How nice of him!

Nancy Whittiker – November 5, 2014
5star

 

Here’s a little thing that I guess you could call a “lifehack” — gas has been so expensive lately that driving to and from work (I work in Whitbridge but live in Haymeadow) has gotten too expensive, but for the past month I’ve been ordering hayrides to get me where I need to go and it’s been wonderful! I’m on a first-name basis with a few of the drivers now.  It takes longer, sure, but if I plan ahead I can get to work and home without ever having to use my own car.  I wonder if the service will go past the normal hayride season or if I’ll have to go back to driving myself?  Here’s hoping!! :-)

Xander Harris – November 13, 2014
5star

 

I’ve heard the Usher company is in negotiations with both the Haymeadow AND Whitbridge town boards to take over operation of public transit for the entire county.  As a libertarian, I can think of nothing better for the economy of this region — even if I wish we didn’t have to deal with those scrubs over in Haymeadow constantly crowding our wagons.  Anyway, that’s actually the beauty of the free market: if enough of us demand separate services we’ll eventually get them.   I’ve loved the hayrides I’ve been taking and can’t wait to see how a stronger Usher influence in local government turns our little corner of southern Indiana into a center of 21st century industry!

Alessa Donovan – December 5, 2014
5star

 

I have no idea why this app is still offering rides in December but I love it!  It was so nice taking a hayride through the first snowfall of the year.  It tells you something that the drivers love their job so much that they’re keeping this going year round!

Travis Wexler – January 2, 2015
4star

 

With the new year we’ve seen the launch of a second hayride app in the Haymeadow-Whitbridge area, but the original is still the best!  My driver was pleasant and talkative and even offered some warm cider.  It could have been warmer, but that’s the only criticism I can come up with about this great service.

Casey Starr – February 9, 2015
4star

 

My car broke down a few weeks ago which means I couldn’t get to work, but this app has been a lifesaver!  It’s also such a pleasant way to get around.  One of my drivers even said that you don’t even have to have your own horse and wagon anymore, Usher will lease them to you.  Maybe I’ll take up a little side job!!

Least positive

Karin Hedley – January 7, 2015
1star

 

Who wants a hayride in January?  Well I was curious so I called one up.  I recognized the woman who gave me the ride as one of the ladies who works the checkout at Wal*mart and I asked her how she liked the job and she said she hated it shed never worked with horses before and I asked her why she was doing it and said she didnt have a choice she needed the money.  I said maybe you could get another job and she just started crying.  Extremely unpleasant.

Melvin Lowe – February 28, 2015
1star

 

Unreliable drivers.  Will often take weird routes and detours that make the commute too long and you end up late to wherever you’re going.  Wagyn (locally owned) is a much better alternative.

Norbert Pflum – March 5, 2015
1star

 

My driver was obviously drunk and drove our wagon straight into the Juggascrow War Memorial in downtown Haymeadow.  Driver incoherent.  Awful.  Talked with Charlotte Raith in Usher Customer Service who arranged a refund for the ride, one bright spot.

Darcy Metcalfe – April 11, 2015
1star

 

Had a weird issue where the GPS stopped working and the driver got lost.  We ended up out on some country road and we could see the mansion the Usher guy built at the old quarry and these big black dogs came out and followed the wagon really close.  Didn’t growl or bark or anything, just followed.  My son was crying and it was definitely getting to the driver but he was so scared of the dogs!  Where did they even come from?  I thought all the dogs in town ran away months ago.

Tater Breyer – May 18, 2015
1star

 

I’ve used Wagyn from Chunch Technologies before and loved it, but since they sold out to HeyRyde after the founder passed away I don’t have another option and I HATE this!!  The drivers are always surly and won’t talk to you and if they do usually it’s weird stuff you don’t want to hear and don’t even get me STARTED on the self-driving wagons which the offices say they don’t have but then why do they keep showing up??? Usher is a bad company.  Instead of taking me where I want to go the self-driving wagons will just go out onto country roads for hours on end and i can’t stop them whenever i call up a hay ride and one of the self-driving wagons shows up i don’t get on anymore even though they sit outside my house for like an hour.  Would like an update where you can choose to not get a self-driving wagon

Carol Jordan – June 20, 2015
1star

 

For over 35 years my father worked as a chemistry teacher at Haymeadow High School (Go Ravens!) and just retired at the end of this last schoolyear.  He felt bored with the new downtime and figured that driving for HeyRyde would be a low-stress hobby that he could also get paid for.  I didn’t like the idea of him working a job in his retirement but he was insistent!  Well he started driving for them a two weeks ago and the shifts just kept getting longer.  Last time he was out for almost an entire day and came back at three in the morning (he moved in with us after he retired).  When he’s home he just goes into our spare bedroom and sleeps.  I’ve told him he doesn’t have to keep doing this but he won’t listen.  I hate this app!!

Angela Legg – July 5, 2015
1star

 

i took a “fourth of july” hayride which was an awful idea. it was hot and itchy and the driver wouldn’t stop so i could get a drink, he just kept saying “we have to follow the route.”  i was so thirsty i came close to having a heatstroke i was hallucinating that the road was glowing like bright red and the horses had too many legs. i don’t recommend using this app but if you do at least bring your own drinks that’s what i’m doing when me and my friends do our bastille day hayride next week.

Dusty Moller – July 8, 2015
1star

 

My daughter sank into a pile of hay in the corner of the wagon and we couldn’t find her for almost five minutes.  Eventually we managed to dig her out but now she has a really bad case of lice.  The driver didn’t even care.

Louis Caulfield – July 16, 2015
1star

 

I wanted to have a pleasant Bastille Day hayride, but there were a bunch of Haymeadow bumpkins on my wagon who wouldn’t stop asking me what Bastille Day is so I had to sit very uncomfortably while they read the explanation on the back of my Happy Bastille Day t-shirt.  Very annoying.

Joe Samson – September 8, 2015
1star

 

Got stuck on a group ride with a bunch of uppity Whitbridge folks and some annoying teens (also probably from Whitbridge, they were vaping).  They spent the entire part of the ride that took us through Haymeadow talking about how our sidewalks were dirty and that our street signs were hard to read.  When the ride finally turned around and took a country road into Whitbridge (I didn’t want to go but the driver couldn’t stop) I started talking really loudly about how their giant street signs make it look like a town where only old people live, but I was the only person there doing it and everyone just stared at me.  I hate Whitbridge folks.

Patricia Azikiwe – October 11, 2015
1star

 

I wish the town boards had better negotiated that public transit deal with Usher because after a year of nonstop hayrides they just don’t seem that special, even when they’re seasonally appropriate.

Tara McIntyre  – October 31, 2015
1star

 

self-driving wagon would not let me or my son off to trick or treat, just drove back and forth for three hours i had to buy candy for him from the store later. also i think the hay gave us both lice

Jackson Liu – November 7, 2015
1star

 

People love to say ridiculous stuff about services like this, like my friend who swears his sister took a HeyRyde and never came home, but that’s such bull**** when there are so many real things to complain about.  Moldy hay, ridiculous pricing even though it’s after Halloween, and the wheels of the wagon were making this weird squeaking sound that the longer I listened to the more it sounded like someone screaming.  Oh also the ride lasted way too long and I started having weird f***ed up thoughts in case that wasn’t obvious!

Maria Kendal – November 21, 2015
1star

 

I live on the Haymeadow-Whitbridge border and it’s hard to sleep with the wagons running by my house all night.  Who’s even riding them so late?  They just keep coming and going from that weirdo’s mansion at the old quarry.

Gene Kim – January 23, 2016
1star

 

I was in the area on a business trip, doing some negotiations with Usher, and decided to check out this service.  I will say, I immediately called my home office and told them we should scuttle any partnerships — everyone knows the founder of Usher has some idiosyncrasies but this whole HeyRyde thing is something else! Even though everyone talks about these wagons being self-driving these days I had a deeply unpleasant driver, an old man in a large straw hat and ragged overalls, smelled like he hadn’t washed in weeks  He never looked at me or acknowledged me, but  he just stared ahead and kept moving his hands like he was leading horses.  But there weren’t any horses!!

Xander Harris2 – February 16, 2016
1star

 

I know I’ve reviewed this app before and positively, but I just want to say that I take it back totally.  The founder of Usher, despite his admirable libertarian principles, has proven to be all talk, interfering with the free market by buying out his competitor Wagyn and letting the monopoly of his brand result in subpar service.  I’ve tried calling the Better Business Bureau (much to my shame) but ever since Usher bought all the cell towers in the county the calls just redirect to their help line.  And the local government is backing them every step of the way!! This isn’t capitalism, it’s corporatism!!!! BOYCOTT

Brynne Landau – April 6, 2016
1star

 

I don’t even know what the point is anymore. Why leave a review? The service sucks. Wagons don’t go where you need them to.  Have to deal with hicks from Haymeadow sharing your rides, and the nightmares, dear god, the nightmares

Most recent

Charlotte Raith – October 28, 2016
nostar

 

I must admit I was skeptical when I was told we would be setting up a Midwestern office, and in rural Indiana of all places.  Why?  My supervisor at the time, who was in direct communication with someone who was in turn in direct communication with the CEO, told me many things about untapped markets, civic duty to under-served areas and populations, all what one might expect.

I was disappointed when I was told that I would be moving here to oversee operations in a new division of my old department.  It was hard to say goodbye to California, even harder to adjust to these small, indolent towns and their insolent people.  There are strange rivalries here that an outsider would not and cannot understand, long-simmering resentments, and the trauma of recent tragedies.  This is to say nothing of the absolute obsession these people have with Halloween.

Over the past two years the situation has progressed… strangely.  Our CEO, a recluse at the best of times, has become almost a total non-entity.  The media speculates as to his activities and his mansion, which he had built on a small limestone cliff between these two small towns, sees no visitors, though the windows of the upper floors still glow orange at night.  Meanwhile, reviews of our services have degenerated.  And even then — people continue to use our app.  Revenues are on a steady increase.

I admit I’ve been letting my work for the company slide as I’ve watched this situation develop.  I’ve been spending a lot of time in the libraries in both towns.  I drive myself, of course, I do not take the wagons.  Most of them are self-driven these days.  I do not recall a company memo about when we made the switch, but surely there must have been one.

Anyway.

I’ve been looking at old maps, studying divisions platted by this region’s settlers nearly three hundred years ago.  I’ve been reading books.  Very strange books.  I’ve learned what ley lines are.  And I suspect there was a reason the founders divided this land the way they did.  But I’ve also been tracking the wagons.

There is a pattern forming.  The paths crossed once and over again by our company’s vehicles are knitting together two towns that, for centuries, have been held apart.  I am not a superstitious woman, but I have heard the rumors about our CEO and his interests — who could forget the sensational quote about drinking human blood — and I am beginning to wonder what his plan is for this operation.  I have my suspicions, but they are suspicions only.  I write this in the hopes that someone, anyone, especially someone outside these towns might read it.  I fear the worst.

I’ve made the decision to close my office for the day.  I’ve called my ride.  His gate only opens for the automated wagons these days.  The assortment of objects in my briefcase boggles my mind, even though I chose them — placing the of vial holy water next to the stun-gun, the box of purified salt next to the unregistered Glock — but time is short and I must have options.

The end is coming, first here, and then perhaps everywhere.  And we were its Ushers.  Forgive us.  The road to Hell is subject to surge pricing, and we’ve made a tidy profit.

The previous entries in the Haymeadow saga are here and here. This post was funded by readers like you through Patreon.  If you like what you read, want to see me write more, and want to get a chance to choose what I write about, please consider pledging.

Horse Diaries: Elska and Transhistorical Animal Affect

This post is funded by readers like you through Patreon.  If you like what you read, want to see me write more, and want to get a chance to choose what I write about, please consider pledging.

Elska by Catherine Hapka is the first entry in a series of young reader books called Horse Diaries and takes place, as the back cover tells us, in “Iceland, circa AD 1000.”  The first thing I want to make clear is that the series title of Horse Diaries is exceptionally, perhaps surprisingly, literal: this book is written from the first-person perspective of an Icelandic horse in the year 1000.

If this description makes the book sound bizarre, I assure you it is.  But we have to keep in mind here the target audience (readers from ages 8-10, probably) which to some extent explains why Elska, despite being a horse from a millennium ago, narrates her story like an Icelandic tour guide, dropping facts about geography and fjords (one of the first things she tells the reader is how the Icelandic seasons and day-night cycles differ from the weather in temperate climates, because of course a newborn horse knows these things).  But this generosity of information on her part is why it’s also so interesting that Elska never really explains the workings of the medieval human society with which much of the book is concerned.

A digression: Icelandic horses are a particular and highly specialized breed, due to Iceland’s geographical isolation.  They are gaited, which means that in addition to the normal strides of a horse (the walk, trot, canter, and gallop) they have an additional pace called the tölt, which looks weird as hell.  This is not something they’re trained to do, but something they do naturally. I just felt you should see that.

The events of the book encompass probably a decade in the span of 100 generously spaced pages, which make it an exceptionally brisk read.  It begins at the moment Elska is born while her herd is wandering the Icelandic wilderness during the spring and summer months.  Eventually, the tribe of humans to which her herd belongs come along to gather them for the rettir, the annual Iceland sheep round-up.  The word rettir is used extensively and never explicitly defined (if you discount the short appendix of “Iceland Facts” at the very end) which is a pretty good illustration of how, while the book obligingly drops information about Iceland’s climate and the differences between varying horse breeds, it remains intriguingly vague about how or why the humans do anything they do.

Elska is part of a herd owned by a family with a young daughter named Amma, whose immediate fondness for our narrator sets up the arc of the plot.  We know how this story goes: a child and an animal have a special bond, they are arbitrarily separated by an unjust force, they pine for one another, and after some strife are eventually are reunited.  In this case Amma discovers that Elska is a very fast horse and perfect for racing, which catches the eye of the son of Alfvaldr, a neighboring farmer.  Due to some nebulous debt owed to Alfvaldr by Amma’s dad, Elska is given to the former as a gift, confusing Elska considerably.  That night she jumps the fence at the new farm and runs home.

Amma is overjoyed, of course, but when Alfvaldr and his son come calling there are surprisingly dark shades to note. Alfvaldr thinks Amma stole the horse, and her father asks her, “Are you trying to cause a blood feud between Alfvaldr and me?”  Amma’s father manages to placate Alfvaldr by regifting Elska plus a few other livestock, and Elska, upon her return to Alfvaldr’s farm, is informed by her new herd that staying with them is in the best interests of Amma.  I want to take a moment to consider the casual drop of the “blood feud” here, which, like rettir, is never explained or defined (and in this case, doesn’t even show up in the appendix).

Elska mentions a couple of times that she does not understand human language, which of course raises a whole host of questions about how she is telling her story in human language and recounting entire conversations between humans that she apparently doesn’t understand.  Such niggling is pedantic, of course, but what’s curious is that within this narrative device — a non-linguistic narrator — Hapka seems to reproduce in a small degree the narrator’s lack of language by presenting the reader (again, an 8 to 10 year old child) with a society whose laws and customs are never explained.  So a child reading this book is probably not going to know what a “blood feud” is particularly, but they sure as hell are going to know that it sounds bad, even though Elska herself doesn’t think much of it.  Similarly, the other horses’ intimations of the consequences of Elska returning home a second time suggests to her and the reader obliquely the horrifying potential of the “blood feud.”

It seems perhaps inevitable that a story about a horse and its interactions with humans would be about biopolitics, the way life and death and the things that live and die flow and are funneled through the channels of the social apparatus.  Elska’s significance to the humans is as a racer, as an object for trade, and so on; they use her as a mediator for social situations she barely comprehends or does not care to understand (she mentions several times that while she loves to race, she apparently just likes to run fast — there’s no sense she’s particularly competitive in the way, say, Alfvaldr’s son is).  Simultaneously, Elska’s distance from these customs provides an identification point for the (presumably human) reader, positing her as someone who doesn’t understand or necessarily need to understand how human life in Iceland was lived, 1000 years ago, from the inside out.

This is why Elska, I think, provides so much knowledgeable about issues of climate and geography but shows little interest in unpacking social discourse: as an animal she’s aligned with the natural world, a natural world taken to be the “same” Iceland as in the reader’s own time, with geysers and glaciers and so forth, while human society is revealed as highly historically contingent in its particular forms.  In other words, Elska the Icelandic horse functions for the young reader as a locus of a kind of transhistorical affect, allowing them a space to think through the past by alternatively aligning them with her incomprehension of history (‘who cares what a rettir is’) and ironically estranging them from that incomprehension (‘Elska doesn’t know what a blood feud is, but I know it sounds dangerous for that little girl’).

A lot of contemporary ecocriticism would take issue with the way the story implicitly suggests the eternity of Nature outside the variable human social order (and makes ‘history’ signify solely the latter), and I’d be inclined to agree, but a book for young readers is not the place to wage this particular battle.  Instead, I’m interested in pondering how this particular kind of animal narrative provides children with an avenue for slipping outside a purely human historiography altogether.  As I’ve said, we all know how this story goes: animal and child are separated, there is pining, a moment of strife, and after a heartfelt and dangerous situation, a reunion.  The same applies here: Elska acclimates to Alfvaldr’s farm over the years (which is not inordinately different from the last farm — we escape the trope of the cruel secondary owner here) and eventually, after several years, goes out on rettir with Alfvaldr and his sons.

Here she once again meets Amma, who has grown older.  One day, Amma slips away from the others to hang out with Elska and decides to ride her for old time’s sake.  However, when Alfvaldr’s sons spot her they think Amma is once again stealing the horse; she panics, hops off, and runs away — straight into a river.

This is not the best idea.  Amma is swept away and Alfvaldr’s sons immediately start flipping out, without any clue what to do.  Elska, however, sees Amma grab onto a rock, and in her recognition that Amma is in trouble, wades into the river and allows Amma to climb onto her back.  “We horses are the bridges of Iceland,” she informs the reader.  (Aside: this is actually a common saying in Iceland, since historically there are so many rivers that bridges cannot be built for all of them, and so horses were often used for travel even as they fell out of fashion elsewhere.)

The final chapter jumps forward some indeterminate amount of time, where it is revealed that Elska is once again living with Amma on her family’s farm.  After the incident in the river, it was proved sufficiently that Elska and Amma have a special bond, and he gifted the horse to her.  Things are progressing along with the seasons, and it’s revealed that Elska herself is pregnant and due to foal in the spring.  The human social realm and the natural realm are once again linked together in a kind of cyclical, biopolitical harmony.

I don’t know if a horse ever actually has or ever actually would care enough about a human being to pull them out of a river.  A savior dog I would buy, but having spent some time around horses I have a hard time imagining one going for saving someone over munching on some nearby grass.  To an extent, many animal-human narratives that climax in moments like this rely on some kind of sentimentalization, an anthropomorphosis that suggests a fundamental correspondence between how humans feel in and about the world and how things in the world feel about us.

We expect this from children’s stories, and being the cool and rational adults that we are, we recognize the narrative frippery for what it is.  This is a nice story to tell your kids, we might say, but it’s something you grow out of.  We have to realize, at some point, that horses don’t really feel this way about us, that they really are, after all, animals and tools to be used for racing, for exchange, for farm maintenance.

Elska and by extension the entire Horse Diaries series takes its generic cue from an earlier work, as Elska’s epigraph indicates:

“Oh! if people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is….”

This quote is from Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty.  You’ve probably heard of it.  What you probably don’t know, unless you’ve read it — and the above quote does nothing to indicate this — is that the entire novel is, like Elska, narrated in the first person by a horse.  Furthermore, though we might consider Sewell’s novel something appropriate for children, it is (and was published as) a “real” novel for general audiences, though it has been historically aligned with the deeply gendered field of sentimental (read: women’s) fiction.

Like many “sentimental” novels of the nineteenth century, Black Beauty has a particular social consciousness; specifically, it aims to draw attention to animal welfare on the one hand and the rough living and working conditions of London cabbies and their horses on the other.  And so Elska’s epigraph is Black Beauty himself speaking, and the full line is this:

“Oh! if people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is, and how it keeps a good mouth and a good temper, they surely would not chuck, and drag, and pull at the rein as they often do.”

The point here is fairly obvious: don’t treat your horses like crap. Don’t hurt them. They don’t like it. They have inclinations, wants, feelings.

It’s extremely telling that Sewell’s novel, a bestseller in its own time, is today thought of (and has mostly left its mark on) children’s fiction.  When I say the horse offers an opportunity for transhistorical affect, then, aside from the complicated baggage of a fully stabilized and naturalized idea of Nature, I mean to suggest that both Black Beauty and Elska embody, in their own ways, something that “falls out” of the normal progressive notion of history as one of increasing technical sufficiency, social literacy, and a maturing (and masculinized) human creature whose primary privilege is to instrumentalize the world and the other creatures that exist in it.

Just as Black Beauty aims to paint a world of greater respect and cohesion across boundaries of social class and species, Elska offers the reader an opportunity to contemplate a historical basis for the fondness they almost certainly feel for horses.  Though we might expect them to grow out of it, the continued existence of these stories suggests something about the affect we tend to expend on animals, which in turn suggests it is we humans — not the horses — who are trained out of it.  But maybe we don’t have to be.