Christian Thorne on the Gothic Zizek

Christian Thorne has been hammering together what seems to me to be an incredibly handy primer on Slavoj Zizek.  For interested newcomers, the first part can be found here, but the second part on Zizek’s Gothic methodology recently went up, and manages to articulate a lot of what I like about Zizek (and gives me a way of thinking through a lot of current concerns of mine) rather clearly.  I produce a choice bit below, without comment.

We can say, first, that Žižek likes to read Gothic fiction and also the eerier reaches of science fiction—and that’s true, though he precisely does not read them the way a literary critic would. It has always been one of the more idiosyncratic features of Žižek’s thought that he is willing to proclaim Pet Sematary a vehicle of genuine analytic insight or to see in horror stories more broadly a spontaneous and vernacular Lacanianism, in much the same way that old-fashioned moral philosophers used to think of Christianity as Kantianism for people without PhDs. To this observation we can easily add a second: that Žižek himself often reads as though he were writing speculative fiction, as in: You are not an upstanding member of society who dreams on occasion that he is a murderer, you are a murderer who dreams every night that he is an upstanding member of society—though keep reading in Žižek and you’ll also find: torture chambers, rape, “strange vibrating noises.” And yet if we’re taking Žižek at his word, then the point is not just to read Gothic novels, nor yet to write them. We must cultivate in ourselves, rather, a determination to read pretty much everything as Gothic. Once we’ve concluded that horror fiction offers a more accurate way of describing the world than do realist novels—that it is the better realism, a literature of the Real—then the only way to defend this insight will be to read the very world as horror show. It will no longer be enough to read Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson. The Gothic hops the border and becomes a hermeneutics rather than a genre. Anything—any poem, painting, person, or polity—will, if snuck up upon from the right angle, disclose to you its bony grimace.

More thoughts on videogames and tragedy

My thoughts on the “tragi-ludic” in Bioshock Infinite have continued to percolate in the back of my mind.  You’ll recall I pinned Binfinite’s innovation in this regard on making the protagonist decidedly not the player.

The results are mixed: the ending is both appropriate and not appropriate, in that we can see Booker DeWitt being destroyed by the system that encapsulates him, and yet we find ourselves for various reasons cut off from the event, in at least the affective way tragedy would require.

“I realized I can’t think of a tragic videogame,” a friend said to me after he read that piece.  “Videogames are all about accomplishment.”

I have been pondering this.  Is the so-called catharsis at the end of tragedy itself a type of accomplishment, and if so, how would we create a game that makes this a goal while remaining appropriately tragic?

In other words, is it possible that a game could, while not necessarily distancing the player from the avatar, spring upon them the moment of anagnorisis where not only is the encroaching catatrosphic failure inevitable, ordained, and perhaps for some arcane reason deserved, but in fact make the player desire their own failure?

I think Porpentine’s Cyberqueen, which deconstructs the videogame power fantasy, moves in this direction.  But is the game tragic?  Perhaps not.  It is definitely horrific, but I would actually say the tone of its ending arguably triumphant.

But we move now into a fuzzy, and from a certain perspective, kinky territory: how to recognize the failure we crave when, in our grasp, it feels appropriate, earned, an accomplishment?  The fact that the player is  being mind-controlled by a homocidal dominatrix AI at the end of Cyberqueen perhaps speaks to this issue in an unexpectedly meta way.

 

Scare Quotes: Some words on Cabin in the Woods

 

Cabin in the Woods is a recent-ish film from Lost alum Drew Goddard and perennial geek favorite Joss Whedon.  I say recent-ish because the film was shot in 2009 and then lay on a shelf for three years (as the whisper goes, because the studio wanted to force it into 3D post-processing) until finally seeing release this spring.  The critics and the ever judgmental internet appear to love it, at least as much as they can in our age of useless score aggregation, and the film did reasonably well at the box office.  If you’ve watched the trailer above, you know it’s a little different than your normal Cabin in the Woods-like movie, and if you’ve seen the film then you know how different.  In some ways it is a complicated movie, and it invites a lot of discussion of the horror film genre.  Its major problem is that it is not as prepared as it thinks for the conversation it invites.

If you haven’t yet seen the movie and are averse to spoilers, I would say  stop reading this review now — seriously — because I am going to spoil things pretty hard in the paragraphs to come.  If you want a parting word on the film’s value, I would say it is definitely worth seeing; if you can, make sure it’s in a crowded theater or with another group of first-time viewers.  I went to see CitW on opening weekend, as a reprieve during my finals rush, and it was a wonderful group experience; I overheard more positive chatter on my walk through the parking lot than I have in a long, long time.

I emphasize now: despite the criticism I raise, this films deserves to be seen, especially if you like horror, and especially if you like things that are willing to pursue a crazy line of thought to uncertain ends.

Now hold onto your butts, from here on out I’m going to get insufferable.

 

Audiences and Ghosts both say “Boo”

Cabin in the Woods is a satirical horror-comedy that aims to criticize the horror-going audiences’ loathing of originality.  The film takes the metatextual “final girl” elements of slasher movies as pioneered by scholar Carol Clover and makes them a part of the plot proper.  It is, of course, not the first horror film to do this — Scream did it in 1996, and The Rise of Leslie Vernon did it in 2006.  CitW’s difference lies in the manner of implementation; whereas in the earlier films the slasher “rules” were laid out simply as unquestionable Law — they were the things you did even if they didn’t make sense — CitW figures them as part of an ancient though questionable ritual to appease some nebulous “Gods” who have retreated from the world and lie dormant, leaving behind only fragmentary nightmares which are then turned jealously on a group of hedonistic teens.

The film makes the point repeatedly that the Gods demand this sacrifice out of some intrinsic loathing of the young protagonists.  They hate their youth.  To deconstruct the usual notion of “cannon fodder” characters in slasher films, CitW makes it a point to show how the teens are forced into their slasher film roles — the intelligent brunette dyes her hair blonde, and the chemicals placed in the dye by the puppet masters reduce her to a stereotype, while her forward-thinking athletic boyfriend is reduced to an alpha-as-fuck jock.  And so on.

The final act of the film comes when the stoner character (designated the “Fool” by the puppetmasters) and the Final Girl descend into the puppetmasters’ extensive underground citadel and release every available monster to wreak havoc.  The director of the puppetmasters attempts to persuade the kids to complete the ritual, for if they don’t the Gods will awake and destroy all existence.  The stoner and the final girl deign not to, instead defeating the director and then smoking a jay while the world ends.  “Let’s give someone else a shot,” they say.  The final shot of the film, then, is an immense human hand tunneling up from Hell, destroying the puppetmasters’ facility, the titular cabin, and the camera.

The significance of an ancient eldritch God’s hand being so human is of course self-evident.  The Gods are the audience who bitches and moans whenever a horror film does not meet their expectations: a group of beautiful young people who indulge in hedonism, show their lithe young bodies, and then are systematically slaughtered by a shadowy displacement of the Id.

This reading of the film is not incorrect, but it ignores certain elements and implications.

 

“Let’s split up”

As Zizek would tell us, ad nauseum:

It is easy for us to imagine the end of the world — see numerous apocalyptic films — but not end of capitalism.

Should we agree that the satirical reading I offered in the last section is more or less correct, then herein lies Cabin in the Woods‘ greatest problematic.  It engineers a situational conflict (one that may not exist, as I shall argue) and then begs for a solution to this conflict.  But its solution is nothing more than “let the world end.”

Cabin in the Woods is incredibly critical of the machinery of the stereotypical horror film, and at the same time it is far too reliant on this same machinery to actually pose another model of dramatic action.

The film asks for a third way but it cannot seriously propose it. Consider, as I have said, how it makes the college students more than walking tropes so you actually feel bad when they’re manipulated and murdered.  Near the end of the film, when the puppermaster techs feel they have successfully completed the ritual, they  bust out the champagne and hold a party while on the monitors behind them Dana, the chosen Final Girl, is being tortured by the monster du jour.

By figuring the slasher film tropes as a form of punishing ritual (we are told the college kids need to “suffer” to please the Gods), CitW follows in the footsteps of Rene Girard in making human culture copacetic scapegoat ritual and sacrifice.  This sort of sacred violence is something the film appears to reject; if a society needs orchestrations of innocent suffering, then it is not worth perpetuating.  In the scene I just described the sadism inherent in horror films is put on display for critique — but is then immediately thwarted by what is easily the most compelling sequence in the movie, the “purging” nonsense when every available slasher or horror film monster is released on the puppetmasters.  Since the opening of the film, the techs themselves are gestured at as having remarkably mundane lives outside the office, which might at first seem to be attempt to humanize them.

The problem is that the sheer fun of the purge control sequence, the cornucopia of ridiculous slaughter, effaces much if not most or all of the qualms we might have.  Just like the Gods who need to see the teens suffer, we now desire to see the callous old corporate white people suffer — they are the ones scapegoated, they are the new sacrifice.  But the  social order their sacrifice create is, by the film’s own logic, entirely untenable.  The stoner and the final girl have no choice at the end of the film but to let the entire world be destroyed, because as critical as the film is of systems of oppression, as critical as it is of horror convention, it cannot imagine a world without oppression, and indeed, cannot imagine a horror film without convention.

It is a problem the film makes for itself.  The type of slasher flick it critiques hasn’t been popular since at least the late 80s or early 90s, and the film’s main point of reference is The Evil Dead, which in its own way is already as self-aware as this movie.  Furthermore, the past few years have seen plenty of unusual, original films that more ably criticize slasher-centered or sadistic horror films — Inside, Martyrs, Antichrist, though notably CitW is not as hostile toward its viewers as these films — or offer something more off the beaten path — Paranormal Activity, Let the Right One In, The Innkeepers.

CitW, in contrast to these films, does not (consistently or clearly) invite any genuine affective response.  It does not know who it wants us to sympathize with and how, and (here we get a bit subjective) it’s not particularly scary.  It is a very cynical comedy film, really, which uses a horror film backdrop.

 

“What’s your favorite scary movie?”

Near the end of the film, one of the tech guys encounters a merman.  It has been set up that he wants to see a merman for some reason, so this is obviously Chekhov’s merfolk.  It’s one of the monsters that can attack the kids in the cabin.  After the stoner and the final girl have released said monster, the man is knocked to the floor during the fracas.  He whips around as something scuttles through the gloom toward him; the music rises as it comes into view; it is horrible, unlike any eroticized or romanticized notion of merfolk, a terrible pinch-faced monstrosity with slimy skin and sharp teeth.  This is it, the man has finally seen the merman, and he says…

Something like “Come on” in a disappointed tone.  The music cuts out and the thing unceremoniously chews through his neck.

This whole sequence bothers me for a few reasons.  The first is: why in the hell is this guy disappointed?  What the fuck did the think he was going to see when he saw a merman?  It makes no sense for him to expect a Little Mermaid-style shell-brassiered sea vixen, because everything the puppetmasters keep under locks is a horrifying monstrosity.  What did he expect?  He’s been waiting for this moment, so it should be something sublime, a quasi-religious experience like the one the film’s ritual is meant to instantiate.  Why won’t the film let him be happy at his moment of death — why can’t he be afraid?

In Cabin in the Woods we don’t know where our sympathies lie, with the techs or with the teens, because it makes us laugh at them and cheer at their misfortunes despite ourselves.  We also don’t know if we should genuinely be frightened for the characters because the monsters and terrors, too, are always presented  as in some way laughable, not really scary at all.  It denies both the notion of religious awe and sublime terror.  “Feeling things sincerely is for people who aren’t as detached and hip as us,” the film suggests.  “All this crap from scary movies?  It’s been run into the ground.  It’s not scary at all.”

As much as I think the film wants to celebrate the horror genre, it can’t bring itself to present anything but an ambivalent parody of everything that’s come before it. The entire film is almost literally in scare quotes. It ends up being just a sort of carnivalization of the genre, which is loads of fun certainly, but is not necessarily constructive in the way the film seems to want to be, or to want people to think it is.  I’ve read plenty of reviews saying CitW is a “new story” or a “new genre” — and it isn’t.  A collection of cliches played for laughs has been around a while, and it’s called a parody.

I suppose another way of reading the film, then, would be as a parodic take on the whole post-Scream metahorror phenomenon.  Scream, as I mentioned, popularized the invocation of Clover’s slasher tropes as plot dressing, in that particular franchise’s case as an added layer of complexity to a gruesome murder mystery (which was itself a gesture to the origin point of the slasher film, Hitchcock’s Psycho).  Yet now that we think we know the rules we can invoke them constantly to justify this or that — the dumb woman needs to show her boobs before she gets her throat slit because that’s the rule! — and hey it’s no big deal because we know the rules so we do it ironically.

The problem, of course, is that even if you’re winking and laughing the entire time you’re still following the rules.  You don’t make them go away, you don’t make them any less tired or gratuitous. As the rules and tropes multiply, filling more tightly packed genre compartments, as meta-awareness grows larger and wider, the whole thing literally become more than the filmmaker or viewer can possibly keep under control.  This ironic meta-awareness seeps outward into the genre, until it becomes less a single aspect than it is the genre entirely — and thus horror destroys itself, kicking back to smoke a jay and have a good time, collapsing into the void of its own complacent self-knowledge.

Game Review: Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor is the latest offering from Jasper Byrne of superflat games.  It is a 2D sidescrolling survival horror-cum-adventure game wherein you take control of a character known only as, um, you.  So you have been holed up in an apartment while the city outside was evidently overtaken by a plague that transforms human beings into gibbering, featureless flesh monsters.  You spend the game wandering around the desolate world, looking for other survivors, scavenging for supplies, eating crackers to manage your hunger, and having nightmares.

To be quick and to the point, I’d definitely recommend Lone Survivor if you want to play something different and unsettling.  The game is available via its own website or on Steam for a mere ten bucks.  If you want to know more about the game or have already played it, then go ahead and read on, as I have more to say.  If you haven’t played the game, be warned that there will be a small amount of spoilers.

As I said, I very much enjoyed this game.  However, there are some questionable design decisions (like how to get the motherfucking can opener) that can leave you scratching your head at certain junctures.  Also, while the relative simplicity of the graphics is unsettling in its own right — I think there’s some sort of uncanny primal horror for people of my generation about terrible things happening to approximations of SNES sprites — the overall corroded and dim look of environments can make certain sequences rather frustrating to play.  I’m thinking in particular of the basement chase sequence, where the various corridors are so samey that it’s difficult to remember where to turn and which direction to run.

But on the more positive side, Lone Survivor recovers what I feel is an essential problem of contemporary survival horror: player choice.  I mean like old school survival-horror/adventure player choice, things like “I want to investigate this room because it may contain ammo, but that ammo may be guarded by a monster, but if I skip this room maybe there’s also an important puzzle item hidden in a corner and and and and— ”  What I’m getting at is the feeling that the game itself is something you should be scared of, something working against you in unseen and unguessable ways.

One of my biggest issues with, just for sake of example, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, was how it made a big deal of tallying your choices in very visibly flagged arenas, which invites you to game the system.  Lone Survivor owes a lot to the old Silent Hill style of evaluation, where your play style is silently judged according to unknown criteria and you are given access to certain types of content based on your actions.  It’s not an incredibly dynamic and emergent thrill ride (there are only three endings, currently, and two of them are pretty much the same), but it also never claims to be.  If jackasses like me didn’t say stuff about it in reviews and forum posts, you wouldn’t know until the ending screen that the game has been tracking you all along.

Now onto the biggest point I want to make.  People have been talking up the game’s story, which I think is interesting, as the game is essentially sort of plotless.  It’s very similar to Braid in that there’s a collection of disparate narrative cues that refuse to cohere into a single reading, but at the same time these elements are all a lot more thematically unified and cogent than Braid’s self-aware pretensions toward profundity.  At best Lone Survivor is a seedbed for rabid theorymongering in the darkest forums of the internet, which is not necessarily a bad thing; at worst it relies a bit too heavily on David Lynch pastiche, though the Lynchian elements, when they are effective, are effective indeed.  But to assume that any game that is good — as Lone Survivor certainly is — is about the plot dodges one of the medium’s greatest strengths.  All in all, this isn’t a game about the story, it’s a game about an atmosphere, or a feeling — and it conveys that feeling well.

Pride & Prejudice & People

 

When the zombie apocalypse finally happened
we were so primed for it, culturally speaking
that it almost didn’t happen at all.

At last all the truths universally acknowledged
all the rules of what to shoot and sever
all the jokes and Jane Austen mash-ups meant something.

We’d memorized our escape routes
and plans for barricades
long in advance.

We knew the best way to break a broom handle
and how to stab upward, through the jaw and cranium.
We knew to never turn our backs on the corpse’s corpse.

Years of daily dead-eyed aggression
were unleashed explosively
as we took down our families

our friends and our lovers
and though they were no longer those things
we pretended they were.

Still, in time, there was no denying it
was all over. Then we shuffled back to what we knew
home or office or school, and we

did what we had always done. Old habits
and manners fell back into place
like missing organs.

Now a new viral media craze
has come on so gradually
that we hardly know when it began.

In a recent hit film
a group of surviving scientists
concocts a cure and comes

to overturn our way of life
or rather the thing we have
which approximates it.

One half the world cannot understand
the guilty pleasures of the other
and we admit the premise is ludicrous, yet

now we’re going through all the old Jane Austen
and adding more chapters about the human characters.

Write-up of a dream from 2-3 years ago, which I found today

I had a dream I was watching a TV show about famous scandals. Evidently during the early 90s, Prince Charles had died under mysterious circumstances. Everyone had blamed the Queen, naturally, and taken to calling her “The Assassin of Wales.”

The show then ran a segment on the Assassin of Wales, a legendary creature with the body of a raccoon and head of a human baby that was used by people throughout history specifically to kill the Prince of Wales.

No one had ever seen the creature, so it was usually described as mythological.

I looked up from my seat on the couch and saw an Assassin of Wales in the tree outside my window, but I knew I didn’t have to worry because I wasn’t royalty.

The end!

2011: Arcs, the Apocalypse, and American Horror Story

My review of last year opened with a rather definitive statement.  There will be no such statement this year.

2011 was a different sort of year, a more difficult year, a year of complication and nuance and building and unraveling and expectation and perhaps — overall — fear.

When speaking of narrative a term that gets thrown around a lot is “arc.”  Where does a character start, and where do they end up?  The thing about life is that you’re always starting somewhere and ending up somewhere else, and then starting again.  You never really stop moving.  2011 was the year many arcs ended, and when many other began.

2011 was the year of learning what it means to occupy; to learn its dangers, and its signification.  American Horror Story is not just the name of a hit new series on FX, it’s also a buzzy phrase for our current political and economic clusterfuck.

But, then again, it’s also the name of a hit new series on FX.

I watched it recently, and American Horror Story is pretty good.  It did its homework on haunted house movies, and it’s got some visual flair.  It’s also one of the most sloppily written things I’ve seen in the past few years — there are, perhaps, no ghosts, just the mournful whisper of wind through the gaping and multitudinous plot holes.

But then there are also actually the ghosts.  The fact that the show is so poorly written means that, when you get right down to it, the character arcs make no sense.  Stories of haunting, as I’ve written on this blog before, often deal with that which has been denied or displaced or forgotten, the problems we’ve neglected to face but which still occupy, however nebulously, some space in our lives.  To save you from any spoilers, suffice it to say that the arc of American Horror Story does not attempt to navigate this hauntological cohabitation of the past and present.  What it does is cheat, in at least two ways.

One is the introduction of an apocalypse storyline — something the latest season of Dexter danced around as well — which is probably the most boring thing imaginable in a horror story for me.  The antichrist, the fruition of Revelation — so fucking what?  Supernatural or horror-inclined shows need to learn is that betting the whole damn farm only makes me think you’re not taking the game seriously.  The stakes are so high they’re meaningless.

The second way AHS cheats is a bit more subtle.  Though it wants us to think the apocalypse is a Bad Thing, total annihilation is in fact the only workable way out offered by the logic of the plot.  The only way our ghosts can be overcome — or at least, cohabitated with — is to be ghosts ourselves.  To force ourselves to belong to the past, or as the past seems to those who inhabit it, in a character’s words, “one long today.”

The apocalypse is the end of futurity.  If there is no future, there can be ghosts.  The ghosts become us, or we them.

Interesting, then, that the world is supposed to end in 2012.  I doubt this, of course, but I guess I could be proven wrong.

But for the time being, no matter what American Horror Story (the series or the situation) suggests, I rather think I’d like to continue soldiering on into the future, with my ghosts in tow.

In 2010 my life was working to a clear, definite point.  It was a time of transition but that transition’s nature felt solid.  The solidity fell to pieces in 2011, when many things happened.  These weren’t necessarily bad things; my graduation was one of them.  I am the first person in my family to obtain a four-year degree, a first-generation college student and, now, a first generation graduate student.  These are wonderful things.

And they are frightening things.  I am on my own now, further afield than any chick from the ancestral nest.  My friendships from undergrad, though they maintain in some ways thanks to modern technological convenience, have ended their arcs for now.  I need to build new relationships, I need to find new ways to occupy the world I’ve made for myself, and that others have made and will make for me.

It would be dishonest to not here mention the one arc still hanging from undergrad: the most frightening and the most wonderful thing of all about 2011.  She knows who she is, and to her I say thank you.  Thank you for staying in this story, even as it got messy.

For the rest of you, I wish you and all your ghosts a happy new year.

Texts from Last Night

The library here is a lot stranger than any others I’ve ever been in.

It’s two towers of aging Indiana limestone that have stood here for forty years and for all I know might stand for forty more.  Unlike most major university libraries students are allowed to browse the stacks freely, which is of course quite a privilege, and something that makes me excited to have it at a resource.  Actually being there, however, is quite an experience.

It’s far larger than any academic library I’ve been in, and thinking about the books it’s acquired throughout the years — for the first time in my life if I want to read something I can almost guarantee it’s close by — it’s a little unsettling.  On one hand, it’s exciting to consider all of those books around me, all of those things freely available for me to pick up and read.  On the other it makes me intensely aware that there are many more books available to me than I could ever read, literal decades of accumulated attempts at communication, more than I could ever comprehend or understand or synthesize into a coherent whole.

This becomes especially pertinent if you hit the library during a slow period, or if you end up in part of the stacks where no one usually goes, and have plenty of time on your hands.  You may be surprised at what you find.

I was on the ninth floor of the east tower — the highest you’re allowed to go if you’re not staff — when I first saw the phone.  It was probably the beginning of September and I was dropping by to pick up some books for a possible research project.  I stepped out of the elevator and into the small hallway situated in the dead center of the stacks.  Immediately across from the elevator bank are the restrooms, plus a table supporting a yellowed dictionary (which seemed adorably quaint to me upon first glance) and I noticed, right by that, a purple cell phone.

Cell phones aren’t unusual, of course, and I figured this one wasn’t my problem.  Someone had left it — probably after sending a text or making a call, which incidentally is a big no-no since cell phone use is prohibited beyond the main lobby.  After waiting around for a few minutes, listening for anyone approaching or to see if anyone ducked out of one of the nearby bathrooms, I realized that the owner probably wasn’t going to come back any time soon. Because I’m something of a Good Samaritan, I decided to take the phone down to the Lost and Found, after I got the Milton biography I came for.

I grabbed the cell phone — a purple Motorola — and slipped it into my bag before running my errands.

It wasn’t until I got back to my apartment that I realized I’d forgotten about the phone entirely.  I’d been distracted in the stacks and gotten a deal more than the Milton bio I was aiming for, and the Motorola had slipped my mind.  I found it when I emptied out my bag and instantly felt a sharp pang of embarrassment.  Of course, all was not lost.  I just turned the phone on.

I already mentioned it was a Motorola.  It was also marked as a Verizon phone, and beyond being purple was mostly nondescript.  It was one of the models that slides open to reveal a perpendicular QWERTY keyboard.  It also had a camera, but the background was what looked like a default image: two figures silhouetted against a sunset on a beach.  Above that the time was displayed, the signal strength (good), and the battery life (about half).  My plan was to see who the last person contacted was and hit them up letting them know a friend’s phone was missing, so I quickly navigated through the menus.

I discovered the lists of incoming and outgoing calls were both blank.  The text message in- and outboxes were likewise empty, and so was the address book.

I can’t say I wasn’t suspicious.  This simply wasn’t how people use phones. Yet, if someone had chosen to clear out their phone, well, more power to them, no matter how weird it was.  That just meant I had no way of getting it back to them on my own, and at the time I remember being distinctly grateful that the next day I could just drop it off at the library Lost and Found, as per my original plan, and be done with it.

So I set the phone aside, and went about my business.  It was a Wednesday, which meant my roommates would be out most of the evening for various reasons, so I took advantage of the situation by making full use of the kitchen.  I was dipping chicken thighs in Italian dressing when I got the first text.

I’d left the phone on, and right next to my own phone in the pile of homework I habitually keep on the kitchen table when I’m cooking.  There was no ringtone, only a setting to vibrate, so when the text came, I thought it was my own phone going off.  (I personally hate ringtones.)  But I was surprised to see, after washing my hands and heading over,  that it was the purple Motorola’s screen that had lit up with a message notification.  One new text message.

Thinking I might be able to return the phone in person after all, I opened the message.  It was prefaced by the number of the sender — no name, since there was nothing in the address book — and I could tell at first glance that the number wasn’t local.  The message said

are you home yet?

I hit reply and with fingers not at all used to the keyboard wrote back that I wasn’t the owner of the phone, that I’d found it in the library, but I’d be happy to return it if I could figure out who it belonged to.  I hit send and waited.

I expected a response within at least a few minutes.  In my admittedly limited experience with things like this, people are pretty prompt when a phone is missing.  But as it turned out, I didn’t get a response until half an hour later, after my chicken and sweet potatoes had been in the oven for a quarter of their bake time.  I was sitting at the table doing homework when the next text came.

are you home yet? this is harder than i thought lol

Confused I spent some time comparing the originating phone numbers  They were the same, but the second seemed oblivious to my reply to the first.  Not sure what to do, I replied again, something along the lines of, I’m sorry, this isn’t my phone, I said I found it, could you tell me who it belongs to?

The phone was silent again until I was doing dishes almost an hour later.  I took my time checking it, since I was already expecting something less than helpful, and sure enough I wasn’t disappointed.

when they knocked i didnt answer so its ok. ive been drinking a little. ok maybe alot lol what about you?

Still the same number.  I didn’t respond to it this time, figuring that whoever was on the other side of this conversation was probably a bit more than drunk.  Instead, as a mild curiosity, I googled the number, idly fantasizing I’d find it associated with a Facebook page or something.  No such luck there, but I did manage to pin down a region: Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.  Nowhere close to local, but the university takes students from all over.

I shrugged this off as I went about my business, finishing up the dishes and moving on to more homework.  It occurred to me at one point that due to the time difference, my mystery correspondent was drinking a little (okay maybe a lot) at four in the afternoon.  Strange, but I hear they have odd ways in California.

Regardless of my own lack of response, I saw the purple phone had received yet another text after I got out of the shower.

hes been weird since you left

By this point I was beginning to feel a bit uneasy.  Whose phone was this, who was texting it, and why were they ignoring me?  I began to consider the possibility that this was an elaborate prank, or maybe part some psych doctoral student’s research project.  Of course it made me wonder what sort of prank or research project relied on people stealing a cell phone from a library and sending those people aimless texts.  I wondered if it were some sort of trolling gimmick — someone with money to blow was hoping to get a rise out of me, and would upload a transcript of my hilarious reactions to a cutting edge comedy website, or a 4chan board or something.

That still didn’t make any sense.

I got another text while I was pondering the possibilities, though.

i saw lights outside my window are you home yet

I swallowed.  It had to be a trick.  Someone’s dumb game.  Would I be playing into their plans if I called?

Only one way to find out.

I called the number and waited.  One ring, two rings, three rings, four and five and — someone picked up.  “Hello?” came a voice.  It sounded like a woman’s voice, maybe middle-aged.

“Hello,” I said, doing my best to organize my thoughts.  I honestly hadn’t expected anyone to answer and now I didn’t know what to say. “I’m not sure whose phone I’m calling from, I found it in the library here and when I received a text from your phone I tried asking for a name so I could–”

There was a groan.  “I’m so sick of this,” the woman said.  “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Then she hung up on me.

I stared at the screen for a few moments, watching  CALL ENDED blink on the screen, and then set the phone aside again.  It was certainly some kind of trick, I decided.  I was getting texts from the woman’s number.  I got one just before I called her.  There was no way she didn’t know what I was referring to.  It was a prank, a really elaborate and inscrutable and asinine joke.

A bigger man, at this point, would have checked out, just turned the phone off.  But I was beginning to feel indignant and more than a little pissy toward whoever was orchestrating this game, and more than a little anxious to see if they tried anything further.  So I just set the phone aside on my night stand, right next to my own phone, and went about the rest of my nightly routine, finishing up reading for the next day’s classes.  As 11:30 rolled around, the purple phone hadn’t shown any signs of life.  I went to bed.

I’m a heavy sleeper, which somewhat explains what happens next.  How I remember it beginning is rolling over in bed during the night, as I think most people do, and becoming aware that something was off about the light level in the room.  That set me on the path for a full awakening, and as I smashed my face into my pillow in protest I became aware of a low buzzing sound.  The sound of a phone vibrating against my night stand.

I’d forgotten about the purple Motorola and immediately assumed it was my phone going off, that there was an emergency somewhere.  I reached out, my hand scrabbling around the nightstand until I felt my phone’s familiar case, and cracked open my eyes.

The screen was dark.  The light was coming from the other phone.  Memories returned and, irritated, I picked up the Motorola with the intention of turning it off.

That was when I caught sight of what the screen said.  It was not a call, of course, but a text message.  But not just one.  The screen said there were now 15 new messages.

I dropped the phone, my hand reaching out again for my glasses.  I blinked as I pulled them on, wondering if I’d read the screen correctly.  On the night stand the phone buzzed again as I picked it up.  16 new messages.

I hit a button, automatically opening the most recent.

im coming now let me in

I closed the message and frowned, still trying to get the sleep out of my eyes.  As I focused on the screen I noticed two things.  The first was that it was past two in the morning.  The second was that the battery icon was flashing.

But before I could fully comprehend that, the phone died, the screen flicking to black in an instant.  But in that instant I saw once again the background image, the wallpaper, that sunset.

Then I was alone in the dark.

I took the phone back to the library the next day, not even bothering to see if my own phone cord would suffice to recharge it.  I decided, after my night of intermittent sleep and uneasy dreams, that I didn’t want to see whatever else it had to say.

“Hey,” I said to the man behind the reference desk, “I was wondering if you had a Lost and Found here.”

“Sure do,” he said.  “Lose something?”

I shook my head and showed him the phone.  “I found that up in the stacks on the ninth floor,” I said.  “No one was around, so I figured if anyone came back looking for it they’d check here.”

“Ninth floor?” said the man.  “Thank you very much.”  He took the phone and dropped it somewhere below the counter as I walked away.

I wondered if I had imagined the look on his face when I set the phone down between us.  It was almost surprise, or rather, the look someone trying to hide surprise.  Or recognition.  Maybe I had imagined it, I decided.  Just like when I glimpsed the phone’s wallpaper for the last time, and in my confused, half-asleep state imagined I saw, standing black against an orange beachside sunset, a solitary silhouette where I had before seen two.

*

Last week I got a call from an unfamiliar number.  I usually don’t answer them but occasionally, if the mood strikes me, I will.

This time, after maybe four or five rings, I did.

“Hello?” I asked.  I was standing in the hallway of the apartment, just getting ready to head out for the night.

“Hello,” said a voice, a young woman’s voice.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know whose phone this is, I found it today, but you’ve been texting me and–”

I understood what was happening, at least on a surface level.  I suddenly understood, with perfect clarity, as if I could see it physically, what phone this girl had found.

But I still don’t know what came over me.  I knew, as she was speaking to me, exactly what it was I was going to say.  I don’t know why I said it, but with a heavy sigh I did: “I’m so sick of this.  Don’t you have anything better to do?”

And then I hung up.

My phone began to buzz in my hand almost immediately; she was calling me back.  I held down the red END button, watching as my phone’s screen went black, and I kept it off for the rest of the day.

When I turned it on the next morning, I was relieved to see there were no new messages.