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.

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.

Friday reading

In case you’re not into A Serious Game, Samehat‘s tumblr recently brought to my attention Tokyo Scum Brigade’s fantastic writeup on the history of Lovecraft in Japanese literature and pop culture.

…June 2010 saw the stars quake in ecstasy with the dual release of My Maid is an Amorphous Blob, the tale of a boy and his blob cosplaying Shoggoth, and The Magickal Girl R’lyeh Lulu, a return to form for tentacle rape and youth erotica.

Read it read it read it read it!

Hagrid Shrugged: On Class and Economics in Harry Potter

Hello, anyone visiting from the EC Word.  If you want more of an introduction to this blog, go here.  If you like to live dangerously, continue reading.

It has long been obvious to me that the Harry Potter series may be profitably read as an extended meditation on economic class and class mobility.  What is intriguing about this reading of the texts is that doing so provides not a single clear answer as to the nature of class dynamics and economics, likely because the themes are inadvertent on Rowling’s part.  But, by my way of thinking, that only makes them more honest.  So if you like, come along with me, and we shall together explore the myriad ways in which Harry Potter describes both the dream and the nightmare of the disintegration of economic class.

Michael What Are You Talking About This Is a Story of Magic and Wonder How Does Class Come into It

Well it’s quite simple, really.  A cursory glance at the Potter books should be enough to make the theme of class obvious.  The first antagonists of the series are the Dursleys, who are characterized almost entirely by their bourgeois excess.  The family’s insistence on propriety and material wealth is a characteristic of the materialistic upper-middle class; they are concerned only with doing what is right or what is expected, in the interest of appearing normal.  The final result of such an life, Rowling’s texts suggest, is Dudley, who is spoiled and cruel.

But the Dursleys are only comic-grotesque versions of the true villains of the series, Voldemort and his Death Eaters.  The Death Eaters are, by and large, degenerate aristocrats; this is also mostly true of the Slytherins, who remain quite malevolent even as exceptions like Snape and Malfoy garner our sympathy.  The Death Eaters are concerned with maintaining an oligarchic blood-purity over the wizarding world, a grim mirror of the Dursley’s own insistence on keeping up appearances.  But while the Dursleys only yield oafish Dudley, Voldemort’s designs yield death and destruction.

Stop Being Stupid, Michael

Let us take a moment to consider Voldemort himself.  His anxieties as a villain are fueled in large part by his own feelings of inadequacy brought about by his class history; he is a descendant of the once-powerful Gaunt wizarding family, whose insistence on purity brought about their total decadence and degeneration.  The desire of Voldemort’s mother Merope for the muggle Tom Riddle, Sr — an aristocrat, with all the material and economic comfort and security therewith associated — brought her to charm Riddle by way of a love potion.  The false union engendered Tom Riddle, Jr — that is, Voldemort — and the death of Merope in childbirth.

With the loss of the love potion, Riddle the Elder abandoned his son to an orphanage, leaving young Tom with only the barest notions of what he could have been.  As Voldemort-to-be grew older, his entrance into the wizarding world allowed him to search into his family history and discover what had been denied him: not only the Gaunt legacy, lost before his time, but the muggle Riddle legacy as well.  The rage resulting from his comfortless and loveless life led to a strongly classist/racist stance.  (And here we see the close ties historical notions of class such as aristocracy have with bloodline in the UK, as opposed to the more fluid conception in the US.)  If Riddle could not have the legacies lost, he would take them by force, by murder and by magic.  Thus the creation of the pure-blooded, aristocratic Death Eaters and the implicit delusion that Voldemort himself is not only one of them, but their lord.

In this way Harry is in fact the best possible foil to Voldemort.  Born into a historically affluent wizarding family — but, notably, not pure-blooded, as Lily Potter was muggle-born — Harry is robbed of his own legacy by Voldemort’s murder of James and Lily.  Like Voldemort, Harry is raised in relative squalor and misery, pressed below his class by the gross Dursleys.  This is, I suspect, what saves Harry; though the Dursleys’ treatment could just as easily breed in Harry a desire to perpetuate their cruelty, Harry instead learns to live a stoic and simple life in the cupboard under the stairs.  In the first book, upon discovering the hoard left for him by his parents in Gringotts, Harry does not rush to claim his inheritance and lord it over everyone, as Voldemort would, for his exposure to the excesses of the Dursleys — and especially his bully Dudley — has already made him conscious of material comfort’s negative influence.

Harry struggles throughout the series with his own ties to Voldemort, for his own capacity for evil; the Sorting Hat even wants to place him in Slytherin.  Given his pedigree, he could easily fit in — but instead he opts for Gryffindor, the more inclusive House, after his instinctively negative reaction to the mode of snobbery exhibited by Malfoy & Co.  Harry instead makes friends with Hermione — middle class, indeed, but from a muggle family — and with the Ron — whose family, though pure-blooded, is not degenerate, quite poor, and portrayed fondly by the novels.  In fact, the most negative portrayal of a Weasley is Percy, who aspires toward a bureaucratic role that requires him to act somewhat above his station; by contrast (to both Percy and the Slytherin families) the Weasleys are generally respectful of if not outright interested in muggles.

Michael You Are Dumb and This Is Dumb I Am Only Reading the Bold Headings

This brings me to the point that the wizards themselves are a separate class from muggles, though the difference is not established in normal economic terms but through a cipher: magic.  Magic is its own economic signifier, in that it allows even a family as poor as the Weasleys to live in relative comfort; it is a resource to which muggles have no access.  Until we are told in book seven that we cannot summon food, gold, or resurrect the dead, it might seem that magic is key to some sort of post-scarcity utopia.  This, however, is not the case; magic does have limits, and these limits cause some people to desire to surpass or control them, just as Voldemort desires to rewrite his own class history.

Consider the origin of the Deathly Hallows, in book 7.  The tale concerns three brothers who, in their quest for unlimited magical power, murder each other in bizarre and tragic ways.  Rowling knows her English lit; this story is very obviously lifted from Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, in which three drunkards set off to conquer death but instead find a pile of gold beneath a tree by the side of the road.  Each, in his haste to claim the gold for himself, kills the other two.  The moral of the story is Radix malorum est cupiditas — the root of evil is the love of money, to give a clumsy translation that sidesteps the truism.  Rowling simply replaces money with magic, and we’re off to the races.

So magic is another economic and class signifier.  For Voldemort, et al, a lack of a magical bloodline is an abomination, a cause for purgation.  For the Dursleys (and historically, other muggles), the opposite is true: magic is an abomination, and the solution is an old-fashioned burning at the stake, or at least ostracism.  This is when the progressivism of Harry Potter as a series really shines, as the most positive characters are always those inclined to learn more about the muggle world and be more accepting of muggle-born wizards and witches.

This desire to break down class distinctions is most readily exemplified by the marital statuses of the main characters by the end of the series.  Ginny, a pureblood, marries Harry, who has a pedigree but is not pure-blooded; Ron marries Hermione, a muggle-born.  Contrast that with Malfoy, who remains aloof and aristocratic; likewise, the main trio of the books is still recognizably middle class, but not nearly as bourgeois as the Dursleys.  The intensity of the classism of the prior books — and of the prior generations of wizards — has been scaled back.

Oh My God Will You Just SHUT UP

But it may serve our purposes just to take a look at those prior


take a look at those prior gener



wait what ayn rand


Seriously, are you taking this there.


Well I Am Still Unhappy But Now Sort of Grossly Fascinated, Continue

As I was saying, the arc of the Harry Potter series throws class divisions into a distinctly negative light, and the plot is broadly about how the pursuit of either becoming a member of a different (higher) class or the sequestering of those of a perceived lower class leads to ruin.  The slow degeneration of these class distinctions is an overall positive development.

But it has consequences.

Hagrid Shrugged?

Think for a moment about the Hogwarts Harry’s parents — and Lupin, and Sirius, and Peter Pettigrew, and so on — would have known.  A time of magic and adventure, as you might expect, but what sort of adventure?  Well, for one thing, pretty goddamn awesome adventure.  Consider the things the earlier generation did:

  1. Illegally taught themselves to be animagi
  2. Created the fucking Marauder’s Map, if you can believe it
  3. Snape wrote his own completely badass dismemberment and mutilation spells IN THE MARGINS OF HIS TEXTBOOK
  4. Fought a long, brutal and bloody war only matched in the past by Wizard World War II (in which Dumbledore single-handedly defeated Wizard-Hitler)

Now think about what Harry and his friends do:

  1. Fight a war that basically lasted for a year and had one major battle
  2. Rely on systems put in place by their parents, Dumbledore, and a house elf to win said war
  3. Sneak out of their dorms a lot
  4. Brew polyjuice potion about 75,000 times

The point to be taken from this is that there is indeed a definite decline in the way the generations of the wizarding world played out, from Dumbledore to the parent generation to the generation of our protagonists.  The closest any of the ‘modern’ characters come to the old ingenuity are Fred and George, whose tricks and gags echo the Marauder’s Map in tone and Snape’s mutilation spells in technical accomplishment.  But alas, the duo are forever crippled when Fred dies in the Battle of Hogwarts.

Ayn Rand would say this is a terrible thing.  The movers and shakers of the past — the ingenius giants — have given away to relatively insignificant moochers who rely on the accomplishments of those who came before to get anything done.  Consider how much Harry does is orchestrated by Dumbledore; consider how his final triumph against Voldemort comes from his mother’s overpowering love.  What does Harry actually do?

Nothing.  He’s quite boring, actually, and not a very good student.  It’s a miracle he manages to become an Auror at all.  He’s very middle-of-the-road, honestly, and even the things that make him exceptional — his wealth, the privilege he has to just do whatever the fuck he wants so long as he saves the world — are things that at times sit uneasily with him.

This is not a bad thing, though, for what makes Harry important is not who he is per se, but rather the relationships he cultivates with others.  Without Hermione and Ron, or even Neville and Luna or Lupin and Tonks and Mad-Eye or whoever, we’d be hard pressed to give a doxy’s ass about Harry.  His relationships, the communities the characters form, the ways in which they live and act in concert, are the true lifeblood of the series.  The community of Hogwarts lives and breathes; it is what we’re interested in, and Harry is simply our gateway.

That amazing individual talent, that startling innovation, that egoistic single-mindedness that characterized the earlier wizarding generations didn’t only give us Dumbledore and the Marauder’s Map — it gave us Voldemort, and the sick philosophy he peddled.

In Harry Potter’s universe, it is better to be unexceptional but loved and loving than it is to be exceptional and terrifying.  This is achieved through equity — material, economic, and social.  At the end of the series, though the wizarding world is still separated from the muggle world, though there is an air of snobbishness still clinging to Malfoy, we seem to be heading toward a new, more just, classless society.

This Was Such a Goddamn Waste of Time

well that’s what four years at a liberal arts college gets you

Brief Interludes with Invidious Muggles

For the past week or so I’ve been digging steadily deeper into the inimitable David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  I know, I know, last summer was the so-called Infinite Summer, but I missed out on that because I was recovering from wisdom tooth extraction and therefore reading something much lighter on the brain.

However, despite all this, I can’t help but feel that IJ is a bit overrated.  And by a bit, I mean a lot.  Seriously.  It’s far from DFW’s masterpiece — that spot, I would wager, is reserved for his never-for-legal-reasons-officially-published piece of Harry Potter ‘slash’ fanfiction, “Brief Interludes with Invidious Muggles (Draco/Harry, mm, teen, rom, dub!con)”.  For those of you unaware, slash fiction refers to fanfiction written for the purposes of tossing male characters who are either enemies or serious bromantic partners into sexual relationships.  Yes, it sounds low-brow, it sounds tacky, it sounds terrible, I admit!  But in the meager 100,000 words and 85 footnotes of BIw/IM, DFW manages to say everything he had to say in Infinite Jest and more, in addition to shedding new light on the intricacies of one of the greatest fantasy series of all time.  To prove it to you, reader, I provide here an excerpt of a single sentence from this magnum opus.  Enjoy.

Desperately Draco pulls Harry to him, and their boyish lips and surprisingly rough tongues — like a group of old friends, like army buddies who haven’t seen each other in a while, presuming these old army buddies are covered in papillae and maybe suffer from a condition that causes them to sweat constantly, thus explaining the saliva, and maybe like maybe one of them wears spearmint aftershave or something — these theoretical guys, they embrace in the same way Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter’s mouths lock into a passionate and, once the gestalt of the whole thing sets in for the kids, emotional oral bear-hug, Harry’s gold-flecked green eyes widening in surprise, his pale hands, Harry P.’s pale hands, scrabbling for purchase outside the vicinity of his (Draco’s) shimmering silk Slytherin robes, which are honestly and awkwardly the closest things within reach at the moment, and if you think old D.M.’s not realized there’s nothing but his lonesome self within reach for H.P. to grasp then you certainly are not an astute judge of character, no sir.

And they rode on

With the Psycho series finished (and tagged accordingly to make it easier to find), it seems like I won’t have much of an excuse to update here.  Of course, having an entry at least once a week is good practice and gives this site some reason for existing, so maybe I’ll try that.  I got into the habit of posting on Fridays, so I’m making that my Completely Official Blog Entry Day (Except Of Course on Days When I Can’t or Don’t).  Incidentally, a visiting poet in my creative writing class yesterday made the comment that to be an artist you also have to constantly self-document — to prove that you’re really doing what you say you’re doing.  WELL I GUESS I HAVE THAT COVERED.

Ideally I’ll have a lot more to say in about a month, when I’ll be in England and doing the AtME series.

In the meantime, I haven’t updated my rejection counter in a while, so I better get around to that.  I am (at the moment) up to 34 rejections, one of them being the second for my novel, Brutal, which was apparently “read with interest.”  Since there are pretty much no publishers with an open submission system except for the ones I’ve already tried, I now have two options: go after an agent to solicit the manuscript, or put the novel away for a while and focus exclusively on getting short fiction published.  I’m not sure which way I lean on this currently, but in any case I know that another draft of the novel is warranted, as I’ve grown unhappy with certain things about it.  Hopefully I can work it into such a state that I won’t want to completely hate it in twenty years.

EDIT @ 10:40:  Look what I found in Google cache!


The New Postmodern Novel

The fall semester has begun and I find myself with only a few months until I jet off to England.  In the meantime there are still classes and, of course, self-important reflections on the nature of fiction.

Today’s offering comes from the Wall Street Journal, in the form of an article by Lev Grossman.  In it he champions the return of plot to the novel and a general abandonment of the Modernist tropes that for so long have made “literary” fiction an object of scorn for us plebes, namely abstruse narration and typographical trickery becoming of a faulty printing press.  Go ahead and read the article, I’ll wait here.

So I find myself sympathetic to Grossman’s aims, more or less.  Plot has been, as far back as Aristotle, the key feature of drama; for Aristotle, in fact, the construction of the plot was enough to favorably or adversely affect the work’s sum worth, even over characters, setting, actions, etc.  It is the magical ability of plot, writes Aristotle, that ineffable spell cast by fictionalization and construction and progression, that allows us to see something that would in real life be abhorrent (for instance, a dude killing his dad and boning his mom before stabbing out his eyes) as art.  But Grossman seems, in the article, to give the impression that Modernists didn’t have plots, which is pretty much untrue; rather, Modernist plots were quotidian.  Aristotle also makes the point that the only worthy stories were those about certain larger than life individuals and their families; in essence, people who do great things.  Modernism rejected this idea, by and large, and so instead of a story about Achilles killing a hundred dudes we have a story about Leopold Bloom wandering around Dublin for a day doing some pretty gross things before coming home and having makeup sex with his wife.

But the rule still applies.  The construction (plotting!) of Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury take situations that (depending on the case) would either be abhorrent, boring as hell, or more often than not both, and it makes them fascinating.  And of course, the only way to make them fascinating is by way of experimentation with presentation, since a general “A happened then B happened” approach isn’t going to cut it, since these are not great things.  Grossman is spot-on in his assessment of why the Modernists did this, and also how this sort of thing got to be too much for the common reader.  But I think there are some problems.

He points out the drop in sales of adult fiction and claims that these older readers are instead jumping ship and stowing away on the Young Adult Fiction Party Boat, which is to some degree true; Harry Potter is huge and so, unfortunately, is Twilight.  In YA-lit there’s never been a Modernist movement (at least in the sense that there was in adult fiction) and you can read The Hunger Games without worrying about stream-of-consciousness or how to understand when a writer is applying the formula of a fugue to prose or whatever the hell.  Meanwhile, the serious writers who champion genre fiction, like Chabon, are gaining more popularity and credence with some critics, and by Grossman’s assessment we’re all heading straight for a big old fashioned revolution, what he calls the “true postmodern novel.”

But most of these adult readers are reading YA-lit.  He quotes the stats himself; grown-ups aren’t buying the noble attempts to meld genre with literature, the sense of wonder with dreary adult life.  These people are buying books meant for children.  This is not bad in and of itself, of course; people can and should read YA-lit to know how the next generation of readers is shaping up, and there are a few special works that manage to be just as important for kids to read as they are for adults.  The problem is that YA-lit is not only more “lax” in what it allows as far as plot and action go, the standards are just generally lower.  The Harry Potter series, for instance, is sprawling and quite often shoddily constructed, but the books’ main themes (the redemptive power of love, the dignity of the human animal) are noble in essence.  They’re sometimes dealt with rather awkwardly, and there are other YA books that have dealt with the same problems with greater heft and more succinctly, but the thought is there.

On the flip side of the coin is Twilight, which has a handful of good themes (chastity and monogamy) but loses itself under themes of obsession, abuse, misogyny, and childish selfishness.  In fact the greatest irony about Grossman including Twilight with his examples of a “return to plot” is that the series, for most of its run, skillfully evades having a plot at all.  The first book is literally nothing but Bella thinking about and angsting over Edward, a romance plot without all the witty social interaction that writers like Jane Austen offer; the only real element of drama are some rogue vampires that show up near the end, but they are easily dispatched (after Bella passes out, saving her the trouble of actually describing something happening).  Likewise, the final book, Breaking Dawn, builds up expectations of an epic battle, but in the end a magical baby shows up and it is so beautiful that people forget to have conflict.  Seriously.  This is not just bad YA-lit, it is bad lit in general, but things like this can pass as an effort at fiction when they are geared toward a young audience without much reading experience.  Or, perhaps, an audience who wants nothing more than a series of events that promise some sort of danger, but never actually deliver — instead opting to make you feel good and self-assured.  Incidentally, Grossman wrote an article on Twilight comparing it to the HP craze, and he more or less ignores all of the points that I and many other critics have raised about the series.  Whether or not this is due to his (over)enthusiasm for genre or YA-lit or because he was simply writing an expository piece, I cannot tell.

Harold Bloom often speaks of the “dumbing down” of American culture.  I like Harold Bloom, but I disagree with him pretty broadly on a lot of points.  In general I disagree with him here, but when more adults are reading children’s literature than actual adult fiction, I begin to wonder.  I like plots, I really do, and I hope Grossman is right when he says that the true postmodern novel will be just that — one that has moved past the Modernist anxieties over action and the type of characters that should be portrayed.  (An aside — the question of why this should happen [or is happening] is worthy of some serious thought.) I also agree that if this resurgence comes, it will be from genre fiction, which has been patiently waiting in the wings this whole time.  But an over-reliance on plot can be terrible; it is possible to have a story where nothing but exciting stuff happens, but there is no real insight given for the human condition.  There are plenty of SF writers who have a million solid gold starships exploding in the heart of the Galaxy while entropy reverses or whatever.  But these people just might be writing fantasies to entertain, like Twilight, and there is no thought to them beyond that.  A return to clearer plots can be good for reading, but it may pose problems for the type of fiction that is produced.

Entertainment, I should clarify, is not bad in and of itself.  The best fiction, I think, is that which is entertaining, but also manages to deal in some significant way with what Faulkner called the “eternal verities.”  The Modernists, I would say, were entertaining; they just made you work for it.  They didn’t want to hold your hand during the journey, but instead of shrugging it away they went the extra mile and locked themselves in a room on the other side of the continent while you did your best to track them down.  It’s not necessarily the best way to endear yourself to your readers, but it can be rewarding for them.  Hand-holding (though not necessarily good) has a place in YA-lit, when kids are learning to read and understand, but it does not belong in a book read (for serious intellectual stimulation!) by an adult.

I’ll cut myself off here, but point out one final thing.  Grossman makes it sound like this divide between high and low, genre and literature, began almost entirely with the Modernists.  He’s wrong.  There has been “vulgar” literature — sensation fiction in the Victorian era, for instance, from which all or most of our modern notions of genre come — that was looked down upon by the establishment.  As evidence I link here GK Chesterton’s excellent 1901 defense of Penny Dreadfuls.  Note that Chesterton lauds the Dreadfuls for their clear moral universes and experimentations, and he accuses the literary establishment of being biased against simplicity.  This was before either World Wars — the general beginnings associated with the Modernist movement — and yet the argument is remarkably similar to what Grossman offers.

The Horror Franchise

Fangoria has an interesting article comparing the modern Saw franchise to Friday the 13th from the days of yore.  I think the connection is one that is natural, even if subliminally, to many people; I’ve drawn a similar parallel here on this blog, though I chose Michael Myers over Jason for the sheer jumping of the shark the Halloween series accomplished.  Anyway, Saw is the horror movie for this day and age.  Not since Scream have we had a franchise of such, well, popularity.  However, Saw (like F13 before it) is very quickly petering out due to the advent of a new sequel every year.  Though the Scream films were progressively less entertaining, they still managed to be all self-aware and postmodern using the rules of sequels and trilogies and stuff, and even then the series had the decency to know when to quit.  Oh wait.

Regardless of all that, I think there are a few things in the Fangoria article worth considering.  Like the following comment on why F13 eventually started a slow decline:

A common bone of contention among fans of Friday the 13th is the “death” of Jason in part four and the attempt to take the series in a new direction with part five, subtitled “A New Beginning.” This was met with backlash from fans, resulting in Jason’s return in part six to hack and slash his way through sexy co-eds, only this time in full-on zombie mode. In the end, that’s all the fans wanted to see: their now iconic antagonist fuckin’ some serious shit up. No need for story, no need for emotion. Just murder, mayhem, and occasionally some tits for good measure. The damage, however, had been done, and while part six remains a fan favorite and received favorable reviews, the popularity and financial success of the series began a slow decline.

And then:

A loose parallel can be found in the Saw franchise, particularly in part three which concluded with the death of the infamous Jigsaw himself, John Kramer. With part four, much like in the fifth Friday the 13th installment, we’re introduced to a new, replacement killer, with hints and allusions to the original found throughout. Is it any coincidence that both films were some of the franchises’ most poorly received? The appeal of the first film, and by extension Saws II and III wasn’t just in its clever traps, it was the attempt of the filmmakers to inject a story amidst the chaos. Kramer is made to be a highly sympathetic, albeit psychotic, character, with his traps serving as a metaphor for the path his victims have chosen in life. The death of John was the death of the motivation behind the entire series, and thus dooming the series to mindless repetition. This sentiment was expressed by Elizabeth Weizman of the New York Daily News, who considered the conspicuous absence of Tobin Bell from the fifth film to be its biggest drawback, cheapening the series and allowing it to fall into a state of convention.

This touches on a few themes I brought up in my earlier rant on the death of horror, though not (I think) in a good way.  In his article Mr. McHargue rightly asserts that it was the fans’ criticisms that caused F13 to ride off the rails; the character of Jason was central, and removing him confounded whatever glamour the series had accrued.  Likewise, removing Jigsaw from the Saw films removes a central tether that draws the audience to the films, alienating the fans who have come to know these ambiguous antagonists.

I’ve talked before about how horror as a genre is pretty much crap, and it’s our fault.  I am not about to go back on that.  The audience’s desire for, as McHargue puts it, “their now iconic antagonist fuckin’ some serious shit up. No need for story, no need for emotion. Just murder, mayhem, and occasionally some tits for good measure” is a visceral and longstanding form for the genre, and it is what I think we need to move beyond.  Do you really need to see Jason and Jigsaw fuck shit up for nine movies, or a new movie every Halloween, or whatever the hell?

The issues with this desire is that these characters, in the end, do not represent healthy urges; no matter how mistreated they were, no matter how sympathetic they are in their backstory, these characters are villains.  Jigsaw has the better claim here, since he defends himself with a bunch of philosophical claptrap, but does Jason’s death at the hands of irresponsible camp counselors really justify him killing a bunch of people unrelated to the incident not just once but ten fucking times? These characters do not — cannot — change if the franchise should continue.  (Ironically, McHargue references a reviewer who apparently thinks doing away with Jigsaw somehow condemns the Saw franchise to convention — yes, nothing is more tired and convential than plot development, changes in the status quo!)  I appreciate a good vengeance story as much as anyone, but there is a point when justice has been served and enough blood has been spilled.  If we’re supposed to be sympathetic to Jigsaw or Jason, then there should be a point where they as characters have this realization and settle back into normal life.  Of course that won’t happen because it would be 1) fucking ridiculous, and 2) problematic for shitting out a sequel next year.

“Now, Michael,” you are surely saying, “how can you grudge me, the demagogue so reverently referred to as the Masses, my spectacles of vengeance and bloodshed?”  Well, the Masses, here’s the tricky part: I don’t begrudge you your spectacles, but I begrudge you your franchises of spectacles.  Horror, I think, should simply not be geared toward franchises.  I was a little off put by a comment in McHargue’s article, where he claims that Saw serves “as not only a means of introducing Generation Z and the tail end of Generation Y to horror, but also by reinvigorating the popularity and importance of the horror franchise.”  Well, I see what he means — but I doubt that the franchise model needed or deserved to be reinvigorated.

You see, if F13 or Saw were limited to one installment, my qualms with them would be nothing.  If you have one story about unstoppable vengenace murderer featuring an iconic character, then there you have it.  Make of it what you will!  But as you strain credulity by widening the circle of carnage beyond all reasonable limits — and convolute the overarcing plot to an unnecessary degree — things get tired, ridiculous, dull.  If you attempt to spice up the narrative by changing or killing off the main character, then you lose because the fans won’t respond well.  Franchises (unless they have a pre-planned story arc, which I think rarely happens in horror, and anyway wouldn’t be very good if stretched out over roughly a dozen films) are not a good thing.  It’s an absolute lose-lose situation, even if you give the audience exactly what they (apparently) want and release a bunch of identical movies, because eventually interest will wane and the continuity will be fucked all to hell.

Which paves the way for a reboot 15 or 20 years down the road.

Rejections: 26.

Pamebella, or Sparkles Rewarded

Holy crap, guys, here are some words tl;dr I am so sorry:

I have been brooding on something for a while now — more than half a year, off and on, really — and it seems like now might be as good a time as any to throw it out here.  It is not secret that I have some enmity for the Twilight books, as my Esme persona demonstrates.  It is especially infuriating to me when Twilight fans insist that we detractors are against the books because we simply miss the point, it’s supposed to be escapist fun and we’re just thinking about it too hard.  Well, it’s said that books are supposed to make you think but, ironically, trash literature like Twilight has existed from the very beginning. Twilight is insanely popular, of course, and there are fervent fans who can be almost frightening in their devotion; there are also vehement detractors.

This has happened before. Specifically, in England, in the mid-1700s. Yes, there was a Twilight phenomenon in 1740 — except it had nothing to do with sparkling vampires. Everything centered around a little book called Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by a printer named Samuel Richardson. While reading Pamela and doing research on it for a class around eight or nine months ago, I was struck by how the reception of Richardson’s novel mimics that of Twilight.

First of all, people either loved or hated it. The whole middle class of readers literally split into factions — the so-called Pamelists and Anti-Pamelists. The Pamelists argued that the novel was a heartwarming morality tale that showcased the redemptive power of love and Christian marriage; one prominent proponent of the book (and I am searching my notes like a madman and can’t find his goddamned NAME but I know he did this) said that if there were two works in the English language that should be saved in the event of the destruction of all literature, they should be the King James Bible… and Pamela. The Anti-Pamelists, conversely, condemned the novel, because it was seen as morally despicable and dangerous.

Is this all sounding familiar? Okay, let’s get down to some details.

Pamela is the story of, unsurprisingly, Pamela. It is an epistolary novel, presented as Pamela’s letters (and eventually her diary) to her poverty-stricken agrarian parents from her relative luxury as a servant girl living in the house of one Squire B., caring for the Squire’s sick mother. Unfortunately, Madame B. kicks the bucket, and Pamela assumes she will be sent home. This is not the case, however, as Squire B. offers to let her stay on for a while and offers up gifts of expensive clothes and perfumes and so on. I am sure we all know where this is going, but as Pamela insists in her letters to her parents, B.’s intentions are noble.

Of course, they’re not. The Squire soon makes himself apparent by attempting to seduce Pamela, who is intensely pious and rebukes him. This results in him half-heartedly attempting to rape her. Like, a dozen times, in various situations. I am not joking. Pamela doesn’t enjoy this and eventually the Squire gives into Pamela’s demands that she be allowed to return home. But en route the carriage takes a strange turn and, much to Pamela’s surprise, she finds herself at Squire B.’s country home. She is soon imprisoned there, and more attempts at rape are made and her life is generally quite miserable. The Squire wants her to be his mistress, no wedding bands involved, and she repeatedly refuses; after a few months of imprisonment he finally (!) lets her go for real.

But on her way home, Pamela has a startling realization: She is in love with Squire B. She makes a U-turn, heads back to the country home, and she and the Squire confess their undying love for one another, get married, and a few other problems arise (the Squire’s past lechery has some consequences, which is to say illegitimate children, that threaten the marriage), but suffice it to say that they all live happily ever after.

The Pamelists lauded the novel because it demonstrates how a pious young woman was able to help a sinful man find redemption. The Anti-Pamelists savaged it for its portrayal of a gold-digging young woman who successfully leads on her weak-willed, wealthy employer until finally conning him into marrying her. Now, class issues aside, we can comb through this mess to pick out some important bits.

First of all, a first-person female protagonist who, depending on which camp you fall into, is either “pure” and psychologically real or a hollow, somewhat disgusting, selfish excuse for a human being. Then we have the rich, dangerous male love interest with a dark secret; he is horrifically controlling and manipulative and — despite this — still an object of affection for the female protagonist. It may seem like I glossed over too much of the story in my summary for Pamela’s love epiphany, but that is literally how it happens in the story: she simply has a startling realization she loves him, and has loved him the entire time, and that’s why she was so adamant that he not sleep with her out of wedlock. Outside of the text we have the diametrically opposing factions of the readership — the ardent fans and vehement critics. (Since these were the days people played things fast and loose with copyright, there are a few rather hilarious contemporary parodies of Pamela, including the piquantly titled Shamela.)

Some of the similarities here are nothing special. Richardson, in writing Pamela, essentially created the romance novel (or, in some arguments, the English novel in general, the first bestseller) — but Austen and the Brontës took the tropes he established and did things much, much better. Pamela, in case I have not been clear, is a stupendously terrible book, but it is the raw material from which the later works were refined (Jane Eyre, for instance, has a great scene with Rochester disguised as a gypsy that plays as a sendup of a similar scene in Pamela).

But despite this popularity, Pamela is largely forgotten today — the Austen and Brontë books it begot are remembered far more often and far more fondly. The only people who seem to be reading Pamela are students of literature like myself. It really is fascinating for various reasons, mostly cultural: it is the first clear picture of a middle class marriage and the emergence of an autonomous “nuclear” family, it deals with anxieties in England at the time over the perceived surplus of bachelors (what was called the Marriage Crisis), and marks a turning point in the depiction of women as lascivious seductresses (think Eve) toward women as virtuous, almost nonsexual beings pitted against the lecheries of men (paving the way for the Victorian paradigm that is to some degree still in effect today).

So trashy books can still be of some use, at least in an historical context. But this leads me to wonder what could possibly be gained from Twilight, if we think about it in terms of Pamela. Its level of popularity and infamy seems to be roughly equivalent, but what does Twilight “show” us that hasn’t been shown before? What does it tell us about the time in which we live? In 300 years, I suspect it will be largely forgotten, like Pamela. But will students of literature be reading it for the sheer social interest? Will Twilight bring up a a new crop of Brontës to actually do something interesting with the basic subject?

Perhaps we can find something in the way the text differentiates itself from Pamela. For instance, in Twilight it is Bella who is portrayed as the more sexually willing and marriage-jaded partner in the relationship, reversing the “virtuous woman” turn I remarked upon above; it is not a pious woman who redeems a man, but rather a magic virtuous sparkly manpire that teaches a cynical young woman that there is such a thing as true love. It’s a break — or a reversion — of convention. Is this a one-off thing or a signal of another shift in cultural perceptions? Are the implications good or bad?

Other than this, I can think of no way in which Twilight revolutionizes social or literary conventions in the way Pamela did. So, in short, what does Twilight’s popularity mean? Anything or nothing at all? A big question, and one that probably won’t be answered well until we’re a few decades down the road and can see exactly how history is moving.

I must acknowledge here a debt to Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, which was an invaluable resource for helping me place Pamela in a cultural context and drawing my attention to the ways in which its rise and fall mirror Twilight’s own. Anyone interested in early Englightenment literature or the novel form should probably check that book out, it rocks.

Hey, congratulations, you made it to the end of this ramble! Have a Crazy Author Fact. We all know SMeyer is Mormon, and her religion has some weird effects on her writing. Well, Samuel Richardson was kind of a nutcase, too! You see, he apparently hated physical contact with people and often wore gloves to keep his hands from touching icky people germs; I also mentioned he was a printer. Well, he was also a complete hardass and thought his employees would swindle him every chance they got. To make sure his employees worked when he was out of the room, he had a tiny, secret office installed with a peephole, so he could do his own work and keep tabs on the people in the printing room. This is the man, ladies and gentlemen, who invented the romance novel.