The Goldfish Theory of Character or, Shakespeare is Dead

Content warning: The essay below very briefly deals with representations of abuse, self-harm, and rape as deployed by one of the narratives discussed.

I’m going to talk to you about the graphic novel Kill Shakespeare, written by  Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, but first I need to talk about goldfish and the Magic Mike films.

Goldfish, as common wisdom tells us, grow to the size of their containers: a goldfish kept in a tiny bowl will be tiny, a goldfish kept in a large tank will grow to match the proportions of that tank.  Fictional characters work the same way.

Let me explain with an example: Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 film Magic Mike is a drama about a young man who befriends the titular Mike and falls into the seedy-glamorous world of male stripping.  It’s an amusing movie at times, but also a drama, filmed and performed in a vaguely documentarian style, and while the film suggests the upsides of being a male stripper (attention, sex, money) the overall plot concerns Mike’s desire to leave the “lifestyle” behind.

The sequel, 2015’s Magic Mike XXL, directed by Gregory Jacobs, is one of the weirdest things in the world to watch if, like me, you view it for the first time back-to-back with the prior film.  This is because the first movie’s generic constraints (a person desires to become respectable by escaping their affectively rich but at times dangerous and socially disreputable job) is directly at odds with the generic setup of the second (a person who left a fulfilling line of work finds life hollow and ‘gets the band back together for one last show’).  Characters who exist in both films must shift considerably in order to fit the new genre: the supporting cast of the first film, all visually striking (ie, they’re all pretty attractive dudes of various molds) and distinct but wholly static (they do not change at all from the beginning to the end of the film), are one-by-one reintroduced and given a touchpoint for their “arcs.”  For instance, “Big Dick Richie,” whose defining characteristic in the first film is “being the guy with the biggest dick,” is presented with a problem in Magic Mike XXL: he cannot find a woman to accommodate his extremely large dick, and this in concert with his aging is undercutting his sense of himself and his place in life.  In the course of the film he meets a wealthy, sassy, middle-aged wine mom who is more than happy to hook up with him for the night, and I would be lying if I said that this is not in fact a satisfying arc for this character in this film.

But my point is this: characters are like goldfish in that they can grow to match their containers.  Magic Mike XXL is fascinating to me because it is a totally different movie than its predecessor in almost every conceivable way, and yet its differences are in fact expansions of moments, elements, or ideas present in the first film.  It is, in short, a kind of fanfiction of Soderbergh’s movie: rather than trying to “continue the story” of the first movie (it ostensibly does this, but really it disposes of it entirely), Magic Mike XXL extracts the characters from that plot and its world and drops them into a new container, logically developing them from their starting points in the prior film but making use of the new container to take them in tonally different directions.

Now here’s the sad truth: goldfish don’t actually grow to match their containers.  There are, in fact, only sick and healthy goldfish.  A goldfish in a small tank with no or poor filtration will not be healthy enough to grow larger than its container.  A goldfish in a large aquarium with good filtration, plenty of food, and ideal temperatures will grow exceedingly well.  What makes the Magic Mike films work is not that characters are moved from small containers to larger ones, but rather they are moved between two basically very good containers well suited to letting them flourish to fulfill specific roles as the genre of the film necessitates.

Now, Kill Shakespeare.

Kill Shakespeare is a graphic novel series from IDW Publishing with a simple premise: all of Shakespeare’s characters are real and coexist, and some of them want to kill him.  Others do not, and try to stop the characters who want to kill him.  It’s extremely bad.  If you want to see my selection of “really awful moments” in the normal vein of internet snark, see this Twitter thread.  All these admissions aside, I’m not going to talk to you at length about how the comics are bad, but rather think about why, and what that can tell us.

In Act 4 of Hamlet, Hamlet is sent by Claudius to England to be executed.  In the play as we know it, pirates attack, Hamlet parleys with their leader, and negotiates his return to Denmark to conclude Shakespeare’s tragedy.  Very well!  In Kill Shakespeare, however, what happens is pirates attack and then go ahead and take Hamlet to England, where Richard III has joined forces with Macbeth and his Lady to hunt down a mythological being, a god and creator, “Shakespeare,” whose magical golden quill allows him to control the world.  Hamlet soon meets up with a rebel faction led by Juliet Capulet and Othello, with Falstaff serving as comic relief/a kind of Obi-Wan to Hamlet’s recalcitrant Luke (Prince Hal, meanwhile, is never mentioned, and apparently does not exist, since Hamlet fills his role as Falstaff’s second banana).

As premises go, this is not a bad one.  I can ask pedantic questions all day, of course, such as: why does Juliet refer to England as her “country” when she is, in Shakespeare, from Verona (and Hamlet continues to be from Denmark, the Macbeths from Scotland, etc)?  Why is Shakespeare god (the characters quite gratingly use the word “Will” in place of “God” in their oaths)?  Is this Shakespeare who is god the same Shakespeare we the readers know about, and is the England in which the story takes place in some sense “our” England, and if not, then what the fuck is this place and who are these people?

None of these questions are ever answered and they are pedantic because the point here is not to puzzle out an ontology by which all of Shakespeare’s creations coexist, but to provide you with an excuse to see them fight it out. Yet the premise falters because, say, unlike Fables — which uses fairytale logic native to its source material to cram together diverse character archetypes — Kill Shakespeare is stuck in an odd position of treating Shakespeare’s extremely specifically situated characters as if they were fairytale archetypes.  That is, the writers are torn constantly between telling a fairly straightforward Campbellian adventure story (Hamlet discovers he is a prophesied King of Shadows, whatever that means, and will return Shakespeare to his people) while also paying deference to the popular notions of these characters as “timeless types” (Hamlet constantly refuses his Campbellian call to action, but never for any clear reason, and he literally stops talking about Denmark at all after a certain point, leaving the entire plot of Hamlet hanging en medias res).

The problem is that Hamlet outside of Denmark turns out not to be very interesting.  The first volume of the four-volume series is particularly slapdash, introducing all the major players and fitting a vaguely Shakespearean skin over fairly archetypal characters (this is Juliet, the brains of the rebellion, here’s Othello, her bodyguard [and boy if that isn’t a representational decision worth pausing over], here’s Lady Macbeth, a femme fatale setting out to seduce and betray all the other villains, etc etc).  The second volume ends up being the most interesting, as this is when the writers start thinking through their decisions to transplant these characters.  It’s notable, also, that this volume is host to the few places where the comics explicitly invoke Shakespearean plots to then conspicuously modify them.

For instance: Lady Macbeth turns out to be a femme fatale because, since helping Macbeth to the throne of Scotland, she admits she was the one who’s thirsted for power all along, and she’s decided to take charge of her own life.  Okay, cool.  And Hamlet? Well, it turns out he has daddy issues because his father was actually not a very good king, and suspected everyone — including his brother and his own son! — of plotting against him, so Hamlet’s basically been charged with revenging a man he hates and who hated him.  Juliet explains how a last-second deviation from the well-known ending of Romeo and Juliet killed her lover but left her alive and heartbroken (plot twist: after Juliet and Hamlet have hooked up, that Romeo is still alive and he’s also a huge asshole, but anyway).  Both Othello and Iago escaped their altercations in Cyprus (though Desdemona was not so lucky…) and now they’ve been playing a game of cat-and-mouse across Europe or whatever the hell this place is.  These moments are when Kill Shakespeare is at its most interesting: when it’s very consciously attempting to adapt its extracted characters to their new environment, without the plot-points we use to traditionally render them intelligible.

But at the end of the second volume, Hamlet convinces Shakespeare (who’s been living in a cottage in the woods drinking and being a hot mess for no particular reason) to return during Juliet’s battle against Richard III.  Shakespeare’s magic quill, which supposedly grants powers of creation, here just shoots lightning bolts and kills people.  Anyway, Richard dies and Lady Macbeth (having long ago betrayed her husband with Richard) goes into hiding.  Falstaff dies, in the manner of comic relief/mentor characters everywhere, and Shakespeare goes off to wander his creation because I guess blowing up some of it made him want to see it again?

This is the point where the series really goes off the rails, as the story continues for two more volumes after the main plot has been entirely defused.  In the third volume, the writers decide to go into a “grimdark” direction — rather than pulling various characters together, they begin to reimagine them.  And so we have Prospero and Miranda,  alone together on their island: Miranda is clearly represented as a victim of domestic abuse (Prospero keeps her drugged/enchanted to the point of psychosis), self harm (she cuts herself), and rape (by Caliban, a giant furry wolf monster who speaks in broken English [and given these characters’ textual and critical history, there’s a lot to feel queasy about here]).  Let me be clear, as stupid as this all is, I’m not offended at what the writers have “done” to these characters because they are timeless, beautiful works of Shakespearean art, but rather that they have extracted and reinterpreted them in the laziest and crudest possible ways — especially after the prior volume showed such moments of interesting attention to how Shakespeare’s characters might deviate from what we know of them, rather than presenting their difference as inexplicable and obstinate fact.

The problem with this latter approach — presenting a character as just, for some reason, different, and yet also the same — is that it always raises the question of why even bother?  Why does Prospero, for instance, want to kill Shakespeare?  Because Shakespeare (who is god, remember) killed his wife, he alleges.  But how and why?  Was this a thing that literally happened, or is it an effect of how Shakespeare “wrote” Prospero?  Well, it turns out that Shakespeare ran a weird wizard school where he taught Prospero, Lady Macbeth, and Sycorax magic before he went off into hiding.  Also, uh, Sycorax was Prospero’s wife?  Or something?

The fourth volume is even weirder, as the protagonists are captured by yet another band of pirates, led by the masked pirate king Cesario, who has a lover, Viola.  These two characters are, in Twelfth Night, the same character, and if you know this and have watched The Princess Bride then you can guess that by the end Cesario will die and Viola will take over his identity.  But this Viola also has no twin brother and is not a shipwrecked noblewoman.  Indeed, aside from the Cesario/Viola payoff, there’s no clear reason for this to be Viola at all.  The climax of this volume — the final one to date, which resolves none of the dangling plot threads such as “why is any of this happening” — involves Viola’s confrontation with Young Lucius from Titus Andronicus, who is also a pirate, and apparently still an ancient Roman, but also, and get this: a cannibal.  It seems all the Andronici are cannibals now, even though in Shakespeare’s play Titus used forced cannibalism as a mode of revenge against his enemies rather than participating in it himself.  And the victim of his revenge — Tamora, Queen of the Goths — showed up earlier in the series as a ranger and scout for Richard III (in England), so, like, what is her relation to this story?

The thing about Kill Shakespeare, in the end, is that the tank it places Shakespeare’s goldfish in isn’t particularly good: the water is murky, the food slight.  Characters shift and change in interesting ways sometimes, and sometimes they are so translated it becomes confusing why we even bother recognizing them as Shakespeare’s characters.  And this is what I mean when I say that Shakespeare is already dead: these continuances of his characters, no matter how flimsy or stupid they might seem to me, are real continuances, and Shakespeare won’t stop them.  These writers are calling out the name “Shakespeare,” tapping into the wellspring of cultural capital, and trying to pay forward some conglomeration of ideas gleaned from the textual and popular corpus we call Shakespeare.

But Shakespeare is dead.  Or dead and alive, living in death.  He has been elevated, in the world of the comic, to the confusing status of the sovereign exception (as Giorgio Agamben would have it): he is an embodied man who somehow created the place he inhabits and the people he interacts with, who ostensibly controls this place and these people, even as they constantly threaten to dethrone and kill him.  Or as Harold Bloom would have it, Shakespeare is dead because Shakespeare has “invented” us as his readers even as we are constantly misreading him, and he can’t say boo about it.

Shakespeare is dead because, factually, the man is dead, but also because the Bard, in the popular imagination, is shorn of the specifics of place and time and genre that, as I argued before, are the trellises along which what we call in fiction “character” and in reality “personality” may grow.  In the place of Shakespeare as a personalized entity we are left with the curio cabinet of his various characters, left to us like action figures.

What the comic dramatizes is the confusing and incoherent narrative torsions by which popular culture continues to invest in an idea of Shakespeare’s creative supremacy and timeless universality even as such canonization threatens to efface and erase Shakespeare and his characters “as they really are,” instead installing in their place only tenuous connections, odd doubles, shadow-selves, remixes and riffs.  This is, in fact, what the Shakespeare industry is built upon: strategic movements of the erasure and the eruption of context as they relate to the Shakespearean text and its potential performances.  (I have a dissertation chapter on this, even).

Literary and artistic history is full of examples of people who have done extremely interesting things with Shakespeare’s goldfish.  Kill Shakespeare, for all its vaulting ambition, is not a particularly good caretaker: nevertheless, in seeing these goldfish flounder, we can trace in acute detail the mechanisms by which continuance and reproduction (mal)function.

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Horror and Necropolitics: An Overview of Two Arbitrarily Chosen Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kitty Horrorshow’s Pontefract and Shakespeare as author-medium

Pontefract is a 2012 Twine Gothic horror game by Kitty Horrorshow.  In this blog post I will talk about the game generally, but specifically my aim is to tentatively theorize how Horrorshow’s game makes use of Shakespearean allusion, what affordances its buys her as a creator, with the overall goal of opening up questions of what this might mean for us (me and my cohort) as Shakespearean  and early modern scholars.

In Pontefract, the player takes on the role of an unnamed character, perhaps a knight, in a Gothic fantasyscape.  You work your way through several rooms of a semi-abandoned castle, populated only by apparently undead humans.  Primarily how the games works is this: you enter a room.  The room is described, sometimes with occasional observable details (for instance, when entering the kitchen, instead of directly confronting the cook you can check out what she’s boiling in her cauldrons).  If there is an NPC in this room, they will ignore you, instead carrying out routines (praying, cooking, being eaten by a floating horse’s head) that bespeak either their undead qualities (ie, they are zombies, not fully human, and only carry out certain deeply wired routines) or their artificiality (they are, in the most literal sense, videogame NPCs, written only to carry out certain limited, repetitive behaviors).

You can choose to interact with these characters, at which point you are presented with two options.  The first is always “friendly” — you either attempt to get the NPC’s attention, or help them if they seem to be in trouble.  The second is always hostile, and involves drawing your sword to kill the NPC.  For three NPCs you meet — a priest, a stablehand, and a cook — choosing the friendly option will result in your character’s death.

Progression in the game involves killing these NPCs.  After being slain they leave you with keys which will unlock the door to the castle dungeon.  You know you want to do this — apart from the fact that a locked door in a videogame always implies the goal is to open it — due to an encounter with the fourth NPC in this section of the game, the so-called “Pale King,” who sits eyeless and presumably also undead in the castle’s throne room.

This is the only NPC with whom you have no options for interaction.  Instead, when meeting him he speaks “into your thoughts [with] a hundred clamorous voices”:


Somehow, you understand that the ‘terror’ of which the pale king speaks is locked away within the castle dungeon.

You take knee before the king and vow to rid him of that which grieves him so, before standing and turning to descend the stairs back to the great hall.

The line spoken by the Pale King is from Shakespeare’s Richard II, very close to the end of the play, and is curious enough in and of itself.  Henry Bolingbroke has recently deposed and imprisoned the rightful king, Richard II, and named himself Henry IV; in Act V, scene 3, Henry uncovers a plot against him by some nobles loyal to Richard and has most of the conspirators put to death.  In the next scene (V.4), a nobleman named Exton enters with his servant.  The scene is brief, so I will reproduce it here in full for you to see just how odd it is:

Didst thou not mark the king, what words he spake,
‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’
Was it not so?
These were his very words.
‘Have I no friend?’ quoth he: he spake it twice,
And urged it twice together, did he not?
He did.
And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me,
And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man’
That would divorce this terror from my heart;’
Meaning the king at Pomfret. Come, let’s go:
I am the king’s friend, and will rid his foe.

So Horrorshow’s Pale King quotes Henry IV, but only as he himself is quoted by Exton.  The scene to which Exton refers, in which the king speaks these lines, is not one we ourselves are allowed to see: the previous scene where Henry uncovers the plot against him contains nothing close to the statements that Exton attributes to him.  In fact, going thoroughly from the text, Exton hasn’t even shown up prior to this point in the play.

This scene seems to pointedly highlight the lengths to which the ambitious Exton is willfully misinterpreting the situation, if not in what Henry is referring to, at least in the fact that Henry is personally addressing the order to him: “And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me, / And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man'[.]”  (Compare Horrorshow’s: “Somehow, you understand that the ‘terror’ of which the pale king speaks is locked away within the castle dungeon.”)

Indeed, the play ends with Exton presenting Henry with Richard’s corpse and Henry, horrified at what has been carried out in his name, disavows himself of Exton and the act committed for his benefit (though, of course, he does benefit).

In Horrorshow’s game the command is given directly and unambiguously, placing us in the shoes of a character who is and is not Exton.  It should come as no surprise to a player familiar with Shakespeare that when you venture down into the dungeon what you find is a weakened, miserable figure “you” immediately recognize as the “rightful king.”

Again you are presented with a choice: to peacefully beg forgiveness from the rightful king, or to kill him.  As before, the peaceful option proves ineffectual,  but this time, not because it kills you.  Rather:

You attempt to kneel before the rightful king, ready to apologize for your wrongful deeds and vow yourself to his cause, but your body resists you. The castle shudders and the walls begin to wail, and your head is filled with the lurching, ragged language of the stones.


At this point you again have the same choice, and the only way to move forward is to kill the king.  The game ends immediately after: you die as the castle collapses around you, but almost immediately you find yourself once again in the woods outside the castle gates, preparing to enter.  The implication, perhaps, is that you are no different than the creatures that trace their endless, undying routines within the castle walls: as a player, you are finally robbed of the agency the game has dangled in front of you at every turn with its false choices, and you are at last subsumed into the machinery of the Gothic landscape.

Appropriately enough, Horrorshow’s hypertext game seems to adapt and extend Gérard Genette’s pre-Internet idea of hypertextuality as “any relationship uniting a text B (which I shall call the hypertext) to an earlier text A (I shall, of course, call it the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary” (Palimpsest: Literature in the Second Degree 5).  Rather than a simple allusiveness, or even a dense and methodical rewriting (eg, as between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses), Horrorshow’s references to Shakespeare are more like the hypertextual apparatus of Twine itself: links that send us outside the text, or into another text, or a different part of the same text, but which do not do so to make a claim about Shakespeare or Richard II.  Rather, both texts become hypertexts, existing in tandem or parallel, creating a space for thematic echos and reader (re)orientation.

Exton makes a choice; we do not.  Exton must interpret what he will do; we must interpret what we have done, if we have done anything. It is Exton who allows the play its end, and despite his abjection, the consequences of his actions haunt the rest of Henry IV’s reign.  Our actions have, perhaps, no lasting effect in the larger context of the game’s endlessly looping plot, as we are simultaneously trapped within and enabled by the haunted house that is the game’s architecture.  Apart from Shakespeare, then, I would say Horrorshow’s game is commenting on the heroic power fantasy of videogames and the exhausted narratives of aggressive but ultimately impotent of bloodshed they often foster.

As a matter of fact, Horrorshow’s original post about the game makes no mention of Shakespeare at all, and so it’s possible many who played through it did not note the allusions if they had no foreknowledge.  The game is deeply allusive, but the allusions only “activate” for a player quite attuned to Shakespeare’s play — and nevertheless, the allusiveness is not present in any way that would seem to lessen the enjoyment of a player who didn’t know Shakespeare but who was very familiar with the Diablo game franchise, text adventures, or someone who wanted to poke around a haunted castle.

Overall, the game draws deeply from Shakespeare while also meticulously managing the impact of its Shakespearean connections through a variety of tactics, including letting its allusiveness go unspoken, choosing its allusions obscurely, or interweaving its allusions with formal misdirection.  Indeed, the “living fear” Exton says Henry decries is interpreted as the deposed king imprisoned at Pomfret — Shakespeare’s name for Pontefract, the actual castle where the historical Richard II was held captive until his execution.  Thus the games title is itself an allusion that displaces Shakespeare as a central, authoritative voice of historical record, underscoring the gap in terminology between our understanding of history and his.

Furthermore, Richard II is not a play that looms large in the popular consciousness, or at least, not large enough for Shakespearean capital to immediately pay off in a gaming environment as it does, say, when the text at hand is Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet or Hamlet.  Indeed, the lines from Richard II in Pontefract are not the most memorable of Shakespeare’s lines; they’re not even the most famous lines from Richard II.  Nevertheless, Horrorshow puts her obscure citations to work.

After beheading the rightful king, the castle appears to collapse and you hear the severed head whisper to you the game’s second direct lift from Shakespeare: “Grief boundeth where it falls.”  This is not, as it happens, anything spoken by Richard, but rather a comment made by the Duchess of  Gloucester near the very beginning of the play (I.2) when she is urging John of Gaunt to stand up for her husband (whose death she believes Richard sponsored), and implicitly foretelling the whiplash of political instability that will come to shadow the reign of Henry IV.

In Pontefract the player is primed for this line differently, as you descend to the dungeon and the game tells you,

The castle whispers to you.

Dost thou at ev’ry hail draw out thy sword?

From whither comes this eagerness to slay?

Thy lust for blood and anguish sees thee curs’t

These three lines of blank verse generically meld with the Shakespearean quotations, though they are not themselves Shakespeare (as far as I can tell, they are original).  Thus, any player not explicitly looking for Shakespearean allusions might be inclined to read the actual quotations from Shakespeare — if they seemed somehow stylistically distinct from the game’s narrative voice — as of a piece with this verse.  The final word in the quote above is a hyperlink, which takes us to a closing line:

ttO suffERRr EverR thISSs accuRRSSedd dDAyy

The styling of the text here — breaking with typographical convention to suggest the words are being spoken/thought in a hiss, or by an inhuman voice — recurs not only in her original post about the game (“P0ntteEFFraccctTTt”) but in the game’s code, where Horrorshow has named several passages after direct quotes from Shakespeare’s play in the same style:

Click through for a larger image. Highlighted areas show where passages in Twine have been named with Shakespearean quotes.  This is only a section of these instances.

It was not until the game was re-collated in a directory page that the author’s note made the Shakespeare connection clear, “inspired by” Richard II, which provides the reader with an introductory signpost for the allusions.  I don’t meant to imply that Horrorshow is somehow “coming clean” about her allusions, but rather, the broad and subtle nature of the game’s allusiveness indicates a way of approaching Shakespeare that makes productive use of his corpus while insisting it is not the only corpus that matters.

Horrorshow’s Shakespeare is not an impeachable paragon of literature and humanity; he is the writer of Richard II as well as Hamlet, and also the author of dozens of less than memorable lines, dozens of less than memorable images.  Neither is Horrorshow’s Shakespeare an academic Shakespeare, a layered site where the machinations of cultural poetics are put on display if we perform an anatomy with right critical tool.

However, there is indeed something here of the Foucauldian author-function.  As Marjorie Garber has argued regarding the great dearth of personal and biographical information we have on Shakespeare, it is possibly exactly this dearth that makes Shakespeare such a literary powerhouse: “Freed from the trammels of a knowable ‘authorial intention,’ the author paradoxically gains power rather than losing it, assuming a different kind of kind of authority that renders him in effect his own ghost” (Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers 15).

Garber argues it is precisely Shakespeare’s ghostly nature that allows him to “possess” writers as distinct as Marx, Freud, and Derrida, whose use of his texts as examples for their theories means those theories forever thereafter exhibit the marks of a Shakespearean ghost-writing process.  But I do not think we can say the same about Horrorshow’s game: her allusiveness is never to Shakespeare-as-such, not like, for instance, the way Freud “uses” Hamlet to explain his thesis of repression.

I would like to suggest, then, that Horrorshow and Shakespeare work collaboratively.  What I mean is Shakespeare becomes not so much an author-function but an author-medium.  By “medium” here I mean something akin to what Marshall McLuhan means when she says “All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience in new forms” (Understanding Media 85).  This is similar to the way in which Garber argues Shakespeare ghost-writes Freud, Marx, and Derrida — there are things these writers wish to articulate, and Shakespeare provides the vocabulary for doing so.

But it is always Shakespeare’s vocabulary.  The authors work to preserve a whole and bounded idea of “Shakespeare” outside their own texts.  Horrorshow’s Shakespeare, however, becomes an active but epehemeral metaphor for the experience of authorship and creation.  Is Shakespeare ghost-writing Pontefract, or is Horrorshow ghost-writing Shakespeare?

Her textual use of Shakespeare blurs the boundaries between her in 2012 and him in 1595.  His blank verse appears alongside hers; shreds and patches of his words appear in the very underlying structure of of the game, rewritten in Horrorshow’s own typographical idiolect, meaning nothing in situ, hidden from the player, but serving as the connective tissue between the blocks of the story.

In the end, the game is not “based on” Richard II or an adaptation, but “inspired by.”  Horrorshow makes use of Shakespeare as one part of an available arsenal as a creator and — perhaps, disclosing now that my interpretation of Pontefract is as precarious as any one might offer — to express her interests and concerns regarding games and the stories of power and responsibility they can dramatize for us.

Conspiracy and ‘False Activity’ for the Gamers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ngai again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catachresis: A Way Too Scary Game

 Catachresis, a fygure, wherby the propretie of a worde is abused: as, Facies simillima lauro [A face most like a laurel tree], where facies oonely belongeth to a man, and not to a tree, although it doth signifye there a similitude or fygure.

-The dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot, 1538

For a while now I have wanted to write something about Catachresis: A Way Too Scary Game by Cameron Kunzelman, which you can play for free.  Kunzelman set the stage by saying he “didn’t want to make a horror game like all the other indie horror games that are out there,” and with some self-deprecation admitted it probably wouldn’t be all that scary because one of his central influences was Ghostbusters.

How I would flip this around is to say that Catachresis is what would happen if Ghostbusters committed fully to a horror framework but remained rather funny, and also got a healthy dose of the Hellboy mythos.  So if you need an endorsement to go play it before reading further, there it is — the game should only take you an hour or so, providing you are not Way Too Scared to finish it.

Videogame horror is obviously something I have an interest in, considering my other interests of videogames and horror.  Kunzelman lives up to his ambition, I think, of making a different sort of indie horror game.

Most indie horror games work like this: there’s some scary stuff that will chase you/kill you/jump out at you, and you must navigate an environment while this scary stuff happens.  Sometimes there are Silent Hill references.  Context, if provided, is minimal or incredibly fragmentary, in the hopes of being “dreamlike” and “open to interpretation.”  In more story-inclined games there is often a distinct possibility that you — yes you, darling player — might be crazy.  Take a moment to adjust to that incredible twist of the narrative screw.

Here is what happens in Catachresis: you walk around, you talk to a demon computer, and some other things, and then the fucking world ends.  It ends in a way that I can only describe as sublime — in the Burkean sense, that of huge and terrifying and somehow beautiful.

It is horror, yes, but a more subtle, yet also more cosmic sense than what you normally get in games that deal with the genre, and certainly far more careful than what you usually encounter with the horror trope of the apocalypse.

Apocalypse from the Greek means uncovering.  In English it was rendered as Revelation, from the Latin revelare, to “lay bare.”  To tear away the veil — to show that which has been hidden.

We live in a time when these words mean the End of the World.  We are now inundated with narratives of Apocalypses — biological, ecological, technological, religious, vampiric, zombie, whatever.  The issue with this use (abuse?) of the term however — this catachresis — is that it is a slide from the original meaning of the Biblical “Revelation.”  John of Patmos had the future laid bare or uncovered or revealed to him — the Apocalypse was not the end of the world itself, but the position of seeing it before its time.

By conflating the revelation with the thing revealed, I think we foreclose on its possibilities — its immensities, for one.  At the end of Catachresis nothing is revealed in any sense beyond the basic — you find out the world is ending and then it ends, welp!  But furthermore, there is not a call to speculate as in some games, no sense that you need to piece together the mythology that has led up to this point, because the event (it is clear) is so much larger than us.  There is no uncovering, but a descent into sublime unknowing.

The second foreclosure: I suspect Kunzelman, because I can’t count on him sharing my interest in Renaissance rhetoric, is reaching for Derrida’s sense of catachresis: “the imposition of a sign upon a meaning which did not yet have its own proper sign in language” — the possibility that that apocalypse-end-of-the-world is really a new beginning of a new type of world, a world that radically decenters us in our ways of knowing and feeling but which may not, as one character suggests in the end, be unlike going home.

King Lear and the Blank Page: Reflections on Tragedy, Videogames, and Bioshock Infinite

I have talked about the Bioshock series before, briefly, and only in relation to its first sequel. My opinion there has softened somewhat — I think Bioshock 2 wasin the end, a warmer project than the coldly high concept original, as Richard Corbett has recently argued.  But since we’re back to Ken Levine and the original dev team with the recent Bioshock Infinite, I thought I’d pick up the rubric I implied in my earlier brief mention.  Namely, I hope to ponder in some 3000 words what Infinite can tell us about tragedy and videogames.  Needless to say, there will be some heavy spoilers from here on out.

It seems to me that any sensible videogames criticism would have to take into account to greater or lesser degrees issues of both affect and performance.  Performance allows the critic to account for the sometimes spontaneous, ephemeral (“emergent”) nature of gameplay, the thing which disappears after it’s transpired and may not ever be reproduced.  The study of affect, meanwhile, would allow the critic to assess the relationship between the player and the ludic apparatus: do they care for this character, is this combat sequence frustrating, and so on.

I admit that this is difficult, something of a pipe-dream, and I am my own test subject.  I also admit that “performance” will be less tied to the gameplay itself in this essay, since the gameplay in Infinite tended to float under my radar.

The affect, however, will be thought about in detail — and so I will be thinking about how this game performed emotions for me, how I performed them in return, and what this means for the ludic experience, particularly — as my title suggests — as it concerns the idea of tragedy.

I. I am not Booker DeWitt.

“The refusal of closure is always, at some level, a refusal to face mortality. Our fixation on electronic games and stories is in part an enactment of this denial of death. They offer us the chance to erase memory, to start over, to replay an event and try for a different resolution. In this respect, electronic media have the advantage of enacting a deeply comic vision of life, a vision of retrievable mistakes and open options.”
-Janet Murray

Booker DeWitt is a troubled man whom I don’t particularly like.  He’s a gambler, something of a drinker, and he seems vaguely aware that race relations in the early 20th century are not ideal but is not particularly angry about it.  At least, not enough to try to change things.  In the hours I got to know him, I found out quite a bit about Booker DeWitt: nothing that made me like him more, though, and at least one thing that made me disgusted with him.

But, in the end, I also felt… sad for him.

The Janet Murray quote up above, from her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck, has been quoted often by various people and, I will be quite frank, is rather a relic of a certain older generation of critics who don’t quite seem to have the same relationship to videogames as someone my age does.  I do not enjoy playing as Booker DeWitt in the way Murray seems to expect I should; it is not exhilarating to be him, he provides no Grand Theft Auto-style release of carnage.  In fact, I agree with Leigh Alexander, who in this excellent piece describes how she found the combat of the game ultimately tedious and disheartening.

But I lead with Murray because she still manages to illustrate what I think has been and continues to be one of the prime sticking points of games and their criticism: many games contain “a deeply comic vision of life” that is implicitly not worth taking seriously, because it is escapism — from the dreary workaday world, from mortality, whatever.  (I would say it is worth quibbling with this persistent bias against the “comic vision,” but at a later time.)

Within the past few years — nearly the last decade, really — we’ve started to see games that nevertheless are grasping toward tragedy.  This very short, very rough writeup is my attempt to think through the ways they’ve done this, and in particular, how Bioshock Infinite resonates within the genre, largely construed.

Primarily videogames that fall into this category — which I will term, I guess, the “tragi-ludic” — aspire toward tragedy by asking serious questions about human nature, often with recourse to their own formal elements qua games and the relationships they forge with the player character.

For instance, in 2007 the original Bioshock revealed that the player-character had been, diegetically, a mind-controlled puppet throughout the course of the game, foregrounding the absurdity of the actual player’s own conditioning to the directional cues usually employed by videogames (pick up this, go here, kill this, etc).  The essential thrust of Bioshock is that something terrible has been done, and the player is implicated.

Brendan Keogh in Killing Is Harmless sketches a rough idea of the so-called “post-Bioshock game,” a game which is aware that it is rail-roading the player into making certain unhappy choices and is nevertheless insistent on reminding the player that by continuing to play the game, they share culpability (like Spec Ops: The Line).  Cameron Kunzelman takes a view of the post-Bioshock game I find more amenable, one that at least allows for an alternative to endless Brechtian shaming of the player: Infinite, as its own post-Bioshock game, “is a moment of reconciliation and cooperation–not ‘we are glad you are here to save us all’ in a classic (and non-reflexive) games sense, but instead a ‘we are all in this together’ mode.”

Overall Kunzelman asserts that Infinite reaches a level of maturity most videogames lack, and I basically agree with him.  Of course I must now qualify “maturity,” because there is plenty of objectionable and ridiculous cartoonish stuff about Infinite in practice.

So I will be specific: what I mean by maturity in this case is the ability to take seriously precisely the things which, according to Murray, “electronic games and stories” let us disavow: things, like, for instance, death, and our lack of choice in the matter.

You die at the end of Bioshock Infinite.

II. Sides of the same coin.

Or, rather, you don’t die.  Booker DeWitt, the player character, does.  I want to emphasize how incredibly crucial this is, because it is by no means the only recent big-name game which killed off the player avatar in the end.  Whereas Commander Shepard was a deeply personalized avatar, though, Booker refuses to be a cipher.  He is a character, an entity of the game independent from whoever is playing him.  It is this fact, I think, which allows Infinite’s ending to be mostly successful while Mass Effect 3‘s was widely reviled.

Murray, I would wager, is half right: there are certain types of games, the ones in which we as players are led to identify most strongly with our avatars, which — due to our deeply personal affective investments — seem to demand a comic resolution, a certain postgame infinitude (shall we say) for the characters we have worked so hard to make ours(elves).  (I think here also of the original ending to Fallout 3, and the DLC remedy.)

In the original Bioshock, where the player-avatar (unnamed in the game) functioned as basically a cipher for the player, a certain affective investment was similarly fostered — and, it turns out, skillfully deployed in the “Would You Kindly” twist.  Though the avatar in Bioshock was not customizable a la Shepard, there was still a way in which the plot’s grand existential prank on him was also the game’s existential prank on the player.

But after the plot/game calls out the avatar/player for following its carefully laid rails, the player obviously would not want to continue — but, given the nature of the medium, there’s no choice.  (Keogh mentions the ability of the player to turn off the game console, which is indeed a viable exercise of the player’s agency but seems something of a dead end.)  The end of the game gave us a player-character who apparently had learned nothing, while the player herself would be all too conscious of what had transpired, and desperate to choose something different.

Infinite resolves the original Bioshock’s deadlock by removing the question of the player’s “choice” from the game almost completely.  Admittedly there are some moments that allow the player the purely cosmetic option to, as Austin Walker puts it, become “authors of tone, aesthetic, and character.”

This does not mean the player ever fundamentally changes who Booker is, but they are allowed small moments of influence: where to toss a baseball during a despicable public execution sport, which brooch Elizabeth should wear.  Walker is correct, I think, in highlighting these moments as particularly useful not for changing the game per se, but rather in establishing a certain surplus connection between Booker, the player, and the game-world.  Paradoxically, to be truly meaningful the choice itself must be meaningless: unhindered by possible metagaming or worrying about stat-bonuses, the game provides the luxury of an illusion of choice, choice for its own sake.

This makes the intense, later moments of the game all the more notable for the ruptures they introduce between Booker and the player, when Booker chooses what he wants at the expense of the player’s desire.

During the scene in which Booker drowns the mad prophet Comstock — echoing at least narratively Bioshock’s mind-controlled murder of Andrew Ryan — the game simply does it in a cutscene, because this is a murder Booker wants to commit.  But Comstock was on the verge of revealing something — something Booker doesn’t want to hear, not yet, but which the player quite definitely does.

Before Booker realizes the truth  (that Comstock is a version of himself from an alternate reality) he sets out to kill him “in the crib,” to which Elizabeth asks — hesitatingly, knowing more than she says — if this is what he really wants.

If, by this point, you’ve pieced together what’s coming — and I had — it does not matter what you think Booker should do, because he’s made his choice, and this is not a game about what you want, but about what he wants.

Against all sense, all reason, the character is pushed toward his tragic end — and the player is drawn along in his affective wake.

III. Tragi-ludic?

If games — at least as Jane Murray sees them — are innately comic, then what must happen for them to become a tragic medium?

Tragedy, by at least one definition, is a terrible thing.  It excites unpleasant emotions which, paradoxically, gives us some amount of pleasure.  We do not want to be the tragic character, but at the same time we recognize in, eg, Oedipus one who has taken the brunt of the truth for us, paying the price for exposing the comfortable lie upon which his world is built.  This is what he was meant to do; we never allowed him a choice.  It is the role that he was, so to speak, born to play.

This is the problem of the one and the many.  How can one being’s particular troubles speak to a multitude?  I would argue that this does not require an identification with the singular entity — with Oedipus, with Booker DeWitt — but rather a particular sort of affective investment from the spectator/player, one that recognizes the terrible, self-destructive agency of the other and appreciates it not only despite but because of its alien nature.

In the context of the tragi-ludic videogame, this suggests a need to both maintain and elide the player/avatar connection in ways different than those one would find in film or drama.  Tragedy largely requires the spectator to understand the characters in the fiction as independent entities, at least insofar as they are subject to individual terrible ends based on actions partly of and partly not of their own doing.  The issue for the tragi-ludic, however, is the tendency for the players of videogames to see their avatars as extensions of themselves rather than as characters.  Overidentification would render the tragedy absurd or, from the player’s standpoint, “unfair.”

Does this mean that any game that aspires to tragedy must divorce the player from the avatar?  My argument is tending this way, but it is nothing I would assert wholesale.  Nevertheless, when a character like Commander Shepard is meant to be our wish-fulfillment fantasy, it makes us angry when we are forced along the rails of a heroically tragic ending for which we were never prepared.  Killing “my Shepard” is like killing me.

By contrast, killing Booker DeWitt was killing Booker DeWitt, and Zachary Hale Comstock to boot.  And Comstock notwithstanding, to repeat myself: Booker DeWitt was a troubled man whom I didn’t particularly like.  In the hours I knew him, I found out quite a bit about Booker DeWitt: nothing that made me like him more, and at least one thing — selling his daughter — that made me disgusted with him.

But I saw him realize what he was, and though he could not change, not entirely, I saw him try to make good.  So nevertheless, in the end, I also felt sad for him.

Sad at the life he lived, and the death he faced, all the lives and deaths with which his were ignorantly entwined, the lives and deaths that were not mine but which, in some nebulously way, I briefly shared.

But perhaps not sad enough.

IV. A Tear

“My brother has presented me with an ultimatum: if we do not send the girl back from where we brought her, he and I must part. Where he sees an empty page, I see King Lear. But he is my brother, so I shall play my part, knowing it shall all end in tears.”
-Rosalind Lutece

It is coincidence, I wager, that a tear (as in, a tear in the fabric of space-time) and a tear (as in, a drop of water gathering in the corner of your eye) are homographs.

I did not cry at the end of Bioshock Infinite.  But maybe some did, because I could see, very faintly, why I would.

Let me use this as a point of transition: If there is a character who truly comes anywhere close to being a player analogue in the game, at least in my experience, I would say it’s actually two characters.

Robert and Rosalind Lutece, quantum physicists and quasi-dead trans-dimensional siblings and Stoppardian observers, embody the analytical stance the player can take when distanced from Booker’s first-person narrative.  It is implied that they have run a high number of Bookers through a high number of trials, what you see during the playtime being only one turn through the rat-maze.  They are experimenting, though they are somewhat agnostic on their outcomes.  What is different this time, they wonder, and what will change because of it? (Very often, it seems, the answer is: nothing.)

I realized, in retrospect, that I play games the way the Luteces wander through the world of Bioshock Infinite.  I try to climb up to places I’m not supposed to, I jump in front of NPCs unexpectedly, harass them with seemingly pointless action button commands, do my best to walk outside of scripted events — not simply for the absurdity of it all, and to see not just what will happen, but to see if something will happen at all — can I escape the game in some way?

Robert believes that the bloody cycle at the heart of Infinite can and will be broken, that the destruction engendered by Comstock and his sky-city of Columbia can be averted.  Rosalind, less cheery, suggests she sees only a tragic ending.  But what tragic ending does she foresee?

The game would have you believe that she sees the destruction of New York City by Columbia’s forces in 1984.  But, given her reference to Leardoes she perhaps mean the inevitability of death and unhappiness no matter what she and Robert do?  On the one hand, NYC is destroyed.  On the other hand, a girl drowns her estranged father in a river, perhaps dooming herself to nonexistence in the process.  How can we reckon one with the other?  How does the one relate to the many?

The game is not entirely successful at this gambit.  As Sparky Clarkson wrote, “I am more irritated by the asymmetry between problem and solution.”  Is this a failed character arc?  If so, what would its successful completion really look like?

I’d say: tragedy.  In other words, this is not simply a failure of medium or character or narrative, but also a failure of genre.

Bioshock Infinite is probably a watershed in games.  It is something that will be talked about in the future.  It is something that will have to be dealt with if the medium and its field of criticism are to evolve.

It is also not perfect.  Especially not in its representations of race, of social struggle, as many have pointed out, and far better than I could.  It also, on the whole, obviously falls a bit short of the emotional mark it wants to hit.

In terms of genre it comes close to being a tragedy — almost functionally is, except for the post-credits stinger, where Booker possibly-maybe-probably awakes in a world where he never sold his daughter, and can now live in peace.  This short and (I think) unnecessary scene returns us to Murray’s claim that the comic vision of the videogame evinces the desire to “erase memory, to start over, to replay an event and try for a different resolution.”  This time, the game wants to say, this time, things will be different.

It is not a tragedy, not fully, definitely not some Sophoclean Great Tragedy.  But it is a point of transition for these sorts of narratives, and for this medium.

And so we are indeed the Luteces.  We play these games, we press their limits when we can, we see what they can do — and we wonder, what will be different this time?  Far too often, yes, the answer is nothing.

Will the circle be unbroken?

But something was different here, or at least almost different.

Perhaps this is a transitional stage.  Perhaps things are starting to change, and as a result of this game in the future something — something — will happen.

I look at Bioshock Infinite and I see a blank page.

But, looking hard enough, I notice in the center of it a single tear.

And beyond that page, on the other side of that tear, just barely visible: I see great poetry.


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.

King of Texas (2002)

Howdy friends and neighbors!  I’ve spent the last week in Seattle, with today being when I am in transit home.  I missed last week, I know, but to make up for it try this on for size: a review of a nine-year-old made-for-cable movie!  It’s King of Texas, starring the one and only Patrick Stewart.  The review itself is not entirely concerned with how good or bad the film is (it’s not very good) but investigating a strange intersection of Shakespeare, the genre history of the Western, and critiques of American expansion.  Hooray!

The opening shots of the 2002 made-for-TV film King of Texas are in a sense misleading.  A wide (as wide as you can get with full frame, anyway) view of the arid desert; a focus on the harsh, almost phantasmagoric inhospitality of the landscape, complete with corpses hanging from a gothic skeleton tree; suddenly, there emerges an actual human being — a close-up on the sweating, scowling face of a nameless man.  You might think you’re watching a film in the style of Sergio Leone, who made shots like this his trademark, or you may at least think Texas is going to be simply a Leone imitation: a faux-Spaghetti Western, a tale set in a  strange world where the American frontier is recast as an amoral comic book, with larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life deeds.

But as I have said, these opening shots are misleading.  King of Texas is not a Spaghetti Western, imitation or otherwise, but in fact falls in line with the Spaghetti Western’s antecedent, the Revisionist Western.  Added to this is the fact that Texas is not just some made-for-TV Western conforming to a particular subgenre; it’s all of that and it’s a reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Keeping these things in mind can unlock a lot of the film’s more interesting aspects.

In a wholly personal judgment, I think Lear as Shakespeare wrote it is more suited (if anything) to a Spaghetti Western; it’s really a jumbled kaleidoscope of increasingly fractured and bizarre occurrences.  There’s a staggering amount of major and minor characters, a winding and at times surprising plot, a quasi-supernatural storm, faked (and real) madness, the recitation of the names of a few dozen demons, a set of villains who, in the Spaghetti Western tradition, are wholly evil bastards seemingly just because they can be, and they are opposed by a group of good (really, less morally bankrupt but still highly flawed) people, all inhabiting a world that seems to have no particular moral plan or order.  Lear could be adapted rather faithfully into this context.

The fact that King of Texas is not a Spaghetti Western, then, means that some work on the part of the writers and director has gone toward tailoring the original play until it fits rather snugly into the Revisionist Western mold.  This, I think, is the cleverest aspect of the film’s production: it takes a story that can be (and often is) interpreted as amoral or nihilistic and, with what seems to be a minimum of jiggering given the re-setting, fashions from it a social and political point.  Not that Revisionist Westerns are all about social activism, but they’re more closely attuned to what we think of as social activism.  In the original Western, bad guys wear black hats and good guys wear white hats; Native Americans are savages and Mexicans are crooks; good always triumphs over evil; the sheriff marries the schoolteacher and they ride off together into the sunset as the United States of America brings order and civilization to lawless wilderness.

The Revisionist Western, as the name implies, casts a more critical eye toward the starkly black-and-white issues presented by its predecessor: ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ aren’t really helpful terms, but ‘antihero’ is; sex, if present, is blunt and unromantic, swapping out the schoolteacher for the prostitute; the Indian and Mexican are victims of systematic oppression, theft, and violence; good and evil don’t really seem to exist, much less have an opportunity to go head-to-head, and if the protagonist (usually an outlaw of some stripe) doesn’t die at the end, then he probably only survives to see the end credits by selling someone else out.

King of Texas falls into the realm of the Revisionist Western, then, for multiple reasons, one of them being its decisions in regard to the actual Lear character.  There are, broadly speaking, two ways to read Lear: a comically capricious blowhard, a mad king who spends a significant amount of the play naked, or a once-great man who is losing his dignity and sanity as he ages.  In the former reading Lear is merely an object of spectacle; in the latter his actions and selfish desires provoke dislike, but his situation inspires sympathy — he is an antihero.  Texas chooses this latter route, and Patrick Stewart plays the analogue John Lear with stuffy dignity and moments of grandfatherly warmth in between bouts of childish, impetuous shouting.

But impetuousness is not, in fact, John Lear’s greatest failing, and though it is an important character flaw, it is not the one the film brings to our immediate attention.  I’ve already described the opening scenes and its corpses hanging from trees; this is our introduction into the film’s world, but Lear is nowhere to be seen.  Instead we meet a silent but obviously angry man who shows up a few scenes later at a party Lear is throwing — the man, it turns out, is a Mexican landowner named Menchaca and the hanged men from earlier are in fact his men.  He berates Lear for having them killed, but Lear insists the men were trespassing on his land and he had the right, a claim with which Menchaca takes issue.  It’s made abundantly clear that the majority of Lear’s land was seized from Menchaca’s father and other members of the Mexican gentry prior to the Alamo, and though Menchaca still owns a hacienda to the south of Lear’s ranch the property lines are more than a bit muddy.  The only thing keeping true conflict at bay is a treaty Lear and Menchaca’s father agreed to following their altercations, and the fragility of the bond demonstrated here does not bode well for Lear’s choice to cede responsibility of his holdings to his daughters.

But he does, and in predictable King Lear fashion things spin out of control pretty quickly.  His oldest daughter Susannah and her brother-in-law Highsmith (the ciphers for Goneril and Cornwall) make it known early on that they desire more than the land Lear has bequeathed them — Menchaca’s remaining property is sitting idle to the south, ripe for the taking.  This is where Texas most clearly diverges from the Lear formula (other than, of course, being set in post-Alamo Texas) and, I think, where as an adaptation or re-staging it is at its most intriguing.  In Shakespeare’s play, after Lear divides the throne between Regan and Goneril, the strife is mostly isolated — Britain bears the brunt of the old king’s mistake as the new rulers squabble and vie for power.  To set things right, help must come from outside: the exiled daughter Cordelia and her husband the King of France must invade.

In King of Texas, this is situation reversed: Lear’s successors are still squabbling and scheming, but they are the ones who stage an invasion, in this case of the land owned by Menchaca, the France analogue.  In other words, military action is not a solution to the chaos but rather an effect of it — a very powerful shift, because John Lear has made himself an important figure through wars with Mexican landowners and finally, as the movie hints, during a harrowing but victorious stand at the Alamo.  Violence — specifically warfare and violence for personal gain — is John Lear’s great sin.

Comparatively, Shakespeare gives his own Lear little to work with.  He is certainly not opposed to violence — he kills Cordelia’s executioners before his own death and rather offhandedly claims, “I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion, / I would have made them skip” (V.iii.333-334).  The point here isn’t that violence is bad, but rather that Lear used to be badass.  The discovery of Poor Tom in the storm does more to underline how he has failed morally: “I have ta’en / Too little care of this.  Take physic, pomp. / Expose thyself to feel what wretched feel, / That thou may shake the superflux to them / And show the heavens more just” (III.v.37-41).

So Lear realizes that while he’s been living the good life as a king, he’s let a lot of people go on suffering.  That’s interesting, but it’s not the overarching interest of the play; what we get from this exchange is not “Lear should have taken care of the poor” but “Lear has realized that without his status he isn’t much different than a beggar.”  There may be another past mistake — Goneril and Regan hate Lear, and maybe they have a reason, but given their personalities and actions it doesn’t seem likely they resent him for not combating poverty.  Nevertheless, other than pride, being an uncaring ruler is the only concrete fault attributed to Lear in the text.

In King of Texas, Susannah’s land-grab acts as a parallel for John Lear’s own faults — he’s reared a child who is willing to treat others (including Lear himself) as ruthlessly as he has.  Likewise, Lear’s epiphany comes not during the storm — he spends most of that time simply being crazy — but during the actual siege of Mechaca’s hacienda, when Claudia/Cordelia is killed by a stray bullet.  He finally sees warfare — the thing that has made him great — as something horrible and pointless; the grotesquerie of fighting over land hits home.  This is why King of Texas is a Revisionist Western: it  exposes the traditional ideas of the Old West and early Western films, revealing that expansion and Manifest Destiny are ultimately a brutal, immoral, and absurd business.


Tables of Memory: Fathers, Sons, and Ghosts in Ellis, King, and Shakespeare

REMINDER: you can buy Arcane #1 in print or for your ereader of choice right now, and it has a story by me!

But today I’ve gone through my archives and found this essay on Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Bret Easton Ellis, because certainly those things all belong in an essay together!  Anyway, if you’ve ever wondered how I can reconcile my love of Shakespeare with being a huge horror geek and pop culture nerd, this is probably the best example.  Please note that this essay will discuss the plots of all three texts in depth, so if for some reason you are wary of “spoilers” for old books, beware!

Read, enjoy, comment if you like, and so on.

Tables of Memory:

Fathers, Sons, and Ghosts in Ellis, King, and Shakespeare

–What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy.  One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.  …  Who is the ghost from limbo patrum, returning to the world that has forgotten him?  Who is King Hamlet?

– Joyce, Ulysses


Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park is unquestionably connected to Hamlet — one of the novel’s epigraphs is Hamlet’s vow after the ghost of his father tells him to seek revenge in I.v: “From the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there.”  The bulk of its action also takes place on Elsinore Lane, near Ophelia Boulevard and within spitting distance of Fortinbras Mall and Horatio Park.  Thematically, Ellis seems to concern himself with the relationships between fathers and sons — and how the son remembers the father who has passed on, as with Hamlet’s vow after meeting with Old Hamlet’s ghost.  And yet in addition to Shakespeare, another writer looms large over Ellis’s novel.  Following an incident where Bret-the-Narrator storms into his family’s house, drunk and high, wielding a handgun in order to fend off the serial killer he thinks is hiding out on the second floor, his wife Jayne refuses to let him sleep in her bed.  Bret brings up an earlier conversation they had about starting over, about “new beginnings,” to which Jayne replies, “You screwed that up sometime last night …. You screwed that up with your big Jack Torrance routine” (219).

Jack Torrance is the protagonist of The Shining, a 1977 horror novel by Stephen King, dealing with substance abuse, familial disintegration, and — a concern it shares with Hamlet and by extension Lunar Park — the relationships between fathers and sons.  I suggest, however, that Jayne’s seemingly offhand comment is a single explicit reference to the text from which Ellis draws most of King’s themes, giving them center-stage in a book that simultaneously rewrites Hamlet and The Shining, bringing to light elements of the former that are more obscure in the latter and raising the possibility that The Shining is itself another rewriting of Hamlet.  What this means is that Ellis’s novel, being the most recent text, does not simply include conscious references to Shakespeare and King, but embarks on what might be termed a renovation of both works, a very direct campaign to dismantle, remodel, and improve Shakespeare’s play and King’s novel so that the end result (to carry the house metaphor) has different molding, flashier wallpaper, new windows, more rooms, but still rests on what is essentially the same foundation.

This foundation, the key element that unites all three of these texts, is the way they dramatize the relationships between fathers and sons, and the mechanism of this dramatization is the supernatural — specifically the concepts of haunting and ghosts.  A ghost in fiction, speaking in very broad terms, is simply an indicator of trauma, of the past exerting some sort of malign or at least upsetting influence on the present.  In other words, the ghost in fiction can be a very powerful tool for presenting the way in which a character’s memory influences his actions — the past has an effect on the present because the living are constantly beset by their memories of the dead.  This is most concisely encapsulated in Hamlet’s meeting with Old Hamlet’s ghost: Hamlet’s dead father, or some demon taking that form, is speaking to him, calling him to action.

But Hamlet, no matter what he vows, is placed in a situation where he is uncertain of his father figures; Old Hamlet, a headstrong and commanding warrior, has been replaced on the throne by the physically weak but wordy and cunning Claudius, and while Hamlet admires his namesake more he wonders why his mother should marry his “father’s brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (I.ii.157-158).  Hamlet’s concern here is primarily why his mother should have remarried so quickly – “within a month.”  Yet as Hamlet contemplates the situation, he remarks: “O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! / It is not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (161-164).

To hold one’s tongue means to stop speaking, which of course makes sense as other characters have just entered the room, but it also suggest Hamlet must not say something in particular.  What could he possible feel so strongly about?  Voicing his dismay the marriage?  Everyone seems to know he’s upset.  Rather, I believe has made a realization, and the reason for his mother’s quick marriage has become very clear: if Gertrude did not in fact love Old Hamlet as she seemed, she may have been having an affair with Claudius for years, thus explaining the speedy marriage; and if this is the case, then there is a strong chance that Claudius is Hamlet’s biological father.  After all, Old Hamlet was a fearsome warrior, like Hercules, and Claudius is a talky intellectual; Hamlet knows he is nothing like Hercules, but in this scene he suddenly understands that he is a young man who likes to read books and hear himself speak — he’s more like Claudius than the man he’s believed to be his father.

Hamlet, perhaps unaware of what he is doing, even acts like Claudius for most of the play: we know that when Old Hamlet wanted something done (eg annexing part of Norway) he simply challenged the rival king to single combat; when Claudius wants something done (eg, the king dead and the throne and queen all to himself) he sets up an elaborate plot involving ear poison and a lie about a serpent in an orchard.  Hamlet seems to take after Claudius, in that when he wants to exact his revenge on his uncle he must first feign madness and put on a play in order to determine Claudius’s guilt.  If Hamlet is Claudius’s son, the implication might be that he naturally acts as his father does.

Yet Hamlet also has a moment of self-realization: while being escorted to England, he is struck by the similarity between Fortinbras’s self-motivation and Old Hamlet’s escapades, and wonders: “Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’ / Sith I have cause, and strength, and means, and will / To do ’t” (IV.iv.47-49).  Hamlet’s epiphany here is that — regardless of who his biological father is — he still has the power to act and to choose how he acts; if Fortinbras can be so forceful despite his own father falling to Old Hamlet, then so can young Hamlet, even if he might be Claudius’s son.  And from this point on in the play Hamlet does away with scheming, boldly doing battle with pirates, escaping back to Denmark, and calmly and confidently accepting the invitation to duel to Laertes.

Old Hamlet is distanced from his son by death; Claudius (if the usurper is indeed his father) has been absent for most of Hamlet’s life, and is furthermore estranged from Hamlet by his crime.  One possible point of Hamlet is that the young prince must make the choice of whether to heed the call of not one father, but two possible fathers; to choose not only to heed the call but to also choose which call to heed: will Hamlet do as the ghost of the old king or the nature of the new king bids him?  To choose one father over the other means to choose one way of acting over another; for Hamlet, for the son, it means choosing what sort of life he wants to live.  This is not only the crux of Shakespeare’s play, but the crux of the two rewritings of it I will discuss, and while Hamlet contains only one ghost in a minor role, the supernatural is unleashed with a vengeance in the other texts.

Of the three texts, King’s The Shining comes the closest to embodying the typical modern conception of a ghost or haunted house tale.  It is the story of the Torrance family (Jack, Wendy, and six-year-old son Danny) who are hired as the winter caretakers of the haunted Overlook Hotel, an establishment with a sordid history of illegal gambling, mob connections, suicide, and murder.  When the snow piles high, trapping the family inside the hotel, the Overlook’s past begins to seep out of the woodwork; it becomes apparent that the hotel itself has been bestowed with some sort of sentience by the aggregate emotional trauma experienced within it, and it desires to add Danny, who is a powerful psychic and telepath, to its menagerie of specters.  This is all suitably pulpy, the kind of supernatural melodrama that King is most well known for, and if the hotel simply used its collection of ghostly mobsters and turn-of-the-century business moguls to accomplish its goals the novel wouldn’t be much more than that.  However, it takes on a deceptive complexity in the way the Overlook chooses to attack the Torrance family: from the inside out, using Jack as its agent in the attempted murder of Danny.

The Overlook’s ghosts are unconnected to the Torrances, but when the hotel goes to work on Jack its methods become deeply personal.  He is a recovering alcoholic when the story begins, a point made clear in the early chapters.  As the novel develops, we learn two important details: first, that Jack has trouble controlling his temper (he broke Danny’s arm a few years before and was recently fired from his teaching job for assaulting a student) and Jack’s father was similarly violent and alcoholic, implying that his present behavior is tied to his father’s abuse.  During one of Jack’s more lengthy flashback sequences, we learn that he idolized his father, completely innocent as to the nature of his dad’s alcoholism.  However,“[l]ove began to curdle at nine, when his father put his mother into the hospital with his cane” during an irrational, drunken dispute at the dinner table:

[Jack’s father was] up out of his chair and around to where she lay dazed on the carpet, … [his] jowls quivering as he spoke to her just as he had always spoken to his children during such outbursts.  “Now.  Now by Christ.  I guess you’ll take your medicine now.  Goddam puppy.  Whelp.  Come and take your medicine.”  The cane had gone up and down on her seven more times before [Jack’s brothers] got hold of him, dragged him away, wrestled the cane out of his hand.  Jack … knew exactly how many blows it had been because each soft whump against his mother’s body had been engraved on his memory like the irrational swipe of a chisel on stone. (224-225)

The hotel, which appears to be psychic in its own right, uses Jack’s memories of his father to manipulate him; it conjures alcohol for him to drink, it speaks in his father’s voice through the Overlook’s emergency radio; his father’s bludgeoning of his mother is reminiscent of Jack’s eventual assault on his wife and son with a roque mallet, and the hotel (speaking to Jack through the person of Delbert Grady, the last caretaker to murder his family in the Overlook) casts the necessity of murder in terms of patriarchal punishment and discipline: “[Your son] needs to be corrected, if you don’t mind me saying so.  He needs a good talking-to, and perhaps a bit more” (352).

Jack has a choice to do as the spirit(s) of the Overlook command him or to protect his family; his wife Wendy understanding the crossroads her husband stands at, and casts it in very telling terms: “[Jack] looked to her like an absurd twentieth-century Hamlet, an indecisive figure so mesmerized by onrushing tragedy that he was helpless to divert its course or alter it in any way” (297).  The hotel, like the demon Hamlet initially supposes the apparition of the old king to be, is a monster in the form of Jack’s father, calling him to terrible action, and Jack, unfortunately, answers.  This culminates in him echoing his dad’s drunken cries while he stalks Wendy and Danny through the hotel corridors:  “You’ll take your goddam medicine for this, I promise you!” (383).  In a way, by making this decision, by siding with the Overlook, Jack becomes his father.[1]

This raises an interesting problem for King: if the nature of trauma is somehow recursive, if the sort of abusive father-son relationships The Shining explores are actually a self-replicating phenomenon, then what does the future hold for Danny?  This is remedied by Danny’s own unique nature; the manifestation of his psychic abilities is a ghostly young man he calls Tony, a figure the adults around him believe to be some sort of imaginary friend.  But Tony shows Danny the future, gives him hints as to what will come, and before Danny’s final confrontation with Jack at the end of the novel he sees Tony more closely than ever before:

And now Tony stood directly in front of him, and looking at Tony was like looking into a magic mirror and seeing himself in ten years ….  The hair was light blond like his mother’s, and yet the stamp on his features was that of his father, as if Tony — as if the Daniel Anthony Torrance that would someday be — was a halfling caught between father and son, a ghost of both, a fusion.  (420-421)

Danny is saved by this vision, by the implicit realization that while he may resemble his father he is not and does not have to be a copy of him; Danny cannot fully shed Jack’s influence and legacy of abuse, perhaps, but he still is (and will be) his own person, and is not doomed to imitate his father’s (or his father’s father’s) mistakes.  This sort of generational tension, the eventual self-realization of the son, and the personal nature of haunting are all Hamlet-esque elements of The Shining that Bret Ellis draws to the fore of Lunar Park, which he admitted in a Today Show interview to be his “homage to Stephen King.”

In the first chapter of Lunar Park Bret-the-Narrator gives an extensive overview of his early home life and his rise to fame as a young novelist in the 80s, with special attention paid to his troubled relationship with his father: “[M]y father had always been a problem — careless, abusive, alcoholic, vain, angry, paranoid — and even after my parents divorced … his power and control continued to loom over my family” (6).  He repeatedly mentions that leaving California for college in New England was a type of “escape,” and his unexpected success as a writer granted him a financial independence from his father that allowed the man to be cut from his life almost entirely.  When Bret’s father died, Bret explains, he stored the ashes in a California bank vault rather than scatter them in the ocean, and he let himself forget about them.

Yet despite his attempts to distance himself from his father, Bret falls into many of his dad’s bad habits; though he’s not physically abusive, he’s careless, alcoholic, and vain: “And soon I became very adept at giving the impression I was listening to you when in fact I was dreaming about myself: my career, all the money I had made, the way my life had blossomed and definde me, how recklessly the world allowed me to behave” (12).  The real meat of the novel lies outside the first chapter; Bret settles down with movie star Jayne Dennis and her two children: Sarah, from one of Jayne’s previous relationships, and most importantly Robby, who is actually Bret’s biological son, born after a tryst between Bret and Jayne a dozen years before their marriage (and, notably, conceived in the aftermath of Bret’s father’s death — Robby is named after the deceased).  Bret is “thrust into the role of husband and father” (38) and takes up teaching at a New England college.  However, the situation is fragile; Bret wants to continue the self-centered drug-abusing lifestyle he’s used to, while his new position as part of a family demands some measure of responsibility.

The tension between Bret’s old life and the requirements of his new one would make satisfactory fodder for a normal dramatic novel or perhaps a second-chance romantic comedy but, like The Shining, Lunar Park uses the supernatural as a vocabulary for (self)destructive behavior, the resulting disintegration of the family unit, and the ability of the past to encroach on the present.  Bret-the-Narrator (who is to some degree based on Bret Ellis the writer) wrote a novel called American Psycho about the serial killer Patrick Bateman who was, he confesses, inspired by his father: a rich, successful, vain man with a propensity toward staggering and horrific violence.  Bret is a little ashamed and afraid of the novel; he likens the experience of writing it to having been possessed.  And when Patrick Bateman (who for all intents and purposes is the conglomeration of all of Bret’s negative feelings about his father) shows up at a Halloween party, driving the vintage car Bret’s father drove, he becomes understandably upset.

The idyllic existence Bret has managed to construct for himself becomes more and more uncanny: he receives apparently blank emails from the bank where his father’s ashes are, a series of murders mimicking those perpetrated by Bateman in American Psycho occur in the surrounding area, Sarah’s toy bird takes on a life of its own and begins eviscerating stray animals, and boys Robby’s age are disappearing all over the county.  Throughout the ordeal Bret is the only character who suspects that something supernatural is at the root of what is happening — only he seems to see Bateman, or a college student named Clay who resembles both the narrator of Ellis’s first novel and Bret himself and perhaps even a younger version of his father.  Bret grows intensely paranoid and afraid, confused about what is happening around him but unwilling to explain it to anyone.  This stress only makes his drinking and drug use worse, and when he acts rashly (such as the episode recounted at the beginning of this essay, where Jayne compares him to Jack Torrance) the people around him assume drug use is finally taking its toll.  Much as in The Shining then, the supernatural is a mechanism by which 1) substance abuse is worsened, and 2) the family is forced apart.  Though Bret doesn’t attempt to murder anyone, the supernatural forces at work intensify the weaknesses already present in his relationships with his family, and they are particularly harsh for him because they are in some way related to his dad.

This is especially troubling for Bret because he finds that Robby treats him with much the same distaste that he treated his own father: after ignoring his son for twelve years Robby is a resentful stranger, and Bret’s inability to understand his son leads him to believe that the disappearing boys are actually running away from home, working together in some sort of conspiracy to escape their parents, and that Robby will soon join them.  Bret’s distrust of his son is also one of the key facets of the way in which Ellis works with Hamlet, in this case actually restaging an aspect of Shakespeare’s play while maintaining the notion of recursive or generational trauma found in The Shining.  Bret takes on the role of Claudius, the scheming usurper of the throne who is doing his best to guess the mind and motives of his petulant stepson, Hamlet/Robby.  But Bret hasn’t always been Claudius — he was once, in his own way, Hamlet His father, he tells us, “had no faith in my talent as a writer … [and] demanded that I attend business school at USC,” and despite this, Bret chooses to go to college in New Hampshire: “My father, typically enraged, refused to pay tuition.  However my grandfather — who at the time was being sued by his son over a money matter so circuitous and complicated that I’m still not sure how or why it began — footed the bill” (8).

The relationship between Brett and his father here mirrors — though not exactly — that between Hamlet and Claudius in I.ii, when Claudius orders his stepson not to leave Elsinore to return to school at Wittenberg.  Ellis switches things up by doing the opposite of what would happen in a Hamlet adaptation with closer analogues: he lets Bret, the Hamlet character in this scenario, go off to college against the wishes of the father.  However, Bret escapes to college only because of his grandfather, who in turn has a soured relationship with his own son.  Bret’s grandfather sends Bret to school just to spite Bret’s father, who in the meanwhile is carrying out a bitter legal battle against him.  This is an important move on Ellis’s part because it shows us that this Hamlet-like estrangement between fathers and sons is not some one-off event, but like King’s conception: a generational phenomenon, something that happens over and over again.  There is not just one scheming Claudius and one avenging Hamlet, but an interlocking history of them, and they move in and out of their roles when appropriate, as they age and father their own children.

Ellis is notable in his handling of the self-realization or self-determination of the son, the attempt to break out of the shadow of the father — because unlike Shakespeare and King, he shows that it may go wrong.  Bret ran away to college and essentially disowned his father, demonizing him in American Psycho, all in an attempt to free himself.  However, as Bret admits early on: “As much as I wanted to escape his influence, I couldn’t.  It had soaked into me, shaped me into the man I was becoming” (7).  So the escape was not entirely successful; we know this because we’ve seen Bret become a sort of lo-fi version of his vain, alcoholic father, though it doesn’t become obvious to Bret himself until he sees that Patrick Bateman (along with all the other monsters he created out of fear of his father) has come back.

“…[S]pirits who show themselves between night and dawn want something,” a paranormal investigator explains to Bret, bringing to mind Old Hamlet’s ghost walking at night and returning to the fires of purgatory at dawn.  He goes on: “It means they want to frighten you …. It means they want you to realize something” (340).  Like the Overlook Hotel masquerading as Jack Torrance’s father, or Old Hamlet appearing before his son, the appearance of Patrick Bateman, the mysterious emails, and every other supernatural facet of the novel is also, in a way, Bret’s father calling him to action — in this case, though, not murder or revenge per se, but to right old wrongs.

What the wrong seems to be, in the end, is that fact that Bret did his best to wipe his father from his memory, to forget him entirely, to leave his ashes locked in a bank vault in California, and only call upon him should he need fodder for a despicable character in a novel.  And Bret’s father probably was vindictive and abusive — though Bret is unreliable we have no real reason to doubt that, he probably doesn’t hate his father without reason.  But it seems that at some point, without Bret realizing it, his father changed.  When he finds an email video attachment showing his father’s death, Bret sees his father as he truly was at the end of his life: the product of a selfish, abusive existence, a weak old man who died alone and unloved and knew that was how he was dying.  And because he has copied the worst traits of his father despite himself, Bret is in danger of meeting the same end, of losing his son and everyone close to him and dying alone, pathetic, and reviled.

At the end of the novel, we discover that Bret had one opportunity to change this course of events.  The last time he met with his father in person was for dinner in LA; the older man was “fat and drunk” and Bret wonders to himself, “What if I had done something that day?” (394).  He elaborates:

The decision was: should you disarm him?  That was the word I remember: disarm.  Should you tell him something that might not be the truth but would get the desired reaction?  And what was I going to convince him of, even though it was a lie?  Did it matter?  Whatever it was, it would constitute a new beginning.  The immediate line: You’re my father and I love you.  I remember staring at the white tablecloth and contemplating this.  Could I actually do it?  I didn’t believe it, and it wasn’t true, but I wanted it to be. … I realized it could actually happen, and that by saying this I would save him.  I suddenly saw a future with my father.  But the check came … and I simply stood up and walked away …[,] thinking I could just let go of the damage that a father can do to a son.  (394-395)

Bret’s attempts to escape, to determine his own life, result only in tragedy.  His father is fractured, both in Bret’s memory and in his manifestations in the outside world: the human part of his father, the part that deserved pity and forgiveness, has been overtaken by Bret’s fear and hate for the man.  Added to that, Bret becomes a copy of his father, a repetition, and when he confirms that Robby is indeed part of a conspiracy of sons attempting to escape their parents, he finds himself in a situation analogous to that of his dad years before, when a young Bret insisted on going to college in New England and, once he achieved independent success, attempted to sever all ties.

Also like his father, Bret is unsuccessful in maintaining a connection with his son; by the end of the novel Robby has left him, just as Bret left his father, heading off “to the land where every boy forced into bravery and quickness retreats: a new life” (397).  Their final meeting in person, many years after the main events of the novel, mirrors that of Bret and his father: they have lunch together, and Bret is depressed and high on heroin.  But Robby doesn’t sit passively by, waiting for the check; he speaks, he tells his father that everything is okay, that he is “not lost anymore,” and when Bret tells his son he is sorry, Robby says he understands (396).  As Bret, after much denial and hardship, heeds the call of his father and forgives him for his wrongs, so does Robby forgive Bret, preemptively ending the father-son cycle of trauma and haunting – should we choose to believe Bret is writing the truth, and not a wish.

Hamlet puts forth that a son has a choice about which of his fathers (or father-figures) to listen to, whether they are estranged from the son by the son’s hate or by the father’s death.  The Shining holds that a son must not be his father, must contain the part of him that resembles his forebear, for not doing so means repeating his father’s mistakes and destroying himself.  Lunar Park also shows that a son must make a decision, must determine what sort of person he will be, and choose his own life; yet in fleeing his father’s influence, in containing that aspect of his being, he runs the risk of not actually escaping, but only continuing a cycle of resentment and fear with his own sons.

Every Hamlet, fearful and suspicious of his father, may grow up to be a Claudius, fearful and suspicious of his sons; every guilty Claudius may end up a wronged Old Hamlet, tortured in the fires of a purgatory real or imagined and begging to be set free.  To really make peace with his father and the past, a son must be forgiving; he must recognize that his father probably faced many of the same decisions he faces (or will face) and perhaps did not choose wisely; every father was a son once.  This is how the cycle is broken; this is how to make peace with the past and one’s memory of it.  This, Ellis seems to say, this is how ghosts are finally laid to rest.


Works Cited

Ellis, Bret Easton.  Lunar Park. 2005.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

“Easton Ellis on Lunar Park book.”  The Today Show.  Prod. NBC Studios, 8/15/2005.


Accessed 11/26/2009.

King, Stephen.  “Before the Play.”  Whispers Magazine, 1982.

King, Stephen.  The Shining.  New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Shakespeare, William and Barbara A. Mowat, Paul Werstine (eds).  Folger Shakespeare Library: Hamlet.  1992.  New York: Washington Square Press, 2002.

[1] This bit is hammered home quite soundly in an earlier draft of the manuscript, in a prologue King excised.  Eventually released as a standalone story called “Before the Play” and now extremely difficult to find, the prologue gives a lengthy history of the Overlook and includes a short vignette from Jack’s childhood:  “In that long hot summer of 1953, the summer Jacky Torrance turned six, his father came home drunk one night from the hospital and broke Jacky’s arm. He almost killed the boy. He was drunk.”  Not only does this parallel Jack’s breaking of Danny’s arm, the vignette ends with young Jack passing out from the pain, thinking feverishly to himself, “What you see is what you’ll be.