TWIR: Life as a restless manner of being

Here is a modern tragedy: My hold on Carry On came in at the library this week, so I had to pick it up. But I’m out of town for the next few days, and this book, while not heavy, is THICK. No way I was making room for that. So I have to wait until next week to start it.

My Kindle will always have my back, at least.

Dune is a good book, did you know that? What a surprise! No, really. For some reason I had been put off by it for years, despite it being a book my mom loved (along with many, many other people). But over the holidays I picked it up and suddenly the first page appealed to me. If I were a more morally sound and upstanding person, I would be writing an essay about it. Including some thoughts about the women in it, because while I appreciated that there were significant roles for a few women, I have some unease about how that was executed in the larger story, and the implications of it.

I may have more thinking to do.

In other news, I listened to Modern Romance last week, but only reviewed it this morning:

Modern RomanceModern Romance by Aziz Ansari

My rating:💛💛💛💛 (4/5 heart emojis)

You know what’s great? Having a big ol’ Photoshop project, needing an audiobook to listen to, and something on your “It’d be amazing to listen to this rather than read it, because I know it’s read by someone good” list is immediately available at the library. Thank you, Library Deities. (read full review)

Short things

some other animal’s meat


Look, this is a new Emily Carroll. For some people you already went back up and clicked the link, in some feverish state of excitement. For some of you, I should say: Emily Carroll makes carefully drawn comics of a subtle and effective horror. Over the years I’ve been following her, her work has shifted from dreamlike, fairy tale horror, into horror weighted with a more modern reality, with living, with the discomforts and unease of life. And dreams and fairy tales.

My Father, the Church, And Why I Left — I always like Mindy’s writing. I’m terribly jealous of her ability to write about her life. In some ways I could relate to this essay (growing up in a church and leaving in gradual way) and in some ways our experiences are completely different (obviously! Hi, I grew up as mostly white in the Midwest where every church had a place for someone like me, using my language, focusing on one denomination). What makes this essay great is not church, but family.

But the story of my relationship to Christianity is also the story of my relationship with my dad. Growing up, we were close. We were both sloppy to the great annoyance of my mother. We were handy with languages and musically inclined. And my dad was the one who would listen to my doubts.

Why life is not a thing but a restless manner of being — On the origin of life, and alternate ways of looking at what life is, which I really enjoyed.

In that sense, life isn’t a thing so much as a manner of being, a restless fit of destruction and creation. If it can be defined at all, it is this: life is a self-sustaining, highly organised flux, a natural way that matter and energy express themselves under certain conditions.

Let’s talk about horror.

To repeat myself: I’ve been developing my understanding of horror as a genre for a while now, and while I don’t feel like I’m much closer to unlocking the key to horror, I do have Thoughts. Thoughts about what breaks a horror story, and what strengthens it. Please, let’s talk about scary things!

Illustration of a girl in a white dress holding a lamp, surrounded by shadows
From Through the Woods

Verisimilitude is scary. Straight reading of a story like an audiobook often fails for me, maybe because it’s too removed from the content. What has worked, however, is Limetown (which is set up like Serial/This American Life), Dionaea House (website/blog, capturing emails and texts, updated “as it happened” in 2004-2006), House of Leaves (scrapbooked and collected notes, except Johnny Truant. Go away, Johnny Truant.), The Innocence of a Place. There’s a reason so much horror has a framing device, or is as close to first person as a given medium can get. On some level, not being entirely sure it’s fiction is thrilling. Plus it tries to strip away a layer of narrative that separates the reader from the story. Distance throttles fear.

Gore is not scary. It’s gross and uncomfortable, which isn’t the same thing. Being incredibly grossed out by something happening to a character’s eye isn’t scary! But for another definition of horrific it can fit. Especially if it’s executed right — not just a slasher story. I’m thinking more of a particular Emily Carroll story, in which you see something disturbing to do with a characters face. (I don’t want to say more because the turn of it is so great.) But even in that story, there’s more going for it — suspense and not-knowing and an unnamed threat. Body horror is not the same as gore is what I’m winding toward, I think.

Innocuous turned sideways is scary. Small children! A dim hallway! A stranger’s smile! A man in a gray suit! The 66 bus! An itch under your skin! In the right hands all of these are terrifying. The familiar made unfamiliar. Your own reflection in the mirror, but something’s off.

Stupid characters are not scary. I can’t emphasize this enough. This goes for every genre. Don’t let your characters be stupid, writers. Please. You get like one colossally stupid decision for a character, and even then only if the character is established as having a weakness or habit that would lead them to that. You know what? Just to be safe? Don’t. Make your characters smart. It’s so much more terrifying if a smart character can’t avoid or defeat the terrible things.

So: Inevitability, but not predictability, is scary. If I’m rolling my eyes because that’s always the way this story goes, that’s not scary. But if I can’t blink because the characters have done everything right and the terrible thing is still coming? Ooh. Or they’ve done what seemed innocuous, but set them on a road with no exits that leads straight to Horrortown, which they oh-so-slowly realize? Nice.

Incomplete stories are not scary. There’s a difference between leaving things open or unsaid and not finishing the story. Explaining everything kills fear (see a later note) but there has to be some sense of completion. Finish a character arc, give an emotional resolution, do everything but. Everything but showing the monster, everything but naming the demon, everything but explaining the origin. The thing that is scary can be unfinished, inexplicable, unseen, but the story still needs an ending. Cutting off before the resolution is a way of preventing yourself from over-explaining the story, but it can ruin what you’re working toward. Like undercooking brownies.

No, scratch that. Undercooked brownies are delicious. Undercooked chicken. That’s what it’s like. Slightly undercooked, so it’ll be gross and make you ill if you eat it. Don’t undercook your stories.

Related: Lead-up and aftermath are scarier than the thing itself. I.e., shadows, not monsters; imagined threat, not reality. Be wary of showing me the guy in the monster suit. My imagination is more personal, and therefore more scary.

In the end, the biggest thing is that horror, like love, is personal. So no matter what anyone does, there may be some deep-seated part of my personality and my past that makes it fail for me, even as it works for a hundred others.

Bite-sized podcast reviews

It’s really hard not to compare things to Welcome to Night Vale, so I deeply apologize for the repetition.

TANIS: I want to write something longer up about this show. Figure out all the ways it works for me where the Black Tapes didn’t. Then again, maybe as it goes on it’ll disappoint me too! The first few episodes of the Black Tapes drew me in pretty effective, after all. But Tanis! In episode two there’s a bit of a House of Leaves homage, and a numbers station, so brownie points are earned handily. However! I will say there’s still some small bits of failure when it comes to verisimilitude or believability or the stupidity of the characters or something.

I mean: “You can search text in a PDF?” “I can,” Meerkatnip says smugly. GIRL, ANYONE CAN.

I am hella suspicious of Meerkatnip, by the way. This is unreasonable but a fun way to live.

WORMWOOD: Old Fashioned Radio Drama. The acting is so far over the top that I think it might be in low-Earth orbit. The writing too. But! I am fairly into it. I like Xander, and sometimes Sparrow too. Everyone else? Eh. There’s a lot of overacting and unnecessary accents, as mentioned before, but it’s still fun. There’s a good balance between Creepy Things, Terrible Violence Off-Screen, and People Being People, so I don’t feel hit over the head with the horror, despite some nonsense about “evil staining the souls” of whoever. I also deeply appreciate that this is archived. There are several seasons to get through, and then it’s over. Three storylines, from what I can tell. I like endings. I like serials, but I also want to know that the creator is working toward something.

KING FALLS AM: This one stands out to me primarily because the acting of the two main characters is pretty good. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. It’s kind of vignette-y, and there’s no clear throughline. The most recurring plot is the producer’s crush on the new librarian, which I do like, though. I saw it described as Night Vale but darker, and I don’t know if that’s accurate. Night Vale gets plenty dark. It’s Night Vale but less philosophical, less inured to the weirdness that’s happening. It’s early days on this one. We’ll see if I keep listening. I don’t have the greaaaatest track record.

SAYER: Moments of trying to be like Night Vale and failing; attempting to imitate the surreal horror delivered in a calm, detached voice, the AI enumerating terror and threats as though they are neither of those things. Except the delivery is terrible. It leans on the punchline too hard. The voice is processed, the threats are too obvious, and the thing that is horrifying is emphasized with an echo, or a slight reverb, or a pitch change. It is too overt. And it lacks something that Night Vale has, which might be heart, or empathy.

ESCAPE ARTISTS/APEX/SELECTED SHORTS: I have tried more standard fiction podcasts, like the Escape Pod/Podcastle/Pseudopod group, and Apex, and Selected Shorts, but the format doesn’t work well for me. For fiction, since I’m not coming back for the week to week discussion between personalities I like, it needs to have something else to make me remember it the next week. Otherwise I’ll just ignore that little blue dot in Stitcher. So a serialized form, or at least somewhat recurring characters, is necessary. And the lack of a consistent authorial voice hurts it too; not being familiar with every author on these sorts of podcasts means I’m gambling every single time.

NOSLEEP: The NoSleep podcast has yet to draw me in, though I haven’t tried terribly hard. The narrator turns me off completely and I can’t take it seriously. Come on, guy, you don’t need to be so ridiculous. Stop putting on a “creepy” voice and telling me how scared I’m going to be, and actually scare me. He’s like an old midnight movie host. I bet he wears a dracula cape. And the episodes are terribly long.

Basically, I’m just saying: TANIS and LIMETOWN need to update faster.

A post that is ultimately about Limetown

Inevitably, in the fall, I turn once again to horror. Desperate to find horror that scares me, that appeals to me, that gets me. In the back of my mind I suspect that I’m either incapable of being scared by fiction or I’m fundamentally misunderstanding what people man when they talk about the effect horror has on them.

I’ll keep you posted.

I keep trying books, sometimes movies. Movies are tougher. Jump scares are cheating, and not scary. That’s surprise. That’s not fear. That’s sticking out your foot to trip me and saying you beat me in a fight because I’m on the ground now. Movies are also tougher because ugh, who has time to sit down for two hours in a row? Unless it’s marathoning Sense8 or catching up on The Toast or Twitter okay I see the problem lies with me. Strike that second objection to movies.

The point is podcasts. This year I got really interested in podcasts as a medium for horror, because

  • shorter than movies!
  • I can listen at work!
  • indie!
  • there really is something about the additional emotional pull of a story when it engages even one sense, which, let’s be honest, I love books, but they don’t typically engage your senses in the story. Yes, tactile feel of paper, smell, whatever. But that’s universal to books, and has nothing to do with the specific story it’s trying to tell you.

I have a list. I always have a list. Because so many things won’t work for me, for arcane and mysterious reasons that a therapist could best explicate, but: I’ll do my best.

Here are some podcasts in an arcane and mysterious order:

Lore. Not fiction. But I really like it! Some of the episodes benefit from the short length, and some feel really abridged. Sometimes after an episode I’ll go look up more on the topic, and sometimes at the beginning I’ll realize I already know the story, and I’ll squee a little at my desk.

Wolf 358. Caveat that I’m still not sure if anyone would categorize this as horror, rather than scifi, but I’m curious about fictional podcasts in general. The reason I can’t promise the genre is that I was only able to get through one episode before bailing. Life is short, my friends. Too short to spend on a story with yet another snarky male protagonist.

Shadowvane. I just listened to the first few episodes of this today, and while I think I’ll probably keep going, it is the most hokey of all of them. It feels very acted, and I swear if they throw one more terrible and hammy accent at me, I’m out. But maybe if I think of it as an old fashioned throwback, I can get past that, because the premise of a powerful medical company appearing altruistic and possibly controlled secretly by a beast that requires something is kind of intriguing.

The Black Tapes. Aaagh. I want to like this one. Maybe I do! One day I was feeling a nonspecific anxiety, for no reason I could fathom, until it dawned on me that I’d been listening to The Black Tapes all morning. But as I continued, I never experienced that again. I finished the first season, but the weaknesses in the writing and acting really got to me. They don’t quite nail the necessary verisimilitude to keep me in the story enough to creep me out. There’s some unnatural, stiff or unnecessary, dialogue, not helped by the occasional flat (or overly affected) delivery. And the ending to the season was disappointing as horror usually is, abrupt and unfinished as serials often are. So.

What bothers me most, because its such a small stupud thing to repeat, is that no one in the Black Tapes world knows what a podcast is. The reporter has to explain every time, noting that “it’s not radio” like it’s the year 2000. Is that supposed to be a running joke? If so, it’s terrible and they should learn what a joke is.

Limetown. Limetown is the one that started me on all the podcasts. There were three episodes available when I discovered it, and I was pretty into them. A little unsettled, even. One might say I was creeped out. It’s more focused, each episode centering on one interview, which helps it avoid a lot of the small issues of The Black Tapes. The reporter seems less stupid than the reporter for The Black Tapes. It’s not about demons and ghosts and the paranormal, which I suspect also helps me like it more. It’s science gone wrong and shadowy figures out to get you and sharing thoughts (with pigs) and so on. It’s extremely well done, so I am waiting eagerly for the next episode and wishing/hoping/praying that it’s not actually going to be only 7.

NEXT TIME: I just listened to the first episode of Tanis, new from the same people as The Black Tapes, and I am way, way more into it. Time will tell if the same problems crop up, but the reporter is different, and the subject matter too. There are no demons or evil monks yet. Only a mysterious mythology.

TWIR: Okay, more than a week.

It’s been a while! I have read quite a few books recently. For example, my first Charlie Parker* mystery, but not my last. Also a book by a blogger I have long read. And I read Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, just before going to see him talk to Lauren Beukes about her new book, Broken Monsters, which I have not read and am looking forward to.

Plus: A YA fantasy book for book club, which I did not love as much as the rest of my book club, and a YA fantasy book not for book club, which I did love. (Unspoken did not hit enough of my Beloved Tropes to overcome the pacing issues, and I am less won over than others by the Everyone Is Clever And Funny Here sort of world-building. The Diviners, on the other hand, did hit some Beloved Tropes so I was blind to many of its faults.)

There are always things that, when present in a work, will make me forgive a certain number of other things. Is a movie really, incredibly pretty? Then who cares about that “plot” thing? Is the book set in 1920s New York with speakeasies and hints of the labor movement and class unease? Well, I guess I can ignore the overuse of slang. It would be an unending project to try to list out all of my tropes, and it wouldn’t even be accurate because ever trope would probably have a caveat. But The Diviners had tropes for me, and Unspoken didn’t.

Currently: Re-reading We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson as my bedtime reading (it’s soothing to me). Plus a handful of other things, as always.

*Not the KC jazz great, though I’d read the heck out of that mystery series.