Category Archives: Theme

Batman v. Superman; Yeah, It’s Not Good

This movie gave me an actual headache.

Spoilers ahead, but I recommend reading anyway. It’s not worth the trip to a theater, and if you’re determined to do so, knowing what you’re in for might save on brain cells. But you know, you do you.

batman-v-superman
We are brooding men. Look at us brood. Producers tell us brooding = interesting. Broooooooooood.

I find that I generally agree with the Rotten Tomatoes rating of a film, but disagree with the consensus on why. Many critics said this movie was too complicated. On the contrary, it was very simple. Batman and Superman don’t trust each other, and Lex Luthor manipulates that distrust until they fight, but then Batman changes his mind because both their mothers are named Martha. They team up with Wonder Woman to fight a big monster, and Superman dies but only for until the sequel. Obviously.

All that seems complicated because the film is made of too many short scenes, all of which cut suddenly to the middle of the next one, so your brain is constantly playing catchup. The following is typical of my thoughts throughout the movie.

“Wait, how did Batman know to be here? Oh, he was decrypting those files last we saw him, so I guess they had the location. And he assembled a whole team in the meantime. Wait, how did he know which files to decrypt to begin with? Okay, he was stealing them from Lex Luthor, and I guess they established back when he got the invitation that he thinks Luthor has information on something for reasons. That scene wasn’t really clear on what Luthor had, so I think I was looking too hard for clues about that to remember how he knew Luthor had whatever it was. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, he’s opening the thing, and…. oh, looks like a trap. And the person behind the trap was, uh, Superman? Why is Superman being so aggressive? Is that out of character? They haven’t fully established where this interpretation falls on the Pacifistish Hero spectrum. Oh, okay, it was all a dream. Hey! Hey movie! You’re only allowed one of those dream sequence fake outs per film, and you already done that twice!”

Oh, yeah, about ten percent of the in media res scenes turn out to also be dream sequences or fantasies. That really helps with the coherency.

So that’s the first issue; in lieu of having a complex web of intrigue, they shoot all the scenes in the most confusing way possible and hope you can’t tell the difference. The second issue has to do with broken promises and the elements of stories.

There are many ways to model stories, but one of my favorites is to break them down into elements of plot, character, setting and theme. It’s a helpful abstraction because it works across genres and culture, and it helps explain why the same errors can be tolerable in one story and unforgivable in another. All four elements are present in all stories, but most stories choose to emphasize one or two over the others. Mad Max: Fury Road had some flaws in its worldbuilding, but from the start it emphasized events and characters. The action was exciting and well choreographed, while the characters were remarkably rich. As a result, we were satisfied with the two other elements lagging behind.

Way back in the earliest teasers for Batman v. Superman, the creaters began promising that this would be an idea story. They took two characters with a common goal but deep ideological differences and pitted them against each other. They showed us society disagreeing in conflict about which was good and which was evil. They even brought in religious references. So we came prepared for superheroic fisticuffs, but we also brought our egghead glasses. We were prepared to go home talking about the mirror this holds up to society, or something equally pretentious.

Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent don’t have any interesting philosophical debates. Bruce Wayne goes, “You have too much power and might turn bad, so even though you’re clearly good now I have to destroy you!” Clark Kent goes, “You hurts bad guys a lot so you must be stopped!” I go, “Anyone going to point out that you are both powerful guys who might eventually be corrupted by said power, and furthermore you’ve both chosen a career path that involves some collateral damage? Anyone?” No one does. The only reason anybody objects to either of them is that they’re super powerful and also sometimes people get hurt. Well, that applies to the police, the military, the government, and any other agency of power. People point out that some people approve of them and some people don’t. That applies to… everything. Period. The specific contrasts between Superman and Batman are there, but nothing is said or done about them. Lex Luthor doesn’t even have an interesting reason to oppose them. He’s just a generic nihilist.

And yet, the film never stops reminding you that you were here for a thinky movie. It’s got the non-linear complex structure of the intellectual action film. It’s got the somber music and dark lighting.

Tim Minchin Dark Side
“I can have a dark side to-o-o-o-o-o-o”

And the religious symbolism! Symbolism works best when used sparingly to subtly emphasize certain characters or events. This is just everywhere, crosses and halos and the camera zooming in on some bystander praying. It’s not there to say anything, but its everywhere. Some people draw parallels between Superman and God, because, uh, they’re both way powerful and people look up to them. That’s it. They weren’t saying anything interesting about God, so much as giving me the impression the props department had a 50% off your entire purchase coupon at Family Christian Bookstores.

It was so ubiquitous, I started looking for it when it wasn’t there. Honestly. At one point the camera lingered on a hole in the wall. The hole looked kind of like a fish, so I wondered if they were going for an  ichthys, but it looked more like the Moby Dick restaurant sign. Then the fighting resumed and I decided it was just the place where Superman threw Batman through drywall. In my defense, my head had been hurting for a while.

In short, they let people down on their main promise. If this is an idea film, it explores said ideas like an argument on Facebook. Nowhere does anybody articulate their full point of view. Nowhere does anybody change their mind for any interesting reason, and when characters do talk they talk past each other. The only aim of 70% of the dialog is to spout some quotable soundbite, each of which sounds good in isolation, none of which meaningfully advances the conversation. Put that all together and you get a lot of people with black and white mentalities babbling at each other and saying nothing.

Huh. Maybe, in a completely unintentional way, it said something about society after all.

Tune in next time for me being way less grumpy, hopefully. As always, thanks for reading.

Three Things a Theme Needs

Ideas in stories fascinate me, and one of the things that interests me most is the lack of consensus on what makes a good theme. I write about this a lot.

I’ve been trying to look at themes in stories from a different angle lately. Instead of just thinking about whether I agree with the moral of what I just watched or read, I’ve been thinking about how the idea was presented. Regardless of whether I consciously agreed, how did my heart react? Did the ideas seem well supported by the story, or were they awkwardly wedged in?

In the process, I’ve noticed three basic things that help a story’s theme not only sound true, but feel right.

1. Complexity. The story shouldn’t be populated by straw men. The utopia shouldn’t have gaps that the writer has conveniently overlooked. The world should feel multi-dimensional and complicated, just like the one we really live in. It’s seeing high-minded ideals interact with a messy world that makes stories so interesting. That’s the reason we forget the PSAs we saw in our teens but remember the gangster films.

2. Continuity. In music, the theme is an arrangement of notes that recurs throughout the piece. They tie the whole piece together. In a story, images, situations, phrases and dilemmas that occur over and over again create a sense of coherence. When, in the last fifteen minutes of a story, a character blurts out an aphorism and everyone nods at how profoundly it fits the moment, it feels clunky. We roll our eyes and think, “oh, right, they’ve gotta have a moral. Whatever.” But if that idea has come up before, and been examined by different characters from different angles, depending on their personality and what is going on at the time, the theme feels integrated with the story, not tacked on to check an item off a list.

3. Intersectionality. Contrary to the common idea that you need a single theme, stories are most interesting when they explore the overlap of a few values and ideas. The theme can’t just be love. What about love? That it conquers all? Well, you can’t literally have it conquer everything. The story has to end sometime. So maybe all in this case is represented by families who object because the two belong to different religious castes. Great! But now you’ve got a society with a religion and family obligations, and you’ve got to develop those things to flesh the story out. Now there are themes involving love, religion and family. The author might think its about love conquering all, but someone else could write a whole paper on how well it demonstrates religion stifling free expression of love.

These three aspects, complexity, continuity and intersectionality, combine to create a story that feels like its definitely about something, but still leaves the readers freedom to figure that out for themselves.

Welcome to Night Vale

I have a theory about human nature. When it comes to the strange, confusing or taboo, we have only three possible responses. We can be disgusted, which prompts us to avoid whatever it is. If that avoidance isn’t allowed, our other options are fear and humor. This makes comedy and horror oddly companionable. Though externally they seem extremely different, they have the potential to explore similar topics, and many stories successfully combine them; the Scream franchise, The Cabin in the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Shaun of the Dead, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so on. Sometimes the comedy is dominant, sometimes the terror. Where the subject of my final October review falls may be up to the individual.

Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast (and as of a couple weeks ago, a novel) about a small desert community where Lovecraftian terrors are just part of the everyday backdrop. In Night Vale, time only flows in a linear progression when it feels like it, street cleaners and librarians are everyone’s worst nightmare, city council is some sort of eldritch flesh-eating hive mind, and the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home is really more of a petty trickster than an actual threat. Unless you’ve recently beaten her in a mayoral election, of course. Everyone is used to this and accepts it, running their everyday lives as best as possible around all the weirdness, experiencing the same hopes, fears and heartbreaks as humans everywhere.

The podcast is narrated by Cecil, host of Night Vale Community Radio. He brings us community news, the weather, updates on the struggle against the latest unearthly horror to terrorize the town, and of course traffic. There’s a strong element of unreliable narrator to the show. Is Cecil saying what he thinks, or what the Secret Police insist that he says? Is his information accurate, or biased by his status as a devout mountain unbeliever? Are we, the non-Night Valian audience, simply misunderstanding him because we didn’t realize antiques have tails? Despite Cecil’s fallibility, it’s hard not to trust him; not in the simple sense of believing everything he says, but in the deeper sense. When Cecil talks, you can hear his love for his town. I always get the sense that, in all the chaos, it’s Cecil who really binds Night Vale together. He might not always be factually accurate, but he can hear and diagnose the heartbeat of Night Vale.
The novel is more straightforward. As it’s so recent, this will be a brief and spoiler-free review. It follows two citizens of Night Vale, who are seeking to unravel a puzzle that is less apocalyptic, more personal. I loved it, and I don’t think you need to have listened to the podcast to enjoy it. It’s highly recommended, especially if you like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the Discworld books. As those were to space opera/fantasy, this is to horror.
Night Vale, to me, isn’t scariest when the space-time fabric rips open and tentacled monsters invade. That is so everyday it is hardly worth mentioning. It’s scariest when there is a small, personal threat; anything to do with Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend, makes me hold my breath a little. This is a common element of life in Night Vale. The town can weather any number of injustices and catastrophes, then go back to school and work the next morning. This is also a common aspect of human nature. We acclimate, even to things that sound horrific.

There are upsides to this, and downsides. One of the negatives is that we can accept things that we really shouldn’t, just because that’s the way they are; slavery comes to mind. Another is that, even as we acclimate, wounds can build up under the surface and reveal themselves later, like a soldier gallows-humoring through combat only to develop a bad drinking problem back home. The positive is that, well, without that ability we could never survive in an imperfect world. Sitting around and waiting for life to become safe, or refusing to participate in a world that fails to be perfectly just, both end in sitting alone until you die. Life in Night Vale is about finding a balance between complacency and paralyzing terror. So is life everywhere else.

Happy Halloween, everyone! Stay safe, and have fun.

Babadook and Dark Water

Supernatural horror is a massive subgenre, and many excellent works have been made simply using ghosts and demons as scary monsters. They let us all indulge the little parts of our mind that, in the middle of the night, goes back to our ancestors in caves and wonders “what if there really is something out there?” Then there are those that try using the supernatural as symbols of a real world terror. Not all of those work as well as simple chillers, but when the writers have a good understanding of the issue they are talking about, and a good grasp of the art of subtlety, the results can be wonderful. In fact, they can be used to talk about issues that are hard to portray directly.

Because nobody is more vulnerable than a child, and a few billion years of evolution compel us to protect them, horror loves to involve children. This is the case with two of my favorite films, The Babadook and Dark Water (the Japanese version, not the American remake, yes I’m a snob). Both have single mothers as protagonists, struggling to maintain a normal life for their child while supernatural forces stalk them. Spoilers ahead.

The Babadook

The two children are very different. In The Babadook, Amelia’s six year old Sam has behavioral troubles. He’s obsessed with monsters and weaponry, cycling between begging to play with weapons and read scary stories, and screaming fits of terror. Also, he has tantrums and at least one seizure. His behaviors get him in trouble at school and alienate him from all his peers. For the record, he’s a very accurate portrayal. I’ve worked with more than a couple Sams. Many similar stories would have him as the unsettling demonic child; this movie actually gives him a lot of sympathetic motivations. His father died in a crash the day he was born, and Sam’s fear seems to come from concern for his mother. He fantasizes that he is the protector of the house and concocts elaborate scenarios where he protects Amelia. Combine that with a kid who is often oblivious to how he comes across, and you get a kid who is actually quite likable, yet you don’t envy anyone who has to deal with him. Amelia, unfortunately, has a shortage of help. In addition to the loss of her husband, Sam’s school is not very good, and her sister’s half-hearted attempts to help only make Amelia feel more isolated.

In Dark Water, Yoshimi’s daughter Ikuko is sweet and responsible, especially for a five year old. Yoshimi was extremely neglected as a child, and in fact she is divorcing her husband because she sees him neglecting both her and her child in the same way. He is now doing everything in his power to gain custody of Ikuko, seemingly just to spite Yoshimi. Yoshimi has had a history of anxiety attacks and nervous breakdowns. Her in-story excuse is that she was disturbed by a job proofreading horror novels, but flashbacks make us suspect the underlying cause is lingering wounds from the subtle, toxic abuse of neglect. This makes her connection to Ikuko all the more important. It is both a chance to redeem herself, and the one relationship where she feels the unconditional love that she has always needed.

Dark Water

In both these stories, as in most great horror, the threats start slow and subtle. A creepy book appears in Sam’s bedroom and Amelia can’t remember where it came from. A little red bag keeps returning to Yoshimi and Ikuko’s new apartment, no matter how Yoshimi throws it away. These things serve the usual purpose of slowly raising the tension, but they also serve the particular purpose of illustrating the vulnerability of both women’s situations. In many horror stories, the victims are reluctant to face the eerie events in front of them, but in these, there is a reason for that. The women’s natural reactions of fear are interpreted by those around them as feminine hysteria, possibly indicating that they aren’t suitable caretakers. Rather than losing sympathy by not taking the obvious option, they gain it by showing us how all their options are bad; embrace what’s happening and be seen as crazy, or try to ignore it as the threat encroaches closer and closer.

As the threat grows, the audience starts to realize that the child isn’t the target. It’s the parent. In Yoshimi’s case, she and her daughter are being stalked by a the ghost of another little girl whose parents neglected her. In this case, the neglect was fatal, and now she’s desperate to find the mother she always needed. The ghost is determined to supplant Ikuko. Amelia is even closer to the monster. After she gets rid of the book, a new version appears, just for her. The Babadook says, “the more you ignore me, the stronger I’ll get.” Amelia is disturbed, but we begin putting pieces together as we watch her behavior. She is a loving mother, but the cracks are beginning to show. We are all familiar with the way we can snap and say something we don’t want to say in a stressful situation, and how unpleasant we can be when that stress becomes chronic.

The Babadook and the ghost are both manifestations of a truth we all know unconsciously. When we feel abandoned by those we love, by those who are supposed to look after us, that pain has the potential to turn us into something horrible.

One of the great things we love to tell ourselves is how wonderful families are, how much a source of unconditional love and blood is thicker than water and we will always be connected and so on and so forth. But in truth, there is always a choice. Some families are horrible, not in the quirky dysfunctional sitcom sense, but in the real, pathological, destructive sense. It’s easy to think of those families as people who are half real, who exist in news stories and not in our own neighborhoods. Dark Water and The Babadook, through supernatural symbolism, show us the other side; the destructive power of abandonment, isolation and neglect in families that might look very ordinary. They both do this in a way that is sensitive to their characters, honest about the pain and, at the last minute, oddly hopeful.

Absentia

Absentia is one of my absolute favorite horror films. I don’t measure my enjoyment of horror films quite the way I do others. Normally I look at both my enjoyment the first time around and how it holds up after a few rewatches. With horror, I don’t want to watch it too often. I want to forget the jumps and the twists, so that I’ll still get tense when the lights go out and nothing has gone wrong in almost three minutes. So, instead, I pick favorites based on how much they haunt me. Despite not seeing Absentia for two years before I watched it for this review, I’ve thought of it more than any other horror film I’ve seen. It’s damn good.

Absentia Callie

The title comes from the legal term “in absentia,” meaning that legal proceedings are going on despite the absence of something. In this case, Daniel Riley disappeared seven in years ago, and his wife Tricia is having him declared dead in absentia. She misses him. She loves him. She wants him to stay in the potentially reversible category of missing, not the rather permanent one of dead.

Also, her bills have piled up, her life has been on hold for seven years, and she’s pregnant. It’s time.

Her sister Callie, a recovering drug addict, visits to support her through the process. While she’s there, they both begin seeing things they can’t quite explain, but that seem to center around the concrete tunnel where so many in the neighborhood have disappeared.

I won’t give away the nature of this story’s monster or what it does, because the way this film builds the suspense is too good to spoil. Furthermore, it’s not really necessary to the great idea of Absentia. Unlike some stories, which use the monsters as clear metaphors for something, Absentia uses the confusion of the characters, whose lives are being torn apart by events they can’t begin to explain, to talk about how we deal with that. What do we do when life isn’t even willing to give us the closure of answers?

Absentia Tricia

Callie and Tricia try everything; substance abuse, blame, religion, science, outrage, meditation, and when everything else fails, stories. Pure, fabricated guesses of what might have happened, what might be going on. Absentia shows us all of them, shows us the ultimate futility of them, and does not for a moment blame its characters for resorting to them. It simply invites us to witness, understand, and empathize. Unlike so many horror movies, which flatten and stereotype its protagonists, Absentia makes them so human you will cry.

There is so much love in this movie, and not sappy, idealized love. It has messy, frustrating love directed towards messy, frustrated people. It also isn’t love that is magically strong enough to undo all the evil spells or stop bad things from coming. It’s just there, warm and real. There is a moment with a hug, and then after the hug there are bad things that the hug couldn’t stop. That’s okay. At least it was there when it could be, doing what good it could.

Absentia sisters

When I talk about ideas, I don’t always mean answers. Absentia doesn’t have any answers to what you do when there are no answers. That would defeat the point. It’s about reminding us that sometimes there aren’t any, and appreciating the heartbroken guesses of the people left behind.

Side Effects; A Missed Opportunity

Horror and action are genres that both frequently deal with dangerous situations, and yet it’s fairly rare that they get mixed up. Action is about the point where danger is active, and can be battled out in the open. There are clear boundaries between danger and safety, good and evil. It typically stars someone highly capable of handling the threat. Indiana Jones, Batman and Imperator Furiosa may have the odds stacked against them, but they are still trained and resourceful in exactly the ways the crisis demands. Horror, on the other hand, tends to focus on dangers that are lurking, liminal, or hidden just out of sight, and they involve protagonists who are completely unprepared to deal with the threat when it will finally come out of the dark. Action lets us escape to a world where we can take on our greatest foes; horror tells us what to do when we can’t.

Straddling the line between the two is the thriller, where events are a little too mundane and the emotional palette too varied for true horror, but there is an intensity and level of suspense above that of conventional action. This can be a really fun genre, both to write and watch. The danger lies in the temptation for the author to pull their punches, to pretend they are saying something profound but deliver escapism at the last moment. And just to be clear; I think both brutal honesty and exciting escapism are great. They each have their place and they can also be mixed in interesting ways. But sometimes they are combined create a garish chimera.

Let’s move on to the review, shall we?

Side Effects

Side Effects has an interesting premise that involves topics that are very important right now; medications, the danger of overprescription, the danger of paranoia around overprescription, the way medicines are marketed to the doctors who prescribe them, the frivolous lawsuit problem, so on and so forth. The main characters are Jonathan Banks, a young psychiatrist played by Jude Law, and Emily, his patient played by Rooney Mara. Emily is struggling with depression and suicidal urges. Banks prescribes her an experimental medicine that he is being paid to push, and as a result, she kills her husband in a sleepwalking incident.

The buildup to the events is excellent, because we aren’t allowed any easy answers. It’s easy, from the description above, to blame the doctor, but his characterization meticulously builds up sympathy for him. His first scene has him de-escalating a situation by culturally mediating between an anxious Haitian patient and a cop, potentially saving a life. He doesn’t see his patients as a pure opportunity for profit. He sees complex humans who need someone to understand them. Also, while he’s willing to take a little money from drug companies it isn’t in a blatantly unethical way. He isn’t pushing it on patients who would likely do better on another drug, he isn’t aware of any dangerous side effects and he is even upfront about both it’s experimental status and his relationship with the company. Emily takes the medication because she can’t handle the side effects from other, more common prescriptions and insists she prefers the experimental drug, right up until the death of her husband. The thing about dramatic side effects like this is that there’s always a first person to exhibit them. It’s so easy to think about the person who greedily recommended it in full knowledge of this danger, or without having done basic research. It’s hard to think of the essentially good guy, the innocent woman and the dead man, all connected by nothing more than really terrible luck.

This story threw me into a situation where I wanted a bad guy, and there was none to be seen, which in an odd way was scarier than any evil monster. I didn’t realize this until the movie, but when things have gone suddenly and irreversibly bad, sometimes the only thing left is the idea of justice, of a cosmic balancing of the scales. Even an unbeatable enemy is oddly comforting; there can be the comfort of wallowing in fantasies of some day when some hero will come along and give the bastards what they deserve. But if there’s no villain, nobody to blame or resent, then there is truly no hope for justice. I can’t think of any way to make things worse than that.

Everyone in the story is affected by this absence of a villain, and in sweep the lawyers and the PIs to help everyone find their bad guy. The temptation to find one slowly topples each character. The most effected is the protagonist, who, realizing he is everyone’s favorite choice to take the blame, begins acting hostile towards his former patient, essentially becoming the villain everyone wants him to be.

At this point in the story I was hooked. Unfortunately, this is also where it decided to massively disappoint me. See, it wasn’t about the horror of realizing that your desire to not be the bad guy turned you into the very villain they were looking for. It was about an evil lesbian conspiracy.

I really wish I didn’t  have to write that. But seriously that’s the only way to put it. Honestly, I think the original piece was the brilliant movie that I thought it was two-thirds of the way through, and then in some writer’s meeting a studio executive said, “you know, I just worry that this story is such a downer. And it’s going to be over everyone’s heads. Can’t we give it a sexier ending?”

And somebody said, “what, like evil lesbians?” before they realized that once those two words were spoken, the brainless studio executive would never, ever let the idea go.

I think that’s really awful, because of anti-vaxxers. And lots of other people, but anti-vaxxers are big in the news right now so I’ll go with that. It’s a movement that is so totally displaced from medical science that it’s kind of hard to argue with. If someone quotes that old nonsense about only using ten percent of your brain, you can explain that misconception came from the fact that we typically don’t use more than ten percent of our brain at once, but it’s a different ten percent from moment to moment so yeah, we use our entire brains. There’s enough common ground to get the conversation going. But when the other person really isn’t interested in any studies except the one, thoroughly discredited one that confirms their preconceptions, it’s hard to talk about the issue at all. Which sucks, because we had almost gotten rid of the measles and now it’s back.

What many people miss is that anti-vaxxers hang onto their theory because it gives them a bad guy. A largish minority of children with autism will, at some point in their childhood, experience a bad regression. Some will even spontaneously develop autism. In a country where most children are regularly vaccinated, the law of large numbers dictates that sometimes the vaccine and the regression will happen around the same time, giving grieving and understandably frightened parents a potential scapegoat. Add one misleading study and an internet to hook everybody together, and you’ve got a community united, comforted by a common enemy. Even if that enemy is a boogeyman. Before you go blaming the parents exclusively, remember that for years therapists did the same thing; they claimed that autism was caused by “refrigerator moms” despite no real evidence or even a clear definition of what that meant. They didn’t know what to do, so they blamed the scared parent and/or feminism and went home able to sleep better for it.

My point is, this issue is a part of human nature that we need to talk about. It is relevant to the times, relevant to our safety, and relevant to our ability to handle a crisis compassionately, and to really cooperate rationally on a solution. This movie had a chance to facilitate that conversation on a cultural level, and it blew it.

It’s probably all Donald Trump’s fault.

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Typically I write my reviews on movies, not novels, for two reasons. One is that it is less of a commitment of time and effort to rewatch a movie with notepad in hand to make my overthinking extra overthinky. The other is that I’ve heard from several authors that it’s a good idea to leave the bad reviews to the professional reviewers. I often get a lot out of analyzing stories that I think did something poorly, and when I do that I always go for Hollywood. However, for my first idea-rich horror review, I am breaking that trend. There’s no need to reread I Am Not a Serial Killer, because all the relevant details are stuck quite firmly in my mind, and there will certainly be no need to say anything negative.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is the first book in a series by Dan Wells, about a teenager, John Cleaver, who doesn’t want to be a serial killer. Normally that isn’t something teenagers have to deal with, but in his case there are a number of warning signs, from a diagnosis of pre-sociopathy to frequent bloody fantasies to the fact that his name is John Wayne Cleaver. His life is lived by a rigid code designed to protect him from his temptation to kill. When his small town is stalked by monsters, he seems to have been presented by a win-win situation; the opportunity to stalk and kill without being in the wrong. Naturally, this situation gets sticky very, very quickly.

While there is plenty of gore, the book is primarily psychological horror. We like John and we don’t want to see him give in to his dark side. I’m not sure John is a perfectly accurate depiction of a sociopath, though that is less Dan Wells’ fault and more a consequence of the mystery of what sociopathy truly is. John has all the classic marks, except that he has a desire to be better. It’s that tension that makes him both strangely fascinating and extremely relatable. That conflict is fundamental to every moral question. What do we do when what we think is right and what we want to do are at odds?

There are two approaches that John is caught between. One is of setting a clear, firm boundary between himself and who he fears becoming. It’s not enough for him to not kill. He has to not follow people around. He has to say something nice to someone if he has a fantasy about brutally dismembering them. He can’t eat meat. The other is of choosing a release that is supposed to be safe; it’s okay to kill someone if you think they might be dangerous to others, right?

I’m interested in moral questions, and I’ve been all over the political and religious maps. John’s list of rules reminds me of the preferred methods of Christian fundamentalism, and many other conservative worlds, while seeking an acceptable outlet tends to be preferred by liberal and secular worlds. While I’ve settled with a strong preference for the approach of outlets, to be honest there are downsides to both.

Take sex for example. Now, I tend to think sex is needlessly stigmatized, but in the Western world I think it is the area where the average person is most likely to experience a conflict between what they want to do and what they think they should do. The trouble with rigid boundaries is that they can heighten the tension, and thus the intensity of the temptation. They can easily result in a sliding scale. Consider standards of modesty; in a world where chests and thighs must be covered, shoulders and knees become erotic. When the legs and arms are covered, the wrists and ankles become scandalous. Meanwhile, the behavior of the people who have placed these boundaries does not necessarily improve. In the United States, we are used to hearing about the affairs, call girls and rent boys of politicians, typically the most religiously conservative ones. I personally am in favor of peeling back all the restrictions to the bare minimum; physical safety and consent are important, but otherwise why worry. Still, for people who feel the urge to cheat, or who hate condoms, or who are attracted to someone who doesn’t consent, simply saying “here’s a minimally restrictive alternative”doesn’t necessarily mean they will do the right thing. I’ve known people in highly relaxed, poly and kink friendly circles who only seek to play lawyer and see how much they can get away with. Loopholes are sought, definitions pushed and rules bent and sometimes outright broken, and people still get hurt.

The problem, of course, is that no amount of rules can make you do the right thing if you fundamentally don’t love your partners enough to take care of them. Which brings the matter back to John. He experiences both types of problems. He bounces back and forth between rules that only make breaking more appealing, and releases that make him seek even more loopholes. Whichever tactic he takes is destined to fail, unless he can learn true empathy; to care about people for their own sake. That is the question at the heart of the series. Can he learn to connect with others?

This is by far not only one of my favorite horror series, but one of my favorite series of any genre. It is exciting, creepy and fun, but also has one of the most compelling character arcs of anything I have read. If you’re looking for some Halloween reading, and you haven’t read this series yet, go check out I Am Not a Serial Killer.

Why We Need Scary Stories

I love Halloween. I love seeing the world covered in skulls, vampires, bats and zombies. I love the excuse to watch scary movie after scary movie. I love the way that, once out of the year, the world is joining me in contemplation of the grotesque and horrifying.

I have some issues with anxiety. Even when nothing is wrong, my brain likes to pump my head full of scary juices. In fact, it’s worst when nothing is wrong. An actual crisis, for me, is like a vacation. All the unnecessary panic feels like rehearsal, and I can finally put all the adrenaline and hyper-awareness to good use. Perhaps that’s why, so often, my thoughts turn towards disturbing topics or terrifying stories. The emotions are going to be there anyway. It’s nice to give them some appropriate subject matter, to keep them company.

Even for people who aren’t like me, I think there’s benefit to scary stories. That isn’t to say that everyone needs to go watch 28 Days Later or read Lovecraft if that’s not their thing. I’m not trying to police anyone’s genre preferences, or cajole anyone to try horror if they are uncomfortable with it. The benefit I’m talking about is broader, more social.

Here are a few premises for you.

Premise one; the world is in many ways a terrifying place. We all face innumerable challenges, unforeseen tragedies, losses of control and, eventually, death. And that’s just everyday life for the privileged. Once you accept that, you have to take into account certain other facts, like that Kim Jong-un exists.

Premise two; we don’t like thinking about awful things like that. Looking at these issues makes us uncomfortable.

Premise three; we can’t deal with any problem without taking an honest look at it. Attempting to handle a situation without real understanding of it often results in making it worse.

Premise four; stories have the power to teach us about situations by making us live them vicariously. They can be like flight simulations for real life, sometimes in straightforward and obvious ways, other times in subtle and symbolic ways. How a story handles uncomfortable subject matter can teach me how to handle similar feelings in my life.

Conclusion; stories that scare have the power to teach all of us to deal with unpleasant ideas that are still an essential part of life.

Once again, I don’t mean that all of you have to go watch a movie you swore you would never watch because the idea was too scary or icky for you. For one thing, I think these lessons and ideas can be introduced through stories, and then trickle through a whole society by cultural osmosis. I’m not a big fan of romance stories. I’m still familiar with many romantic tropes and their corresponding ideas about love, the good and the bad.

For another, just because scary stories deal with those essential ideas, that doesn’t mean every one handles them well. I am bothered by how many horror films, particularly the gory ones, handle their subject matter by making the victims very flat and eroticizing the violence. I don’t object to eroticism, and I don’t object to gore, and I don’t… well, no, I do object to making the victims flat on the grounds it’s poor writing, especially when they are supposed to be protagonists. But what bothers me most about that combination is that it does position the reader to deal with violence by identifying with the villain. I’m all for understanding, sympathizing with or even empathizing with a villain. Identification with the villain, on the other hand, is uncomfortably close to identification with the oppressor. Humans, uncomfortable witnessing someone suffer, sometimes shut off their ability to sympathize with the ones suffering and instead fixing on the one causing the suffering, who seems interesting and powerful in comparison. In the short term this feels better; in the long run it is the reason former victims are sometimes future abusers. All of which was a long of saying that although I think scary stories can teach us how to deal with fear, not all of them are great teachers.

I do, however, think that every genre, from romance to sci-fi to literary fiction, has examples of stories that handle their subject matter poorly. There is still plenty of fiction in the horror genre that handles awful subject matter in a way that is insightful and artistic, and for the rest of this month I’ll be writing about some of my personal favorites.

Hope you enjoy, and thanks, as always, for reading. Happy Halloween!

Why Do We Want to Know What the Author Meant?

This post has had a long history.

First I was trying to write a post on writing disabled characters, and it assumed that Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory was autistic. That post will definitely still happen, for the record. Then I kept getting sidetracked by explaining why I believed he was autistic, even if it has neither been confirmed in story or  by the authors. Explaining that in part means explaining my philosophy on the validity of interpretations. So I decided to make that a post all on its own. As part of that post, I started casually polling friends about their interpretations of interpretations. As I did this, I realized I was being a little dishonest to myself about my own philosophy, or rather how I apply it.

I originally meant to assert once again that all interpretations are equally valid, regardless of what the author says outside of the text. The only way an interpretation can be less valid is if it’s poorly supported by the text. I still essentially believe that, but as I talked to my friends I realized that I also like bending to the author’s stated intent as much as possible. I need a very serious reason to disagree with an author about their own work. Why do I do that?

Simple. Because the author is a point of reference who I have in common with all other readers.

I wrote a while back about how, while I enjoyed Harry Potter, I missed out on part of the Harry Potter experience by reading the books after the series was completely published, and the community that grew up with it and waited for each individual release was already nostalgic. Despite our common desire to have our own interpretations, most readers want to share their reading experience with somebody else. Having a community enhances the enjoyment for everyone who is a part of it… except perhaps when the community schisms. There are some divisions that seem to be playful, like certain popular shipping wars, but others that seem vitriolic and spiteful, like certain popular shipping wars.

In particular, divisions seem to get bitter when they depend on fundamentally different interpretations of the text. If you just like the dynamics of Katara and Zuko better than Katara and Aang, everything can stay fun, but if you believe, as one friend of mine did, that Katara and Aang getting together was incompatible with Aang’s mission to save the world, things can get heated in a not-fun way. When disagreements cut this deep, they can be hard to resolve, because the fans don’t have any evidence beyond the text, which is what caused the split in the first place.

In these cases, the author feels like the only one who can arbitrate. All us fans are on an equal footing, and there’s no reason any of us should be listened to over the other. The author, simply by virtue of having gone to the work of creating the piece, does stand out from the crowd of interpretations.

Or maybe that’s not it at all.

Maybe it’s that fiction is a shared delusion, but of course because your mind and my mind are different places, we are both bound to differ slightly in our interpretations. In your mind the flowers on the table are red roses. In mine they are yellow tulips. Most of the time these differences are so tiny they don’t disrupt the game of make-believe, but when they aren’t so small, that draws our attention to the fact that this is fiction. It slightly spoils the illusion. We want to be lost in our suspension of disbelief. When we let the author be the God of their world, able to dictate its laws, we can return to the illusion.

Unless of course the “word of God” fails to make sense. This brings me back to Sheldon, the original inspiration. I work with autistic children. I am regularly required to attend workshops about autism for my job. These workshops are taught by national experts, and they regularly illustrate their points with clips and gifs and screenshots of Sheldon. Sheldon exhibits the symptoms of high functioning autism so perfectly that when the creators say he doesn’t have it, to anyone with any real world experience of autism it sounds absurd. It’s like saying “he’s not blind, he just can’t see things and has a trained dog guide him around,” or “he’s not deaf, he just can’t hear so you have to learn to make words with your hands if you want to communicate.” The writers are drawing our attention to the fact that this is constructed universe, because we can only believe that Sheldon doesn’t have autism if this is a bizarre fictional world where the whims of some author reign supreme. Its impossible to both believe in Sheldon as a person, and believe in the Big Bang Theory universe and our universe, and not conclude that Sheldon has autism.

On reflection, I still think it’s the text that matters and not the author’s interpretation of it. However, I am perfectly capable of hearing somebody else’s interpretation and adopting it as my own because I like it. The author’s interpretation is as good as everyone else’s, and often it’s nice to adopt it because it helps lend coherence and verisimilitude to the story. Still, I don’t have to if I don’t want to.

What do you think?

Balancing Writing, Criticism and Social Responsibility

I’m still working on the next part of the Stockholm Syndrome series, but I’ve had something of a rough week and that series is too important to me to do half assed. So here are some rambling thoughts on one of my favorite issues.

Recently I was reading a very vitriolic criticism of a popular author, who I personally like. Now, I’m not writing this to defend him. In fact, I will not name him, because I don’t want to distract myself from the point that I am about to make. I’m mentioning this because the criticisms were mostly of the fact that his female characters suffered. The assumption was that if they suffered, it was because he was misogynist. I couldn’t agree with that. If a trope such as Women in Refrigerators had been in effect, or they had suffered primarily so a man could rescue them, I would see the critic’s point, but neither applied. In fact, one of the things I appreciate about the writer is how his female characters usually suffer as part of an arc where they take action to regain their own agency.

The critic didn’t seem to realize that part of good characterization is letting your characters suffer. Suffering drives character arcs. It can add depth and reader sympathy. In fact, if I don’t make my characters suffer, its a good sign that I’m not actually very invested in them.

This lead me to thinking about an issue that I think is common to writers who want to do a better job writing diversity, or even addressing social issues in any form. On the one hand, you want to listen to criticism in order to do this properly. There are actions that seem like good ideas until you look closely at them (see the entire Magical Negro trope). Often pride will blind writers from taking an honest look at their work.

On the other hand, sometimes the critics haven’t thought hard enough about their own criticisms. I remember a conversation I had with my ex when he flat out admitted that for  him, finding the problematic element of a story and ranting about it on Tumblr was a game for him. It was about being able to hold that problematic element over his head and declare that he had won, which made me very angry. Criticism shouldn’t be about an ego trip. It should be productive and of benefit to both fans and writers.

So how do you know whether you need to listen to a criticism or not? How do you know whether you need to call someone out on a something or not? I’ve thought about this issue for a long time, and the only conclusion that I’ve come to is that you can’t. Not with absolute certainty. You might ignore somebody who has a good point. You might bend over backwards to change for somebody who is wrong. I myself could be completely wrong in my criticism of that critic’s criticism. I am not, last I checked, infallible.

There are a few things I think can be done to improve your chances of being productive. First, you can check your ego. Don’t write for praise, don’t tear somebody else down to elevate your own standing, and don’t let yourself forget that you are a constant work in progress. If you can’t separate your writing from yourself, it increases the odds that you will either ignore criticism because it is uncomfortable, or accept it too readily because you want everyone’s pat on the back. Second, you can make it a point to expose yourself to multiple points of view, even ones you think you already disagree with. If you get comfortable listening to people with wildly different perspectives, you can make yourself less likely to reject a valid point just because it comes from a field you don’t like, or accept a poor one just because it comes from someone you like to think of as “one of my people.” Third, you can study critical thinking in general. Take a class, read a book on logic and rhetoric, practice taking off your emotional glasses and just thinking objectively.

If I may be tautological, I think the best you can do is to do your best. Odds are, you will not create the unimpeachable work, free of problematic tropes and destined to end racism, sexism and all the isms. As my boyfriend likes to say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Write what’s in your heart, think long and hard about whether what you’re saying is really what you want to say, and be ready for the possibility that someday you will look back, smack your forehead and say “what was I thinking?” It happens to everybody.