February 12th: On Into the Wild (the 2007 film)
My first time watching this film was in 2012, during my junior year of high school. I remember laughing at McCandless’s fate. I think the moment that gets me the most is one of the last things McCandless says to Franz: “Can we talk about this after I get back from Alaska?” For context: Franz has just asked if McCandless would want to be adopted. More context: McCandless dies in the Alaskan wilderness at the age of twenty-four, after accidentally consuming the roots of a wild sweet pea plant. Still more context: I am now older than McCandless was when he died by almost a full year. Somehow, this comparison makes me feel as if I’ve fallen behind.
I am sure I could write ten thousand words on my desire to escape. I could mock and worship Thoreau in a single shallow breath. I could tell you about the many, many walks I’ve taken through the woods over the last thirteen months. A moment arrives every day in which I do not want there to be another day. A moment arrives every day in which I wish with every ligament and sinew of my being for there to lie ahead of me an infinity of days. The idea that I and you will one day die and that there will be nothing after—no light, not even darkness—at once terrifies me and puts me at ease more than I can say.
Scene: McCandless, kayaking down the Colorado River, punching the sky in triumph.
Scene: McCandless, denying a girl who loves him, driving himself on, farther and farther north.
Scene: McCandless, shitting himself as he dies.
Scene: Sixteen-year-old Colin, mocking the anxiety of his twenty-something-year-old AP English teacher, aping the nervous flexing of his fingers. What was there to fear, my guy? Compared to the incomprehensibility we were witnessing onscreen? Relax!
Scene: McCandless, writing the last words he writes before he dies: I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD.
Scene: I am lying on my back on a couch, beneath a checkered terrycloth blanket, beneath the gently rising and falling weight of my cat, typing these words as I fall asleep. I am comfortable. I do not know why I am doing this thing. I know exactly why I do this thing. Tomorrow I will run across a bridge in the cold, my chest working, my lungs burning. I will not jump, and I will not scream at the sky.
I will not scream at the sky.
February 13th: On Oneiromancy
After waking up this morning sick with anger toward someone I care about deeply, I find myself ill-disposed toward dreams. At best, a dream leaves one bemused at its absurdity, astonished at the capacity of a mind to fashion something so fey. Worse—if a dream is a good one, say—it leaves one feeling let down upon finding themselves still a part of the world they had briefly left behind. Worst of all—if a dream is a nightmare, as was the dream I had last night—it leaves one furious at this world. Last night’s dream began with a dinner—an important, perhaps life-defining dinner—at which I made a fool of myself. It ended with me at a Renaissance Faire, losing the trust of someone for good. It was an absurd sequence of events; it was also devastating, and it still has me feeling irrationally ill.
Oneiromancy is divination based upon dreams. It’s abundant in the Bible, even more so in the tragedies and comedies of the Greeks. It’s the thing that compels an oracle to compel Oedipus to kill his father; it’s the ladder Jacob saw ascending into the sky. It’s also more or less essential in fantasy of any type—low or high, written or filmed. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Bran’s importance to the plot as the series progresses hinges on his ability to see through dreams. Both Herbert’s original Dune trilogy and Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, neither of which involve magic of a particularly cinematic kind, stake much of their narratives’ coherence upon their characters’ dreams.
And this is to say nothing of the non-magical dreams that abound in literary fiction. Show, don’t tell, right? And if you can’t find a good way to show it, do so in a dream! Nor is it to say anything of the fake-out so lazily ubiquitous to horror fiction and film. Nor is it to say anything of the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream trope popularized by Inception and invented by science fiction written seventy-five years before. Dreams, fictionally speaking, kick quite literal ass.
In my own writing, though, I tend to steer clear of dreams of any kind, not just the prophetic sort. I do so because a number of writers I admire—Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Alan Drew—have cautioned against it. But I also try not to pin my narrative’s stakes upon things that consist of nothing but randomly firing neurons, ganglia in insensate rebellion. There is enough to worry about and fear in this world without those antagonists and conflicts conjured by our minds. The good things in this life—love, trust—are fragile enough. There is no need to consciously or unconsciously invent threats to their existence. There is no need for dreams.
February 14th: On St. Valentine
Oh, interloper. Oh, deceiver. Oh, 3rd-century Roman saint. Oh, bane of incels and lonely hearts and broken hearts and lushes and punks and nihilists and cynics and stone-hearted golems everywhere. Oh, patron saint of epilepsy. Oh, protector of beekeepers. Oh, minister to persecuted Christians. Oh, defender of love. Oh, perverter of love. Oh, invention of Chaucer. Oh, backbone of Hallmark. Oh, excuse to drink. Oh, roses rotting within a locker. Oh, pink bunting upon a tiled floor. Oh, refusal to dwell. Oh, martyr. Oh, corpse. Oh, bones. Oh, light. Oh, pride of Terni. Oh, stochastic universe. Oh, refuter of the finitude of time. Oh, denier of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Oh, inspirer, in part, of Roland Barthes, who wrote that language is a skin, that at the end of all words is the object of the author’s love. Oh, patron saint of salsa (an inside joke; apologies). Oh, a miracle. Oh, you.
February 15th: On Rude Tales of Magic
Yesterday, the Rude Tales of Magic Twitter account posted a series of tweets celebrating Valentine’s Day (or, as the mystery author of these tweets often put it [capital-l and all]: Love). Numbering roughly fifteen in total, each tweet in this sequence shorted out the irony detectors in my brain in a way I feared permanent. Replying to another reply to the first of these tweets, another fan warned that Branson (Reese), the dungeon master of the Rude Tales crew, was capable of a “baffling sincerity.” The tweets—which spoke of partners who stuck together through thick and thin; of partners who supported their partners in their artistic pursuits, just like the partners of the creators behind Rude Tales—toed the line between sentimentality and satire, honesty and cynicism. If they revealed themselves as slanting toward the latter, it was only by way of their quantity, not the content of the tweets themselves. A punchline, I remember thinking, was on its way—and arrive it did. The crew, despite the tweets’ repeated assurance that the day was a “day of Love,” that “no recording” had happened that day, had recorded a Valentine’s Day special; it was live on their Patreon. And it was as sincerely baffling and bafflingly sincere as every episode, bonus or otherwise, that the Rude Tales septet has put out in their seventeen months of sincere, baffling existence.
The paired triumphs of Rude Tales—that it manages at once to be comedic and tragic, a fantasy played straight and a convention-shredding farce—traces, I think, to the artistic range of its members. Branson Reese, the dungeon master, is a writer and artist and comedian. Carly Monardo, the voice of Albee, is an animator and illustrator; Ali Fisher, the voice of Cordelia, is an editor at Tor. Christopher Hastings, who plays Frederick de Bonesby, is a comic and writer; Tim Platt, the voice of Stirfry, is a comedian, actor, and songwriter; Joe Lepore, the voice of Bellow, is an improve performer and actor. Taylor Moore, the producer of the show, also provides the voices for a number of characters in the show’s Patreon-exclusive episodes, and lends his talents to a number of other D&D podcasts, and is responsible (probably) for a retinue of miracles that I’m presently missing, and which Google has been so unintentionally cruel as to decline to provide. They are all based in Brooklyn, which is fortunate—both for them and for us. Rude Tales is a marvel; it is also as regular as the waxing and waning of the moon, as the bi-weekly crisis that is our 21st-century news.
The story at the heart of Rude Tales follows (albeit in meandering, trope-riffing, pop-culture-spoofing fashion) the quest of Albee, Cordelia, Stirfry, Bellow, and Frederich (referred to more often as Mr. de Bonesby) to undo the cataclysm that has erased Polaris University from history. On the way, they are aided and/or attacked by a number of colorful (and often foul-mouthed) characters. There is Flipcup, an owlbear (body of an owl, head of a bear), and also Stirfry’s adopted son. There is Count Ivan Gretzy, a vampire recovering from an addiction to blood. There is Cheddar, the demon, whom only Cordelia can see. There are a trio of orc sisters who beset the group with problems at Riddle Guy, a festival that is 100% not a riff on our reality’s Burning Man. There is Danny Timeshare, god of vacation. There is Hot Roddy, an entity known as a “bullymancer”—and also Bellow’s legal dad.
Where Rude Tales shines, though, is not solely in the hilarity of its set-pieces, the etymological absurdity of its (glorious) names, but also in the crew’s ability to craft meaningful stakes with these absurd components. In one episode, the party comes across Stirfry’s old crew, a group of kenku bandits known as the Bloody Bloody Gentlemen. The events that follow are comedy at its slapstick finest, yes, but they are also dramatically compelling; we listen as Stirfry, faced with his past—both as a member of the Bloody Bloody Gentlemen and in the employ of Mr. de Bonesby—realizes, perhaps for the first time in the show, that he has grown. In another episode, it is Mr. de Bonesby who confronts his past, reliving memories of his father; in another, it is Albee, who at last confesses to Bellow her feelings for him.
I have listened to a number of D&D podcasts—in the realm of audio narratives, they are as common as dirt—but Rude Tales has so far been the only one to hold me for more than one or two episodes, and this balance is the biggest reason why. It is a simple thing to point at a dragon and laugh. It is a simpler thing to scream. It requires a madness and a genius in equal regard to do both. Fortunately for us, every one of Rude Tales members possesses these attributes in abundance. I have listened to every episode, now, twice; I am working my way back through Rude Talks of Chatting, which provides a behind-the-scenes look at the podcast’s creation, as we speak. I am listening to Ali Fisher discuss the possible psychological interior behind her character’s exterior calm. I am listening to Branson Reese explain the world of Cordelia’s internal consistency, or lack thereof. I am listening to Tim Platt discuss Stirfry’s self-reflection and subsequent backsliding; I am listening to Carly Monardo, slipping into the mind of Albee, express anxiety over what’s on its way for the Rude Tales crew.
As for me—and this is a rarity for all of us, but especially for me—I have no anxiety about the future of Rude Tales. Not a crumb. The show is in inventive, reliable hands. I can’t wait for the fantasy and horror and comedy (and, above all, the farcical names) that I know are on their merry way.
(An addendum: The Rude Tales crew is twenty-six episodes in, folks. And there are buckets of bonus goodness to be found, with a small fee, on their Patreon. And I’ve said nothing of Come at the King, their prequel campaign that matches in every way the main narrative. Nor have I discussed the podcast’s sound design, which is as tight as that of any other podcast out there. Nor have I mentioned the live episode slated for February 25th, 7:30 EST. Which is to say: best get listening. Stat.)
February 16th: On the Short Stories of Caitlín R. Kiernan
I think the reason I return to Caitlín R. Kiernan is to be reminded that there are heights I will never reach. Or, if I do, that they will be different heights—ones less poetic, certainly, but also far less weird. I say this wishing I could write otherwise. “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8),” the penultimate story of the collection I’ve been working through over the last week, is among the ten best stories I have ever read. It is the most lyrical and dark of the small sample of Kiernan’s work that I’ve read, all of which is more lyrical and dark than most of the fiction published or being published in weird fiction’s long history. In terms of both content and style, it’s different from much of her other work (like “Houses Under the Sea,” “Fish Bride (1970),” “Bradbury Weather,” and “Andromeda Among the Stones,” all of which appear in this collection), whose unknowable eldritch forces (from beneath the sea, from beyond the stars) feature front and center. What makes this story my favorite of Kiernan’s, though, is the same quality at the heart of all her work. She writes about uncanniness, yes. Knowledge beyond the comprehension of man. Perversions of order, disruptors of all we hold dear. Into this alien landscape, though, she places (pushes) characters who are all too human. Characters, like the two serial killers at the center of “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8),” who need and want, love and lust, strive and die. People (and sirens, and aliens, and deities from a time before this tiny planet of ours supported a single cell of life) who are people—as shitty and beautiful and jealous and precious as you or me.
What else? I am exhausted. I am aware that the writing above is, for the most part, poor. Kiernan’s stories—each and every one—inspire in me a despair and a delight unmatched. It is 10:40 PM on a Tuesday. I did not write as much as I wanted to today. I have a headache from dehydration and depression and staring too long at screens. I feel ill from the four Kiernan stories I’ve read over the last hour or so—sick with fear, yes; drunk on the pain and uncanniness she provides in masochistic abundance. But I am also in the grips of a familiar fever. Ambition and inspiration are painful gifts. Pardon the dead metaphors. I am tired, tonight. I am years of tired nights away from being the writer I want to be.
And now to try to sleep.
February 17th: On The Last Podcast on the Left
The Last Podcast on the Left, in case you were not able to infer as much from its name, is a horror podcast hosted by comedian Ben Kissel, actor and comedian Henry Zebrowski, and researcher Marcus Parks. They upload two episodes a week: one that dives into a single story, probing its depths over the course of one or more episodes; and one—an entry in their Side Stories series—that recaps the paranormal and extraterrestrial and true-crime headlines dominating that week’s news. The trio has record nearly 450 episodes, exploring such subcultural phenomena as cryptids (most notably Bigfoot, Mothman, the chupacabra, and the Loch Ness monster), serial killers (Dahmer, Bundy, Fish, Pickton—all the hits, but so too the deep cuts), cults (Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown, the Ant Hill Kids, Scientology), close encounters of the nth kind, mystics (as I write this, I’m listening to part one of a series on Alastair Crowley), diseases, disasters—and more. The list goes on. And on. And on. The impossibilities of this world are impossibly commonplace, and in less capable hands than the podcast’s three hosts would grow mind-numbingly mundane.
The success of The Last Podcast, then, is a testament less to the remarkability of the stories they tell than to the remarkability of the telling itself. Like all successful collaborations, each member of the trio is acutely aware of their role. Zebrowski represents the requisite agent of chaos, treading gleefully where the other two will not go, providing voices for the characters of the stories they tell with skill and abandon. Kissel, by contrast, is perfect as the podcast’s straight man, his 6’6” stability balancing out Zebrowski’s 5’6” energy, his baritone providing a necessary counternote to his co-host’s hyperbole. Parks, the 6’0” center of this trio, anchors their humor with a narration that balances economy and depth, objectivity and editorialization, history and speculation. It came as no surprise to me, researching this write-up, to learn that the three are longtime friends. After listening to only one episode—the first part of a series on Skinwalker Ranch—I could already imagine the three around a bonfire, IPAs cracked, laughing at the most lightless abysses of our fallen world.
I would like to write that I listen to podcasts first and foremost to learn. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s Start With This (advice on creative writing) acts in this capacity; so too does Mike Birbiglia’s Working It Out (stand-up comedy), Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Startalk (science), and Left, Right, and Center (my weekly dose of politics). But while I do listen to podcasts for this reason, I find that I more often listen in search of comfort. I want to forget, for a moment, my loneliness, my anxiety, the early-onset sciatica that plagues my hips and lower back. This was how I first came across Karen Gilgareff and Georgia Hardstark’s My Favorite Murder, which in turn led me To the Last Podcast on the Left. And while I only listen to a handful of such grim, apparently esoteric podcasts, it takes only a cursory search through Soundcloud and Spotify to learn that the audiscape is wormy with productions of this sort.
Not only, then, am I listening to these morbid stories—everyone is. You are. Your sister is. Your mother. Your grandmother. We are replaying the worst of humanity’s acts, and we are laughing. The next time you’re alone, then, and afraid to overstay your welcome with your own mind—pop on an episode of The Last Podcast on the Left. Join in with the laughter of Henry Zebrowski, Marcus Parks, and Ben Kissel. Theirs is a laughter better than most.
February 18th: On Chili
An emptiness: “chili,” it turns out, is an abbreviation. Traditionally, the Mexican dish is known as “chili con carne.” A stew of seasoned beef, tomatoes, chili peppers, kidney beans. Naturally, there is also “chili sin carne” (vegetarian). There is Texas-style chili (meat only, no beans); there is white chili (ground turkey or chicken, resembling more closely a soup in its consistency, often thickened with sour cream or cheese). When I Google it, I’m deluged with sides: baked potatoes and sliced quesadillas, lime-cilantro cornbread and cheddar-stuffed breadsticks. When I eat it—which I did tonight, scarfing down a bowl of white chili as I worked through the third chapter of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory—I do so with whatever shredded cheese is in the fridge, whatever tortilla chips are in the cupboard, and little else. This is how my parents ate it when I was a child, and so this is how I eat it now. Our oldest habits are our parents’. Our veerings are our own.
A fullness: “chili” is one of many words, now that I think about it, whose original versions have grown rare. “Ammo” is another. “Limo,” “info,” “lab,” “max.” When we say or write a word like “limousine” or “laboratory,” it’s never because that word was the first to come to mind. It’s because something compelled us to search for it. Either a research paper requires it, or a character—a scientist, a pompous asshole—demands it. But when we are children, we use the first words that come to mind, because these are the only words we know. We eat froyo because it is sweet, and cool, and safe. We do not eat frozen yogurt. We eat chili because it is what our parents make. Once, when I was in middle school, I remember a friend of mine who was staying the night commenting, “Your family makes chili a lot.” And this was true; we did. Chili fills; chili warms. It is comfort embodied. It is the dish my family eats perhaps once every two weeks once the weather turns cold. Is this weird? Perhaps. As anything else.
I am trying very hard to return to using shorter words.