The Cauldron

Last year I wrote an experimental short story that I was considering submitting to a weird fiction collection for relatively unknown writers. But, as things so often do, time passed me by and I never got the story fully finished. I haven’t been able to bring myself to polish it up, but I put enough effort into it that I feel compelled to share it nonetheless. It should be taken more as a rough draft than anything else. The stream-of-consciousnes style is overly dirivitive of Ulysses, which I was reading at the time, and of The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which I love. The attempt at interjecting experimental forms and shifting mediums is often ham-handed. But I feel that there may be the seed of a good idea here, and there are several lines and some wordplay that I am actually proud of.

So here it is: The Cauldron 

A Note on Adaptation

Adaptation. The process of change, of being rewritten and reformed.

It seems like people are often wary of change, especially change in something that they already enjoy: people, books, houses, all sorts of things. This is especially clear in adaptations of media where a story is reworked from one medium to another.

This can partially be explained through the nature of the internalized image. I recently went to a lecture by a professor of mine about the nature of image in Ulysses and how images of characters are always wrong. Narratives rarely offer full descriptions of the characters, and our own internal images of characters are rarely fully detailed. This is not to say that characters are blurry or incomplete, but that their mental image is more defined by their actions and relationships than anything else – their image is reflected and adapted within the reader’s mind by the reader’s relationship. Even in mediums where the characters are shown visually: movies, television, and comics, we still resist changes in image. We have a mental image that is associated with the nature of the character, and a change in image implies – to us – a change in character.

Sometimes adaptations may simply suffer from poor writing, or a difficulty inherent in the medium its being adapted to. But often times we judge adaptations unfairly based upon our own preconceived notions of what’s “faithful” to the work. Who defines the qualities of the work that must be maintained for an adaptation to be faithful? The author? The reader/viewer? Must the adaptation use every element of the original work at its disposal?

I think we must give adaptations a greater degree of leniency in regards to experimentation and tone. The 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby follows the plot of the novel very closely, and often directly quotes the book, but I wouldn’t call it a great adaptation. Perhaps the script itself may be considered as such, but the film lacks any defining tone or power. Films like Stardust, Blade Runner, and The Shining, have significant departures from their respective source materials. In some cases even adding or deleting central characters. Yet, I greatly enjoy these films, they have tone, they have personality, they work as stories and as films. I actually enjoy Stardust the movie more than the book, mainly because of the addition of several original characters.

The acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick supposedly said that he preferred to adapt works into films rather than write original screenplays, opening up the possibility for change and improvement through the medium of film.

I’ve focused primarily on the adaptation of literature into film, but I want to start thinking more progressively about adaptation as a process in general. Look at Shakespeare and Chekhov – their legacy owes its survival to the nature of adaptation. Folk songs have lasted hundreds of years, and likely would have died out if it weren’t for adaptation. Great books and films and video games and albums have been inspired and adapted from works that are often considered mediocre at best.

Perhaps its time to embrace the process of adaptation, perhaps we should adapt ourselves to the works developing around us.

Thoughts on Hypertext

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(a book wheel, from Agostina Ramelli’s Le Diverse  et Artificiose Machine, 1588) 

Hypertext is strange, when you think about it.

Throughout most of human history our writing has been self-contained within books, tablets, or structures (in the case of hieroglyphs). Early hyper textual precursors such as some of the more complex reference systems, Wilkins’ philosophical language, book wheels (pictured above), annotations, and  logograms.

But while these systems allow for modular interaction between packages of information, none of them have the “depth” of hypertext.

[Please excuse my terminology here. I don’t like using the term “depth” to describe this phenomenon, as it implies that digital information is a space – which I disagree with. I’m trying to convey the idea of information depth here, rather than embodied space.]

We take hyperlinks for granted in our society. They appear everywhere. Its the primary means of acquiring information digitally, but we usually think of them as just … normal text.

Hypertext offers a whole new way of thinking about text. To read an article with hypertext, clicking on links, connecting sources and ideas, creates a different mindscape and psychology than reading a book or newspaper.

Imagine a huge stack of single-sided pages, where every word takes up the same amount of space on a page of all the others. Perhaps they’re part of a story, or an article, or even a manual of some kind. If you read it normally: left to right (or vice-versa depending on where you live and what you read) page [start] to page [end] then you get the normal story, information, or instructions displayed within. But, what if it turned out that, if you were confused by a word in the text, you could turn to the next page and find the word that aligned underneath the word you were confused about. Imagine that if you continued in this fashion, reading the “column” of words that lined up, you were given a complete account of word choice, intention, purpose, citation, and all sorts of other outside information. This is something like hypertext. This is what I mean by “depth” of information.

When we read hypertext we compartmentalize and associate in more direct ways than we do with words written on pages or in blocks. Authors like Michael Joyce and Shelley Jackson have implemented hypertext in literature before the internet was being used. The narratives are fractured, yet interconnected, like memories that mirror and oppose each other.

[Unfortunately, the management of Eastgate Publishing has not bothered to update these stories for newer platforms. many of these hyperstories may therefore be considered out of print. Shelly Jackson’s current website can be found here. Joyce is, as of the time of writing this, a professor at Vassar and still publishes in print].  

So, hypertext makes us read, and think, differently. Is this good? Is this bad? I’m not qualified to say, but I think its more accurate to say its just… different. There’s been a lot of research put into this subject, a lot of it negative. But as neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf famously said in her 2008 nonfiction book Proust and the Squid: “human beings were never born to read.” We evolved to read as a means of communication and processing information. Why can’t hypertext be seen as an extension to that?

This is not to ignore the dangers of such progress, especially alienation, conditioning, and disembodiment from identity. As Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age says in this interview: “When a parent talks to a child over breakfast and says, ‘What’s happening at school today?’ … You’re getting respect for someone finishing their thoughts. You’re getting the feeling that someone else is listening to you. You’re getting the feeling that someone else is going to be there to hear you finish your idea. You’re getting the bare bones of a relationship. You’re learning empathy and continuity.”

Much of Turkle’s argument (which is by no means anti-technology) is based around acting with intention. When we begin to go into these spaces surrounded with technology, we must interact with intention. Go to Facebook knowing why you want to check Facebook. Check your phone because you have a reason you want to check your phone. Read this blog because you want to read this blog. When you’re done, acknowledge you’re done. Then be done.

This can be difficult with hypertext, where ideas are linked and so tantalizingly close. Turkle also mentions the idea of “sacred spaces” or spaces in our lives where we choose not to interact with technology. Especially spaces where we expect conversation and interaction non-digitally: the dinner table, for example, or the bedroom before one goes to sleep beside ones partner.

Again, this is difficult to implement, but I see where Turkle is coming from and I agree. We need sacred spaces and intention with our interaction with technology as thought, conversation, and continuity is increasingly fractured and reconnected in this digital world of ours.

Save Yourself: Undertale, the Save Mechanic, and Choice

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Screenshot taken from Undertale.com

[If you haven’t played Undertale yet – which you should – then I highly suggest you ignore this post until you have. It is a game to be experienced for yourself. Don’t watch a letsplay, don’t read the wiki, just play the game]

I just beat my first play through of Undertale yesterday (technically this morning, but who keeps track of that stuff) and I honestly don’t know what to do now. Most people who have heard of the game know by now that part of the mechanics is choice – and not just the common dialogue-tree choices, but a choice in gameplay. Every encounter that occurs in the game can be solved through peaceful means or through violence. On my first play through I played as peacefully as I could, on my second play through I will do the same (there are apparently a few changes, and another ending.

… I don’t think I can dare follow through on achieving the other possible ending.

Alright, one final warning here: if you haven’t played the game yet, there will be spoiler below. Also, this game, for all its quirkiness and happy-go-lucky style gets really, really dark at parts.

Alright? Here we go…

There are three endings in total. 1) You kill some people (probably because you didn’t know you could choose not to) and you get a neutral ending (you actually get the neutral ending if you didn’t kill anyone on your first run, but you can unlock the pacifist ending on the second run through). 2) You kill nobody and you get the pacifist ending. Or 3) You kill every living thing in the underground… this is the genocide ending. Playing on the neutral/pacifist path gets you a fun, colorful (if occasionally intense) game with lots of heart and tenderness. The comparisons to Earthbound are striking, I also found myself thinking back to Cave Story. But if you do the genocide route … then the game … changes.

I’m not going to lie, I looked up what happens if you play genocide. After beating this game on the first run, I couldn’t bear to go back and try to kill all the characters I had grown to love, and I don’t regret this decision at all. Playing the genocide route transforms this lovely world into a horrific nightmare, and you’re the monster. You’re the one killing people for no true reason. The only motivations are either pleasure from killing, or desire to see an ending. Neither justify what you do.

And here’s the kicker: the game calls you out on it the whole way. ESPECIALLY if you played peacefully the first time around.

That’s right. This game remembers your choices, and it isn’t afraid to let you know. I had noticed during my play through that on several encounters you would tell enemies how many times you had failed to defeat them before. Neat idea, but I didn’t really grasp the severity of this realization until the final boss. The final boss in the neutral run is terrifying. I was actually scared by it. It is visually scary, it has a spine-chilling laugh, and it CONTROLS THE SAVE FILE! Yes, the final boss has complete control over the game files itself, and it acknowledges you, the player,  as the one it is terrorizing. There are other games, mostly free, independent, games that have done similar things. But this is just so… unexpected… that it really had an effect on me. This game is about choices, and I’ve talked about choice in games before. And this is something entirely different. This game is dynamic storytelling at its best, precisely because it wants you to realizes that just because you CAN play a game a certain way, doesn’t mean you should. It know its a game. Some of the characters know they’re in a game. It wants YOU to realize that this is a game, and that it shouldn’t be played with.

I’m going to drop a super spoiler about the genocide ending right now. Hopefully you’re not going to play it and will feel comfortable reading about it here. If you don plan on playing the genocide route… well… you’ll see for yourself.

At the end of the genocide campaign, it is revealed that your character is not your character. Rather, your character has been possessed by the spirit of the “first human.” To explain what all this means requires a lengthy explanation of all the endings and some other, hidden content. So I’lll just say that the first human was not a nice person. Anyhow, after you have killed every single living thing in the underground. Your possessed character turns to you, yes, you the player, and gleefully says that she wants to erase this world with you and move on to destroying other worlds. You can agree to erase the world, or refuse. If you agree the first human states that you will be together forever. If you disagree… it turns out you don’t have a choice. Either way the game crashes, and trying to reboot will give you a blank screen.

But… If you wait for some time, that blank screen will speak to you. The first human will offer to let you return to the world, in exchange for your soul. I truly believe it is the player that is being spoken to here. If you accept, you can go play the game again. But even if you follow through on the pacifist ending, things will not end happily.

Or, on the other hand. If you complete the pacifist run without doing the genocide route, you get the happiest ending. Yay! …What’s that? You want to start the game again? Maybe its just for fun, maybe you want to see another ending, but you try and start again. Then the game begs you not to. The game actually BEGS you to let the characters continue to exist in the happiest ending. Because why would you want to take that away from them? Heartbreaking.

That is the cost of choice in this game. If you complete the genocide route, you CANNOT have a true happy ending. Sure, you can technically go into the game’s save files and delete data to start the game over again (and there’s some other spooky stuff you can find there as well), but that’s kind of cheating isn’t it? I have never seen a game use the background mechanics to build a meta-narrative as powerfully as this one has. Sure, there are problems. I knew of the pacifist route before I started the game, I have been seeking it the whole time. Yet, the game’s memory and encouragement still made me feel like I was accomplishing something. I’m honestly excited to see what will change on my next play through.

I don’t exactly know where I’m going with this. I mainly just felt inspired enough by this game to write about the way it makes me feel, but I think this is something important here. Undertake may not be written about in academic journals, or analyzed years later, but I firmly believe it has managed to move games a few steps forward in the right direction. I don’t know what lies at the end of this path. Maybe its something as simple as empathy. Or something as complex as a thinking machine. But whatever it is, I await it wholeheartedly.

See you on the next save file.

The Weird Weird World of Weird Weird Fiction

I like weird fiction. I like Dagon, and Cthulhu, and The King in Yellow, and Hastur. I regularly take trips to Carcosa, Pagana, and the Dreamlands. I’ve tried writing a short story or two myself, though I’ll admit they weren’t particularly good.

But I’m far from the only person that likes weird fiction, all one has to do is take a quick search through the internet or check a local hipster hangout to find tentacled plushies and mind-altering T-shirts. It’s become quite the fad, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Weird fiction – and its cousin slipstream – is snug as a bug in the insecurities and inconsistencies of modern life. It is a genreless genre, rooted in feeling rather than techniques and conventions. It is sickening, fantastic, horrific, and strange, and always out of place, which is why it seems so fitting to 21st century readers.

There’s a resurgence in weird fiction: a new wave of the not-quite-sure-what-it-is, and its not the usual postmodernist convention-bending that we’ve seen so often atop the bestseller lists (though I’ll admit there can occasionally be some crossover).

[Let me also take this moment to say that I am definitely not a fan of China Miéville, but that’s a story for another time] 

Having apparently devoured the written word, the weird is now sinking its teeth into the digital world. Sneaking out of the covers of works like The Raw Shark Texts and House of Leaves into forums, videos, art, and codes. The copious amount of online myths and legends – or creepypasta – is a testimony to the weird’s symbiotic relationship to the Internet. For the first time in human history we have a worldwide system of communication, filled with more information than any one person could ever comprehend, what better place for the weird to reside?

But here’s the conundrum: the weird is the unknown, the strange, the creeping sense of unease that rests in the back of the skull. The modern weird is at once terrifying, and tamed. Cthulhu is the poster boy for weird fiction and cosmic horror, yet we turn him into action figures and hats. And not even creatures from beyond time and space can hold up a fight against big guns.

Do you see what I’m getting at?

Perhaps its just the nature of our time. We are accustomed to our technology, even if we are afraid of it. Cultures and ideas spread across the world at speeds that would have terrified Lovecraft even more than they did at his own time. Maybe weird fiction simply cannot exist in a modern world, with modern sensibilities. Maybe weird fiction is so utterly at odds with progressive thought that it cannot possibly survive.

But even these answers seem unsatisfactory

Sentience breeds fear. There is always an unknown, always an unanswered question, always a strange, unforeseeable future, and a stranger, indecipherable past. The weird and the strange aren’t going anywhere, and they cannot be tamed. Maybe this new generation of the bizarre is simply in its infant stages – struggling to separate itself from its curmudgeonly parents and grandparents. Perhaps it is merely asleep, waiting for the alignment of the stars to beckon it out of its slumber.

For that is not dead which can eternal lie. And, well, you know the rest.

The Case for Cases

Walking through a record store is always a pleasant experience for me. I’m not an analog fanboy, or a vinyl collector, but I enjoy having the opportunity to hold an album in my hand, to see the cover art firsthand, flip through the liner notes, touch the disk. It seems to me that the recent vinyl craze (which I have mixed feelings about) is also helping bring back unique covers.

As digitally distributed music has become more popular, bands have been faced with the dilemma of selling cheaply distributed music files rather than having people purchase more expensive CDs. The nostalgic return to vinyl has created a new demand for physical copies of albums, and therefore the return of the record case – which, due to its size and intention of protecting vinyl – has unique design elements. Simultaneously, many bands have begun selling “special edition” or “collector edition” albums with additions such as books, DVDs, backstage passes, or even props – not to mention unique cases and boxes for these items.

Putting aside the controversial statement of producing “special” and “collector” material, I’m very excited about the return of the physical case. Especially cases that are physically different to hold and interact with. Such “novelty” cases have been used for some time. Examples include Andy Warhol’s famous cover for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (with working zipper), Jethro Tull’s Thick As a Brick (with a 12-page newspaper for the cover), and Tool’s 10,000 Days (packaged with stereoscopic eyeglasses). Similar trends can be seen in film as well, with new “Director’s Cuts” and re-releases packaged with alternative covers, slipcases and booklets. The Criterion Collection produces a whole line of films with newly designed covers specifically for their release, often including other goodies as well.

Why am I excited by this? Because covers and cases are a medium themselves that are inherently tied to the work they are designed to protect. Cover art is intended to grab attention and sell records, yes, but it is also intended to convey the essence of the album. In a digital form one sees the cover art, yes, but it is removed from the music. It is not a whole package but scattered elements on a screen. In many cases the addition of liner notes (and any artwork contained therein) is removed, sometimes the art on the back of the cover is subject to the same fate.

Even if the vinyl fad fades away, I hope people will be able to appreciate the uniqueness and necessity of the physical case. Digital distribution is cheap and effective, and I’m not going to say that we should reject it, I wouldn’t even reject the possibility that digital “cases” may be a possible alternative, but something beautiful will be lost if the medium of the case fades into obscurity.

The Cinema of Dreams

In my World Cinema class we’ve been studying Russian film from the 1920s, specifically Russian montage. Reading the essays of Eisenstein and Vertov started me thinking (as I am apt to do) and I began to wonder about my own theory of film. Obviously I’m not a very experienced filmmaker, but I dabble, and any amount of filmmaking demands thought and therefore theory.

I’m not sure if I can effectively lay out my manifesto, if you can call it that. It might be more aptly described as a rough draft, or even just a hodgepodge of ideas. In the future I may be so pretentious as to write a paper on these thoughts, but for now I will sum them up here.

Many filmmakers and critics have noted that, through its unique use of editing, lighting, closeup, and frame, that film offers a greater element of fantasy than other mediums like theater and painting, or even writing. To paraphrase Bálazs: the film, as a collection of images, is composed of the real. Only the components of making a scene before filming, coupled with the act of editing make film an art. When images are watched on a scree, moving in quick succession, we accept them as they are. The painting is seen as a still, unchanging, its reality contained within a frame, examined fro the outside. The written form is taken one word at a time, analyzed, compartmentalized from word, to sentence, paragraph, chapter and volume. Theater is seen in acts, conforming to the stage. Where the process of editing manipulates time and space, melding individual shots and frames into one scene, the theater must remain separated from the viewer by the space of the stage.

This is not to detract from other mediums, but rather to point out that film has a unique form – and this form must be utilized. Film’s ability to manipulate space and time while maintaining continuity within the mind of the viewer presents it a unique opportunity in the realm of the fantastic. That is, when the viewer sees the unreal in a film – whether it be a monster, an impossible action sequence, or a remarkable location – it is accepted as reality. But when the film ends, the mind must reject the fantastic that was witnessed only moments before. This gives rise to what I call the tragedy of the dream, and, conversely, the tragedy of the nightmare.

In a dream (a good one at least), we feel we are part of the fantastic. The unreal usurps the real through the use of familiar images that are mixed and matched in unusual and taboo ways. When we awake the true reality comes into conflict with the dream reality. We feel a sense of tragedy upon realizing that the fantasy we experienced is at odds with our reality. This is the tragedy of the dream.

In a nightmare a similar process is at work, but the tragedy is reversed. When we awake from a nightmare we feel relief that the reality of the dream is at odds with our own reality, but we then experience tragedy when we see that our reality contains vestiges of the nightmare. If I awake from a nightmare where I am chased down an endless, dark hallway, I shall reasonably  experience fear when I encounter a dark hallway in real life.

A similar process occurs when we are in the movies. When we see a movie that we enjoy we are drawn into its reality. If we envy that reality we feel the tragedy of the dream when the movie ends. We attempt to rebuild and reenact the fantasy within our own world. If we fear the world of the film we experience the tragedy of the nightmare, and we seek to remove the elements of the fantasy that exist in our reality.

This is film’s greatest power, and its greatest danger. To utilize the tragedy of the dream and the tragedy of the nightmare allows us to rewrite our reality and work towards common goals. But it also has the chance to be abused, to create propaganda and turn us against our own world. Worse yet, there is a growing trend in film to make special effects as “real” as possible – moving closer and closer towards virtual reality. If this trend continues we risk erasing the tragedy, and embracing fantasy wholeheartedly as reality itself. We must embrace fantasy for what it is. We must embrace the tragedy it provides us. Films cannot move towards reality in good conscience.