Writer of fiction, poetry and essays.

I noticed on Audrey Driscoll’s blog that she has a widget that lets readers see a preview of the first book in her Herbert West series. I thought this was cool, and decided to do something similar with my book. So now, instead of just the cover image linking to the Amazon page, there’s a clickable preview of The Directorate embedded on the sidebar.

Now, based on the data I’ve gathered on sidebars and whether or not anyone looks at them, my hypothesis is that it will make absolutely no difference whatsoever to the number of clicks–let alone sales–that I get as a result of that widget.

But if my hypothesis is incorrect, that would be interesting to know, and possibly helpful not just to me, but to readers who have published ebooks of their own. If anything interesting comes of it, I’ll let you know.

Ocean EchoesI didn’t know what to expect from this book. Glancing at the categories and the description, it didn’t match any genre I was familiar with. I figured it would be a romance set on a scientific voyage. And it kind of is that, but there’s way more to it.

The book follows marine biologist Ellen Upton, an expert on jellyfish whose grant money is rapidly dwindling. In desperate need of a breakthrough to save her career, Ellen ventures out on a research ship into the Pacific, hoping to find something that will earn her more funding.

The majority of the novel is told from Ellen’s perspective, and in many ways, her plunge into the unknown depths of the ocean mirrors her journey into her own equally complex and mysterious psyche. I usually don’t like using such lit-crit terms, but that truly is what happens here, and what’s more, it works. It never feels like an overplayed metaphor, but rather an organic marriage of character and plot development.

Ellen has great difficulty feeling close to others, having gone through a painful break-up when her fiancé stole her research ideas for his own. Unwilling to trust others easily again, she loses herself in her work, much to the disappointment of Ryan, her loyal research assistant.

On the cruise, she meets other scientists and students, including one researcher whose skepticism of man-made climate change sparks a friendly rivalry. She and the other scientists also visit a small island populated with a tribe of welcoming natives, and a family whose patriarch has gone missing at sea. Ellen and Ryan later find him on another island that formerly housed a military installation.

The book is filled with strange vignettes that make Ellen’s experience feel more like a surreal journey into a mystical realm than a scientific expedition. From her encounter with a waiter who speaks of ghosts following her, to the magical rituals performed by the islanders, to the antics of one of the students on the expedition who has a penchant for dressing up as a gorilla, the book gradually builds a feeling of melancholy mystery woven from bizarre, dream-like incidents.

When Ellen finally makes the major discovery she has longed for, it is not a triumph, but rather a frightening experience—one that disturbs her so much she questions her own sanity. As did I, I’ll admit. I wondered if Ellen might be transforming into an “unreliable narrator” of sorts, though the book is written in the third-person.

Hurst’s prose throughout is haunting and hypnotic.  The tale unfolds at a slow pace, but the writing is filled with evocative descriptions and intriguing turns of phrase. At times, it reminded me of Steinbeck in the way it dwells upon seemingly minor things without ever becoming dull or tedious. Little details, like the apparent changing expressions of a rock face the islanders believe represents the moods of the sea, stick in the memory to create a beautifully odd atmosphere. (It reminded me of Mal, the demonic face in the trees in Patrick Prescott’s Human Sacrifices.)

Maybe it’s just because I saw the film adaptation so recently, but the book also put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Like VanderMeer’s nameless biologist, Ellen’s seemingly cold reserve and preference for biology over human interaction mask a wounded soul with deep emotional scars. And also like Annihilation, Ocean Echoes depicts nature as simultaneously dangerous, mysterious, and eerily beautiful; all while weaving an environmentalist warning of humanity’s potential to unwittingly cause unimaginable harm to our own planet.

Does the book have flaws? A few, yes. Some of the scientific exposition sounds a bit awkward as dialogue, and I swear that a couple times some background information about jellyfish was repeated almost verbatim. Also, the above-noted slow pace of the book may not be to every reader’s taste. If you have a strong preference for fast-paced action, it might not work for you, at least early on.

But even then, I still encourage you to give Ocean Echoes a try. It’s a weird, haunting, hypnotic mystery of a book, a love-letter to the ocean, written with respect for its dangers and fear for its fragility. When it rambles, it rambles in the way the best novels do—with love and understanding of its theme that commands the reader’s attention.

It’s very bold to write and publish a book that doesn’t easily fit into any pre-defined genre, and that goes double for an indie author. And yet some of the greatest works of fiction ever created defy categorization. So I admire Hurst tremendously for going through with it and taking the risk to write this mesmerizingly weird and thought-provoking tale. It may not always be what you expect—but then, what better reason could there be to read it?

The creator of the paranormal/conspiracy theory-themed radio show Coast to Coast AM passed away yesterday.

I enjoyed listening to Coast to Coast when Bell hosted. I hear the show has become politicized now, but in Bell’s time, it was focused on weird and otherworldly subjects instead of political ones. The government was always covering things up, but it was always assumed to be the whole government.

Needless to say, the show was great for a lover of weird fiction. Nothing gets the imagination going like listening to people telling ghost stories late at night, especially on or around Halloween.

The guests and callers seemed to be largely a mix of crazy people and hucksters. Maybe some of them really had seen unexplained phenomena, but it was never easy to tell who was who.

But Bell didn’t judge. He let his guests and callers speak their minds, and unless they were obviously lying as a prank, he wouldn’t silence them. I don’t know what Bell’s beliefs were, beyond the fact that he obviously had some general belief or interest in the paranormal and the supernatural. He would accept his guests and callers on their terms, and let them speak their minds.

I really admired Bell’s interviewing style–he wouldn’t talk over his guests or try to impose his own views on the subject at hand. He would just ask and let them have their say, even if he didn’t agree.

Now, you might argue that all of it was insane, and that Bell shouldn’t have given airtime to such outlandish claims in the first place. But part of what made his show great was the feeling of being able to kick around weird ideas. If you want to try to think of novel ideas, you have to be willing to think of things that sound crazy. And most of them are crazy, but a few might actually be useful.

You would think this sort of attitude would be more common now that we have social media, but in fact the opposite seems to be true. You generally don’t want to try discussing new ideas on Twitter, for example, because it can very quickly devolve into a back-and-forth of argument and ridicule. Instead of being liberating, the censorious nature of social media makes people more careful about what they say. (Unless of course they are a troll. Which creates the problem that thoughtful people are afraid to speak, and thoughtless people aren’t.)

When it was great, Coast to Coast reflected Bell’s personality: eccentric, but very independent and open-minded. Actually, these last two are probably the most important traits for a talk show host or interviewer: a willingness to admit that you don’t have all the answers, and to listen to things that most other people would automatically dismiss. It’s bound to take you to some pretty weird places, but it’s also a good way of learning new things.

More media personalities and hosts should study Bell’s style. If mainstream talk-shows were willing to approach politics and current events as thoughtfully as Bell approached subjects like cryptids and ghosts, they might be more informative.

This is a longish post, but it makes some important points. Important enough that I want to include an executive summary for those of you too busy to read it all:

  1. There are a lot of petty distractions in day-to-day life. Don’t get obsessed with them. Deal with them, by all means, but don’t ignore your loved ones at their expense.
  2. Writing about an experience is a great way to capture what was most important about it. You will realize things about it that you never would consciously notice otherwise. Writing stuff down, and sharing it with other people, might seem trivial, especially in the age of social media, but don’t underestimate its importance. It’s the most powerful tool we have for preserving who we are and what we care about.

Read on if you want my supporting evidence.

I met my dog Jack on a December day in 2005. My Mom and I were driving on a back country road, and he crossed the street in front of our car. I thought he was a coyote at first. Once we realized he was a dog, we assumed he belonged to someone in the area. When he was still there when we were on the way back, just waiting for someone to pick him up, we realized he’d been abandoned. Mom stopped the car, and I coaxed him in. He was scared, but I think the warmth convinced him to take a chance and get in. It was a snowy, chilly day.

I wasn’t a dog person—or really much of an animal person. But Jack was mostly German shepherd, and I decided I could train him up. Much of that winter, I spent walking him and our basset hound, Bart, around in the woods behind my parents’ house. I wrote this story about that time—I can remember thinking about it while walking with them. I also read Thomas Hardy’s books for the first time around then, and I remember discussing them with my mom while walking with the dogs.

At the time, I didn’t stop to think about any of that stuff—I was mostly focused on studying for the SAT. Walking dogs, reading books, and writing stories were just my leisure time. I had to do well on the SAT in order to get in to college, so it was my main focus.

In retrospect, I realize that what was really important then was the time I spent with my mother, with Jack and Bart, and writing. Those are the things that I’ll remember most, and the ones I’ll wish I could do again. I can’t even remember what I got on the SAT.

I’m not saying tests don’t matter, but they don’t matter near as much as they seem to in the moment. At the time, it was the defining event of my life. Looking back, it was just a hoop to jump through to determine what new series of hoops I would jump through. One way or another, I’d have probably managed to jump through enough hoops to keep going. The world will always give you hoops.

***

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been hearing about how important adaptability is. It’s the sort of thing people say so much I tune it out. What I only recently figured out is why it’s important: because if you are adaptable, you know you can probably navigate whatever series of hoops life throws at you. Which gives you the confidence not to get so hung up on one particular hoop that it drives you to distraction.

As a teenager, I wasn’t smart enough to understand this. “Adaptability” was a meaningless phrase applied to successful people, like “clutch” is to athletes who win big games or “populist” is to virtually all non-incumbent politicians. It was only later that I realized what it really meant: that you had enough faith in your general abilities that you would never become consumed trying to get one thing right.

There are some things in life that are worth being consumed with getting right, of course. But they’re rarely the ones we actually do become consumed with. When I think about it, for everything that I wish I’d focused on more, I usually realize that at the time, there was some other, vastly less important thing that I was focusing on instead.

I tweeted about Paul Graham’s essay “Life is Short” the other day. What he says in there may seem obvious to many people—as he himself admits, saying “life is short” is a cliché. But the way he describes it, breaks it down into quantifiable shortness, resonated with me. And it resonates more and more with the passage of time, especially the part where he points out all the things that life is too short for, and all of them are things that people easily find themselves focusing on.

Maybe these are lessons everyone has to learn as they get older. Lord knows that if I didn’t appreciate the important things in life, it wasn’t for lack of my elders telling me I should. Maybe it’s inevitable that everyone takes things for granted when they’re young. The world seems like it’s always been a certain way, so the mind instinctively assumes it will continue to be that way. And anecdotes and second-hand information won’t alter the perception that the world is a steady-state—only living long enough to see it change can do that.

But I think it’s only partially innate. Environment and upbringing also play a role, in the sense that when you’re young, you get told a lot about what you “should” be doing. In fact, some of the same people who told me to appreciate things also told me to focus on getting ready for college and a career.

And this is probably good, on balance. Children need to be made to do certain things, or else they’ll make bad choices. If you had left ten-year-old me to my own devices, I would have done nothing except eat candy and play video games.

16-year-old me was getting closer to striking the right balance. Thanks to my (his? our?) parents, he was splitting his time between what he needed to do to prepare to earn a living and what he truly liked to do. The only problem was, he didn’t fully appreciate the importance of having the freedom to do the latter.

***

Looking back, I wish I’d been blogging then. I could have documented everything I did at the time, rather than waiting and reporting it now, when it’s just a grainy recollection from long-term storage. Writing about your experiences forces you to get to the heart of what they really mean to you, and it reveals things you noticed without even consciously realizing it. Not to mention that it allows you to share a moment with other people, which—for me, anyway—somehow makes it more consequential. Maybe you’ve never had a dog, or a chance to hike in the woods. But now you’ve at least heard about it from somebody who did.

Again, this is something that wouldn’t seem important to a teenager, but when you write about something, you’re effectively making your experience live on, letting other people in on a moment they otherwise would never experience.

I forgot to mention one other thing I did as a teenager (longtime readers know it already): listened to lots of Gilbert and Sullivan. I had all the 1950s D’Oyly Carte recordings of the Savoy Operas. In fact, Jack was named after Jack Point, the ill-fated jester in The Yeomen of the Guard. Martyn Green played him in those recordings, and in the 1953 film, The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan:

I read Green’s autobiography as a teenager. It’s funny–here was a man semi-famous in the 1940s and ‘50s for playing characters written in the late 1800s, and I was reading his memoir in the early 2000s.

And—as absolutely weird as I know this sounds—I feel like I knew the guy. He died in 1975, but I still listen to his voice and read his words. This is why I like history generally—there is something awesome, in the most profound sense of the word, about the way learning history lets the past live on. I’m not much for belief in the supernatural, but it’s the rational equivalent of being a medium: you channel the thoughts of long-dead minds.

I have two major points to make in writing this essay. One is the same as the point of Graham’s essay: to tell you to savor the things—and especially the people and animals–that matter the most in your life. Someday they’ll be gone, and you’ll wish you’d spent more time with them, instead of worrying about ephemeral things.

The second point is both a means of savoring and of commemorating: write about the things you care about. Your family, your friends, your pets… write it down in some form. It can even be fictionalized, if you want. Alter names and places if it makes you feel more comfortable, as long as it keeps the core feeling of your experience. Ideally, write for some audience besides yourself, just because that will force you recall the experience as best you can. And by sharing it, it allows it to endure.

Most older people probably already grasp this. I’m really writing this for younger people, teenagers like I was, who don’t understand why they need to appreciate life. Well, I can’t make you appreciate it, any more than the adults around me could when I was your age. But I think I can help you savor it, and keep it for later. So maybe one day, you can look back and revisit it. And, even better, you can share it with people who weren’t there, and they can get a sense of who you are, and what you care about.

My dog Jack died today. I am writing this in his memory, and also in the hope that it will encourage people not to make the same mistakes I did. There’s no way to not miss someone you care about after they die, but you can make sure that you got everything you could out of knowing them, and to make it count for something.

Write about the stuff you care about. Record it to share with people who couldn’t experience it with you. It’s not the same as getting to relive your happiest moments again and again, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got.

'Tis Himself
Me and Jack, out for a stroll in the woods. April, 2017

516XMGMHmwL._AC_US218_The Prize is a fast-paced medical thriller with a compelling plot: Dr. Pam Weller has made a Nobel-worthy breakthrough in Alzheimer’s disease research, finding a drug with the potential to cure it. But a more senior researcher in the same field, the ambitious Professor Eric Prescott, will go to any lengths to steal her discovery and gain the Nobel Prize for himself.

And when I say any lengths, I absolutely do mean any—even illegal and immoral methods are on the table for Prescott in his quest to satisfy his ambition. The only thing Pam has to help her against his machinations are her own wits and the help of her boyfriend Jake, a former FBI agent.

So much of the book hinges on its plot that I don’t want to give away too much here. What I found most interesting is how it presents the field of medical research. The researchers rarely seem to think about the implications of curing Alzheimer’s in terms of what it means for humanity at large. For them—both Weller and Prescott—it is a personal challenge with personal rewards. The difference is that Weller is fundamentally an honest person, whereas Prescott is not.

The author is a medical researcher himself, and his experience clearly shows: issues that might seem trivial to the layman, like questions of which author is listed first on a research paper and the details of tenure review processes, take on extreme importance for many of the characters. He captures the nitty-gritty details of research and its associated bureaucratic logistics very well.

My only criticisms of the book are these: first, some chapters are written from the villain’s point of view as he executes his plan, which takes away the suspense. When we already know what he has done, it makes it less exciting when the good characters uncover it. (On the other hand, it was interesting to explore his motivations and see the twinges of guilt he feels as he commits his crimes.)

Second, some of the dialogue was a little awkward and contained lots of exposition. I sympathize with this—it’s very hard to write dialogue that both sounds natural and conveys the information the readers needs to have. This is especially true for a story set in a highly-specialized field like medical research, where there is lots of jargon the characters would presumably know, but that the reader may not.

But these issues didn’t seriously detract from my enjoyment of the book. The Prize is fast-paced and easy to read. If you like medical thrillers, or really thrillers in general, I recommend giving it a try. It will make you look at every press release and news report you hear about “research breakthroughs” in a new light.

For April Fools’ Day, I had a little fun over on my Twitter account, tweeting as my “assistant”/evil cousin “Waberthold Gambrel”. (I based the name on the Nintendo character, Waluigi, rival of Luigi.) I also tweaked my profile picture a little.

I’ve deleted the tweets now, but I saved a screenshot so Waberthold’s brief-but-spectacular (some would say Scaramucci-esque) career can be commemorated.

wabertholds tweets

Happy April Fools’ Day!

SCENE: INT.–OFFICE–DAY. I am discovered sitting at my computer, eating a granola bar, with an unopened box of cookies on my desk.

(Enter INTERN)

INTERN

Can I have a cookie?

ME

Sure.

(He opens the box and takes a cookie. Enter CO-WORKER)

CO-WORKER (to ME)

Can I look through your files?

ME

Yeah.

(CO-WORKER turns back to door, looks through file cabinet. Exit INTERN.)

CO-WORKER

All these files are a mess! It’s never been cleaned up since the guy who used to have your job. It was in great shape before he came.

(Enter INTERN, unseen by CO-WORKER)

CO-WORKER (Cont’d)

That idiot who was in here was so stupid.

INTERN

Hey, I’m right here!

ME

No, not you–he means the guy who used to have my job.

INTERN

Oh. (pause) Can I have another cookie?

ME

Sure.

CO-WORKER

These files are such a mess!

INTERN

Why do you have these cookies? You don’t eat food.

ME

I’m eating granola right now.

INTERN

I mean not this kind of food.

CO-WORKER (who has been grumbling about files the entire time)

You should have seen what it used to be like!

INTERN (To ME)

Oh, yeah, you did say you used to be fat.

ME

No, no–he means what the file system used to be like!

INTERN

Oh.

(Exit CO-WORKER, still grumbling, having apparently not found the file. Pause.)

INTERN

Can I have another cookie?

(Curtain.)

220px-Far_Cry_5_boxshot
I’m not reviewing this game. I’m reviewing the reviews of it.

I haven’t played it. I probably won’t play it. I haven’t played a Far Cry game in years. You can read my thoughts on Far Cry 2 here. My sense is that not much has changed about the series since then.

For those who don’t know: Far Cry 5 is set in Montana, and the plot involves a doomsday cult of survivalist “preppers”. I don’t know much beyond that, but I gather it follows the standard Far Cry formula of a big open world for the player to run around in, getting in gunfights and blowing stuff up.

The marketing for the game has hyped the political aspects of the plot, and generated lots of controversy as a result.

The reviews I’ve read, however, have almost all complained that the game doesn’t have any real political message, saying things like “it plays it too safe” and “doesn’t want to offend people”. I get the sense a lot of people are disappointed in Ubisoft for not dialing the political commentary up to 11.

I admit, once I learned it was going to be just another open-world mayhem thing, with no major political message, I also lost interest in it. But I can’t blame Ubisoft for making that decision. If you think about it, they hardly had a choice.

Far Cry games are about people in extreme environments, fighting to survive against hordes of enemies with a vast array of deadly weapons. There is no clear morality in the world of Far Cry, save the Law of the Jungle. So if you play these games, it means you want to role-play surviving in a savage world of death and destruction.

Survivalists, doomsday preppers, and militia types are doing the same thing. They’re just acting out this fantasy, as opposed to playing a virtual simulation of it. In gaming lingo, they’re Live-Action Role-Playing, or “LARP-ing”.

So Ubisoft couldn’t go full bore political satire against survivalist/militia-types without also attacking their target audience. For those saying that Far Cry 5 should attack people who fetishize wilderness survival and military hardware: Who exactly do you think is buying this $60 simulation of over-the-top violence and destruction?

Is it possible for a game to criticize its audience? Yes, I have seen it done once: Spec Ops: The Line presented itself as a standard-issue military shooter, only to turn everything on its head and morph into a mind-bending satire of the genre that forced the player to question why they play these things at all.

But Spec Ops was not a huge money-maker, and Ubisoft is not going to alienate a huge portion of its audience for the sake of making a clever satire. The majority of audiences do not want to be satirized. They want to be entertained. It would be kind of like writing a detective novel where the detective fails to catch the killer specifically because he spends too much time reading detective novels.

“Form ever follows function” wrote the architect Louis Sullivan, and it’s a good principle for design in any medium. Because if you try to make a game whose function (satire of gun-loving survivalists) is directly opposed to its form (a simulation of gun-loving survivalism), the customers who want the form are going to be upset, and the customers who want the function probably aren’t going to buy it in the first place.

pexels-photo-394377.jpeg

Well, I do. Anytime I find a new blogger who seems interesting, the first thing I do is look at their archives and category lists to see what else they’ve written. It’s fun to stumble across someone who has addressed a subject that interests me.

However, I suspect I am in the minority. When I asked for advice on redesigning this blog, quite a few of my readers and fellow bloggers said they rarely look at sidebars, and from all indications, few of their readers look at the sidebars on their blogs. And my impression from my traffic stats is that visitors almost never look back through the archives or browse a particular category. And never mind the “ads”, which is effectively what the book icons are. My hunch is that people have been trained by internet marketing tactics to automatically ignore anything that looks like an ad.

Given that, is it worth having these sidebars if only a small percentage of visitors use them? It seems like a waste of space for the majority of users. And yet almost all blogs have them, including some very widely-read ones.

I admit, I have a slightly irrational attachment to my sidebars—they represent a gateway to nine years’ worth of writing, and I’d be reluctant to lose that unless readers say it actively harms the site’s usability.

But I still can’t help wondering if that space could be used better. Devoting 35% of the blog to content that 80-90% of users ignore seems inefficient.

The_Death_of_Stalin
A truly great poster! (via Wikipedia)

What a crazy idea, to make a comedy about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But there is something about the absurdity of the overly-bureaucratized communist mass-murder machine that lends itself to dark humor—the petty logistical concerns and office politics familiar to white-collar workers everywhere, combined with the matters of life and death that concern a government, particularly a totalitarian one.

The film definitely plays this weird juxtaposition to the hilt right from the opening scene, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the manager of a concert broadcast live over the radio to demand a recording of it. When the manager learns there is no recording, he frantically tries to reassemble the orchestra to perform it again. The piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) initially refuses, but ultimately gives in when bribed. After the performance is finished, she places an insulting note to the dictator inside the record sleeve.

Intercut with this are scenes of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of Stalin’s secret police, dispatching his men to seize people from their homes and torture them in secret prisons. Beria holds immense power in the government, and when Stalin dies—on reading the note Maria has written—Beria is the first into his office, hastily removing important documents before other members of the Central Committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), arrive.

They are reluctant to pronounce him dead, and even the doctors hastily assembled to examine him are hesitant to give their assessment. When they finally do, the Committee proceeds with Georgy Malenkov nominally in charge, but with all of the Committee members, Khrushchev and Beria in particular, jockeying for power.

Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), arrive for their father’s funeral. Vasily repeatedly launches into drunken rages, attacks guards and makes wild threats. Beria keeps Khrushchev busy dealing with these matters while he moves to consolidate his power by putting the city under the control of the secret police, increases his popularity by pausing arrests, and seizes control of the train system, preventing people from entering the city.

Beria also reveals that he has the note that Maria wrote to Stalin. She is an acquaintance of Khrushchev’s, and Beria uses this to threaten Khrushchev, implying that he will use the note to incriminate both of them should Khrushchev try to cross him.

In frustration, Khrushchev orders that trains to Moscow resume running, causing people to enter the city and be shot by Beria’s secret police. The Committee argues over whether Beria or his lower-level officers should be blamed for this.

Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives in Moscow, annoyed to find his army confined to barracks. Khrushchev secretly strikes a deal with Zhukov to help him remove Beria from power during Stalin’s funeral.  Zhukov agrees, on the condition that Khrushchev has the support of the entire Committee, which Krushchev manages to secure by bluffing that he has Malenkov’s backing.

At a Committee meeting after the funeral, Khrushchev signals Zhukov and his men to storm the room and arrest Beria. After much badgering from Khrushchev, Malenkov reluctantly signs off on the summary trial and execution of Beria.

The film ends with Khrushchev watching Maria play at a concert while Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) looks ominously over his shoulder.

It’s an odd movie, with scenes of slapstick comedy (the Committee members awkwardly transporting Stalin’s body from the floor to his bed) mixed with more subtle satire, as in the sequences depicting Committee meetings, and one unforgettable scene in which Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are speaking contemptuously of Molotov’s presumed-dead wife Polina, who was arrested as a traitor to the Party, only to change their tone mid-sentence to singing her praises as Beria appears with her in tow, having released her from prison to secure Molotov’s loyalty.

The humor throughout is very, very dark: for example, there is a running gag in the scenes in the secret police prisons where we repeatedly hear prisoners off-screen exclaiming “Long Live Comrade Stalin!” followed by a gunshot.

But in addition to the sometimes over-the-top satire, the plot is that of a very tight and coherent political thriller, as Khrushchev and Beria joust for power. I went in expecting it to paint all the Soviet elites as villains in equal measure—and they certainly all do some nasty things—but in my opinion the film pretty firmly sides with Khrushchev as the hero and Beria as the villain. The former is depicted as vulgar and a bit corrupt, but reasonably well-meaning. (He reminded me, in both looks and manner, of a Don Rickles character.) It’s impossible not to root for him over Beria, who, besides all his other crimes as head of the secret police, is a sexual predator of the most evil sort. It is altogether fitting and satisfying that the most graphically violent death in the film is Beria’s execution.

As you might expect, the film is very controversial, and was banned in Russia and former Soviet States. A member of the Russian Culture Ministry stated: “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.”

I can’t speak to the hymn, the orders, or the medals, but I will say that while Zhukov is certainly a caricature (he’s played by Jason Isaacs, whose hammy acting  works much better here than in Harry Potter), for me, he was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, after Khrushchev and Maria.

I would like to see a historian specializing in Soviet history do a thorough examination of what is and isn’t accurate in this movie. This article mentions some inaccuracies—notably, that Beria’s downfall was more protracted than the hasty arrest and execution depicted in the film. But that’s the sort of change that can be excused for the sake of the drama. I don’t know much about the Soviet Union post-World War II, but on cursory scanning of Wikipedia entries about the people and events depicted, I was surprised (and quite often disturbed) to learn how much of it was accurate.

Of course, the mark of a really good work of historical fiction is that it’s not just about the time period depicted, but that it contains observations about human nature that are relevant to the present-day. This is why, for example, the historical dramas of Shakespeare are still read and performed today.

So does The Death of Stalin contain any interesting lessons beneath the caricatures of historical enemies of Western capitalism and farcical depictions of Soviet state ceremonies? It’s hard to say. Maybe there is something about the dehumanizing effect that power has upon both those who wield it and those upon whom they exercise it. But that has been pretty well picked-over by people like George Orwell. The absurdity of bureaucrats administering lethal force? Joseph Heller covered that. So I’m not sure this picture brings anything new to the table in that regard.

Would I recommend seeing it? I don’t know. If you’re a Soviet history buff, it might be interesting to see what they got right and what they got wrong. If you like your comedy extremely black, then it might be worth a watch. But if you prefer uplifting cinema, or if you don’t like violence, or if you are offended by swearing, or–above all else– if one of your relatives worked for the Soviet Secret Police, then you should probably skip it.