The Machine Stops by E.M. ForsterThis story came to my attention thanks to my friend Noah’s review of it on Goodreads. The story is in the public domain, so I quickly looked it up.

“The Machine Stops” is about

Ah, you know what? No. I’m not going to say anything. Sorry, this isn’t a review. I can’t talk about any aspect of it without giving it away. Just go read it. Now. 

(more…)

41cwxxvN-bL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Nola Fran Evie is a story about four women, each trying to make a difference in the world. The three title characters are all players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, organized in the 1940s. The three starred for the Racine Belles, until the league folded when taken over by businessman Harvey Shaw.

The three women go their separate ways from there, until they meet again at a Cubs game–Nola bringing her baseball-loving son, Fran photographing the action, and Evie as the unhappy wife of the same Harvey Shaw.

From there, their lives intertwine in strange ways, as each tries to cope with life after baseball in her own way, amidst the conventions and prejudices of the 1950s. Nola juggles single motherhood with work, Fran wrestles to control her own fiery emotions, and Evie struggles with her loveless marriage.

All three women’s stories are told through flashbacks, prompted by items found in an old handbag by the fourth woman, Jacks, another baseball lover who discovers them as she is in the process of boxing up her belongings for a trans-Atlantic move.

The different threads blend together well, and each of the main characters is clearly and distinctly drawn, each with a vivid personality that makes them enjoyable and memorable. I especially enjoyed the interactions between Nola and her son.

In the end, all three characters’ stories tie together in a logical and satisfying way. And Jacks, too, finds herself fitting into their tale as well.

This book is more driven by characters than by plot, but the crisp prose and witty dialogue make it all flow smoothly; the story never drags, and the jumps between different time periods are handled well.

I was expecting the book would feature more baseball than it actually does, but after roughly the opening quarter of the novel, the sport becomes secondary–though still important as a way of bringing people together, and as a metaphor. (To be honest, this was kind of a relief to me–I’m not a big fan of the game. But even I could appreciate how well-written the baseball portions were.)

There are memorable lines throughout Nola Fran Evie, and I was consistently impressed by Skrabanek’s skill at memorable descriptions. Even details like clothes and household objects–which I sometimes find myself skimming past in books by big-name authors–are described with wit and care.

This is a charming, well-crafted book with lots of period atmosphere and vivid characters. Nola, Fran and Evie feel like real people, so much so that I suspect different readers will react differently to each one. Fran’s personality really stood out to me–she reminded me of someone I once knew, and Skrabanek explores her psychology so well that I felt as if I understood my old acquaintance better for having read the book. That is a testament to the quality of the writing.

Lovers of feminist literary and historical fiction, take note: Nola Fran Evie deserves your attention.

Point Lookout is unbelievably creepy, from the minute you get off the ferry into the deserted, foggy island, with its crumbling amusement park, cemeteries, bands of deformed, mad hill-people trying to kill you, and omnipresent strange hanging dolls and mutilated toys.

It only gets creepier from there, as you discover haunted mansions with an evil brain-in-a-jar, ritualistic sacrifice altars, evidence of plots set in motion by communist spies, a mysterious cult in a church, a quest to recover a forbidden Necronomiconical tome and a chilling hallucinogenic sequence set deep in the swamps. 

(Oh, and there’s also wrecked ship called the USS Ozymandias. You can imagine how I loved that.)

Playing Point Lookout, I more than once wondered about the story behind it—there are so many unnerving, disturbing sights that I honestly worry about the mental state of the team that made it. And I haven’t even gotten to what makes it creepiest yet, but let me hold off on that for the nonce. 

While I generally don’t like the stereotype of mobs of evil, in-bred hillbillies—always seemed a little offensive to rural people, to me—I have to admit it absolutely works here. They’re a lot more unsettling than the straight-up zombie skeletons that are also roaming around, because they’re almost human. And it’s not really explained how they got this way, either—there are a number of possibilities.

The main quest of the game is actually its weakest point, but that’s par for the course in Bethesda games. I still enjoyed infiltrating the cult.

The real strength of Bethesda has always been its environmental design, and is that ever on display here. There are a thousand little stories you can piece together from inspecting various aspects of world around you, and pretty much all of them are the stuff of nightmares. The Homestead Motel alone is terrifying.

I also like the puzzle to get into the sinister mansion, even though I had to look up how to do it online, which normally annoys me to no end.

All right, time to lay my cards on the table: yes, I know Point Lookout is actually an add-on for Fallout 3, which, while fun, is actually kind of a stupid game. The writing in the main game is abysmal, as Shamus Young has cataloged in meticulous detail.

The thing is, the general idiocy of Fallout 3 actually makes Point Lookout better. I wasn’t expecting to go from a relatively generic, incoherently-written post-apocalypse into a foggy swamp of psychosexual Lovecraftian horror. But that’s what happened, and the sheer surprise of it added to the fear.

It would, in my opinion, have been the ultimate horror-writer move to create Fallout 3 simply as a vehicle to get people to play Point Lookout. Fallout 3 is the red balloon, Point Lookout is Pennywise. I’ve said it a million times: the best horror doesn’t announce itself; rather, it sneaks in, presents itself as something unassuming and inviting, and then springs the trap. That was the way of M.R. James, and while he was an incredibly screwed-up person, he was a great horror writer. Because every time you start reading one of his stories, you think, This doesn’t seem so bad.  And then…

Not that I think that’s what the designers set out to do. I’m pretty sure Bethesda didn’t take the trouble of getting the Fallout license just to mess with people. My point is just that this is how you deliver a good scary experience: first, change your audience’s expectations, so they’re not expecting to be scared.

I don’t watch a lot of TV shows. The time commitment involved is usually too much for me. Cultural touchstones like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and now Game of Thrones have all passed me by. (Part of it is I don’t want to pay for extra channels, and part of it is I don’t usually go for stories about gangsters or medieval fantasy, unless Chris Avellone is writing them.)

But there are a few television shows that I’ve seen every episode of, and one is the 1970s series Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter. It’s not because I made a particular effort to see it, but simply because the reruns happened to be on when I eat dinner. And so, quite by accident, I became an avid Wonder Woman viewer over the years.

Actually, let me clarify about the title: the first season is called Wonder Woman. Seasons 2 and 3 are The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. Season 1 is set during World War II when Wonder Woman, often disguised as her alter-ego, Yeoman Diana Prince, battles against various Nazi plots. The subsequent seasons all follow Wonder Woman into the 1970s America, where, disguised as Agent Diana Prince, of the fictional IADC (Inter-Agency Defense Command) she does battle with a host of villains, whose goals range from stealing nuclear weapons to rigging football games.

In both eras, Diana takes her orders* from a man named Steve Trevor, a Major in the WWII-era, and subsequently his son (who I think is sometimes referred to as “Colonel”) in the 1970s. Both Steve Trevors are portrayed by Lyle Waggoner.

Most of the episodes are, to be honest, incredibly silly. The special effects are laughable—lasers appear as straight single-color lines drawn on the picture, while Wonder Woman’s travels in the invisible plane are, well:

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15717439

The plots are hardly better. I’ve often said one sure sign—maybe even surer than shark-jumping itself—that a show’s writers are out of ideas is the introduction of plots involving gorillas, chimps, monkeys, and other non-human primates. Wonder Woman resorted to that in episode six of season one.

The shows have a certain so-bad-it’s-good charm, but not in the way, say, Adam West’s Batman did. That show seemed like everyone involved was aware of how ridiculous the thing was, and everything was done with a wink and a nod to the audience that yes, they knew this was simply comic-book absurdity.

Wonder Woman is different. Everybody in it seems so earnest. Steve has genuine concern in his voice when he tells Dr. Jaffe to bring Diana safely back from the town where aliens are mysteriously taking people’s bodies over by means of large silver pyramids in order to catch a shape-shifting space criminal. None of the actors play things for laughs, even when they probably should. 

The other thing I enjoy is the relationship between Diana and Steve. Carter and Waggoner have good chemistry, and the characters seem to genuinely respect one another’s abilities. (Granted, the idea that Steve somehow fails to notice that Diana Prince is Wonder Woman is even more laughable than the comparable setup with Superman—Diana doesn’t even wear glasses all the time!)

It doesn’t hurt that Carter and Waggoner are both attractive—Carter was “Miss World USA” and Waggoner posed for Playgirl. The entertainment industry learned long ago that you can put on silly productions with bad writing if you give the audience some eye candy. 

And this brings me to perhaps the most notable aspect of the show: the costumes. In particular, the hats.

I am fascinated by hats, and Diana wears tons of them. I’m not sure if women actually dressed like this in the 1970s, but look at these:

wonderwoman0318_diana01
(All images re-used under Fair Use for the purpose of criticism)

If that doesn’t say super-spy, I don’t know what does. Here are a few more:

Sadly, the other characters’ costumes are not this strong. Here for example is some villainous alien, that I think was designed as a cheap Darth Vader knock-off:

All right, all right; I’ll get back to matters of substance. Like I said, the plots are generally hilariously bad—you get the impression that most of the villains were people who applied for jobs as villains in Roger Moore-era James Bond flicks, but were turned away for being too stupid. And even so, it takes Diana and Steve (and sometimes their comical 1970s conception of what a supercomputer is) to piece together the ludicrous plot.

But there are a few episodes that aren’t completely idiotic. “The Man Who Made Volcanoes” is interesting, because of the battling among three rival groups of agents: Diana representing the USA, some Soviet spies, and two Chinese commandoes, all of whom are assuming the others are responsible for the outbreak of man-made volcano attacks. And in the end, it turns out it’s none of the above, but a rogue scientist. (Played by Roddy McDowall, who was such a good guest villain they brought him back again as a different character) I like the idea of a bunch of competing interest groups, rather than just one “bad guy.”

“The Murderous Missile” is also kind of cool. It has almost a horror vibe to it at the beginning, when Diana stumbles across a town full of people acting like friendly-yet-oddly-sinister yokels, who keep feigning incompetence to keep her from leaving. The denouement is incredibly stupid, and the special effects are bogus as hell, but I liked the premise.

But the best episode, and indeed the only one that I would go so far as to call actually good, has to be “The Richest Man in the World.” I love the whole concept here—the eponymous rich man is kidnapped and robbed to allow criminals to take over his weapons company. A recluse, he’s unable to prove to anyone that he is really the wealthy CEO he claims to be. He meets a poor orphan boy, and together, they work with Wonder Woman to piece together who betrayed him.

Jeremy Slate, the actor playing the rich guy, is really good–he’s arrogant, yet charming, and bewildered at having to do everyday things like driving. And the story is actually pretty coherent—my only complaint is that Wonder Woman herself is about as irrelevant to the plot as Indiana Jones is to Raiders of the Lost Ark. But just as Indy is so cool with his fedora and whip, so Diana is cool in her grey hat and driving glasses.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 56 stupid episodes to three decent-to-pretty-good ones. Not an awesome record, I admit. And if your only on-screen experience of Wonder Woman is the recent film, you’d probably watch this show and be disappointed. The movie approached things with a more serious, realistic sensibility, to say nothing of the advances in special effects made over the decades. 

But unlike a lot of people these days, I generally don’t take superheroes that seriously. Some mostly-harmless, stupid fun is all I expect from them. “Gritty, dark, superhero film,” still sounds like an oxymoron to me. Which is not to say that I don’t think superhero stories can have emotional depth, but just that it works better if that emotional depth is of the uplifting sort. 

And hats. Hats are always a plus.

beret
I can’t resist a woman in uniform.

*I think it tells you something about the gender politics of television in the 1970s, that yes, we could have a woman be an immortal superhuman, but only if she had a male boss. 

unpublishablesThe first thing to know about The Unpublishables is that when you open it in the Kindle reader, you need to make sure and scroll back to see the epigraph. At least for me, Kindle wants to launch right into Chapter 1 without showing this important front matter. But you don’t want to miss this epigraph; it really sets the tone.

Now then…

The Unpublishables is narrated by a man named Daniel, who is the only person in America immune to a virus sweeping the country. This virus attacks the mind, and causes its victims to become obsessed with writing novels.

Everywhere Daniel goes, people ask him, “What’s your novel about?” He gradually learns that the best way of deflecting this question is to ask them about theirs—which of course they’re only too happy to tell him about. 

But one day, Daniel meets a young woman named Abigail at lunch, and the two of them instantly connect over their shared love of books—reading them, rather than writing them. In a desperate effort to impress Abigail—and if nothing else, have a reason to talk to her again despite her pretentious, arrogant boyfriend, Chadwick—Daniel realizes he must write a novel. On the spur of the moment, he chooses  life among the homeless of San Francisco as his subject

The best way to write about the homeless, Daniel soon decides, is to become one of them. And so he becomes a vagrant, living with nothing but the clothes on his back and begging for food and money. And in doing so, he encounters a wide variety of strange characters, from a woman who resembles a witch to a sinister figure known simply as “The Knifeman,” who has a penchant for telling gruesome historical stories with a curious sci-fi twist.

The Unpublishables is, of course, a comic novel, and as in his previous efforts, Goats shows first-rate skill at writing lines that make you laugh out loud. Early dialogues are Wodehousian, in more ways than one. The descriptions are vivid and memorable. And the books–oh, the books! The way he writes about books is beautiful. I’ll talk more about this later, but if you’re in a hurry and have to make a purchase decision by the end of this paragraph, know that you can buy The Unpublishables for the descriptions of books alone and you’ll be a happy customer. 

And although it’s mainly comic, The Unpublishables has some emotionally powerful moments that are not played for laughs. Some of the passages about the homeless are truly moving. In particular, one section where Daniel ponders why so many homeless people talk to themselves. It’s a moment of genuine compassion and empathy, as well as being a really surprising idea that I had never considered before. But you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean.

The descriptions of life on the street are properly gritty. Goats is never afraid to go into detail to describe every facet of what it means to live without money, food, or shelter; no matter how unpleasant it may be. It’s raw and tough to read at times, but the grit balances the wit, and it makes the whole thing feel real, instead of just a simple comedic puppet show.

Does Daniel succeed in his quest to write a novel and win Abigail away from her obnoxious partner? Well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! This book is hot off the presses (figuratively speaking; it’s on Kindle) and hardly anyone has had a chance to write about it yet. I know I typically spoil things, with appropriate warnings, but in this case I’m just not going to talk about the ending. It’s one thing to spoil a Hollywood film or a novel by a famous author—when I do that, I know that there are probably dozens if not hundreds of spoiler-free reviews out there that people could read instead. But as of this writing, if you want to read about The Unpublishables, you pretty much have to read this review.  In fact… well, never mind, I’ll come back to that.

The book is, by the author’s own admission, a bit weird. If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know that “weird” is not considered a bad thing here. In fact, as often as not, it’s a compliment. So yes, the book is decidedly weird; but in all the right ways. 

Also, there are a handful of typos—but way fewer than in many indie books. And their existence is even lampshaded by the narrator, who asks us to “pretend” they are stylistic choices, and not simply the result of him being a sloppy writer.   This is one of the things I love about the Daniel character; he’s a bit of an unreliable narrator, but he tells you so up front.  This sums him up pretty well. Oh, and one other technical note: there’s a formatting issue in the form of a completely blank page between two chapters. (This might be a result of reading in landscape mode, which seems to do odd things to the ereader.)

All right, now let’s get to the heart of things.  I promised on Twitter that I was going to break one of my own rules of writing reviews. What did I mean by that? 

Once in a while, when you read about fiction, you’ll see something referred to as “significant” or “important.”  For instance, Wikipedia informs us that James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the “most important works of modernist literature.”

Anytime I see words like “important” or “significant” used in regards to fiction, it sends up a major red flag. Why, I ask, are people describing this thing as “important” when the word “good” is shorter to write and easier to say? If somebody wants me to read a book, they had better tell me “It’s good,” and if instead they come and tell me, “Read this book, it’s important,” it seems to me like they are hiding something. They may be trying to induce me to read a book that is not good for some nefarious reason. Thus, I try never to say something is “important” when “good” will do just as well.

But that isn’t to say that a book can’t be both “important” and “good.” In my opinion, To Kill a Mockingbird is both important, due to its relationship to the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and also just generally good as a story that is enjoyable to read. (In my opinion, if it had been bad, it would never have been widely-read enough to become important.)

So, first and foremost I want, to make it very clear that The Unpublishables is a good book. It’s a fun story, with memorable characters and witty descriptions. That’s really all a book needs to be to be good, in my opinion.

But I also feel that it is an important book as well—and not because of its depiction of homelessness, even though that is another very strong element of the novel.

As I said above, throughout his travels, Daniel meets all kinds of odd characters, all of whom have written or are writing a book. Each of them is an example of some aspect of indie publishing. The Unpublishables is a fine title, but the book might as easily have been called The People You Meet in Indie Publishing; because so many different quirks of the world of independent writers are covered, from ham-fisted author-insertion to blatant plagiarism. At one point, Daniel comments that more people are writing books than have read one.

Daniel finds fragments of manuscripts of historical fiction, hears summaries of wild science fiction and fantasy adventures, and meets shameless self-promoters.  Some of the aspiring writers he meets are ground into despair after all the rejections, while others are still brimming with optimism. One of them even hides his own novel in the shelves at a used bookstore, in the hopes someone will find it and read it.

The book pokes a lot of fun at indie authors, and at times, Daniel makes some biting commentaries about the whole process of writing and publishing. I was quite amused by it, and at the same time, as Jack Point from The Yeomen of the Guard would say, “My laughter had an echo that was grim,” because, like the targets of Point’s jokes, I recognized a little of myself in the figure being roasted.

Now, you might say, “How could he make fun of indie authors?!? What a rotten thing to do; kicking a person when they’re down like that!” Well, that’s the thing: Goats isn’t laughing at us; he’s laughing at himself—obviously; because he’s an indie author, too. And it is so abundantly clear that all of the jokes in this book are born of affection, rather than malice, that it’s impossible to be offended by them. 

Paul Graham once wrote that “To have a sense of humor is to be strong.”  The humor of The Unpublishables is the humor of strength, the humor that comes from people who can laugh at themselves because, to be blunt, they know they’re doing something important. After all, Goats wrote a whole book that made fun of the process of writing books. One assumes he must have really believed in what he was doing to essentially be half-laughing at himself while doing it.

And that’s what I mean when I say The Unpublishables is an “important” book: it’s important to the indie author community.  To us. I say “us” because I am an indie author, and I know that nearly everyone who reads this blog is as well. 

The appreciation Daniel (and by extension, Goats) has for books is evident throughout The Unpublishables–both books in physical form and as a medium for telling stories, for capturing some part of a person’s life. Underlying all the friendly ribbing about the oddities of the indie author world is a deep love for the written word. Plenty of all-time great authors and books are referenced throughout, and indeed, one of them is used as the catalyst for bringing the hero and the heroine together at the beginning.

That’s what I ultimately got out of The Unpublishables: at its core, it’s about the power of books—reading them, discussing them, and writing them—to bring people together; to let people share a bit of themselves with someone else. A book is a hard thing to create, but when it is done out of love, something magical happens. 

And this is where you come in. Again, I know most of you reading this are indie authors, and many of you have blogs of your own. I highly encourage you to read this book, and to write about it. Partially, I’m doing this for selfish reasons: there are things in here I want to talk about with other people—including some alternate interpretations of certain elements, as well as how different parts all tie into the theme. But it’s hard to talk about that when I don’t know anyone else who has read the book.

But apart from my own self-interested reasons, I think this book is important for indie authors. Because it’s by an indie author, and it’s about an indie author, and in some sense, it tells the story of all indie authors. 

Hardly anybody likes H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Dreams in the Witch House. Even H.P. Lovecraft didn’t like it, and subsequent readers have generally considered it one of his worst.

And, by pretty much any objective measure, it’s  a bad story. For one thing, there’s no surprise or subtlety to it—Lovecraft beats the reader over the head with the legend of Keziah Mason, and her rat-like familiar, Brown Jenkin. I think he was trying for ambiguity, but he was failing spectacularly at it. Walter Gilman, the doomed protagonist of the tale, should be able to see what’s coming a mile away; the reader certainly can. 

In a good weird tale, there should be some question as to whether the supernatural doings are real, or simply a hallucination by the protagonist. Lovecraft was trying to do this, but he didn’t. The evidence favoring the supernatural explanation is simply overwhelming. And needlessly drawn out. When an author tells you on page one that a witch and a rat-like monster are up to no good, the final page should contain a bigger pay-off than “a witch and a rat-like monster were up to no good.”

Lovecraft, I’ve come to realize, had no idea how to hint or imply something. This is a problem when writing horror, because it is a genre that depends heavily on subtle hinting. And Lovecraft kind of knew this, but he couldn’t do it. So what he would do instead is write this:

“Eventually there had been a hint of vast, leaping shadows, of a monstrous, half-acoustic pulsing, and of the thin, monotonous piping of an unseen flute—but that was all. Gilman decided he had picked up that last conception from what he had read in the Necronomicon about the mindless entity Azathoth, which rules all time and space from a black throne at the centre of Chaos.”

He seems to have believed that by prefacing an outright statement with “A hint of…” that it would count as an actual hint.

Also, there are a number of lines that just sound downright silly. Like:

“What made the students shake their heads was his sober theory that a man might—given mathematical knowledge admittedly beyond all likelihood of human acquirement—step deliberately from the earth to any other celestial body which might lie at one of an infinity of specific points in the cosmic pattern.

Such a step, he said, would require only two stages; first, a passage out of the three-dimensional sphere we know, and second, a passage back to the three-dimensional sphere at another point, perhaps one of infinite remoteness.”

It sounds so easy! And then we have this masterful bit of understatement:

“May Eve was Walpurgis Night, when hell’s blackest evil roamed the earth and all the slaves of Satan gathered for nameless rites and deeds. It was always a very bad time in Arkham…”

In addition to these technical flaws, Witch House is one of Lovecraft’s nastiest tales. The sacrifice scene at the end is grotesque, and of course, it wouldn’t be Lovecraft without casual racial bigotry. What’s truly odd is that Lovecraft creates a story in which the poor, un-educated, and superstitious immigrants are clearly right in their beliefs, and the WASP upper-class is demonstrably wrong, and yet Lovecraft likes the WASPs better anyway.

It’s a badly-constructed, badly-written, and badly-paced tale, with a heavy emphasis on gore and none of the subtlety that Lovecraft at his best was capable of. And it comes with a side-serving of class arrogance and racial hatred. (BTW, I am a descendant of Eastern-European immigrants to the northeast United States, rather like the ones Lovecraft treats with utter contempt in this tale. Who are you calling “clod-like,” HPL?)

So, why do I re-read this horrible little tale every April?

Part of it is, I read it for the first time as a college student during spring term, and so I had some instant sympathy for poor Walter Gilman. Studying for exams is stressful enough without being abducted by long-dead witches and taken into other dimensions.

Also, Gilman is, in his own way, kind of heroic. He does ultimately fight back against the evil cosmic forces, and to some extent succeeds in thwarting them—even if it doesn’t work out well for him. Unusually for a Lovecraft character, he doesn’t just observe the horror and go mad, but takes some sort of corrective action. I kind of like that, even though the scene itself is six different kinds of ugly. (Also: why does the witch recoil from the crucifix? Oops, did someone have to undercut his entire atheistic literary philosophy in order to make his plot resolve itself?) 

And finally, this book introduced me to Walpurgis Night, which is a great way for a Halloween-obsessed lunatic such as myself to get a mid-year fix. It’s not the really strong stuff, but it can keep me going for those long six months.

In his essay Good Bad Books, George Orwell defined same as “The kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished… They form pleasant patches in one’s memory, quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments, but they hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life.”

This is what Lovecraft and a lot of the “pulp” writers of the era were doing. There aren’t any pretensions about these kinds of stories. (Indeed, since Lovecraft never intended to publish Witch House, he had no reason to be pretentious.) 

That’s probably why stories like Witch House, that suck by standard measures, still have this quality of being re-readable. They’re authentic—when you read Lovecraft, you’re not getting what editors and publishers thought was a good book. You’re getting undiluted “Yog-Sothothery,” as Lovecraft called his peculiar style, straight from the bottle. 

It’s almost like Lovecraft, in spite of his prejudices and unwillingness to curb his own bad writing habits, was able to tap in to some core principles that make for a good horror story.

Describing Keziah Mason, Lovecraft wrote:

[S]ome circumstance had more or less suddenly given a mediocre old woman of the Seventeenth Century an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter.

Similarly, it seems as if some circumstance gave a mediocre man of the 20th century an insight into writing horror that is perhaps beyond many modern practitioners of the genre.

This is just a video of a bonfire I had on April 30 a couple years ago. Not really related, but do you know how hard it is to find free images associated with Walpurgis Night?

51p0X2UPjgLMy dad has told me for years I have to read this book, along with another of Roberts’ novels, Oliver Wiswell. Well, Wiswell isn’t on Kindle, but Rabble in Arms is. So the choice of which to buy seemed obvious, although as it turned out, it might have been better to go with a physical copy–more on that later.

Rabble in Arms is set in the early years of the American Revolution, and is told from the perspective of Peter Merrill, an American patriot and merchant who joins the rebelling colonists.

Peter’s brother Nathaniel also joins, but is constantly distracted by Marie de Sabrevois, a beautiful but devious woman who is obviously (to everyone except Nathaniel) a spy for Britain. Peter himself falls in love with her niece, Ellen.

Repeatedly, Peter is thwarted in his efforts to court Ellen by the actions of de Sabrevois, and likewise his attempts to look after his brother are thwarted by the same. Well, that, and the war gets in the way too, as the Americans–represented by a colorful cast of supporting characters, highlighted by the one-dimensional-but-still-funny Doc Means–continually find themselves struggling against the mighty British Empire, thanks to a blundering, out-of-touch Congress and a number of incompetent, bureaucratic officers.

Patriot officers are depicted as a pretty worthless bunch in Rabble in Arms, with one significant exception: General Benedict Arnold. Indeed, it became pretty clear early on that Peter’s romance with Ellen, and Marie’s seduction of Nathaniel, and all the antics of Doc Means and the other supporting characters, are just filler sub-plots. What Roberts was really out to do with this book was rehabilitate General Arnold’s image. (Peter at one point tells the reader, “It has not been my purpose… to tell the story of Benedict Arnold.” But he’s lying.)

And frankly, it seems like Roberts has some legitimate points. How many people know that Arnold was wounded fighting for the Americans in the invasion of Quebec? For that matter, how many people know the Americans invaded Quebec? The aftermath of this invasion forms the first act of Rabble in Arms, and Arnold’s heroics are the highlight. The fact that the action was a defeat for the revolutionaries is laid at the feet of other officers.

Likewise, in the American retreat, Arnold is portrayed as a master strategist and brave warrior. Presumably, Roberts made his fictional narrator a ship captain so he could have a front row seat for Arnold’s feats of daring at the Battle of Valcour Island.

Roberts seems to be on firm factual ground here. Wikipedia (As my statistics teacher used to sarcastically call it, “the most valid source ever.”) summarizes: “The invasion of Quebec ended as a disaster for the Americans, but Arnold’s actions on the retreat from Quebec and his improvised navy on Lake Champlain were widely credited with delaying a full-scale British counter thrust until 1777.”

After Valcour Island, our heroes are captured by a tribe of Native Americans, who later turn them over to the British, who then turn them back over to the Native Americans again. If anyone is wondering how the Native Americans are portrayed, I guess I’d say, about like you’d expect from a book written in 1933.

All the characters who aren’t actual historical figures are basically stock caricatures. The only two female characters who say anything of substance are the pure, sweet, innocent Ellen and the evil, manipulative temptress Marie. The Madonna/Whore complex is strong with this one!

After more misadventures, one odd interlude with a captured Hessian soldier, and more problems caused by Marie, Peter makes it back in time to witness Arnold win the battles of Saratoga, despite being stripped of official authority by the bumbling General Gates.

Again, Roberts has the facts on his side here: Arnold indeed performed bravely at Saratoga, and was again wounded–shot in the same leg as in Quebec.

The penultimate chapter is a summary of why Peter will always defend Arnold, in spite of his subsequent treason. Indeed, Peter (who is clearly acting as a surrogate for Roberts here) even defends Arnold’s betrayal, arguing that Arnold came to view Congress as a greater threat to the United States than the British Empire.

While I was doing research for this review, I came across something interesting: Benedict Arnold’s open letter “to the Inhabitants of America.” That’s right; back in 1780, shortly after his betrayal, Arnold tried to explain himself to the people he’d just sold out. I recommend reading the whole thing. But here’s the key bit:

I anticipate your question, Was not the war a defensive one, until the French joined in the combination? I answer, that I thought so. You will add, Was it not afterwards necessary, till the separation of the British empire was complete? By no means; in contending for the welfare of my country, I am free to declare my opinion, that this end attained, all strife should have ceased…

…In the firm persuasion, therefore, that the private judgement of an individual citizen of this country is as free from all conventional restraints, since as before the insidious offers of France, I preferred those from Great Britain…

If we take Arnold at his word–which admittedly is a dangerous thing to do with the most infamous traitor in history–he was defecting because he didn’t like Congress making an alliance with France. That’s pretty ironic, considering it was the Arnold-led victory at Saratoga that persuaded the French to enter the war.

Throughout Rabble in Arms, Peter makes repeated reference to the Continental Congress giving undeserved military ranks to French officers, passing over more qualified Americans to do it. He doesn’t explicitly connect the dots between that and Arnold’s betrayal too closely, but the pieces fit.

(For what it’s worth, the most famous Frenchman to fight for the American colonies, the Marquis de Lafayette, went to France to secure military support for the Americans in January 1779. Arnold set the wheels of his betrayal in motion in May 1779. Make of it what you will.)

I’m not saying it’s accurate, but Roberts laid out a plausible case here: Arnold feels Congress is overlooking him. Congress is casting their lot with the French. Arnold doesn’t like Congress, and he doesn’t like the French. So, he thinks America is better off negotiating with the British. Arnold was perhaps the first (but not the last) American patriot who believed he had to fight the government in order to save the country!

Except…

Arnold wasn’t just betraying Congress. He was betraying the men who had fought with and for him, and the families of the men who died for him. He was betraying the trust Washington had shown in him by giving him command of West Point. (While Arnold was generally disliked and unpopular among his comrades, Washington seems to have been one of the few people who actually liked and respected him.)

This is where the “Arnold-had-to-betray-America-in-order-to-save-it” theory breaks down a bit, and other possible reasons for his betrayal start to loom large.

Despite his best efforts, Roberts’ novel comes up short in persuading me that Arnold’s treason was justified. Arnold was no doubt a brave soldier, and quite possibly a brilliant strategist. He may well have been badly treated by men not half as skilled as he was. But I just can’t buy the conclusion that Arnold did it, as the narrator claims, “to fight a greater threat than England.”

So, Rabble in Arms doesn’t fully succeed as pro-Arnold propaganda, but it makes a solid effort. Arnold gets all the best lines, and when he’s not around, I found myself longing for him to get back into the story. The rest of the book is pretty standard historical adventure type stuff, though it’s not without its charms. Roberts could make the occasional keen insight. For instance:

“The vainer a man is, the tighter he clings to his preconceived notions; he’s afraid of someone accusing him of changing his mind, which would show he hadn’t been the all-wise possessor of all knowledge from the moment of his birth.”

All in all, it’s a decent book if you like historical fiction and can stand a tale that takes a–well, let’s just say, a very old-fashioned approach to portraying its non-white and female characters. It’s actually pretty mild by the standards of its time, really. I’ve read other books from the period that just ooze racism and misogyny; this is more patronizing.

And now, a word of caution for those who buy it on Kindle, as I did. Whatever software they used to scan the pages of the physical copy to make the electronic version has some flaws. Quite often, a word was misinterpreted by the scanner, and an incorrect word inserted in its place. It was usually possible to figure out the correct word from the context–“lie,” for example, was throughout rendered as either “he” or “be”–but this got annoying after a while. I could never be sure if some characters’ names were really what they appeared to be. It would have actually made for an interesting meta-literary device had it been done intentionally and in another context–I was always second guessing what I read, like an unreliable narrator story.

I wouldn’t say this ruined the book for me, but it was irritating, and some readers may prefer to spring for the physical version and avoid the hassle of things like figuring out that when a character appears to say “TU he,” what he’s actually saying is “I’ll lie.”

220px-The_Wind,_2019_Theatrical_Release_Poster

[As is my wont, I’ll be spoiling everything. Although as you will see, I’m not the only one doing that…]

The Wind is a psychological horror western. The opening scene tells you that this is not going to be a light movie: Elizabeth Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) emerges from her remote cabin, covered in blood and carrying a stillborn baby, while two men stand solemnly outside. The scene then cuts to the men burying the baby and its mother, who is missing a portion of her head. 

There is no dialogue in this scene; just three grim-faced people and two corpses, and the howling wind in a harsh and desolate landscape. The first lines don’t come until the next scene, when one of the men—Elizabeth’s husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman)—tells her that he and the widower Gideon (Dylan McTee) will be gone for a few days, leaving her alone in her cabin. Elizabeth hardly responds to this, instead simply repeating “How did she get my gun?”

Elizabeth tries to go about her daily routine, but is constantly on edge. As she’s hanging laundry, she is attacked by wolves, forcing her to retreat into the house and shoot the wolves through the door. Or are they merely wolves? The scratches on the door seem awfully high, and strangely fit the shape of a human hand. Later, she finds a goat carcass with its side ripped out—and then encounters it again; seemingly healed and oddly threatening.

The film soon turns into something like a montage of flashbacks and flash-forwards, explaining how Elizabeth found herself in this situation. It moves around so much that I’m not going to try to summarize everything in the order the film shows it. I’ve seen some reviews that complained the flashbacks were confusing, but I didn’t have too much trouble following which scenes related to which. And even when I did, the disordered structure sometimes—with a big exception I’ll address later–makes the gradual revelations more interesting and powerful. It does, however, make the film hard to summarize.

Briefly, what seems to have transpired is this: Elizabeth and Isaac lived alone in their remote cabin. At some point, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, but he was stillborn. They make a grave marker for him with an “S” for “Samuel” carved in a stone. Later, Gideon and his wife Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) showed up, and although Isaac thinks them a bit “funny,” he and Elizabeth invite them over for dinner, where it quickly becomes clear that Gideon and Emma don’t really get along very well.

Emma has some strange ideas about the plains, which eventually become a superstitious fear of them.  She also has a great deal of admiration for Elizabeth and Isaac, both for their toughness and their kindness towards her and Gideon. 

Emma soon falls “ill”—meaning pregnant—and begins to behave strangely. At one point, she’s in such a state of fear over some unseen threat that Elizabeth advises Gideon to tie her to the bed. Emma reads from a mysterious little pamphlet about demons of the prairie, which includes the names of various such spirits. She also hints, ominously, to Elizabeth about her expected baby’s name, asking her to guess it. Elizabeth guesses “Gideon” and then “Samuel,” but neither is correct. After she guesses “Samuel,” Emma says “I’m not a monster.” This is probably the most significant point where the non-linear structure works in the film’s favor—we find out after this scene that Elizabeth’s stillborn was named Samuel. (The name Emma has in mind is, of course, Isaac.)

More strange things happen; both in the present and in the past. Emma believed there was “something out there” at night, and in the present, alone in her cabin, Elizabeth feels the same. An old preacher (Miles Anderson) arrives briefly, and Elizabeth hosts him for breakfast and then allows him to stay in the opposite cabin, telling him not to answer the door for anyone after dark.

Naturally, he arrives back at Elizabeth’s door in a panic that night, screaming that there is “something out there.” Elizabeth, despite her own advice, lets him in, and he asks her why she stays here, since she knows of the evil presence that haunts the land. He then says “Surely Emma would have…” and this horrifies Elizabeth, since she never mentioned the existence of Emma to him. At this point, the man turns into a glassy-eyed monster, and Elizabeth flees the cabin in terror, finding the preacher’s body on the ground the next day.

Elizabeth is increasingly haunted by visions of Emma, or rather, Emma’s corpse-like ghost, appearing to her and saying, “Lizzy, where’s your gun?” She is further disturbed when, on finding Emma’s diary, the entries seem to hint that her child was fathered by Isaac.

Finally, Isaac returns, finding Elizabeth on the verge of a breakdown and contemplating suicide. He tries to comfort her, but soon begins to argue as she insists on the existence of an evil presence. He finds the same pamphlet about demons that he had previously burned, and becomes infuriated with Elizabeth, ultimately tying her to the bed just as she advised Gideon to do to his wife.

As Isaac and Elizabeth fight, she cuts herself free of the ties with a shard of glass and…

Okay, folks, here’s the Big Spoiler! At least, I think it is. I pretty much figured it out five minutes in, when it was clear just how dark this movie was, but anyway…

In a flashback, we see that the pregnant Emma was behaving strangely one night, screaming wildly in the rain, and Elizabeth shot her after wrestling her gun away from her. In the present, as Isaac realizes this, Elizabeth struggles free of her bonds and stabs Isaac in the throat, killing him.

She stumbles out of the cabin, and into the field, and here we get the flashback that made the least sense to me—the reverend, back in his kindly preacher persona, handing Elizabeth the pamphlet about demons. I have no idea when or where in the timeline this was supposed to have occurred. In any case, the film ends with Elizabeth lying wounded on the empty plains.

So, that’s the bare-bones outline, but I’m not sure how useful it is. I said at the beginning the disordered narrative didn’t confuse me too much, but as I wrote this, I realize maybe that isn’t completely true. There were actually a couple scenes where I didn’t know the chronology. That is, I thought I did when I watched it, but thinking about it some more, I’m now not sure they occurred when I thought they did.

There is clearly supposed to be a strong unreliable narrator component to this story. Is Elizabeth just making all this up because she’s paranoid? Does she kill Emma because she’s jealous that she is having a child, and hers died? Or because she suspects Emma is having an affair with Isaac? And if the latter, is she right, or is she imagining all of it? Are any of the supernatural elements real, or are they all just in Elizabeth’s head? Isaac seems to think so, although it seems very hard to account for most of Emma’s behavior by chalking it all up to Elizabeth being crazy.

At one point, Elizabeth is shown reading to the pregnant Emma from The Mysteries of Udolpho, the classic Gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe. I suspect this is actually a sort of double-reference: it’s both a nod to the tale itself, and also to Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s satire of Gothic fiction, whose protagonist imagines herself to be in such supernatural tales as Udolpho, though in fact she is not. I think something similar is supposed to be going on in The Wind. 

There were definitely moments when I was worried it was going to turn into It Comes At Night all over again. (Spoiler Alert: In It Comes At Night, nothing, in fact, comes at night.) But ultimately it wasn’t that; not quite. It’s much closer to The Haunting, where it’s truly ambiguous whether there are supernatural beings or if the heroine is just suffering from some combination of grief and serious psychosexual disorder. You could make a case either way, really.

I happened to stumble across this movie completely by chance while checking for some other film at my local theater. I saw the combination of horror and western and was immediately intrigued. Then I started reading the reviews, which described it as a revisionist western with a female lead, a spare, tight script, lots of long silences that say a lot, and gorgeously desolate landscapes that give an overall feeling of isolation. Some also alluded to the way the story is gradually (some complained too gradually) revealed through flashbacks.

All of this could also describe Jane Got a Gun, which is one of my favorite films ever. I absolutely love movies in remote desert settings, and female protagonists are also a plus. The element that differentiates this from Jane, of course, is that it’s a psychological horror flick rather than a romantic thriller. And psychological horror with unreliable narrators is very much my cup of tea.

I know not many of my readers are gamers, but there’s a term from gaming lingo that fits almost perfectly here: modding. At its most extreme, modding is when people build essentially a new game using the underlying assets—physics engines, graphics, music, etc.–from some existing game, often completely changing the plot and tone. The Wind is about what you would get if you did a horror mod of Jane Got a Gun.

And, like most video game mods, it’s kind of rough in places. In particular, the acting here is pretty uneven: Gerard is fairly good, Zukerman (who reminded me a little of Humphrey Bogart) is good, Telles is decent if a little wooden, and McTee…

Well, I’m not going to say he’s a bad actor. Maybe he was following his directions, or maybe the scenes were shot in a hurry, but the upshot is that his line readings are really flat. At first, I wondered if maybe this was deliberate, but I don’t think it is. However, he’s not in it that much.

Wind+Demon+cardThe cinematography, on the other hand, was great. I know some reviewers, who apparently have the attention spans of espresso-drinking hummingbirds, thought it was “boring” and “slow,” but I personally can’t get enough B-roll of the wind howling over desert hills or shutters creaking in the twilight. The film’s only 86 minutes long, for heaven’s sake. And this demon pamphlet! This may sound silly, but seeing it in the trailer was what ultimately convinced me I had to watch this movie. I haven’t seen such creepy drawings in cinema since the sketches at the beginning of The Mothman Prophecies.

Also, there’s a bit of a behind-the-scenes mystery here, in that some people claim this is a remake of a 1928 silent film, also called The Wind, based on a 1925 novel of the same name. I haven’t seen the 1928 film, nor read the book, but seemingly they are also about a woman in a relationship that goes disastrously wrong, and who is driven mad by the howling wind on remote prairies. The demonic element, however, is not mentioned in the synopses of the earlier works. If anyone has seen/read either of these, I’d be interested to know what you think.

Now then, let’s get to the heart of the matter: Did I like this thing or not?

I love unreliable narrators and ambiguity in horror. It’s one of the coolest tricks in storytelling, in my opinion.

But, having seen and written quite a lot of deliberately ambiguous stories by now, I’ve come to realize there’s a dark side to this technique. And no, I don’t mean the dark side that unreliable narrators usually turn out to be bad people.

It is very easy for ambiguity and unreliable narration to become the last refuge of a bad storyteller. Does your plot not make a whole lot of sense? Are your characters’ motivations maybe not so clearly defined, even in your own mind? Hey presto! You can just introduce ambiguity and unreliable narration and suddenly, these flaws disappear. It was supposed to be like that all along! It’s not that your plot doesn’t make sense; it’s that it’s “ambiguous” and “raises questions.” 

I know this because I myself have been guilty of it in some of my short stories. I thought I was so clever for doing it; but I think in reality this can easily become a subconscious crutch a writer leans on to avoid having to actually flesh out the characters, or iron out problems with the story.

And don’t get me wrong: when it’s done well, there’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling of realizing you’ve been reading or watching a different story than you thought you were. The gold standard for me is The Repairer of Reputations, but there are plenty of other examples. 

But like anything that’s so effective, it’s really hard to do it well. Put a single foot wrong, and you make a mess of the whole thing. The Wind does a lot of things right, but it makes a few mistakes—the big one being that it seems so weird from the outset that you’re already primed to be on edge and question what you’re seeing. It walks up and kicks you in the gut and says “All right; maggots! This is a dark and terrifying movie you’re about to watch!”

The best horror doesn’t do that. It seduces you at first. It presents itself as a normal, even borderline cliché story that you’ve seen a thousand times before. And only then, once you think you know what you’re dealing with, does it start to mess with your mind.

I think this is the unarticulated problem at the root of all the complaints about the non-linearity of the plot. The problem isn’t that it’s out of order as such, but that it starts off with a scene that is gruesome, unsettling, and ambiguous. The audience immediately starts asking questions, and—the film not being willing to provide any easy answers—starts speculating about what exactly happened here. And they know, given how grim the tone is, that anything, however horrible, is a possibility.

If you’re planning to pull some twist on the audience, you don’t want them asking questions at the beginning. You want them thinking they’ve got it all figured out, and then you start to slowly make them realize that they don’t.

All that said, this isn’t a bad movie. It’s bold and different, and many of the individual scare scenes are quite well done. There was one jump scare that got me; and I’m pretty hardened against such things. 

And the atmosphere! I know I went on about it already, but these bleak deserts just never get old for me. If anything, I wish the filmmakers had given us more of these windswept plains, let us hear more wolves baying in the distance, until we can’t help but believe that yes, of course there is something evil out there—how could there not be? An extra ten minutes of that at the outset might have made the whole thing work better.

I guess I’d say I was disappointed with the film, but that’s only because I think there’s potential here for something really awesome, and this only scratched the surface. It’s so rare to get a film that even tries to do some of these things, though.

The Wind is not a film for everybody. There’s violence, one (totally unnecessary) sex scene, a childbirth scene that’s gut-wrenching to watch, and a ton of disturbing images. (It’s not exactly shown onscreen, but the film strongly implies how Elizabeth removed Emma’s infant from her after her death.) I have a very strong aversion to films with violence against women, which made some scenes tough to watch.

But if you can stomach all of that, and you like creepy, unsettling psychological horror in harsh, barren settings, it’s worth a watch.

Ah, I am a very Narcissus!

I was going to do this as a Twitter thread, but then I realized it’s too meandering for that. It started with this:

Then I realized that the references to Tennyson’s poem come in the scenes I blogged about here–scenes that already had bothered me with their similarity, until I realized the one in The Directorate is way, way better than the one in Majestic World.

I have to be honest with you guys: I look back at The Start of the Majestic World and it seems pretty amateurish to me. There are elements I like (obviously) but the book as a whole I think isn’t nearly as good as I could do now. I toyed with the idea of doing a revised version last year, but I couldn’t figure out a way to coherently “revise” it–it was easier to just start from scratch and make up a new story with a similar vibe. (It’s called 1NG4.)

I’m greatly improved as a writer since Majestic World, which on balance makes me happy-it feels good to know that you’re improving at something. But this leaves me conflicted about whether to even keep it up for sale. Part of me feels self-conscious about leaving something that’s not really my “A” game out there for sale. (It was my 2014 self’s “A” game, but not up to 2019’s standard.)

But I’m also sentimental about it. It was my first real attempt at long fiction, and some of the ideas in it have proven useful for future books. And I really, really appreciate all the encouragement and constructive criticism I got from readers. If not for you folks, none of my subsequent books would have happened. Without Majestic World, there is no Directorate.

I hadn’t re-read The Directorate since about the time I published it, but the other day, I flipped through it to check something about the word count, for comparison to the project on which I’m currently working. I was a little nervous, since the first time I re-read Majestic World after letting some time pass, I was underwhelmed by my earlier work.

Re-reading parts of The Directorate, I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is good! No wonder I worked so hard on it.”

I’m not saying that to brag; I’m saying it to say that the way to improve as an author is to write, publish, and get feedback from readers. Including–especially!–negative feedback. There may be some things that you look back on and wince a little, but it’s worth it.

 

vox lux
Ah, dear readers, I have not been entirely forthright with you. For I saw Vox Lux before A Star Is Born. But I had to see the latter to know how it stacked up against the former, because the two films, released almost simultaneously, have drawn many comparisons.

And indeed, there are some striking similarities: both films are about a young woman who meets someone who helps her achieve musical stardom. Both films feature a fan being attacked in a restaurant for asking for a picture with a famous person. And both concern a star who, despite all their professional success, has demons of their own to battle.

When it comes to critical reception, of course, there’s no comparison: the critics loved A Star Is Born; they were lukewarm on Vox Lux. Likewise, at the box office, Star demolished Vox, by a score of approximately $432 million to $874,597.

And despite the superficial resemblance, they are very different kinds of films about very different things. In fact, part of the reason for the success of A Star Is Born could be that it’s easy to describe and summarize. What kind of a film is it? A romantic musical drama. What’s it about? A couple of musicians who fall in love while their careers are headed in opposite directions.

Meanwhile, what kind of film is Vox Lux? What’s it about?

Eh, well… we’ll get to that later. If you’re a regular here at Ruined Chapel,  you know that I like to take my time in these reviews. I view them rather like legal cases in which I have to slowly build the evidence for my final argument. And if you’re new to Ruined Chapel, you’re about to get a quintessential demonstration of what I mean.

Vox Lux begins with a school shooting in the year 1999. A lone gunman walks into a music class and opens fire. A 13-year-old girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is shot in the neck, and many of her classmates are killed.

Right off the bat; I have to say this opening is effective and disturbing. It’s clearly modeled on the Columbine attack, but nowadays, when we have become all too familiar with mass shootings, it evokes the horrors of many different atrocities. The setting is powerful, too; the idea of a sleepy, rundown little town being shattered by an attack on its children is… unnerving. Unnerving and all too real.

In the aftermath, we see Celeste crying with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) in the hospital, learning, slowly, to move on her own. Finally, with Ellie’s help, she performs a song they have written together, at a church vigil. It opens with the lyrics:

Hey, turn the light on
‘Cause I’ve got no one to show me the way.
Please, I will follow
‘Cause you’re my last hope, I’ll do anything you say

This is the chorus:

So teach me. Show me all you’ve got
And in your words, I will be wrapped up.
Speak to me, you’re my last hope
And I will say nothing and listen to your love.

I’m honestly not sure what’s supposed to rhyme with what here. “Got” with “up”? Or “up” with “love”? Or is it an an A/B/B/A rhyme scheme, where “got” is supposed to rhyme with “love”, and “up” with “hope”?

At any rate, these lyrics seem generic, banal, and trite. Which, to be clear, is a compliment, since that is how most real-life pop lyrics are.

Celeste quickly catches the eye of producers, and goes off to New York City (complete with a shot of the pre-9/11 skyline) to begin recording and to meet with a publicist (Jennifer Ehle). While the publicist tries to keep the young singer from getting her hopes up too high, Celeste’s manager (Jude Law) encourages her, and reminds her, as a way to keep her confidence up during recording sessions: “Imagine you’re alone, dancing in your room.”

Celeste and Ellie travel to Stockholm, and, in a seizure-inducing sequence narrated by Willem Dafoe, begin sampling a sex, drugs, and rock-n’-roll lifestyle. (There is also an interesting aside in the narration about how Stockholm became a center for the recording industry. The economist in me loved that; though I have no idea if it’s true.)

Celeste and Ellie party too hard, earning a rebuke from the manager, who grumbles “You kids are all the same.” After that, they jet off to Los Angeles to shoot a music video, and I have to pause here to say just how much I loved the establishing shot of L.A. at night–it radiates a sinister glow while the ominous heavy metal concert growls on the soundtrack. The ensuing strobe-light sequence nearly made me sick, but it was worth it.

In spite of the manager’s earlier warnings, Celeste sleeps with a heavy metal star after attending his concert. Lying together in bed, she tells him that the gunman who shot her listened to music like her lover performs, and tells him about dream she’s had ever since the attack, about going through a tunnel and seeing lifeless bodies inside. She also says she likes performing pop music because “I don’t want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.”

Shortly afterward, she is seen bursting into the manager’s hotel room, to find him and Ellie sharing a bed. Celeste is horrified at this, on top of the panic she is already experiencing on hearing that a plane has hit the World Trade Center.

The narrator intones that Celeste’s loss of innocence mirrors our own. This seems like a pretty trite line–it’s the sort of cliché that gets used whenever people are writing about a period of upheaval. But keep it in mind for later. Meanwhile, Celeste films her music video, in which she and her accompanying dancers wear shiny golden masks. She soon becomes a sensation, much to her and Ellie’s delight, and exactly as the manager was so sure she would.

And so ends Act I. (Which was titled “Genesis”) Act II, “Regenesis,” begins with a title card informing us that it is now 2017, and then we see another shooting: terrorists in gold masks like those Celeste wore in her video attacking a beach resort.

The manager goes to see Celeste to tell her the news, and prepare her for a press conference to take place before the upcoming concert and debut of her new album, Vox Lux. Celeste is now 31, and is now played by Natalie Portman.

Let me pause here and address the question of why I watch and review so many Natalie Portman movies, which some readers may have been wondering about. It began simply enough when, as a Star Wars-loving 11-year-old, I saw Attack of the Clones in 2002 and developed a huge crush on Senator Amidala. That’s a pretty common story, I think; I’ve had a number of people tell me the only way to enjoy Episode II is to have a crush on a cast member.

As a result, I started to follow Portman’s career. And while the schoolboy crush may have faded after a while, I began noticing something about her choice of roles: they are wildly different from each other, and moreover, the movies she is in are wildly different from one another–and from most anything else.

Some actors are content to just play variations of the same basic role in the same basic film over and over again. Not Portman. She’s in westerns and dystopian thrillers and romantic road movies.

And here’s the key thing: her movies always give me something to chew on. Some of them are great, some of them are awful, some of them are a mixed bag, but all of them have something unusual. As I wrote recently about Jackie: the best thing for a reviewer is something that’s just freaking weird. And Portman seems to actively seek out the weird.

Vox Lux is a case in point: just when you think you’ve got Portman pegged as an elegant, restrained actress who brings fragility and delicacy to her roles, she goes and plays a hyperactive, drug-addled, alcoholic, narcissistic pop diva with a New York accent and a foul mouth. The manic is still there, but the pixie and the dream girl, not so much.

Celeste, decked out in a punk-y hairdo and heavy make-up that makes her look much older than 31, is something of a wreck, railing at restaurant employees and sniping with journalists. Ellie has been taking care of Celeste’s teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy) and has brought her to the hotel to see her mother. Celeste  treats Ellie with total contempt, before marching past the paparazzi to take her daughter to lunch.

Over lunch–or rather, before lunch, since they ultimately get thrown out before they can eat–Celeste gives a rambling monologue touching on, among other things, her belief that Ellie is poisoning Albertine’s mind against her, her disgust that her daughter learned about her recent break-up from gossip magazines, and most incomprehensibly, this beauty, ostensibly about modern marketing:

“Their business model relies on their customer’s unshakable stupidity. And deep down we probably sense that–their intimate knowledge of our commitment to the lowest common denominator. It’s the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with every living thing that has some connection to the past… the past reeks too much of ugly old people and death.”

In short, Celeste seems rather unhinged. This is confirmed by more background that the narrator helpfully provides, saying that she is recovering from a recent episode of heavy drinking, as well as a car accident in which she injured a pedestrian.

The narrator also informs us that Albertine has been planning to tell her mother that she has recently lost her virginity. This news causes Celeste to lash out at Ellie when she returns to the hotel, viciously berating her sister for not taking better care of Albertine. Ellie tearfully reminds Celeste that she writes her songs, and threatens to reveal that fact to the public, but as Celeste says, “In this day and age, no one will care.”

Celeste then gives a bizarre press conference, in which, after perfunctory condemnations of violence and expressions of support for the victims, she says that, like the terrorists wearing her masks, she used to believe in God, too–when she was a child. The narrator adds the gloss that she speaks like the political figures of her era.

Afterwards, she goes to her hotel room, where she finds the manager embracing Albertine. She tells him to get away from her daughter, and dispatches Albertine with a note of apology to Ellie. She seems on the edge of a breakdown, as evidenced by her comment when she turns back and is surprised to see the manager still in the room: “Jesus Christ, I almost forgot you were there!” He tells her that Albertine wanted to see her father (presumably the musician Celeste slept with back in L.A.) but that he thinks that’s a bad idea.

She and the manager then snort drugs, drink whiskey, and finally stagger out of the room in an almost comical sequence. Celeste manages to somehow find her way to the convoy of vehicles transporting her to the concert. En route, she orders her driver to stop, and pulls Albertine out to the side of the road to kneel with her, in silent prayer, for “Everyone who’s suffering right now.”

They then continue on to the concert venue, where Celeste has another meltdown over… I’m not even sure what, to be honest. The manager ends up holding her in her dressing room, telling her to ignore Ellie, who finally makes him go away, and then cradles Celeste as she sobs incoherently about being “ugly”.

This ends Act II, and now begins the Finale.

I should mention that up to this point, the film felt very low budget–lots of handheld camera shots, and dingy, grimy interiors. Not Hollywood grimy, either; but the real thing–or so it felt, anyway. It gave the film an almost documentary-like feel.

The concert at the end is clearly where they spent most of their production budget. It’s a high-tech show with elaborate special effects and lots of extras. It seemed to me like a very good representation of a pop concert–which is to say, almost unbearable, as one who has never attended such a concert, or wanted to. Dancers in sparkling catsuits, lasers and pyrotechnics, flashing words on a huge screen, all while a synthesized voice shouts unintelligible lyrics. It looked like every Super Bowl halftime show that I’ve ever had the misfortune to glimpse.

Celeste’s performance seems to be a mash-up of allusions to real-life pop stars–she calls her fans “little angels,” she performs a song called “Firecracker,” and another one called “Private Girl in a Public World.”

And then the film just ends in mid-concert, after about twenty minutes of singing and dancing. Nothing happens after. The credits roll (in total silence) and the movie’s over.

Ah… well, actually; not quite. I omitted something. But it’s a spoiler. A big one. I, unfortunately, knew this spoiler going in, and didn’t get to experience the surprise for myself. And that’s too bad, because I would have liked to have seen it without knowing everything.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Think very carefully about whether you want to proceed beyond this point, because now we are going to get into the real meat of what Vox Lux is. If you want to skip that for now, just know that I think it’s an extremely dark film–especially the shocking violence at the beginning–and that it’s also a very, very interesting piece of social commentary, with great acting and writing. If you watch it, pay particular attention to the scene where Celeste has lunch with her daughter; it’s more important than it seems at first. Have fun!

==NOW ENTERING THE SPOILER ZONE==

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