The Floating Opera

floating opera1

Novel * John Barth * Comedic Nihilism * 1956


Most of the time, when one thinks of the 1950’s in the United States, the word “subversive” probably doesn’t come up much. That’s not the narrative we’re used to, after all. If you take the wide-view, popular conception of culture in the 20th century, it’s largely broken down by decade. It goes roughly like this:

1900-1910: Olden days, who knows? Factories and shit.

1911-1920: Still olden days, pretty sure there was a war or something but no big deal. Funny hats.

1921-1930: Roaring Twenties! Flappers and jazz and The Great Gatsby! Bootleg booze and whatnot.

1931-1940: The Great Depression, as noted in The Grapes of Wrath. Everything is black and white still.

1941-1950: THE WAR. You know, the good one where we saved the day. Everyone wears fedoras and drives large black Fords. Pinstripes are the shit. Mostly black and white but some grainy color.

1951-1960: No wars that anyone bothers to remember. America is rich and white and everyone respects their (male) elders and now everyone lives in the suburbs where life is perfect. Still black and white, but TV and movies are wholesome. Automobiles are very large. Rock n’ roll is a scary thing.

1961-1970: Everything is all fucked up, people are getting shot all over the place and young people are doing the sex and drugs. Rock n’ roll is what kids like now. The bad war starts, cue hearing “Fortunate Son,” “All Along the Watchtower,” or “Sympathy for the Devil” every time a helicopter flies over a jungle. Technicolor!

1971-1980: Disco times! Cars are still very large. Politically everything is weird and kind of a bummer. Bell-bottoms and big old Afros. Colors are the worst they’ll ever be.

1981-1990: I was a child during this decade therefore everything was perfect and wonderful and my horrible generation will make sure to cram all the pop culture from this era down your throats just like I had the 60’s and 70’s crammed down mine. Voltron! He-Man! Nintendo! Other things!

1991-2000: The last good decade we’ll ever have. Everything is downhill from here.

That all might sound simplistic and dismissive, but if we’re honest we have no real reason to think about our own history that much. The United States is in love with its beginning and enjoys recreating the Civil War as if we’re only country to ever have had one. That said, this is not a country that generally revels in its history. That’s part of our self-image, of course. Our ahistorical nature is all bundled up in our self-mythologizing as the forward-looking country of the future, the last glorious free empire on earth. Of course, at the very same time, we’re paradoxically certain that things were better in the past. When that better past was, exactly, depends on how old you are. This nostalgia for a bygone age is by no means limited to Americans as older generations lamenting the wayward youth is a human tradition going back to the savannah. That said, when Americans pine for the past, they’re usually specifically thinking of one of the surface-level descriptions mentioned above.

People who look mistily back to the fifties, missing the good old days, are generally not thinking about all that other stuff which happened during that decade which subvert the common perceptions. Yes, on the surface culture seemed safe and sterile, but art was still being produced, and it was pushing against the homogenous culture being mass-produced. Thus, post-modernism.  I’m not actually sure if The Floating Opera is technically, academically, “post-modern,” but it’s close. Thematically and stylistically it’s pretty much there. If the Moderns were writing in the middle of the apocalypse – pushing against outmoded social structure and artistic form – then the Post-moderns were writing in the post-apocalypse. Even in the United States, which reacted to World War II by assuming the mantle of world superpower, writers and artists could look at a destroyed Europe and respond.

The Floating Opera was written in the middle of the 1950’s, but the story actually takes place in the 1930’s. That is to say, the story takes place between the two apocalyptic wars of the early 20th century. The story is fairly straightforward, as it’s about a man named Todd Andrews living out a day in his life. On the surface, Todd is a dull guy. He’s a small town lawyer and a bachelor. He has a very strict routine which he adheres to pretty much every single day. The day the story takes place is the day he decides to kill himself. If that sounds like a bummer, be aware this novel is a comedy. Or is at least written lightly, I can’t say I was cracking up hysterically while reading this. As a narrator, Andrews is all over the place. He’s ostensibly writing about the day where he decided to end his life and changed his mind, but he can’t help but flashback quite a bit. With each of these flashbacks, something of Todd’s character is revealed, and we quickly learn that Todd isn’t so dull after all. Quite the contrary, he’s a bit of a freak. Which, of course, is where the subversion comes in.

floating opera2

I just realized what was happening in the picture and oh dear. I do appreciate the “is indisputably a novel” line, though.


I’m tacitly categorizing The Floating Opera as “post-modern,” but that’s mostly because of when it was written. If anything, the novel feels like it belongs with the actual Moderns. These labels can be vexing, and are the bane of academia. What are we talking about? An era? A group of people? Are there actual stylistic indicators which denote what is “Modern-with-a-capital-M” and what is just a book written in the twenties? The answer is an insufferable yes to all that. I just spent way too much time talking about things other than this book, though, so that discussion will have to wait. The reason I bring these labels up in the first place is because you could have told me The Floating Opera was written in the time it was set, which is June 23rd or 24th, 1937, and I’d have believed you. The narrator is perhaps taking a more forward role than is usual for Modernism, but the kind of things Barth writes about are just a continuation of what was happening earlier in the century.

The subject matter of this novel is perhaps not what you’d expect from the era if you take the surface-level estimation of the culture at the time. One of the cornerstones of the novel is an open-marriage situation that Todd finds himself in the middle of. Harrison and Jane Mack are married and in love, but for whatever reason they decide to bring Todd into their love life. So Jane becomes Todd’s mistress. The couple rather forces themselves on him, actually. Probably the best example of the novel’s humor is Todd’s reaction to this, which is to claim that yeah, sure, he’s down but be gentle because he’s still a virgin. Which is exactly the kind of thing the Macks wanted to hear, never mind that it’s a lie. The fun thing about The Floating Opera is that the narrator is constantly dipping back in time to reveal further events which had a marked effect on Todd. He tells the story of hooking up with Jane (with Harrison’s approval) first, and plays the virgin lie straight. Then later on, oh yeah, of course I wasn’t, I went to college you know. The structure of the narrative becomes rather an overwrought metaphor.

It’s in the title, you see, and Barth states his intention rather bluntly. The Floating Opera is of course the title, but it’s in reference to a riverboat which floats down a river and puts on shows. In the novel itself, the Floating Opera shows up towards the end, when Todd half-heartedly tries to kill himself. In the metaphor, it’s a boat that floats downstream while the show goes on, so people can take in bits and pieces of the narrative. That’s what’s happening here, and okay, sure. This is Barth’s first novel and he was going for it. This kind of thing, in addition to the rather leaden philosophical bits, drag the novel down. It’s incongruous to the overall comic tone of the story, the ridiculous events that Todd is narrating. The book moves from a scene of Todd the teenager going into hysterics while having sex for the first time because he made the mistake of looking in the mirror while doing it to rather grim discussions of existential nihilism. There’s no balance between these two things, you know? The tone swings all over the place, and frankly the writing isn’t deft enough to make the tonal dissonance seem purposeful. Like I said, this a first novel, and it shows.

Still, these are tricky things to talk about in 1950’s America. Clearly, something like The Floating Opera is never going to shock on the level of something like Naked Lunch. Todd is a prim little choir boy in comparison to anything happening in that horrorshow of a book. Still, the frank discussions of the pointlessness of human actions in a large and indifferent world do not slot into our general understanding of mid-century America. France, maybe, but not America. Yet here is Todd Andrews, who nearly offs himself out of moral obligation to his philosophical understandings. Well, that’s what he tells himself. This dude had a lot of traumatic things happen to him which he tries to brush off as “well, that’s life.” Todd is not a well-adjusted man, probably like most of his countrymen. Whether living in the 30’s or the 50’s, these people were still adjusting to the post-apocalypse. It’s easy to envision an entire nation going on with its routine while blatantly ignoring their collective trauma, just like weird old Todd Andrews.

Posted in 'Merica, Books, Ennui, Existentialism, Nostalgia, Post Modernity | Leave a comment



Film * Martin Scorsese * Gangsta, Gangsta * 1990


I know that I’m not primarily a movie person, because this is the first time I’ve watched this movie all the way through. Goodfellas is one of those landmark films that always comes up in “best movie ever” conversations, and it’s the rare film that’s equally popular with turbo-nerd critics and your conservative uncle Dave. Watching it for the first time nearly 30 years after its initial release, it’s still easy to see why. First of all, gangster stories are compelling. We’ll dig into why that is in a bit, but it’s generally true. It’s fun to watch people do crimes. Secondly, the narrative structure keeps the story fresh. I know this is a based-on-a-true-story situation, but sometimes real life is cliché. By moving around in time, basically starting in media res, the narrative is able to build around these fucked up characters in a way that enhances our understanding of this life. Finally, the way this film is shot is basically a masterclass in how to be a goddamn director. Scorsese has a vision, and it’s immediately clear even to someone like me who lacks the vocabulary to really engage with film in an analytic way.

This is one of those works that is so well known that it almost feels pointless to provide an actual synopsis (although I am well aware this section usually has less to do with summarizing the story than it is a rambling introduction). Still, people like me exist I guess. This is a biographical film, based on a real life mid-level mobster named Henry Hill (I really want to call him Hank). It follows him from his youth, running errands for the local boss, Paul Cicero, to the ignoble end of his mafia career. Most of the time he’s hanging out with his two buddies, Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito, doing crimes and spending money. Like any proper biopic, the film is as much about the changing times as it is about any one character. Henry’s early years take place in the fifties and sixties, and the film ends in the coked-out eighties. Goodfellas is presenting how these characters change and grow over time, but it also examines how this lifestyle is forced to change and adapt as the decades roll along. What first seems to be a natural, logical way to live life in the fifties seems almost archaic thirty years later.



Ha ha, we’re all pals! 

Goodfellas is a paradoxical film in that it’s clear that all these characters are horrible people and yet you’re sitting here thinking, damn these guys are cool. This phenomenon isn’t particular to this movie, of course, most crime stories play out the same way. We all have a dark side, and these kind of stories speak directly to it. That’s why I can sit here and watch DeNiro and Joe Pesci be just absolute psychopaths and be like, yeah, all right. Rad. These guys live dangerous lives, and while that danger is lucrative, it’s also part of the appeal. Henry Hill’s whole mindset is wrapped up in the lifestyle. See what you want, take it. He doesn’t even have to get his hands dirty all that often. Hill’s character is often quiet when people are flipping out, is usually the first to try and defuse a situation before it gets violent. Of course he usually fails, because for many people being a wiseguy is a license to indulge in random acts of violence. Still, these are all compelling characters, even as it becomes readily apparent that they’re still largely small time. Right, time to talk story and to get into the weird nostalgia this film deals with.


Not pictured: All the domestic violence and habitual drug use.


For a while there, I thought this was going to be one of those gangsters-with-a-heart-of-gold kind of stories. Henry Hill is presented as this wide-eyed, earnest kid just out trying to, well, maybe not do the right thing but at least make his way without hurting anyone. I enjoyed the scene near the beginning where he’s selling stolen cigarettes out of the back of a truck and the cops roll up and he’s honestly bewildered at very concept of being arrested. He just keeps saying “no, it’s okay,” because the kid has no other frame of reference for how things should be. It’s just do what the boss says and everyone has a good time. Oh, and don’t snitch. Pretty easy for a not-so-bright guy like Henry Hill and every single one of his dum-dum buddies to comprehend. Of course they fuck it all up because they are all huge idiots, but really the wiseguy life seems like it should be fairly easy to figure out. Do what the boss says and keep your mouth shut, and you can have pretty much anything your limited imagination could desire. And insofar as all that goes, Henry is a likable enough guy. But he also sucks a lot. Like it’s all fun and games until all the casual misogyny towards his wife. A wiseguy’s loyalty only stretches as far as his fellow goons.

The concept of loyalty is a big deal in Goodfellas, and how the idea of loyalty is expressed amongst wiseguys is constantly examined. Loyalty is the foundation of the entire organization, it’s the trust in the boss and the gangster way of life that enables the entire lifestyle. One guy flips and everyone is fucked, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep their mouths shut. Thing is, once an authoritarian social structure is implemented, that loyalty runs from the bottom up. Which is to say, be it in government, or a corporation, or a mafia family, low level toadies are expected to be loyal to those above them while those leaders do not have the same expectations placed upon them. This one-way flow of loyalty in an organization is so ingrained as to be obvious, but people never learn. Even in a normal workplace we expect our loyalty to be rewarded, and when it’s not we’re appalled and shocked. Nobody wants to think they’re expendable, but most everyone totally is. This expendability is even more pronounced in an organized crime situation because the stakes are higher and the people involved are more ruthless.

Henry learns this the hard way over the course of his career, although he compounds his problems with his own idiocy and hubris. One side effect of being a dummy used to getting everything his tiny mind could ever want is that this mindset starts to expand past the dummy’s capacity. Which is to say Henry starts to fuck over the boss and it goes poorly for him. The expectation is that once caught, Henry should take one for the team and just die in prison, because once again loyalty only goes one way. No, you can’t be made because you’re not Italian, but you sure as shit can go to prison for a few decades! Eventually, in a coke-addled haze, Henry figures out that his life is forfeit. That the boss only cared about him while he was useful, and that his erstwhile friends are just as bad. Tommy, who I was actively rooting against, gets his because he broke social rules (which is to say he randomly murdered too many people until he finally killed the wrong guy). Jimmy is a friend until he gets paranoid, then his first idea is to just kill everyone, including his friend and associate Henry. Once Henry figures out that loyalty only goes one way, he pulls the plug. Fuck that noise, burn it all down. Good for him.


Everything’s great!

At no point is Henry redeemed as a character. He’s still a shitty husband and father, he’s still not very bright. He’s still guy who beats his wife because she has the audacity to be upset that he’s constantly cheating on her. She’s no peach, either. Not only is she willing to put up with the mistreatment because of the money, but because she’s attracted to the kind of guy who gleefully pistol-whips people on a whim. Cool. Jimmy is a large-scale kleptomaniac who will casually murder you if you get in the way. Tommy is a straight up psychopath and nobody cares until he kills the wrong dude. Christ, he murks that kid after shooting him in the foot and the other guys only seem annoyed by the inconvenience. On the one hand, I understand why people are drawn to these kinds of stories. Goodfellas, despite being a biography, is fairly close to being a morality tale. Don’t be like these assholes, you’ll die! Still, there’s a segment of people out there who pine for this kind of life.

There’s a toxic nostalgia at work when you can look at a story where everyone was awful and ended up dead or in jail but at the same time think, “yeah, but at least it was a simpler time and everyone knew how to live.” That nostalgia is at work within the film itself, although Scorsese seems to recognize it, which is one of the reasons he breaks up the narrative to interrupt the flow of time. Otherwise it would have been a straight shot from the halcyon, carefree days of the fifties to when it all falls apart in the eighties. That aspect is still intact from the point of view of Henry, I think, although hopefully the viewer picks up that this lifestyle has always been fundamentally rotten. For Henry, his entire life is like that famous tracking shot through the Copa early on. Everything is glamorous and great, and the entire rest of the film is him trying to hold on to that vision. That vison was always a lie, though, just like every misty-eyed, plaintive cry for a return to the “good old days.” Henry was just too naïve to pick up on when he was younger, and too unhappy to let go of it when he got older. Honestly, that’s a pretty good metaphor for everyone.

Posted in Film, Nostalgia | Leave a comment

Un Lun Dun

un lun dun1

Novel * China Miéville * The Unchosen One * 2007


I almost didn’t finish Un Lun Dun, which would have been a bummer for me because it turned out to be pretty good. In retrospect, I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the novel or unfair expectations on my part. I think the latter, mostly because I read this hot after reading through the entire Harry Potter series, and that’s just completely unfair for any young adult fantasy novel to compete with. Especially something like Un Lun Dun, which is doing the hidden-fantasy-world-in-the-real-world thing as well. Of course this isn’t going to be on the same level, nor is this book trying to be. It’s a one-off story, for one thing, and so obviously it’s going to lack the depth of Rowling’s masterworks. Further, as I realized around page 100 or so, Harry Potter is the wrong comparison anyway. Un Lun Dun has more in common with Alice in Wonderland than anything, which is to say that Miéville is less interested in wholesale world building than he is in writing a whimsical adventure story. I’m pretty sure that if you go in with the proper expectation, Un Lun Dun will get off to a quicker start than it did for me, because it turns out it’s actually pretty cool.

Perhaps you put the title together a little bit faster than I did, and if so you pretty much have a grasp on the concept of the novel. It’s UnLondon, you see. The story begins in regular London with two young teens (they might be twelve? They’re not in their late teens, anyway) with the fun names Zanna and Deeba. Right from the jump Un Lun Dun is setting you up. The first chapter is entitled “The Respectful Fox,” which is a good chapter title (there are many of these and I’m jealous because titles are difficult enough once, let alone 99 times), and informs the reader of what kind of story they’re getting into. All these slightly weird things keep happening to the dreamy, kinda-pretty Zanna. Deeba, her more pragmatic and personable friend, keeps pointing them out to her, and Zanna keeps denying anything strange is going on. Obviously Deeba is right, and before too long the two girls find their way into another world. Naturally.

The concept of Un Lun Dun’s fantasy world is pretty cool, in that it’s a fantastical world that is comprised of the “real” world’s cast-offs. UnLondon is essentially created out of garbage and outmoded technology. There are quite a lot of proper nouns right away, which was a factor early on in turning me off the world building. Dear authors, please don’t toss a bunch of names and titles and whatnot at me right away. I’m not going to know what the hell you’re talking about. That said, the world building isn’t that big of a deal here. Again, the right comparison is Wonderland. The fantasy is more free-wheeling and whimsical than an attempt to create an actual place. Where the likes of Tolkien or Martin or Rowling all endeavor to create a concrete sense of place, Miéville is happy to sketch out a world and let the imagination fill in the blanks. And that’s fine, it’s simply an adjustment if you’re more used to comprehensive world building.

Once Zanna and Deeba arrive in UnLondon they’re immediately whisked away into adventure. There’s a prophecy, you see, a Chosen One will arrive and do a Quest in order to deliver UnLondon from apocalyptic danger. Speaking of proper nouns, I really hate the term used for the Chosen One, which is “The Shwazzy.” I don’t know why, but it just bugs me. Maybe because it kept reminding me of Spaceballs, which is all well and good but is not really the thing I want to be thinking about while trying to enjoy this story. We ain’t found shit! Anyway, Shwazzy aside, the bones of the story appear to be fairly standard. Zanna is going to do some weird, circuitous quest in order to get what she needs in order to vanquish the world-eating monster, Smog. Again, London mostly took care of their smog problem, but since nothing ever really goes away, it ended up in UnLondon and started causing problems among all the weirdos. At this point, quirky nature of the fantasy world aside, it’s all pretty standard fantasy fare. Which means it’s a good thing when things go sideways quick.

un lun dun2

That’s a trash can ninja. A ‘binja.’ That’s the kind of book this is. It’s whimsical, dammit.


How many times have you been reading a book like this and end up not enjoying the principal character that much? I mean, is anyone out there a big Frodo fan? Hell no, everyone likes Sam. Or Gimli, or some other character who isn’t a total drag. Same with Harry Potter. Now I think Harry has a good arc and all, but I enjoy some of the other characters more. Because Harry is a drag a lot of the time. People tend to gravitate toward the quirky sidekick, because they balance out the more dreary aspects of the protagonist. Now another question: why not just make the fun sidekick the protagonist in the first place? Miéville hears you, and delivers a much-needed subversion to the old formula. About a hundred pages in, it is made clear to everyone that the aforementioned prophecy is wrong. The Smog attacks our heroes, Zanna is knocked out, and Deeba is allowed to leave UnLondon with her friend. Up until this point, Deeba has been the faithful quirky sidekick, even if she’s been kind of annoying with her constant pining for home. At this point, she gets her wish and takes Zanna back to London, where the erstwhile Chosen One forgets everything that happened.

Of course Deeba eventually makes her way back to UnLondon, where she sets about taking up Zanna’s quest to save the day. She ends up amassing her own motley crew of assorted weirdos to help her out in her adventuring, and in so doing ends up being the cool hero that Zanna was meant to be. There’s nothing really subtle about the satire here, and it’s all in good, lighthearted fun. One of Deeba’s travelling buddies is a talking book, the very same tome in which the prophecies were written in the first place. The book has been depressed ever since finding out that he was filled with lies, still, the book still has good information in it, which they need to defeat the Smog. There’s a point where Deeba is looking for herself in said prophecies and finds, to her dismay, that she was meant to be the funny sidekick. Like I said, the inversion of the usual trope is a bit on the nose, but it’s still fun. I especially appreciate that Deeba is shorter, rounder, and plainer than Zanna, who ends up being little more than a type. Deeba saves the day because she’s charismatic and clever, not because she’s a statuesque blonde.

My favorite subversion of expectations is how Deeba approaches the problem of the Hero’s Quest. The original prophecy anointed Zanna as the Hero, and her Quest was to perform a series of feats, each designed to assist in the next. Lacking any other means of fighting the Smog, Deeba goes ahead and attempts to accomplish this series of tasks. There’s a problem, though, which is an artificial time limit set by traveling between the two worlds. The longer someone from London is in UnLondon, the less likely it is that their friends and family will remember them. It’s a convoluted plot thing, of which there are many, don’t worry about it. The important thing is that there isn’t enough time for Deeba to realistically perform each task properly. They do the first one, which involves stealing a key from a bird. The key lets you open a thing which lets you do another thing which will lead to the other thing. Deeba, who is rad, simply skips to the end. Why do all this dumb bullshit if we can just do the last thing and get on with it. Which they do, and it’s brilliant.

I don’t want to dismiss the world building out of hand, because there are a lot of imaginative and fascinating ideas here. But the point of UnLondon is to be a kaleidoscope of fantastical weirdness than any kind of concrete world. The final task that Deeba just skips to is a case in point. There is a cathedral filled with spiders, and while that by itself would be creepy enough, these spiders are actually windows to various rooms. People go in, get snapped up by a Black Window (yes) and suddenly they’re trapped alone in some isolated no-space until they starve to death. Pretty grim, but still a cool concept. Then Deeba finds the Hero Weapon, which is the UnGun. This is another great idea, in which you can put random whatever into this revolver, and each item becomes weaponized. Like you put an ant in the chamber and blammo, swarm of ants to attack your enemy. That’s fun. And that also sums up the experience of Un Lun Dun. It’s fun. The characters are on the thin side, but they’re fun to be around. The trope inversion is obvious, but it’s fun. The world is incoherent and silly, but it’s fun. Funnnn.

Posted in Books, Environment | Leave a comment

The Waste Land Project: Tristan und Isolde

tristain and isolde1

Opera * Richard Wagner * Love is the Real Villain Here * 1865


Full disclosure right up top: I don’t like opera. Actually, that’s far too mild of a statement. I cannot stand opera. I would rather be submerged in concrete and shot out of a cannon into brick wall rather than sit through four hours of unintelligible singing. Look, I get this is a personal failing. I don’t have the background or training to appreciate this kind of music. I am totally fine with this. What’s odd is that I enjoy the underlying music, for the most part. I quite like a nice symphony. I don’t understand the subtleties, and I couldn’t pick out one composer from another, but I like it. But you get a couple of people singing at each other with their superhuman voices and I just tune all the way out. It’s a case of being able to appreciate the existence of someone’s talent without enjoying it in the slightest. So! I cannot stand opera; now it’s time to talk about this opera.

It’s difficult to understate the influence of Wagner on the English Modernists. If you peruse biographies or articles about this period, it becomes clear that Wagner was enjoying something of a resurgence of interest among the English public. Why this is so, considering my active dislike of the genre, is beyond my ability to appreciate, but it was a thing. Everyone who fancied themselves cultured at one point or another went out to see some Wagner, including (and perhaps especially) writers. Some, like D.H. Lawrence, didn’t like it. Others, like T.S. Eliot, fuckin’ loved it. I’m not a musical scholar, so I cannot pretend to understand why what Wagner was doing musically was so divisive. From some cursory reading, it seems that the initial reactions to Tristan und Isolde were mixed at best. Some old school critics were real mad at what Wagner was doing. Not because of the subject matter, which I’ll get to in a moment, but because of his compositions. I do not live in a world where I can get mad at a particular chord, so all that’s rather beyond me. Due to my colossal ignorance on this, all I can do is focus on the libretto (or the words being sung).

tristain and isolde2

Man, no wonder this caused such a ruckus back in the day. Too hot for me, y’all.

The story, such as it is, is not complicated. This makes sense considering you basically have to piece it together via staging and pantomime since you can’t understand a damn word these people are singing. Ahem. Tristan, the dude, is a brave and valiant knight in service of King Mark, his bro. He is wounded in battle, and tended to by the most beautiful woman in the whole world, Isolde. Having won the battle, Tristan decides to take Isolde back to his king, so that King Mark might have a hot wife. This understandably doesn’t sit well with Isolde. Too bad for her she doesn’t exactly get a vote, so Tristan puts her on a boat and off they go. Uh-oh, though, Tristan and Isolde fall in love. The entire second act is just them mooning over each other. Then Tristan’s other bro gets jealous and rats him out to Mark. There’s a boring fight and Tristan gets away. In the third act there’s some lamenting, Isolde jumps a ship to come see her one true love, only to get there just as Tristan croak-boats. Then Mark shows up and is all “oh, I totally wasn’t trying to kill you, I totes wanted you guys to be happy, alas alas.” The end.

Look, if you’ve not figured it out by now, I have zero intention of ever watching and/or listening to this thing in its entirety. It’s four hours long! FOUR. That is entirely too many hours. In the interest of personal betterment, I did find a production on YouTube and I actually watched the first act. It was slow torture and I resent every minute of it. You know what’s not a particularly romantic language? German. It’s really hard to sell passionate love in German, which is why these are usually sung in Italian, yeah? Anyway, I found a translation of the libretto online and read that. The story is vaguely familiar territory thanks to some above-average undergraduate classes I took concerning medieval literature. As you might surmise from the title, this is based on the old courtly romance of Tristan and Isolde. They’re the tragic, star-cross’d lovers which people were being sad about long before Romeo and Juliet. There’s a textual history of this story dating back to the 12th century, but those stories are in debt to even older, usually orally transmitted legends with mysterious, unknown origins. Damn, I’m going to have to try and talk about medieval lit again.

tristain and isolde4

‘Sup? Do ya… like my harp? It’s whatever, I know, I’m not very good, but I’ve been working on this thing….


Medieval literature is tricky for most English students. Most of us come from a place of reading and analysis, trying to make connections between the text and how we view the world. This is all well and good, because for the most part literature reflects some aspect of a shared human experience. Even if the experience is foreign to us, good books enable us to find some kind of common ground. This is how a classroom of California teenagers can read Things Fall Apart and empathize with the plight of a tribal elder watching his world disintegrate thanks to colonialism. Medieval lit doesn’t really work in the same way, because the people writing things down back then didn’t have the same motives as more modern authors. Therefore, to really understand what the point of the writing is, a deeper understanding of the history which produced the texts is absolutely necessary. There’s almost no such thing as an ahistorical reading of a medieval text. Studying medieval literature is almost more of a historical endeavor than a literary one.

I bring this up because the legend of Tristan and Isolde is just that: a legend. There are tenuous connections between this and the Arthur legends, since they all come from the same set of islands. In the first millennia on the British Isles, most of what we would think about as literature was oral in nature. The epic songs of heroes doing cool shit, like in Beowulf, were passed down generationally in the various tribes. Sometimes, again like with Beowulf, these things were written down, but that’s extremely rare, since the only people writing things down were Church clerics, and they were generally busy with The Bible. Also, they only wrote in Latin. The reason a text like Beowulf is so fascinating is because it was written in the vernacular, which simply was not done at the time, by an intellectually curious monk who scribbled the singing of the commoners in the margins of his Bible. This kind of thing is rare nearly to the point of being unique. When something like the story of Tristan and Isolde is finally written down, it’s usually way, way, way after the fact.

tristain and isolde3

Now, just imagine she’s singing at this corpse for half an hour. Fun!

Since what we think of as “medieval” takes up such a vast chunk of time, it’s helpful to think about the medieval era in multiple stages. When Tristan and Isolde was first being bantered around, a pretty straightforward tale of a tragic love triangle, it could have been any number of things. It could have been a bawdy tale of cuckoldry, or a weepy soap opera, or whatever. Nobody was writing that stuff down in the year 400, and those who transmitted the story orally liked to freestyle. Eventually, though, more than just monks and clerics learned how to read and write. These stories were passed around for centuries, but eventually they started getting written down. Of course, the actual content of the stories have been purple-monkey-dishwashered into all kinds of different things in the interim. Come the 12th century, in France, these old stories started getting folded into the new hotness, courtly romances. My knowledge of French medievalism is nearly non-existent, so I’m going to stop while I’m ahead, but suffice to say the Tristan and Isolde Wagner was working with come from this tradition.

T.S. Eliot was highly concerned with the long, canonical tradition of English literature, so it makes sense that he was attracted to Wagner’s production of Tristan and Isolde. After all, the story was probably one of the first instances of literature to come from his (adopted) home. More importantly, being the story of a futile, tragic love affair, the bleakness of the story fits right in the larger context of The Waste Land. Wagner, himself way into grim, dreary German philosophy, was a good fit for the Modernists. If human nature is doomed to repeat its predilection toward tragedy, then we might as well embrace it. Tristan and Isolde have been tragically falling in illicit love and dying because of it for centuries, therefore nothing happening in The Waste Land was exactly new. Here’s how Wager looks in the poem:

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Frisch weht der Wind

                Der Heimat zu

                Mein Irisch Kind

                Wo weilest du?

“You gave me Hyacinths first a year ago;

“They call me the hyacinth girl.”

— Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth


Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed’ und leer das Meer.


The italicized bits are the references to Wagner, because Eliot wasn’t in the business of translating things for your feeble, English-speaking mind. The first phrase is a sailor’s song from the beginning of the opera: “Fresh blows the wind to the homeland. My Irish child where are you dwelling?” The second reference is from act three of Tristan und Isolde and is simply “Waste and empty the sea.” The sailor’s song comes hard after one of the most potent lines in the poem (or frankly, all of Modernism) so it’s easy to overlook. It’s a tonal shift from the intense couple of verses leading into the quote, and resets the pace of the reading. Eliot is constantly making things difficult for the reader. Suddenly it’s poetic German evoking fresh wind and yearning. Of course it doesn’t take long to end back up with waste and emptiness, that’s rather the overarching theme of the piece. This instance of Wagner, specifically Wagner’s imagining of a medieval story, only serves to reinforce that the waste and emptiness are and always have been integral to human existence. That, and Eliot really liked the opera, so he wanted to give it a shout-out.

Posted in Historical, Music, Waste Land Project | Leave a comment

BS at the VS: Death Race

death race1

Film * Paul W.S. Anderson * It’s a Race… to the Death! * 2008

I’ve decided to tweak the formula a bit for some of these movies. Basically, there’s only so much I can write about a movie called “Death Race,” you know? Most of these B-tier films are going to be uneven or straight-up bad, so it makes sense that they’re not as long or in-depth as an article about things with more heft to them. Also, I’m not monitoring spoilers in these. You’re not watching something like Death Race to see what happens next, you know?

Is a movie still a B-movie if it’s actually a (relatively) big-budget Hollywood movie based on a B-movie? Death Race answers that question with an emphatic yes. I mean, Roger Corman’s name is right there, you know? Plus, the original Death Race 2000 had Sylvester Stallone in it, so who’s the real B-movie here? This is such a confusing thing. On the one hand, it’s clear there was money involved with making this movie. On the other hand, the whole premise is dumb as hell and still looks kind of bad? I don’t know how that works either. The whole point of B-movies is to create your grindhouse bullshit on the cheap, because it’s lowest common denominator nonsense in the first place. Enjoyable nonsense, sometimes, but you can get the same effect spending a fraction of the money – which they obviously figured out because there’s like five sequels to this thing.

death race2


Okay, here’s the pitch. What if we ripped all the expression and soul out of the Mad Max movies and turned it into Mario Kart? Hell yeah. They literally drive over symbols on the road to acquire weapons, it’s great. I mean, I talk shit, but at least Death Race delivers on its title. We’re here to see idiots race and die. Most of the movie is people racing and murdering each other. It’s real dumb, and I’m not above dumb shit. You can tell the dystopian setting is a total afterthought, too. Like they made their Mad Max cart racer movie and were like, “yeah but why?” Shit, better write a quick summary for the beginning of the movie. I guess in the distant future of 2012 the economy has collapsed and crime is terrible and we end up in an Escape from New York situation where the nastiest criminals race each other to death for the amusement of the unwashed masses. Cool, whatever, that guy just door-checked that other guy’s head clean off. I don’t really care why.

All Death Race is trying to accomplish is the vicarious, visceral thrill of ridiculous violence. Jason Statham is large and sweaty and grumbly and will gleefully murder you. Same with everyone else, except the one sexy lady who is there to ensure you see her shapely torso and wiggle at you. There doesn’t appear to be any kind of subtext like some of the better examples noted above. Mad Max: Fury Road is art, you know? On the surface it has roving death-cars and giddy violence. It revels in it. Yet the almost impressionistic arrangement of that violence is what sets it apart from gratuitous goofiness like Death Race. There’s a relatable humanity in the world of Fury Road that’s completely absent in this movie. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes I just want to see things smash up real good, and Death Race delivers on that.

Posted in Bottom Shelf, Dystopia, Film | Leave a comment

Bag of Bones

bag of bones1

Novel * Stephen King * G-g-g-g-ghosts! * 1998


Would you be surprised if I told you that Stephen King can write an effective ghost story? It probably shouldn’t, although come to think about it I’m having a hard time thinking about a book he’s written about actual ghosts before the publication of Bag of Bones. I guess The Shining. Maybe? I feel like there’s more going on with that one, what with the telepathy and whole “no T.V. and no beer make Homer something something” aspect of the story. Anyway, Bag of Bones is a different kind of story, and has the atmosphere and feel of a proper ghost story. We have a lonely protagonist who lives in a haunted-ass house filled with a bunch of boogins and the story is basically him dealing with this weird supernatural threat. While there’s actually quite a bit more to it than that, the one thing Bag of Bones does exceptionally well when telling its story about angry ghosts is acknowledging the weight of human history.

The protagonist, Mike Noonan, is a widower. The opening of the novel is the sad, random death of his wife, and her loss colors the entire novel. Now this part might shock you, so brace yourself. Mike is a novelist. I know, a protagonist in a Stephen King novel who is a writer, will wonders never cease. He’s like a mid-tier novelist, successful but not like Stephen King successful. Anyway, he discovers in his grief that not only has he lost his beloved wife but he’s lost the ability to write. Every time he sits down to work he gets the shakes and ends up nauseous to the point that he needs to leave the room. This is not great for Mike since he really has nothing else to do to occupy his time. I’m not sure why he doesn’t take up gardening or volunteer with Houses for Humanity or something to try and pass the time, but all he does is sit around and do crossword puzzles. It’s a bad scene, and he kind of knows it. At this point in the story Mike is haunted by his wife, but it’s the normal kind of being haunted by sadness. Not the spooky ghost haunting, which comes after a frankly too-slow beginning hundred pages or so.

Eventually, Mike relocates to his summer home in order to try and move on with his life. This home is a cabin on a like in rural Maine, and he used to share it with his wife back when she wasn’t dead. This house has a name, Sara Laughs, which is a stupid name for a house but there it is. Now, the reason Mike moved back to this place is because of a series of vivid dreams which turned out to be a little more manifest than one would like. Once he gets to the house, the ghosts start kicking up pretty much right away. As soon as the haunts show up, King ratchets up the spooky tension superbly, and if it wasn’t for this one other thing I would be all about this book. The ghosty bits are effective and creepy, and as I’ll get to in a hot minute, King is doing some cool things with historical menace. But first that one thing I’m having a hard time dealing with. You see, the successful middle-aged author protagonist is a little on the nose already. Then he meets this predictably “most beautifullest girl in the whole wide world” who is maybe twenty years old, and besides being hot she is also smart and funny and blah blah blah. Of course she falls in love with the successful middle-aged author. Of course the middle aged author has reservations. This all plays out in ways which I do not like at all. We’ll get to that.

bag of bones2

These covers are kind of bad. Hard to pull ghosts off, I guess.


Bag of Bones if full of ghosts. All ghosts, in one way or another, are tied to a sense of history. They are uneasy history made manifest, and nearly always this history is intensely personal. Mike is haunted by more than one restless spirit over the course of the novel, and only the ghost of his wife is linked directly to him. Johanna isn’t hanging around poor Mike because of any kind of malevolence, of course, there’s never really any question that these two loved each other very much. Nah, Johana is lingering in the physical realm because of the other ghosts languishing in Sara Laughs, and those ghosts are pissed off. The primary angry ghost is also the namesake of Mike’s house, Sara Tidwell, and this is where the weight of history is felt. Sara was a black blues singer around the turn of the 20th century, and her travels eventually brought her and her family/band to this Maine backwater. This might not surprise you, but rural Maine in the early 20th century was not exactly a bastion of progressive values, especially when it came to race. However, the community mostly accepted the presence of the Tidwell family because they were pleasant and a dang good blues band.

Of course, the very presence of other humans with darker skin is an affront to a certain brand of insufferable half-wit. The mere fact that Sara and her family dare live their life on the periphery of a white community was enough to send a small group of assholes into a murderous rage. The leader of these fuckers is a guy named Jared Devore, and long story short him and his crew rape and murder Sara Tidwell on the shore of the lake. Oh, and as an extra added bonus to their depravity, they also drown her son. Naturally, the ghost of Sara Tidwell is none too pleased with this death, and spends the next hundred years haunting the shit out of the families of her murderers. The malevolent spirit contrives to possess the descendants of these people in order to murder their own children. Turns out, Mike Noonan is distantly related to one of the murderers, and so the spirit of Sara Tidwell lashes out at him. Only problem is, Mike doesn’t have a kid. His lack of procreation is an explanation for the death of his wife, perhaps, because she was pregnant when she died randomly. Of course, it’s not certain the malevolent spirit has that kind of range, and also because Sara picks a new target.

The new target is the perfectly adorable and smart and precocious daughter of the aforementioned beautiful, smart, and funny young woman, Mattie. Now she has her own big subplot, because she is the target of the very rich and powerful descendant of Jared Devore, Max. He’s also insane, but he’s leveraging his power to try and win custody of the daughter, Kyra. Mike swings in and buys her a lawyer, and then there’s a bunch of fairly insufferable hand-wringing on his part. Eventually these plots merge together, because Sara Tidwell needs a new target, and that target is Kyra. The other descendants of the original murderers all know what’s up with the macabre history of the community, and all shamefully hide their family secrets from everyone else. They believe that the sacrifices of these kids must continue to assuage the vengeful spirit. That’s why some of them pop up toward the end and straight fucking murder Mattie. Mike manages to save Kyra, and is saved from a questionable sexual relationship with a girl half his age because of some deus ex machina.

This book is frustrating, because the ghost stuff is really quite good, and maybe you can’t really pull that off without Kyra to act as an emotional lever for our protagonist. Mike needs to let go of his personal history and move on with his life, and a daughter would help him do that. Sara also needs to let go of her own personal tragedy and move on, which she only does when forced to. Because the weight of history is heavy, and is inescapable. Those roots go deep, and some cases those roots are rotten. King has always been at his best when exploring the dark shadows of small towns, and that’s mostly what’s going on with Bag of Bones. It’s that quality which makes such a distracting bummer out of the whole Mike-Mattie relationship. The fact that they never consummate their attraction for each other because she gets murdered is annoying, all the more so because King gets weirdly meta and calls out the laziness of that trope in the text itself. And yo, just because you recognize and call out your own bullshit does not, in fact, keep it from being bullshit. He basically wrote an entire character as gross fantasy fulfilment, realized it halfway through writing, and tried to obfuscate his intentions. And whatever. It doesn’t ruin the book, which is still mostly a cool ghost story.

All Things Serve the Beam

There was a time during the 90’s and early 00’s when Stephen King was very much consumed with The Dark Tower. This wasn’t necessarily translating into new novels, mind you, but elements of those novels were popping up in his other stories with some regularity. Once he finally finished the series, the publisher even took to highlighting the titles of other Stephen King works which were related in some way to the Dark Tower series. It’s a fun bit of meta-fiction for fans of the series, which of course I am. Recently I noticed that Bag of Bones was highlighted, and since I read this back in ’98 and never again, I pretty much forgot everything about it. Once I finished, I actually had to look up what the connection was, because it was so slight. The first I did notice, because Ralph from Insomnia showed up briefly and interacted with Mike Noonan. The other escaped me. Turns out Sara Laughs is the twinner to another house in the final Dark Tower book, Cara Laughs. Where Stephen King lived. So he must be Noonan’s twinner, as if I need further validation of my above statements. Ugh. Okay. I guess it would have been slightly out of place if Oy showed up and started chasing the little girl around. Still, I might not have highlighted this particular book as being particularly rich in Tower lore.

Posted in Books, Dark Tower, Ghosts, Historical | Leave a comment

Altered Carbon

altered carbon1

Television * Laeta Kalogridis * All the Sci-Fi * 2018


As a book-first person, it’s always mildly annoying when I watch a movie or show and am then informed that oh, this was based on a book I’ve not even heard of. Good or bad, now I have this version of a story and this vision of a world in my head, which then kind of makes me not want to seek out the source material. It’s all backwards! Anyway, Altered Carbon is such a situation and now that I’ve finished the ten episode run I feel like this is the rare time I might seek out the book. Just to see. I haven’t been so thoroughly conflicted about a show in a long time, so I am curious to read the source material to see what the original vison was. Does the book have the same flaws as the show? Does it execute on the wide array of cool ideas better than we see on screen? Does the author of the novel have a better grasp of how to write than the screenwriters? I certainly hope so, and it speaks to how much I like a lot of the concepts here that I’m willing to find out. Now that acknowledging the existence of the source material is out of the way, let’s take a look at this weird-ass show.

Altered Carbon wants to be every kind of science fiction. Its primary visual influence is Blade Runner, and there are clear cyberpunk through-lines seen everywhere from the character designs to the use of virtual reality to sick augmented ninjas. That said, there’s still not a lot of “cyber” happening. All the VR is self-contained, and the AIs seem to be relegated to their own lonely world. Meanwhile, Altered Carbon also wants to be a world-spanning, far-future kind of science fiction. There is an authoritarian, multi-world government known as the Protectorate, and of course there is an underground rebel contingent which employ guerrilla tactics. Their soldiers are called Envoys, and they’re famous for having preternatural combat skills and a highly developed sense of intuition. Our protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is one of these Envoys. Actually, he was. See, the rebels lost spectacularly and were wiped out, except for our man Kovacs, who was put on ice only to be woken up like 200 years later in order to solve a crime. So Altered Carbon also wants to be Demolition Man. A worthy ambition.

altered carbon3

Despite secretly wanting him to be played by P.F. Tompkins, Poe is still the best.

There are some extremely cool concepts at play in this show, but the problem is that there might be too many to keep track of. Probably the most important thing to know about this future is the concept of “stacks” and “sleeves.” The idea is that there is now a mechanism to store a person’s consciousness in a portable hard-drive of sorts. This is the “stack,” and it holds all the information which makes a person a person. You slot this disk into the vertebrae of the neck at birth, I guess (the actual process is not spelled out super well), and so you have a backup should you get yourself killed. The body, then, is the “sleeve,” because you can now swap out a person’s consciousness between bodies. This is a form of immortality, of course, because when a body gets sick or dies, you just eject the stack and put it in a new sleeve. The only way to actually kill a person is to blow their stack. And if you’re extremely rich, you can simply back up your stack on a satellite or some shit, so if someone shoots you in the stack you can just download a new one and put it in one of your clones.

Of course, Altered Carbon is a heart a cyberpunk story, which means that the driving force behind everything is the heightened division between the rich and the poor. Kovacs was put on ice because he was a terrorist, but pulled out and put in a new sleeve because a very rich and powerful man wanted him to solve a murder. This rich guy, Laurens Bancroft, is hundreds of years old at this point, and he’s a bit of a collector. Also he was murdered. And so he pulls some strings and retains the services of this old Envoy to solve his own death, mostly because he thinks it would be neat to do so. Kovacs thinks this is bullshit, but he’s deep you know, so eventually he agrees to take the case, and then Altered Carbon ostensibly becomes a detective story. However, the narrative almost immediately goes off the rails and tons of characters and subplots become intermingled and new shit is being introduced pretty much the entire time. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with all the different threads, which is maybe a reason why the dialogue and exposition is such a ham-handed mess most of the time. Like, we know this is confusing so we’ll just have these characters repeat the same unsubtle motivations over and over. But hey, this show looks cool as hell, so there’s that. I don’t know, there’s more going on. Allow me to get more specific. If you don’t know the drill, spoilers after the break.

altered carbon2

God, yes, just hook it into my veins.


Cyberpunk isn’t cyberpunk unless it has a strong “fuck the rich” undercurrent. In that sense, Altered Carbon is definitely cyberpunk. One of the most identifiable themes throughout the show is that humanity’s easily corruptible nature never really changes. The mega rich, as modelled by the Bancroft family, are essentially immortal. They have enough money and resources to essentially own their own world above the ever-present cloud ceiling of the huddled masses down in the megacity (in this case, Bay City, which is far-future San Francisco). Despite all this, despite having lived hundreds of years, they are still petty, despicable, and corrupt. Of course they’re into all kinds of deranged sex shit, which then becomes one of the pillars of the entire story. Look, there is a level of horny at work in this show that I haven’t seen since Game of Thrones. Altered Carbon might be hornier, actually. There are boobies and dongs flopping around all over the place, even in scenes which are not erotic in the least. In fact, with the advent of disposable bodies, the door to literal murder-sex is opened, and yes, it is deeply fucked up.

Kovacs is a fairly boilerplate anti-hero, which is mildly disappointing. When he’s pulled out of cold storage, he’s surly and mean and that never really goes away. However, he eventually thaws out a bit and makes friends and then it turns out he has a heart of gold and that’s actually good. This whole story is woven from a hundred cliché threads, but that’s fine with me if it works. Characters, most of which are a familiar trope of some kind, are extremely hit-or-miss. There’s not a lot of subtlety when it comes to dialogue and relationships. Kristin Ortega is a sassy, obsessive cop who doesn’t trust Kovacs at first but then she does! Vernon Elliot hates Kovacs at first, but then he doesn’t! The thing is, there are so many characters and so many plot elements that nobody really has time to develop properly, so the story is forced into being blunt as possible in order to convey meaning. Elliot especially suffers from this, because he just kind of shows up and is mad most of the time until he isn’t. I don’t know. The only secondary character I really enjoyed was Poe, who is an artificial intelligence which runs a theme hotel called The Raven.

altered carbon4

Yeah that’s totally how I look at my sisters all the time. Nothing weird here.

Have I mentioned how amazing this world looks? Because damn. The Raven, a building, has more personality than half the characters on the damn show. The art direction is on point, and this shit looks expensive, I tell you what. If only they had managed to fill this incredible looking world with better characterizations. Probably the most egregious example is who ends up being the show’s big bad. No, it’s not Bancroft causing the most problems. Rather, it’s Kovacs’ sister, Reileen Kawahara. She just, ugh, she sucks so much that it distracts from some otherwise very cool scenes. Let me hasten to add that this is not the fault of the actress, she’s doing the best one could expect given the material. What makes her character even more tragic is that her introduction is one of the coolest moments of the entire series. Rei rolls up and katanas the shit out of a bunch of goons and it’s dope as shit, you know? This is followed by the longest episode of the season, which is a flashback episode that sets up the final showdown and the rest of the tragic drama which follows. This episode reveals Rei’s character as a flat, single-motive villain, and therefore the entire rest of the time she’s onscreen talking I’m sitting there hoping someone just kills her already.

That’s not a compelling villain, and Rei is even less nuanced than Bancroft, who the show comes perilously close to ignoring in the last few episodes. Since I mentioned Game of Thrones previously, it’s fair to compare Rei to Cercei Lannister. They’re both ruthless and obsessively focused and dangerous. While it’s not clear if Rei actually wants to fuck her brother or not, her obsessive love for Kovacs is certainly not entirely sisterly. But there’s no further nuance to Rei’s character. She’s just crazy and needs to be put down. But then there’s that intense clone fight with Ortega and her rad bionic arm. I just don’t know what to think! I mean, poor Ortega, she gets it the worst all around. And while her Latina family dynamics lend a fascinating window into religion’s role in pseudo-immortality, it goes badly for them. Meanwhile, the Elliots are barely sketched out as characters, and despite Lizzie’s rad-as-hell rescue mission, she’s still paper-thin. Actually, Lizzie Elliot is a nice example to close out on. Her character is barely developed and I’m still not perfectly clear on her connection with the initial Bancroft plot. Yet when her arc, such as it is, pays off it looks super cool. You know, I think there’s just enough good here to outweigh the more tedious aspects to recommend Altered Carbon. It’s only disappointing because with more careful writing it could have been something special.

Posted in Artificial Intelligence, Corporations, Cyberpunk, Dystopia, Religion, Television, Urbanization | Leave a comment

The Waves


Novel * Virginia Woolf * Impressions of Modernity * 1931


Grad school was a bit of a blur for me. If I had to guess, it’s a blur for a lot of students but I made the critical error of keeping a full time job while studying, so I’m going to guess my experience was even blurrier. I read so many articles culled from scholarly journals from various critics about all kinds of things over that period, most of which had to do with Modernism because of course that’s my jam. I don’t remember the vast majority of them. One that stuck out was an article with the title: “Is Virginia Woolf a Snob?” Without even reading it, my answer was “obviously.” Now, nearly ten years later and having forgotten every single point the author of that article made, my answer is the same. Yes, of course, look who we’re talking about here. Is Virginia Woolf a better writer than you? Always and forever. She pushed the form of the novel in ways you take for granted now, and she was synonymous with Modernism as a literary movement. She’s a goddamn icon. And of course she knew it. Woolf had her own exclusive little club, after all, and what else would you call the Bloomsbury group if not snobbish? Considering her output and her influence, Virginia Woolf earned the right.

Now that respect has been paid, Christ but sometimes her prose is just exhaustingly pretentious. I have previously read only two of her novels, Mrs. Dalloway and Jacob’s Room, both of which are clearly masterpieces, but at least they had some kind of narrative attached to the style. In both of those instances, Woolf was tinkering with narrative form and characterization and perspective, but for lack of a more graceful term, they had a point. I’m not entirely sure that The Waves does. Look, I will hastily admit that she’s the genius and I’m just some goober who likes writing about things he reads, but the entire time I was reading this thing I couldn’t wait to not be reading it. That’s probably a bad way to consume literature. It’s one thing to appreciate artistic experimentation, it’s quite another to enjoy it. It’s not impossible to like reading The Waves, but I think genuine enjoyment would have been more of a pleasant side effect than anything. Woolf was clearly not terribly interested in the reader experience. Being Virginia Woolf, that is entirely her prerogative, but if you’re going to choose one of her novels to read for funsies, look elsewhere.

I don’t want to set The Waves up as a difficult book, along the lines of something like Ulysses. It’s not that. The language is clear, and despite a few, ah, snobbishly obscure words the prose is easy enough to follow. There’s even a rough framework which is easy enough to make out. The Waves is about a group of friends and the narrative, such as it is, follows them from primary school through adulthood. It’s ostensibly about their relationships and how they navigated life differently despite beginning in roughly the same place. Nothing fancy. The experimentation comes in how the novel is presented. I think it’s best described as a series of impressionistic soliloquies. The prose is flowery and descriptive, focused on immediate experience and prone to drift. It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness, but there are elements reminiscent of that style. The narrative (which is a strong word for what is actually here) shifts continually between various viewpoints with little warning, often without any transition whatsoever, so that can be jarring. There were many times when I’d had to roll back a few paragraphs to figure out just who the hell was speaking. There’s no real conflict to speak of, no real ending. It’s just not that kind of book.



The question quickly becomes: “well, what kind of book is it then?” I don’t have a great answer. One you finish and go, “huh.” The Waves is probably best read by those interested in Virginia Woolf as a literary figure, those interested in Modernism in general, and those aspiring writers who appreciate the deft use of language. If you’re looking for a good story, take a hard pass. Because the novel is organized as a series of soliloquies given by the various characters, I had a recurring image that kept popping into my head. I envisioned this novel as a highly pretentious off-Broadway production. Empty set, and the six primary characters standing in a line across the stage. Each actor has a spotlight directly above them, and every time the perspective shifts, that light clunks on and the character gives their little speech. As soon as they’re done, their light clunks off and the next one comes on. If that sounds like the most dire, dull night of theatre you’ve ever feared being dragged to, well, I feel you. There’s just something about this level of raw pretention that is severely off-putting.

Okay, there needs to be an example of what I’m talking about. This is a snippet of a soliloquy given by Rhoda, a character who is rather detached from her friends and humanity in general and never quite figures out how to properly socialize. That much should be clear given what she says:

“’Now I will walk down Oxford Street envisaging a world rent by lightning; I will look at oaks cracked asunder and red where the flowering branch has fallen. I will go to Oxford Street and buy stockings for a party. I will do the usual things under the lightening flash. On the bare ground I will pick violets and bind them together and offer them to Percival, something given him by me. Look now what Percival has given me. Look at the street now that Percival is dead. The houses are lightly founded to be puffed over by a breath of air. Reckless and random the cars race and roar and hunt us to death like bloodhounds. I am alone in a hostile world. The human face is hideous. This is to my liking. I want publicity and violence and to be dashed like a stone on the rocks. I like factory chimneys and cranes and lorries. I like the passing of face and face and face, deformed, indifferent. I am sick of prettiness; I am sick of privacy. I ride rough waters and shall sink with no one to save me.’”

See what I mean? That passage encapsulates the entirety of The Waves, for better and for worse. The language and imagery is lovely, that’s plain to see. Some of the usual themes of Modernism is interwoven throughout, which of course I appreciate. The dread enticement of technology running rampant over nature and humanity is right there, and like nearly all literature from this period The Waves is dealing with the apocalyptic nature of the early 20th century. “Reckless and random the cars race and roar and hunt us to death like bloodhounds.” That’s so fucking good! What’s even better are the staccato sentences that follow which hammer home the disaffection and paradoxical enjoyment of the discontents of civilization. Where it all falls apart for me is that this is it. The character perspectives change, and while they all view the world differently they all describe it in the same kind of way. Impressionistic and fragmented, the vast majority of the novel is a blur of images and thoughts. Even if you put the work in to decipher what is happening to who and when, there just isn’t much here. There’s an aloofness to the text which renders any narrative you can cobble together a moot point. There’s no connection possible, and while that might be very Modern, it does a disservice to both the reader and the text.

Posted in Books, Modernity | Leave a comment

The Burn (Part 2)


I am not going to lie, I’m extremely happy with this shot. Burned Ponderosas with the silhouette of North Sister in the background.

This is the second part of a thing I wrote, which turned out to be the beginning of a much larger thing I didn’t know was going to be a thing when I started. The thing. Uh, anyway, this particular story ends rather abruptly, but I think it still works as a stand alone deal. Also probably read part one first.


Despite waking up about forty times throughout the night – the wilderness is noisier and less comfortable than you might think – Renny awoke feeling mildly better. Hollow, fuzzy, but it was an improvement. The adventure of making coffee in the woods allowed him to delay thinking about the inevitable. The sun was just creeping up over the eastern desert, rosy-fingered dawn and all that. Renny sighed, which became manifest in the crisp air about him. Might as well pack up and head back. This was a waste of time, did nothing but focus on his failure. It marked the first time he’d ever come up here and felt worse for it. The rage and despair from the previous afternoon was gone, at least. Empty now. He said the name out loud.


The word tumbled out of his mouth, fell to the frosty ground, dead. The mountains didn’t even bother to echo back to him. Was this it? Was this turning the corner, where even her name feels like nothing? Because if so, breaking through sucks about the same as feeling relentlessly awful. Fuck it, fuck all this, fuck this tent, fuck this tree, fuck you North Sister, Middle Sister, South Sister. Fuck all y’all. Renny out. He stood defiantly and popped both middle fingers, taking in the entire landscape. That’ll show ‘em. He chuckled to himself, but his mirth was empty too. With that he hastily crammed his equipment into his backpack. It was a long trip back, but he’d be home by early afternoon if he left now. More than enough time to drown his emptiness with video games and copious amounts of beer before work tomorrow.

Renny left his campsite looking better than he found it because leave no trace, motherfuckers. By the time he started winding his way back down the user trail to the main trail, the sun had risen pale and yellow in the morning sky. Below him, the forest faded to desert in the distance, but he was once again struck by the massive size of the burned area, the bare silver forest sweeping down the mountainside out of sight around the folds of the landscape. As he descended, his mind remained leaden and dull. At least the constant clamor and endlessly repetitive thoughts of the last few weeks were gone and he could focus on not twisting an ankle as he navigated the downslope. Eventually he reached the point where the user trail met the actual trail, alongside the rumbling stream, which at this point in the day was more muted than it would be later when it warmed up. Renny dropped his pack on the ground and drank from his water bottle.

As he stood regarding the mountain stream, trying to convince himself that he was feeling better and failing, he was distracted by movement in some bushes on the near bank. Renny remained still, hoping to get a glimpse of a creature. He couldn’t remember if river otters ventured this high up, but a marmot wasn’t out the question. There was more rustling, and then a sodden, filthy golden retriever erupted out of cover and raced directly at Renny, with a look of determined idiocy on his face. Renny laughed, and tried to remember the dog’s name. Oh yeah, right.

“Hey Biscuit!” he said, holding his arms out so as avoid being knocked backwards by the frantic golden dummy. Renny’s smile wavered, however, when Biscuit got closer. When he had met this particular goofball yesterday, the dog was healthy and clean. Not so now, because not only was this overly-excited dog soaking wet, it was also a bit of a mess. Biscuit was beside himself at meeting Renny though, yapping and trying his best to jump onto him.

“Hey buddy, where are your people at? Huh?” He looked to the far side of the stream, expecting to see a couple of REI yuppies making their way to the trail crossing. Nobody was there. Biscuit barked again, and Renny took a closer look him. His fur, which only yesterday had been healthy and clean, was clotted with mud and covered in burs. There were several shallow cuts here and there, and it looked like the poor thing had been sleeping rough for a week. The dog’s feet were a cut-up mess, and there was dried blood around his jowls. Seems he was able to eat something, at least. Still, this had to be a different dog. There’s no way the healthy pup he had met yesterday would end up like this overnight. Renny backed away from the dog, who started sniffing at his backpack a few feet away.

“Biscuit! Come!” he shouted after quietly backing about ten feet away. There was no hesitation as the dog’s head snapped up, found Renny, and bounded over. Okay, well, this makes no sense. Renny felt his heartbeat speed up, because this wasn’t right. Wasn’t right at all. “Biscuit, buddy, where are your people at?” The dog barked again, but otherwise just seemed happy to see a human. Renny absently scratched his head, but made his way back to the bank. “HELLO?” he shouted. “YO, I’VE GOT YOUR DOG OVER HERE!” Nothing save a few startled birds answered back. Hmm. This presents a problem.

Renny began to pace while he puzzled out his situation. Okay. Okay. Okay, something must have happened. Either something happened to the yuppie couple, or the dog ran away on his own. Goldens aren’t exactly dog geniuses, so he probably chased a squirrel until he got lost. If I can keep an eye on this ding-dong, I can bring him back to the trailhead where his owners are probably beside themselves with worry. Maybe in the future they’ll realize that letting your idiot dog run free in the wilderness isn’t a great idea and keep his ass on a leash from now on. Probably not, but you never know. Feeling a little better about a course of action, he called to Biscuit again, who was as attentive as ever. Renny patted his head before rummaging around in his pack and extracting a granola bar. Better than nothing. He unwrapped it and tossed it to the dog, who may or may not have bothered chewing. Okay, let’s see how well behaved this dummy actually is.

Turns out, the dummy was quite well behaved. Biscuit trotted along at Renny’s heel without hesitation, and didn’t seem to be distracted by the various critters and birds in the underbrush. Renny had never owned a dog, owing almost entirely to the fact that the places he’d lived did not allow them, and didn’t know whether or not this was normal behavior for a golden retriever. What he did know was that Biscuit’s behavior shot some holes in his theory about what happened to the dog’s owners. Were they going to be at the trailhead, fretting and anxious? Were they behind him, still at their camp hoping that Biscuit was going to return? Renny briefly considered turning around and making his way up to Camp Lake, where he was pretty sure the REI warriors were headed yesterday. He dismissed this idea, however, considering he had already walked a mile closer to the trailhead, and who knew how long it would take to hike up to the lake. He’d hang out at the trailhead as long as necessary. Oh, wait! Renny glanced down at the dog, who looked up with a doggy grin. Damn. No collar. He could have sworn that Biscuit had been wearing a collar yesterday, right, right, go Dawgs. Hmm.

Whatever, if the owners weren’t at the trailhead, there were a hundred different ways to reunite this goober with his people. Best get back and get him safe before worrying about it. Meanwhile, the day had warmed up a bit and the sun had risen higher and the forest was coming back to life. The clean scent of sun-warmed pine was prevalent, and it’s nearly impossible to feel bad when that happens. The last hour or so had also cleared Renny’s mind out considerably. Unlike the day before, he had more to think about than regret. Like maybe it was time to get a dog. Some goofy pup he could talk to while he took his aimless evening walks around the neighborhood. Renny thought about dogs while the forest chittered and tweeted around him. He didn’t notice the vibrant, healthy trees slowly giving way to sadder, dun-colored pines or the dew-damp dirt track giving way to softer ash. Didn’t notice Biscuit’s cheerful trot slowing to a measured, cautious walk.

Renny had outpaced the suddenly wary retriever by about twenty feet before he realized his new buddy wasn’t keeping pace. He stopped and look behind him, realized that he was standing in the transition zone once again, and that Biscuit was sitting and staring directly at him, whimpering. Unburnt but dead pine trees outnumbered the healthy trees, and it was clear that in another turn of the trial he’d be back in the burn. A few lazy bugs buzzed around, the nice thing about October was that swarms of mountain bugs were almost entirely gone, but Renny wasn’t really thinking about any of this. His previously cheerful companion was in distress, despite the obvious lack of any threat. He walked back to where Biscuit was sitting in the middle of the ashy trial.

“What’s wrong, buddy? Worried about your people?” Biscuit gave a little whine, but you know, he doesn’t speak English. Renny squatted down so he was at eye level, and took the dog’s head in his hand, scratching behind his dirty ears. “Come on, Biscuit, there’s no bears or anything, we’ll be all right. When we get back to the trailhead your people will be there, right? Happily ever after. But we have to keep going.” It didn’t occur to Renny to feel dumb talking to the dog, and after a minute or so it seemed to help Biscuit make up his mind. With a much less enthusiastic bark, he began to walk down the trail which would eventually take them back. Biscuit turned to look at Renny over his shoulder, like come on dipshit, let’s get this over with then. Renny obliged.

After about a half an hour in the burn, the hike had become a grim trudge once again. It only took a few turns in the trail to effectively hide the healthy forest from them, and Renny quickly found himself surrounded by the ghostly silver forest. Biscuit walked alongside him once again, but the doggy grin was long gone, his grey tongue lolling listlessly, and if a golden retriever could look determined, this one totally did. The birds had stayed behind in the living forest and there was no wind to speak of. The further they slogged into the burn, the worse Renny felt. What if he made the wrong decision? What if the REI yuppies were hurt? What if someone else was up there, someone not interested in mountains and streams… oh shit, oh no. Renny stopped so suddenly that Biscuit ran into him. He didn’t notice. He just remembered his missing phone, and the shadowy figure he had seen from his perch near the glacier. A very real chill swept through him, and he jerked his head left and right, as if he expected to be attacked at any moment.

Renny stood utterly still in the middle of the ashy trail, but he could see quite a way into the burned, silver forest. Nothing. There was no sound, not even a passing airliner. His mind raced, making connections, concocting scenarios. The dew-covered car at the trailhead yesterday, evidence of another hiker in the wilderness, dispersed to who-knows-where. The shadowy figure and the missing phone. There wasn’t much in the way of reception up here, but once back at the trailhead there might be. He couldn’t remember, when he went into the woods he downloaded music so he didn’t have to worry about streaming. Who’s to say that this dude didn’t rob and/or murder the yuppie couple and then steal his phone to keep him from reporting anything weird? That’s a reach. None of this makes any sense, but now that the idea of someone out here up to no good wouldn’t leave his mind. He dropped his pack in order to rummage a bit, before extracting what he was looking for. It was a large red and white canister with a nozzle, not unlike a miniature fire extinguisher in a polyester holster. Renny took a moment to affix the holster to his belt and felt a little better. The canister contained bear spray, which is a super-potent pepper spray which shoots a jet of pure capsaicin to a distance of like 50 feet. It’s impressive. Renny figured it would work on a human just fine.

Once his pack was settled somewhat comfortably on his shoulders, Renny increased his pace back down the trail. Biscuit grimly trotted alongside. Renny cleared his mind as best he could, pushing himself forward faster than he had any business going. If he hadn’t been wearing an overnight backpack, he would have considered jogging, ignoring his usual disdain for trail runners. He’d be safe at the trailhead, and if Biscuit’s owners were not there he could leave a note on the signboard and drive down to Sisters. It would probably make sense to contact the Sherriff at that point. Meanwhile, focus on getting through this burn, which honestly just goes on forever. He was all ash from the knees down as his increased pace puffed more dust up into the air. Biscuit had a nice grey coating over her tangled, muddy fur. At least it wasn’t hot. Renny pushed on.

It took Renny another hour before he realized that something was wrong. He had been moving quickly, he had the sweat to prove it, but nothing had changed. Silver snags on either side of him, the occasional view of the mountains, the desert in the distance, the omnipresent ash. Renny stopped again, this time to drink some water. He took a moment to dig a dish out of his bag so that Biscuit could also have a drink. If he wasn’t so close to the trailhead, he’d worry about running out. Still. He looked up at the sky while Biscuit duly slurped water. The bright autumn blue of the morning had faded to a weird pale grey. This sometimes happened when clouds came in from the west and left their bulk on the ocean side of the mountains, leaving a thin layer to make its way east over the desert. The quiet was oppressive. Renny was rearranging his pack when it struck him what was wrong. He’d been in the burn for at least two hours at this point, he long since should have come across the creek he had crossed on the way in. It was the one landmark that stood out, because life lingered on its banks. So far, there was no sign of it. Renny took a deep breath. Sometimes on long hikes the way back feels about three times as long as the way in. And without his phone he had no way to actually measure the time. He kept moving.

Another hour. What felt like another hour, anyway, it was impossible to know. The trail kept going. It didn’t seem to change. It meandered through the burn, following the contours of the land, up and down – mostly down, at least – and around various hills and dips. The air was still and silent and the grey become more oppressive. The bleary sun didn’t appear to be moving, but for all his experience Renny wasn’t a ranger and couldn’t tell for sure. The moments of stark fear he had felt earlier had dissipated and settled into a constant background anxiety. Biscuit remained quiet and grim. He clearly didn’t want to be here but was resigned to his fate. Where human goes, so too goes dog. Another hour. Grey and still. Snags and ash. Renny had slowed to a trudge, fatigue setting in. Another hour? His thoughts slid around his brain with nothing to latch onto. Mountains and shadows. Girl? One good pupper and ash and ash and ash.


Renny jumped, actually jumped, and whipped his head around. He had nearly forgotten he had a canine companion. Biscuit looked up at him and barked again before taking off down the trail, a plume of ashy dust behind him. The fuck? He stumbled forward, realized he’d been slogging along this trail in a complete daze, and then moved into a trot. “Biscuit!” he yelled, “hold up you dingus!” Hearing his name, the bedraggled golden actually stopped, looked back and barked again, tail wagging like crazy. “Yeah, I’m coming, dang.”

It didn’t take long to figure out why Biscuit was so excited. It was the sound of a tumbling mountain creek, it was something different. Within moments Renny noticed the first living trees he’d seen since the burn began. And then grass. And water. Renny let out a feeble whoop and stumbled toward the stream. Biscuit was well ahead of him, clearly in better spirits as he ran in two clean circles yipping before jumping into the creek with a splash. Renny sat on the damp bank of the creek, not caring about getting his butt wet, and unshouldered his pack. Finally. If he remembered correctly, the creek was maybe a mile or so from the trailhead. Obviously the tedium of the burn had fried his sense of time and distance, but he was almost back. Back to the Subaru, back to towns and people and sweet sweet concrete. Renny leaned back onto his pack while Biscuit romped around in the stream, and looked up to the sky. It was still greyer than it should be, but a small patch of blue was directly overhead, bisected by a single white contrail. He may have dozed off again, but it was hard to tell.

Eventually, Renny dragged himself up. Considering his proximity to the trailhead, he had no business feeling this kind of relief, but the slog through the burn took more out of him than he would have believed. He dug out his water filter. May as well fill the bottle just in case. Just in case what? Well, just in case it’s more than a mile back to the car, maybe. The bottle was about halfway filled before Renny realized that aside from the burbling of the stream, it was totally quiet. He looked up to see Biscuit standing completely still in the middle of the water, staring intently between his front paws. No, Renny was mistaken, Biscuit wasn’t being totally silent. He was growling.

A tingly sense of apprehension settled over him as Renny stood up to walk over to the dog. Biscuit ignored him. He took a few short steps, but was still unable to see just what the hell had the otherwise pleasant dog so perturbed. There was a glint in the water, but that was probably just the sun reflecting off the rippling surface. He was nearly on top of Biscuit before he realized what he was looking at, and the brief respite from his dull anxiety was wiped completely away in a cold shudder. Biscuit looked up at Renny, who was frozen in place, and barked once, sharply. Renny started, glanced at the dog with huge eyes, and then slowly reached down between Biscuit’s paws and picked up his phone.

It was on. That made no sense, considering, but Renny didn’t think about it. Couldn’t think about it, or anything, because Skylar was looking right at him. Of the dozens of pictures of her he had stored on his phone, pictures he’d spent sad, drunk hours poring over, he didn’t recognize this one. But that was Skylar. Her listless brown hair was shorter than he had ever seen it, and it had blonde highlights. That was new. Her grey eyes were bright and alive, but worried. Questions started to bubble up through his shock, but none of them quite surfaced through the sheer, desperate longing that surged through him. How long he was standing ankle deep in the cold mountain stream he didn’t know, but eventually Renny realized he was crying, hot tears dropping on the screen, blurring her image.

“Oh, Sky, I fucked up,” he whimpered. He walked to the far side of the stream, bumping into Biscuit, who Renny had entirely forgotten. Once out of the stream, he sat heavily on a clump of grass, and continued staring at the screen. The picture was closely cropped to her face, so there was no telling where it was taken. His grief throbbed in his chest, but those questions were close to breaking through now. He recognized the expression on Skylar’s face as the anxious look she had worn at times during grad school before presentations or giving talks at conferences. It erased his memory of the frustrated rage he last remembered seeing on her face. Then her eyes moved, and he yelped and dropped the phone.

“Skylar, what the fuck is happening?” he asked, a spike of terror slashing through his grief. Her soft grey eyes were alarmed now, he could clearly see love and concern in them, but she was trying to speak now. He could hear her voice, but only from memory. Her lips, narrow and unadorned but oh how he missed them, were moving, she was speaking. Something, couldn’t tell what. “I can’t hear! Sky, I can’t understand.” Her face didn’t change, just kept mouthing words. Biscuit barked again. Renny looked up by reflex, and then back down to the phone. It was dark. She was gone.


Broken Top on the right, burned forest on the left. Taken from near the timberline around where Renny made camp. I didn’t think to take shots of the sad little creek.

Biscuit barked again, closer this time, and Renny felt an immediate surge of irrational rage toward the dog. He snatched up the phone and stood suddenly, with the vague intention of kicking that loudmouth, interfering, filthy fucking mutt, but as he gained his feet his head swam, nearly sending him back to the ground. He shook his head to clear it, and Biscuit barked again, excited at something. He looked up and felt a brief wash of shame at his previous thought. Biscuit’s tail was going bonkers, and he barked again, looking down the trial like let’s get going already. Renny looked back down at the phone in his hand. The screen had a thick, vertical crack all the way down, black splotches of ruined LCD on either side. Water leaked through the two physical buttons on its side. It was clearly ruined, and had been for quite a while. His memory of Skylar’s picture trying to speak to him was clear, he could see it in his mind’s eye easily. The new haircut. Her anxious expression. Her lips moving, but no good. She could be saying anything. Biscuit barked again, and was close enough now that his tail was rhythmically thumping Renny’s leg.

“Okay, buddy, I get it. We’re almost there. None of this is weird, we’re cool bros just out for a hike. Isn’t that right?” Biscuit didn’t answer and leapt forward down the trail. Renny lifted the pack onto his shoulders once again, taking a last moment alongside the stream to look around. The blue patch in the sky was gone, and all was grey and still again. The stream seemed more muted, the colors of the living plants washed out. Renny absently put the broken phone in his back pocket, and followed the now-excited dog down the trail.

Renny had expected another indeterminate period of trudging through the burned forest. His memory of the hike in, which at this point may as well have happened years ago, was that the creek was about halfway through the burn. The grey emptiness remained constant, but instead of zoning out for what felt like hours, the trial led sharply downhill, and well before Renny figured to see any change in the landscape he could see a meadow not too far in the distance. As far as he could remember, there had been no meadow, so the empty space could only be the trailhead parking lot. He expected to feel a rush of relief, but a slow, creeping dread was settling over him. This was all wrong, all wrong.

Biscuit, at least, had perked up considerably, and was about ten feet in front of him. He had stopped barking, but was constantly looking over his shoulder at Renny, like hurry up, human, I don’t see what’s so difficult about this. The washed-out greyness of the light seemed to dim as he approached the parking lot, which had appeared much faster than it had any right to, the creek was maybe ten minutes behind him, but time and distance didn’t seem to mean much anymore. One detail was stuck in his mind, cutting through the dread and the lingering shock of seeing Skylar, that worried him as the trail wound behind a hill hiding the parking area. From up here, there didn’t seem to be any cars in the lot. Biscuit barked again, now standing next to a massive, burnt Ponderosa, its dead black branches reaching over the trail and not looking particularly welcoming. He caught up with the dog, examined the tree, which up close resembled a black, scaly mass of tentacles erupting out of the ground. The trail continued around a corner, but Renny could see the Forest Service signboard marking the edge of the parking area. His Outback was nowhere to be seen.

He stood in front of the signboard, not really looking at it, nothing on there could be of any importance. Biscuit sat at his feet, occasionally looking up the trail from where they had just come. Renny was no stranger to hiking in the wilderness, and one of his more irrational fears was coming back to a car that didn’t work. Sometimes he worried about losing his keys on the trail, ugh, the thought of finishing a ten-mile hike only to have to retrace his steps was a nightmare. Sometimes the fear was returning to the trailhead to a dead battery and no other hikers in the area. Once, up near Mt. Hood, he had returned from lengthy hike up to Vista Ridge to find a semi-desperate young woman who had been hiking solo and was now in the middle of nowhere with a car that wouldn’t start. Lucky for her Renny wasn’t a creep and gave her a lift back to the highway, but he always worried something like that would happen to him, except nobody would be there and he’d get to spend the night in his dead car. Those anxieties seemed quaint to whatever the fuck was happening to him now.

After a panicky minute of not really looking at the signboard, Renny took a deep, ragged breath and surveyed the parking lot. No cars, that was the most important detail, but also this was not the parking lot he remembered. He slowly walked over to where the pit toilet stood on the north side of the lot. The brown paint was washed out and peeling, the handrail leading up the accessibility path was warped, rusted, and listing. He reached out for the knob and pulled, but the door seemed stuck. Renny grabbed the knob with both hands and yanked the door open, but the horrorshow he almost expected to see inside wasn’t there. Sure, there were a bunch of cobwebs and desiccated bugs, but it was clear the facility hadn’t been used in some time. Renny backed away, confused, terrified, weirdly curious. This last bit had been simmering under the surface of the more primitive emotions since he had approached the parking area and realized all was not as it seemed.

Renny and Biscuit walked in a circuit around the parking area after examining the only building in the area. Nothing but the dead, silver and black forest of spires and snags surrounded them. That was wrong, Renny knew, because the trailhead area never burned. It was a transition area for sure, and to the northeast should have been normal forest. Now the entire area was just a blank space in the midst of endless grey. He looked up at the sky, which if anything was growing dimmer, despite the fact that the pale sun hadn’t moved a bit since he had reentered the burn about a million years ago. Renny, no stranger to science fiction, wondered if he had walked into some kind of distortion of time/space, and thought if the situation wasn’t terrifying, it might actually be kind of cool. Renny had come back to the signboard, but actually looked at it this time. The map of the area was still there, but weathered, same as the various other warnings and the polite sign asking visitors to please for the love of all things holy pack it out for fuck’s sake. Then, posted on the corner of the signboard, something he had missed. Just a piece of paper encased in a homemade laminate that had cracked and warped in the weather. Just a picture of a golden retriever and the offer of a reward, dated three days from now.

“Well,” he said, and then sat heavily on fallen log which served for a parking lot border. Biscuit trotted over, regarded him briefly, and sat also, laying his head in Renny’s lap. Renny looked down and smiled, “looks like I’m gonna be $500 richer when we get back, huh?” Biscuit did not dignify this with a response. Renny had momentarily run out of thoughts. Eventually he would have to stand up, do something, anything. Come up with theories, test them, try not to die. But now he would scratch this dog’s ears. It didn’t really help. Despair hung on him like a wet coat. Images floated around, mostly of Skylar. Anxious? Afraid? Was her appearance some kind of communication? Ah crap, is this the afterlife? Because if so it sucks all the way out loud. Nah, he liked the space/time bubble better. At least that provided some kind of hope of escape. Renny stood abruptly.

“Okay, buddy, enough of this maudlin bullshit.” Biscuit didn’t seem to know what ‘maudlin’ meant, but Renny’s intention was clear enough and that spurred Biscuit to action. The dog trotted over to what used to be the Forest Service road back to Sisters. “Good idea as any,” Renny said. His words sounded flat and affectless, barely his voice. As he approached the beginning of the road, the anxious dread that had followed him down the trail returned in force, and he stopped. The light kept getting dimmer. Biscuit whined, and continued down the road. Renny followed, and forced himself not to run.

The road was potholed and flanked by grey, burned forest, in far worse shape than it had been when Renny had driven up here bumping Eazy-E. Then it had been gravel, sure, but well-graded and clear. At this point you’d need a proper four-wheel drive to make it this far, huge ruts scarred the surface of the road. He tried to remember how far back it was back to town, and figured it was probably a good fourteen or fifteen miles, much further than he’d be able to walk today. He had no real desire to camp out in this creepy, dim purgatory, but in a little while he wouldn’t have much of a choice. At least he had been able to fill his water bottle. Renny forced the surreal surroundings from his mind while he plotted out how dinner was going to happen later, which worked fairly well until Biscuit started barking again.

Pulled from his reverie, he looked to where Biscuit had run off, a few yards down the road and off to one side. Biscuit was doing the yapping in circles thing, then ran a little bit up a clear trail leading away from the road before returning to bark at Renny again. Yeah, okay, I get it. None of this makes sense, might as well go with it. Renny walked over the where the dog was now sitting impatiently on the trail. He looked back up the road from where they had come, just to try and designate a landmark, but what he saw wasn’t a landmark. It was a person. Panic emerged from cold dread, oh no, no I don’t want that, because that is not a person, I don’t know what that is but I hate it, hate it, hate it and it wants me, I’m sure of it. Nope, fuck this, let’s go, go, go. The figure didn’t move, but Renny did. Off down the trail with Biscuit bringing up the rear, and dread followed.

The sky darkened as they stumbled down the trail. Any idle thoughts were pushed from his head and was filled by foreboding, a sense of grim inevitability, of being leisurely pursued by some unspeakable terror. Threat and menace seemed to pulse just off-trail, somewhere close by in the dark, skeletal burnt forest. Renny tried to hurry, tried not to panic, tried to find reassurance in his companion and failed. The figure was following him, this wasn’t a guess. What would it do if, ha, don’t be naïve, when it caught him? Death? Worse? Shit, if only he had learned to do a proper Patronus spell maybe he wouldn’t be so terrified. His backpack weighed on him but he didn’t take it off. Not because he was thinking ahead to when he might need it, but because stopping to remove it was unthinkable. I’m not stopping for nothing, if that thing wants me it gets me on the run. Renny leaned into a hill, feet pushing desperately into the soft ashy ground, he needed speed but he bogged down. Closer now, the sky was almost black, only the silver spikes alongside the trail were visible, he pushed ahead.

Biscuit barked, once, loudly, and then he streaked ahead on the trail, leaving Renny to struggle up the last of the hill alone. I don’t blame you buddy, best get while the gettin is good, no need to stay here for whatever happens next. One last surge of effort pushed him to the top of the hill, and he stopped in spite of himself. The world was gone outside of the hilltop, darkness had consumed the burned forest, only a house remained. A house? It was not a spectacular building by any means, it was just… a house. Two stories, maybe four bedrooms. Fairly modern, even though he didn’t know a damn thing about architecture. It was clearly empty, but didn’t have an abandoned vibe to it. A haunted house this was not, and he wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pickup truck out front or a kid toddling around on the porch. Instead, Biscuit sat on the porch, to one side of the front door, looking at Renny like hurry your ass up, human.

No need to invite me twice, buddy. Renny ran forward, across the ashen yard and up the wooden steps next to the dog. Here’s the part where the door is locked, of course. He looked behind him and froze, his entire body contracting into itself. Biscuit growled low in his throat, as menacing as no golden retriever has ever sounded. The figure stood across the yard, indeterminate shadow, radiating menace and darkness, at once incorporeal terror and solid threat. Renny grasped the doorknob, and it turned smoothly in his hand. Warm, sixty-watt light spilled out onto the porch. Biscuit stood up, bristling, but looked at Renny, like directly at Renny, and thwacked him once, twice, three times with his tail. He barked, and streaked directly at the shadowy figure.

“Biscuit, no!” Panic now, but not quite irrational enough to follow, only enough to remain frozen in place, stuck on the porch in the warm, normal glow of household light, watching the only friend he’d made in the last five years throw himself in a glorious, golden streak toward the manifest shadow of amorphous dread. He disappeared into the darkness, and then the shadow was gone as well. But it would be back, he could feel the certainty in his core. “You dummy, why?”

To give him time, of course, so Renny gazed into the darkness a second longer before opening the door and stepping inside. Isn’t wasn’t warmer than outside, not really, the forest had been a tepid sixty degrees since he had stepped back into the burn, whenever that was. Still, the light alone was a welcome change, even if the house was completely empty. No furniture, no décor, just empty walls and open hardwood floors. And the light, of course, which came from naked bulbs fastened to the ceiling of the foyer/living room he found himself in. Once he had crossed the threshold of the house, he had calmed instantly. It was weird sensation, like he had been injected with something which slowed his heartrate and banished the oppressive dread that had been gripping him moments before. Renny stood in the empty room, and all he could feel was sadness for the loss of his furry yellow friend.

Actually, no, too easy. The encroaching terror was still there, just deeper down, further away. He had teared up over Biscuit’s brave apparent sacrifice, but was now conflicted. Should he leave the door open in case the dog came back? Or would that make it easier for the shadow figure to enter? Renny didn’t think things like doors and walls would delay the figure much, and something in his heart told him that Biscuit was gone for good. What the hell was the point, then? He took a deep breath, and tried to remember how to think.

There were two ways to go, up a flight of stairs, or down a hallway towards the back of the house. Might as well check out the ground floor first. He had no idea what he was looking for, but a slight subconscious tug pulled him to the back of the house. A hallway led to a kitchen, which of course was empty, and an adjacent dining area. There weren’t even any appliances, just empty spaces where they should be. The only odd thing was the lack of a sliding glass door, or any windows at all, now that he thought about it. Renny walked over to the sink and opened the tap. Nothing. Lights but no water, okay. He glanced around before focusing on what appeared to be a laundry room situation just off the dining area. On the back wall of this roomlet was a wooden door, and that subconscious tug pulled him over.

Renny opened the door, revealing a dimly lit staircase. Cellar, then. Yep, nope, nothing creepy and suspect about that at all. Despite his brain casually asking what the actual fuck he thought he was doing, Renny started going down the stairs. He couldn’t explain, it just felt right. Besides, that creeping dread was getting stronger, closer, and he had to go somewhere. Down he went, and the stairs creaked beneath him. Still, aside from the dimness and the dust, it wasn’t terrible. The staircase was longer than he expected, maybe forty or fifty steps, much further than the standard basement. Eventually he reached the bottom, and found himself in yet another unadorned room, with a concrete floor and rough stucco walls. A naked lightbulb hung from a chain in the middle of the room, and on the opposite side from him was an old, wood-burning fireplace. To his right, a fairly rickety wooden ladder was leaning against the wall. Actually, after squinting at it for a moment, he realized it was leaning against a ledge maybe fifteen feet off the ground.

Well, there was nothing else for it, so up he went. For the first time in a while, Renny was conscious of the weight of his backpack. His center of gravity was off, and he swayed alarmingly on the ladder, but heights were never a big deal to him, so he kept on. Once he reached the ledge, which was made from stone, he was able to sit comfortably. Without thinking, he kicked the ladder over. The shadowy figure probably didn’t need it, but why take the chance? A little further down the ledge, Renny could see a square hole in the wall, with a weak light spilling out. It was clearly big enough to accommodate both Renny and his pack, so he didn’t bother to hesitate. That creeping dread was getting stronger and the rooms were feeling more oppressive as he went. Besides, he knew where to go now.

There was no rational sense for the passages he followed, and there was only ever one place to go in any given room, of which there were many. The sense of pursuit never left him, but the borderline panic did. To say he was calm may have been an overstatement, but he could think again. Of course, since none of this made any sense whatsoever, there wasn’t much to think about. He thought about Skylar, of course, but instead of lamenting their breakup he was trying to parse what she had tried to tell him earlier. Was it a warning? One last I-love-you? Impossible to say. Her face was comforting, though, so that was something. Meanwhile, he traversed room after room, hallway after hallway. Generally, the passages led downward, but there was an occasional ladder to mix things up. Time had no meaning. Each room or passage was empty, but the deeper he got the older things seemed. There was more dust and the heretofore sterile atmosphere became noticeably more dank and earthy.

Despite the clear lack of an immediate threat, however, the pervasive, oppressive feeling of pursuit and dread were getting stronger the deeper he went. Renny pushed open a heavy wooden door to reveal the most medieval-looking room yet. Rough-hewn stone walls pressed in on him, and instead of clear, clean electric light there was a small fire burning in an immense fireplace. The floor was packed earth, and as soon as he stepped onto it all the fear and terror he had been keeping at bay came crashing down onto him. Renny swung the heavy door shut, but knew it didn’t matter. It was coming. Poor Biscuit had only been able to delay it. Wildly, Renny looked around the room, nah, call it like it is, the dungeon, looking for the next path. Nothing, nothing, oh. Oh no. How about you go fuck yourself, creepy magic house.

The only passage left was a small, wooden door embedded in the wall. It was maybe three feet square, and had an iron ring attached to the front. A heavy iron grate was on the front, but no light came from beyond. Just looking at it made Renny want to run screaming back toward the pursuing shadow figure. Then that subconscious tug was pulling him toward it, and really, what choice did he have? This all stopped making any kind of rational sense ages ago. If this was purgatory, maybe this is the way out. The way to oblivion. Was Skylar warning him about this door? Or was she encouraging him to go through it? Impossible to know. He grasped the ring, and it wasn’t cold. The room dimmed. The fire was the same, but it burned dark now. Renny didn’t have to look, he knew the figure was in the room with him. He yanked the door open, and darkness yawned.

“I love you, Sky,” he said, and tumbled through. The door clunked behind him. It was dark.

Posted in Original Fiction | Leave a comment

The Burn (Part 1)

Hey, hi, hello. I’m going to post some original fiction, because why not? This was intended to be a self-contained short story. I was thinking like 4,000 words maybe. Well, by the time I “finished” I was at 14,000 words and turns out there’s quite a bit more story here. Of course, that’s going to take some time to write because I am a crazy slow fiction writer. Also it might be unreadable trash, there’s always that. Anyway, maybe you’ll like it. This is obviously a work of fiction and I’ve taken some liberties with the trail described, but otherwise I totally went on this hike. It went a little better than in the story here.


Middle Sister on the left, North sister on the right. This was taken in September of 2016, approximately from where Renny makes camp.


“Well that’s just perfect,” he grunted as his Subaru’s undercarriage bounced off a half-buried rock. Renny was not upset about this because the old, plastic-paneled Outback was used to these washboarded gravel roads. No, far more irritating was the slight haze of dust in front of him, shimmering in the slanted, mid-morning light. On a road like this, that dust could only mean one thing: there was someone right in front of him, headed to the same place, at the same time as him.

“It’s a goddamn Tuesday in October and I still can’t have a trailhead to myself,” he muttered to himself, and sure enough there they were. A new white Expedition bouncing along ahead of him, spewing grey dust in a vast cloud. Probably filled a bunch of college chucklenuts out to drink around an (illegal) campfire by a lake. Or some middle-aged REI warriors out to tame a mountain so they can post about it on Instagram. It would be less annoying if there was more than one trail out here to disperse the crowds, but this was a one-destination trail. Out of habit he glanced over at the passenger seat before remembering he could be mad out loud if he wanted now. “Goddammit!” Yeah that felt all right.

The road wound up a long, mild incline through the forest. Flat, autumnal sunlight dappled through the innumerable Lodgepole pines, whose thin, scraggly masses made up the bulk of the trees. A full summer’s worth of grey road-dust matted those closest to the road, but further out the pines were a healthy, dusky green. Occasionally a massive, red-scarred Ponderosa would punch up through the Lodgepole canopy, towering proudly over the inferior trees, dew-laden needles sparkling in the morning sun. At times the road would wind around a rocky outcropping and a panoramic view would open up to the east, the vast pine forest giving way to the endless sagebrush of the high desert in the distance. Eventually, Renny knew, the road would turn to the northwest, and the space cleared out by the road would reveal the craggy, monolithic face of North Sister. At least it would if this fuckin’ SUV wasn’t throwing up half a road’s worth of dust into the air, which it somehow managed despite going so excruciatingly slow.

Renny tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as he tried to focus on the trees, the view, the morning sun, anything but the wagonload of dickheads in front of him. This was the exactly the kind of thing he was looking to avoid by coming out here in the first place, which is to say other human beings. He tried to distract himself by turning up the radio – nothing compliments the wilds of Oregon like a little vintage Eazy-E, which he could loudly enjoy now that there wasn’t anyone vetoing his musical choices – but Renny’s mind kept returning to the trailhead. The awkward pacing issues that leaving from a single trailhead present. Should he grab his pack and make a dash for the trail, assuming that the goofs in the Expedition will spend half an hour dicking around by their tailgate? Or should he spend some time double-checking his gear, like he should, and hope the others got a move on? Ugh, this was always the worst. Either way it was 50/50 that they would run into each other on the trail. Or worse, ended up camping – “One sucka dead LA Times front page!” – Renny exclaimed, interrupting his own internal monologue for a glorious moment. And there, the sun was reflecting off the thin coat of early-October beauty snow that clung to the slopes of North Sister, and the thick, grasping branches of the Ponderosa pines reached deep into the vast blueness of the autumn sky, but don’t quote me boy cuz I ain’t said shit.

Shortly after the song ended, Dr. Dre’s bass rattling the Outback’s cheap plastic panels, both vehicles pulled into a large gravel cul-de-sac. A freshly painted pit toilet stood on a small rise towards the end of the parking area, and there was one other car already in the lot. The dew present on the windows indicated that this belonged to people already camped. The Expedition found a spot, and an older man in a North Face puffy jacket emerged from the driver side. He tipped a wave at Renny, opened up the back of the SUV, and a goofy-ass golden retriever bounded out onto the gravel. On the other side a lady of indeterminate middle age was stretching her back. Renny hated both of them intensely.

Renny took a deep breath and killed the engine. Time to just grab his pack and dash for the trail, a luxury he could afford now. Worst case scenario, these folks were the kind of unassuming power-hikers that would quickly surpass him on the trail, beating him to the lake. The slightly better-case scenario is that they poke along the trail, he easily beats them and sets up camp, and then they pitch their tent like ten feet away because they don’t understand the etiquette of backcountry camping. Maybe they’re day hiking? Renny glanced over and saw the bedrolls attached to overnight packs. Shit. Meanwhile this dumb adorable golden is running around kicking up dirt and ash everywhere… ash? The hell with it. Renny threw open the door and stepped out onto the gravel of the trailhead parking lot.

It was immediately clear that a massive fire had swept through the area, as recently as last year. The healthy dusky green of the forest petered out right here at the trailhead, which was in a transitional area of half-burnt, brown-tipped pine trees. Beyond the parking lot, the entire forest was a sea of ghostly silver and black spires stretching out to the horizon. The burn was so recent there was virtually no ground cover at all. A brand new trail marker stood at the beginning of the trail, and various Forest Service warnings covered the sign board. Please don’t hike off-trail in the burn area. Okay, why would I want to? The walk is going to be a dusty, ashy mess to begin with. How big was this fire? Did it reach the lake? If so, there was no point in hiking up there, camping was assuredly prohibited if there was a recent burn. There are other people here, and the Forest Service re-commissioned the trail, so obviously – Whunk! – Renny was knocked off balance and his thoughts were knocked out of his head by a mass of golden fur and damp tongue.

“Biscuit! No! I’m so, so sorry! He’s friendly!” A mildly alarmed, mostly amused feminine voice called after the golden retriever, as if there’s such a thing as an unfriendly golden. Biscuit was currently all up in Renny’s face, bounding around and clearly beside himself with excitement. He was clean, at least, as he had not yet had the chance to flop around in the dirt, and also wore a stylish purple and black collar. Go Huskies. For a moment, Renny had forgotten the unwelcome mutual visitors. Now that he had a new friend, he forgot to be mad at them for spoiling his ideal departure from the real world.

“Nah, it’s fine,” he said over the hopping dog. Then he play-pushed Biscuit’s big dumb head and assumed the play stance. “Who’s a big dummy? Is it you? I bet it’s you!” He said to the dog, who possibly took offence, because he stopped jumping and started sniffing his Subaru. Renny gave the dog a playful smack on his hindquarters and stood back up. Time to grab the pack and head up, burn or no.

“He’s just so excited to be out in the forest, I’m sorry if he slobbered all over you,” the woman said, although she didn’t sound terribly apologetic. “Are you headed up to Camp Lake?” Behind her, the presumed husband was rummaging around in his backpack. Renny remembered to be annoyed.

“Well I’m not sure. I didn’t realize how big this fire was, I guess. Don’t really want to slog through miles of ash if everything up there was torched.” He opened up the hatch of his Outback as he spoke, which was a hint at his intention. He was hiking up there anyway, fuck all y’all.

“Yeah, it’s terrible, isn’t it?” North Face had sauntered over to stand near his wife, and he held a pair of trekking poles in one hand. “The guy at REI said the trail through the burn is only a few miles long, though. The lakes and stuff up there are still fine.”

“I kinda figured it was okay if there’s another car here,” Renny replied, pulling his ratty-in-comparison backpack out of the car and slipping one strap over his shoulder. It was a dusty green and had seen some miles.  Whoof, heavier than he remembered. “Well, no time like the present I guess,” he said, slamming the hatch back down harder than intended. The man in the puffy jacked arched an eyebrow, shrugged, and poked his dog with the handle of one of his trekking poles.

“You ready too, Biscuit?” The dog responded with a playful yelp, and then sprinted over to the trail marker to proclaim it for himself to all dogkind. “We’ll be a little while yet, so you won’t have to worry about us tailgating you all the way up to the lake. We’re pretty slow these days,” the man said to Renny, who was no dope and picked up on the Oregonian passive-aggressiveness. He was also in no mood to make this situation any weirder.

“No worries. I might do a little off-trail hiking once I get out of the burn anyhow. I’ve only been up here once before.” He looked up at where the trail worked its way up the barren foothills. “Shame about the fire, though.”

The man chuckled and said, “my wife and I probably aren’t up to any off-trail adventures today. And hey! At least the fire opened up some views!” He waved his hand toward North Sister, and he was right. If the trees were unharmed, they wouldn’t be able to see the mountain.

“That’s true,” Renny said, impatient now to be off. “Well, have a good hike,” and with that he beeped his Subaru and walked over to the signboard, which confirmed that the trail went through about three miles of burned area before returning to subalpine forest.

The first mile was a slog, but then it usually is. At least nobody was ten paces behind him, voicing loud complaints every six seconds. Renny grimaced. Muscles which were not accustomed to working make their displeasure known, and it takes some time for them to shut up about it. The trail was miserably dusty. It took all of ten steps to coat his boots and pant legs in grey ash, and when he looked behind him to reassure himself that the trailhead hikers were being true to their word he could see the lingering rooster tail of ash settling back down behind him. There was also very little to look at. The fire had been intense, and there was nearly nothing left alive. The trees were universally scorched, and the ground was scoured clean of all vegetation, with the rare exception of the occasional clump of grass or nascent shrub. The lines of the landscape lay clean, and Renny could see every ridge and wrinkle of the earth. It was eerie, especially considering the total lack of birdsong or rodent life. Usually these trails were bustling with ground squirrels and songbirds. Today the only sound was a light, whispering wind blowing through the silver spires of dead trees.

This would have been downright creepy if the day wasn’t so warm, bright, and cheerful. The mid-October sunshine was out in full force and the temperature was already in the sixties, promising to top out at a pleasant seventy degrees by midday. The plan was to reach his campsite around three or four in the afternoon, and then spend the rest of the day kicking around the lake or reading in blessed silence. Of course, that was several hours in his future after ten or eleven miles of serious hiking, the first third of which was slogging through this dust. Renny tried to imagine what it would have been like standing in this same area as the fire whipped and raged through the forest and was at a loss. He was still trying to picture this as the trail reached the top of a ridge. He stood in the middle of an open space which used to be a meadow and the view opened up to the forest below and the mountains above. Renny gasped.

The snowy crags of Broken Top were directly in front of him, while all three Sisters towered to his right. Below him the forest filled the space below the mountains, and the burn was bigger than he had imagined. North Sister appeared to have a silvery-grey apron that swept along her eastern flank which was several miles wide and seemed to reach halfway to Bend, which twinkled in the distance. The high desert stretched to the horizon in the east, with the occasional butte to liven things up. In the distance, the Ochocos broke up the flat, sagebrush monotony of the landscape. Renny stood there for a full minute before he thought to take a picture, but even as he pulled out his phone and began to commemorate his hike, he knew that not photo could properly relate the straight up fucking majesty of what he was seeing. The petulant resentment he felt at the trailhead was totally erased from his mind.

Shortly after Renny’s first panoramic view and the stark reminder of why he’d spend two days lugging around a sixty pound backpack in the woods, the forest started to show signs of life. Forest fires, even the apocalyptic ones, are rarely complete in their devastation. Quirks in the landscape shelter small pockets of life, especially towards the edges of burned areas. Here and there small stands of pine trees stood mostly unscathed, and the occasional grove of Ponderosas still provided shelter for shrubs and grass beneath them. Birds flitted in from the surrounding, healthy forest. Before too long Renny came across the first stream, which cut through the barren land carrying a load of ash and dirt, but also providing life to either side. Grass and small trees were mostly unharmed here, and Renny took the opportunity remove his pack and splash around before heading further up the mountainside.

As always, the cobwebs in Renny’s mind began to loosen up the higher in elevation he ascended. Despite the ash, despite the REI-yuppies at the trailhead, despite the dreary fog of an unfulfilling career, despite Skylar… goddammit, Skylar. Despite all of it, the thin air made things make sense. Well, no it didn’t. Not really. But the wind would whistle through the grey forest snags and over the next barren rise in the land some birds would peep at each other and fluffball clouds would roll through the sky and get hung up in mountaintops and Renny could at least pretend that the world made sense. It was too soon in the hike to get mopey about women, or work, or the grim anxiety of a life unfulfilled. Autumnal light slanted through the silver trees and fine grey ash billowed up from his boots and the land rolled on among the feet of the mountains and Renny willed himself to stop thinking.

The hike refused to help him out in this regard because hiking through a recently burned forest flat out fucking sucks. Ash is worse than sand in that it just adheres to anything and everything, including the lungs. It makes the physical act of walking more difficult, not unlike trudging through a sandy beach. Plus, aside from the occasional breathtaking vista, a burned forest is a visual bore. All good things come to an end, though, and just as Renny was losing patience with trudging through an inch or so of loose ash with every step, the burn ended. There was a transition zone, of course, but slowly and surely the pale grey snags gave way to singed orange pines and eventually the trail became actual dirt and the trees were whole and healthy. In the distance a woodpecker did his thing, banging his dum-dum head against a tree with a methodical tok-tok-tok! Unseen creatures rustled in the underbrush, and the air smelled of pine needles warmed in the sun. It was an okay day.

As the forest livened up and the hike began to resemble Renny’s expectations, his idiot brain took over, which was the opposite of what he wanted. The idea – the simple, honest, and naïve idea – was to escape into the forest for a couple of relaxing days and reset his brain. Physical labor and the work of “survival” would be enough to cleanse his mind and when he came back down from the mountains he would be possessed with a fresh invigorating spirit which would blast him out of his dreary routine and propel his life back to meaning. Such was the power of the outdoors. At least, that’s what the posters in Columbia Sportswear promised, an idea collaborated by the tourism board in Bend. Besides, didn’t Jack Kerouac spend a summer as a fire lookout in the middle of nowhere once? And he turned out all right. Yet here Renny was, fully embraced by the subalpine forest in the shadow of these majestic Cascade volcanos, and all he could think about was the goddamned girl.

Mousy brown hair hastily tied back in an untidy ponytail, fierce grey eyes blazing at him as she flung her overnight bag over her shoulder one last time and slamming the door between them without a final word. That slam reverberating in his half-furnished apartment, her soft footsteps receding in the distance, the throaty grumble of her Volvo starting up and taking her away forever. Sitting atop a dune at the coast, laughing into the wind, her usually limp hair whipping freely in the salty breeze, her face bright and ruddy and utterly and completely her. Hunched over a book in the university library, cramped in a dim corner completely unaware of being observed, completely unaware that anyone would want to observe her. Backwards, forwards, images came unbidden and at will. Taking her on her first hike. Easy peasy, a simple, mostly flat trail up a burbly, lively creek, and despite the constant questioning of why anyone would want to waste time walking to nowhere she finally stood at the base of Tamanawas Falls and yes, there was the delighted, awestruck gasp. Much later, listening, upset and confused, as she explained over and over again that it was okay, she didn’t mind, she loved him and didn’t mind. Hearing himself, beyond reason, beyond comprehension, really, that he couldn’t, wouldn’t, eventually didn’t, and then that final slam of the door again and again and again.

Renny paused his reverie to unlimber his requisite bestickered Hydro Flask and availed himself to some lukewarm Bend tap water. The thoughts and images were a constant weight and had been replaying pretty much constantly for three months, so they could wait. Meanwhile it occurred to him that the wind sounded a little steadier than it should and after a moment he realized that he was hearing a small river in the distance. He knew there was a proper river crossing on this hike and wasn’t necessarily looking forward to it. The water level should be fairly low, but was still going to be swift and cold. It was possible there was going to be a felled tree-bridge since this was a relatively popular trail in the summer, but there was an equal possibility of getting wet. It was warm, but it was still October. He sighed, thought about Skylar’s laugh, and kept walking.

She was right, of course. He knew it right away. All the maudlin, melancholy self-pity of the last three months were not enough to convince him otherwise. He hated his job, she knew that as well as he did, and when the offer came in from West Virginia University, Skylar jumped on it. Why wouldn’t she? It was the fulfilment of a year’s worth of applications and rejections, it was the promise of a career she’d spent her entire life working to achieve. Where did this bitter spear of resentment come from, then? Yes, of course he knew Columbia had stores in West Virginia, hell there was one in Morgantown even, that wasn’t the point. What was the point? Shut up, that’s what. Why can’t you just accept that I love you, and want you to be happy, and if that means I have to support your bum ass for a while who cares? There were tears, then, when she had said that. Skylar didn’t cry often and when she did it was subtle but effective. It almost worked, and if Renny wasn’t a fucking idiot, it would have worked. But he was, so it didn’t. Skylar was a Mountaineer, an Associate Professor, taking what was due to her. Renny was also a mountaineer, an Assistant Manager, and all he could muster was a resigned indifference to his failure.


The Pole Creek Fire ripped through many square miles of beetle-decimated forest in 2012. It’s going to be a while before the area recovers. This was taken on the foot of Middle Sister looking east. The glacier was behind me and up a very steep climb I had no intention of attempting.

Renny came across the river then. He had been hiking for a good couple of hours, his legs assured him, time for a break to enjoy some water and trail mix, and maybe trick his horrible, traitorous mind into shutting the fuck up for a few minutes. Renny found himself a nice downed tree to sit on which overlooked the river. He consulted his map. Creek. Whatever. It was water and it tumbled down the mountain with its load of glacial gravel and assorted tree parts. He munched some trail mix and traced out the trail on his map. Another four or five miles and he would be at Camp Lake and he could hopefully spend a quiet night in the starlit company of Middle Sister. He glanced up at the creek again, gauging the depth of the water. As he was doing so he heard a muted bark and he stopped moving to make sure of what he heard. Yes, there it was again, a series of playful barks presumably from a very friendly and goofy golden retriever named Biscuit. Renny sighed and tried to find the creek crossing but couldn’t immediately see it, just a hundred useless cairns left by scores of jackasses. He looked up to where the trail continued, checked his map and realized that what he was looking at was an unofficial user trial. Biscuit barked again, louder and closer, and Renny made a hasty decision.

The user trail was well defined, but it became readily apparent that it was not a maintained Forest Service trail. Renny meandered through a meadow, the sun sinking low in the sky despite it only being early afternoon. Well, the sky is lower here, after all. The trail wound through some trees, and then skirted the creek for a bit before climbing randomly atop an older moraine. Scrubby trees were abundant here, and the creek was quite a bit further below him than he expected. He had heard nothing further from Biscuit. Skylar had retreated to her sodden, heavy home in his chest. Renny looked up into and watched a jet silently scratch a white mark across the blue as it made its way from Seattle or Portland to San Francisco or Los Angeles. Back down to earth, Renny noticed that the user trail was about to ascend further, up a series of ten or twelve rough-hewn, extremely unpleasant looking switchbacks. He stood at the base of the hill, which went from like zero to vertical immediately, someone just brute-forced the trail here, fuck it. Renny took a breath and slowly made his way up.

At the top was more up. This happens a lot when hiking in the mountains. After the next section of up was more up, and after an hour or so of this, Renny began to wonder if perhaps he had made an error in judgement. He was wearing the latest in outdoor sportswear, but sweat wouldn’t be denied and the internal heat of exertion was at least good for banishing self-abusive repetitive thoughts for a while. And then, oh yes here we go, the trail leveled out and the trees became small and squat and rumbly-tumbly boulders scattered across the landscape and Renny was standing on the very feet of North Sister. Snow dusted the steep slopes about a thousand or so feet above where he stood, but the air was a good ten degrees cooler up here than it was at the trailhead. Renny relished the cool breeze which swirled down from the mountain slopes. He had rejoined the creek, and could now pretty clearly see its source, which was a fat glacier perched on the slope of Middle Sister. The trial continued on through the scrubby trees for a while before the trail followed the creek up to the glacier. Renny had every intention of going up there, but first he needed to locate a campsite.

After a few minutes of aimless wandering through the alpine trees and rocks Renny found the bones of an old, absolutely illegal fire. Well, at least the vandals had made a fire ring first. Renny shook his head in righteous indignation. Like, seriously, you have to hike through how many miles of devastated forest before you get here, and you light a goddamned fire? “Everyone sucks but me,” Renny said out loud, and then paused. He hadn’t spoken for hours and his voice sounded strange to him, unpleasant and flat. Rather than profane the mountain air further, he absently kicked away the fire ring, scattering ashes and charred bits of wood. The campsite itself was ideal. Renny pitched his small, two-person tent against an overgrown moraine – trees and shrubs had made the giant mound of loose silt and gravel their home – and there was a nice ring of alpine pines surrounding a fair amount of empty space, which both blocked the wind and opened up the view. Once his tent was in place he sat inside of it momentarily and gazed up at the mountains, which towered above. He absently took a few pictures before stowing his phone away in his pack, which he then shoved in the tent. Renny was not particularly worried about getting robbed up here.

Renny walked back to the trail, which meandered through the subalpine firs and paralleled the creek, which was getting smaller and faster with every step. Renny, who felt about a hundred pounds lighter for having ditched the backpack, made his way through the squat, deformed trees that filled this last, relatively flat area before the mountain began for real. Soon, the wind-sculpted firs began getting sparse, the trail started back uphill, and the trail began its final ascent up Middle Sister. He wasn’t entirely sure, but Renny wouldn’t have been surprised if the user trail he’d been following eventually found its way to the summit, which was still a couple thousand feet above. Renny wasn’t feeling that ambitious, but he could at least drag himself up to the foot of the glacier, which sat comfortably above the treeline. As the trees receded below him, the landscape became one of various sized rocks. Freshly melted glacial ice tumbled down the rocks to one side, the wind was still mild, the volcanic face of Middle Sister stood in front of him, the entirely of Eastern Oregon spread out behind and below him. Oh, Oregon.

After a good half-hour of scampering up and around progressively larger and larger boulders, Renny finally approached the glacier. Hayden Glacier? Sounded about right, although by the looks of it he wouldn’t have to worry about its name for too much longer. He walked up to the base of the glacier, which was comprised of dirty, compacted, pocked ice, and kicked it. Some flecks of ice flew back into his face, which he clearly deserved. Renny chuckled to himself, and found himself a nice, round rock to sit on. It was a good rock. Once upon a time it was a blob of molten lava, ejected from one of the Sisters, where it cooled in the air before bombing back to earth. Lava bomb. Renny regarded the trail from which he came, down, down, down to silvery dead forest miles below him. The burn was impossibly huge, impossibly wide. In the distance Bend twinkled, beyond that the desert yawned to the horizon. His eyes, however, were drawn back time and time again to the grey burned forest. How long until it recovered? Fifty years? Longer? Whatever, he’d be an old, old man before this view was more green than grey, and that was a bummer.

Know what else is a bummer? Losing a girl because you’re a prideful dipshit. Skylar was worried he didn’t want to go with her because she might make more money than him. Nah, that’s dumb as hell. One, who cares? Two, a career in retail management would end up making more than one in academia. Then why why why, you make no sense! Not crying but listless, slowly understanding that what they had was dying, eventually turning into frustrated rage. Fuck you, then, you silly dumb asshole. Skylar didn’t get mad until she got mad, then she got maaaad. Renny didn’t want to live in West fucking Virginia, obviously. But that shouldn’t be a deal breaker, wouldn’t be permanent, just a first step, besides it’s not like he was doing anything here. Oh, but the mountains and the forest and the endless volcanic weirdness of Central Oregon. Great, what’s more important, me or the mountains. The mountains? Fuck, shit, hell, butts. Something twinkled below, caught Renny’s wandering attention, that’s not a rock, that’s not the creek, that’s by my tent and what the fuck is that? That’s a person.

A chill settled on the top of Renny’s head and dissolved through his body. The figure, and it could be nothing else even it was just a shadowy shape from this distance, was at least a half mile away, perhaps further because it was far below where Renny was perched on his lava bomb. Renny tried to focus on the figure, tried to make sense of it, but it moved furtively, there was no detail from this distance. All he could figure was that another hiker followed the same user trail he had and now was looking for a place to pitch a tent. Annoyance replaced the initial alarm, and Renny stood up. It would take a while to get down there, so hopefully the person saw his tent and decided to piss off on his own. Goddammit, he went all the way the hell out here to avoid exactly this. Can’t a guy hike out into the wilderness and be alone with his self-indulgent misery anymore? Renny grunted and started to pick his way back down the rocky trail.

Nobody was there. Renny kept a sharp eye out as he made his way back to his tent, but saw no further movement, no further glimmering. By the time he was halfway down the slope he had pretty much decided that he had, in fact, saw nothing. Actually, it was probably Bigfoot. Roaming the mountains and rocking his Timex, enveloped in his secret Bigfoot camouflage, like he do. When he approached his campsite he was now annoyed that he let himself be drawn back to his tent before he was done poking around the glacier. Sure enough, there was no sign of anyone else. No giant footprints, no regular footprints other than his own. Well, whatever, might as well see about taking some nature shots. Renny unzipped the tent, dragged his pack over, and fished around for his phone. Which was totally gone. No, fuck you, it’s there. Where else would it go?

Renny took the time to set camp while he emptied out his bag looking for the missing phone. This was a trick he played on his brain, which was at least not thinking about the girl for once. Oh, it’s no big deal, whatever, I’m just rolling out my bedroll and getting dinner out, I’m definitely not worried about losing an expensive piece of electronics. Obviously it just settled down to the bottom of the pack. Obviously. So he took his time, took out each piece of equipment bit by bit, as if performing an inspection. Oops, almost out of Band-Aids. Yep, that’s important. Totally a priority. He wasn’t fooling himself, but he tried. When there’s only one item left which is clearly not a phone but you’re still pretending there’s a chance, well, maybe it’s time to give it up. Where else could it be? Renny dug his hands in every last pocket again, ran his memory back, knew he put the goddamn phone in here, searched the seams and pockets of the tent, nothing nothing nothing. He slumped, hands in his hair, a sudden rush of emotion flooded him. Renny cried. It was too much.

He didn’t care about the phone, not really. Shit, it was two years old anyway, a relic. It wasn’t exactly a safety device, either. Not up here. Then what, why, what? Renny angrily wiped the tears off his face and stood. No, fuck this, someone stole it. He saw them, he knew he saw them. Renny wasn’t a tracker, but if someone had been there surely it would be obvious. He abruptly left the tent, stood up, looked around the small clearing where he had pitched it. Boot tracks, but his book tracks. Nothing else obvious. He looked up at the craggy, white and grey face of North Sister, but she didn’t know. It didn’t make sense! Why take a ratty old phone and leave the expensive, barely-used backpacking equipment? Shit, the burner alone cost a hundred bucks, more than his phone was worth. He climbed up the moraine that rose above his tent. It gave him a vantage point, but just more nothing. Nobody. The phone was gone. So were the pictures. The pictures he hadn’t backed up.

Dinner was a fairly miserable experience. His hundred dollar, lightweight backpacking stove decided to donk out so it took approximately an hour to heat a cup of water to the point where his dehydrated food envelope was even remotely edible. Lukewarm and lumpy. Gross. Renny didn’t really pay too much attention. Camp chores were minimal without the need for a fire. He walked down to the glacial stream and went through the motions of filtering the water, even though when you can see the source it was probably a good bet he wouldn’t get sick. Eh. He tried to read for a bit but he was wrung out, and after half an hour of attempting to read a single sentence he gave it up and tossed it back in the tent. Given the time of year and his proximity to the mountains, he would be out of light by five o’clock anyway. Once or twice he got up in a half-hearted attempt to track down the phone thief. Nothing. As soon as the sun dipped behind the Cascades the temperature dropped another ten degrees. Cold, hungry, sad, alone. Great trip. The mountains fucking rule.

Renny waited until the stars came out. It was a last ditch effort to not feel like total garbage. They shined radiant and cold. Their infinite, glimmering sprawl in the black sky did nothing to assuage the sodden, empty feel that had settled over him since he discovered the missing phone. Renny zipped up the tent, gave a disdainful look at his tiny, polyester “pillow,” and burrowed into his sleeping bag. He was here to prove to himself that he had made the right decision. He chose location over love. Threw it all away for the ability to have a day like today. Despite knowing, knowing, that there was nothing else here. His job as a retail drone, justified because he sold overpriced gear to the upper-middle-class. Disdainfully dismissing West Virginia because, so help me, they didn’t have real mountains. All this trip has done was put his failure into perfect perspective. The futility. The colossal dumbassedness of it all. The hike was supposed to be a reboot, a reminder. Even the comfort of the mountains had been stripped away. Over and over, round and round, images and imaginary conversations, Renny’s mind finally drifted off in the cold mountain air.


Part two is up next, and things take a a bit of a turn. Also the protagonist gets marginally less whiny, so there’s that to look forward to.

Posted in Original Fiction | Leave a comment