This post spoils aspects of Return of the Obra Dinn, a ten- to fifteen-hour video game that I enjoyed very much, and which I would enthusiastically encourage you to play first.

The fate of Henry Evans and the other survivors makes for one of the best hidden-in-plain-sight puzzles I have ever seen.

You read its solution within the first moments of the game, part of the diegetic instructions on using the magic notebook — he even signs his full name to the goddamn thing. But this happens before the game teaches you the importance of paying attention to every detail it provides, doubly so where names are concerned. And so, all that text registers as merely flavorful mood-setting, forgotten as soon as you turn the page and start taking in the delicious infodump of maps and charts and sketches. (To say nothing of the titular boat waiting for you to board and dig into the blood ‘n’ guts you came for.)

I have no doubt that some players with stickier minds than mine skimmed the passenger manifest for the first time, saw that it contained a name that matched the previous page’s signature, and immediately thought “Well, I already know his fate, then.” But for the rest of us — which, I suspect, represent the majority of players — the information waits for us to rediscover it, quite probably during an idle re-read of the book’s first few pages while feeling stuck. What a delightful kick in the head!

My second-favorite discovery of the same flavor: finally noticing, on my second or third visit to the scene, the tiny silhouettes of the three poor souls plunging into the sea near the end of Part VII — just barely visible over the kraken’s swarming tentacles.

In the game’s “present”, and right from the start, you can see a strange, slowly rotating glint or sparkle on the horizon. The game never clarifies its meaning or purpose, other than passively inviting the player to — in time — draw a connection between it and the unearthly, circular glow cast by the Merfolk’s stolen conch in various memory-dioramas.

One friend, observing how the conch’s glow would even penetrate walls, interpreted it as very distant, originating in the Merfolk’s own lands, and assuring the player that the conch had returned to its home. I prefer to interpret the glow as rather closer, shining from the party of Merfolk who fulfilled their end of the bargain with the heroic Third Mate and drove the Obra Dinn back to England. You consequently spend the whole game under their observation, bearing the conch a mile or two out to sea, and making sure that you and your kind do not mean any further trouble to them.

Why can your character see the bizarre glow, though? Can everyone? If so, why doesn’t anyone comment on it? I wonder if it’s a second sight somehow conferred to you by the magic of Dr. Evans’s pocketwatch, unearthly technologies somehow all bound up together and resisting deep inquiry.

I do like how the doctor’s acquisition of the monkey’s paw implies that he knows how the pocketwatch works, which well of course he does, that makes sense, it’s his watch after all — except, wait, what? Did he just coincidentally happen to own a necromantic timepiece, perhaps as a family heirloom?

I prefer to think that he didn’t own the watch (or the book, with its own peculiarities) during the Obra Dinn’s misadventure. Instead, as a Man of Science, he only naturally knew of all the useful (if ontologically dicey) things one could accomplish with the pickled paw of a monkey who saw terrible things. He subsequently spends the next few years scouring Morocco for the hardware that eventually winds up in your hands — and, perhaps, also picking up a nasty wasting disease as just deserts for all his unnatural meddling.

But even if Dr. Evans is a Miévillesque brass-cog thaumaturge of some skill, and even if he did step right out of central casting as a waistcoated Victorian medical man, he rather is a bit rubbish at his name-plated job of ship’s doctor, yeah? I lost count of how many scenes begin with him saying some equivalent of “Right, then, let’s have a look at you” followed by his patient immediately expiring.

Then again, maybe a swift exit with no further lopped limbs or spilled entrails is rather just what you want from the ship’s doctor while on such a grim voyage…

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Photograph of a square-rigged sailing ship with 'Atlantis' written on its stern, seeming to fade into a foggy backdrop.
“Ghost Ship Atlantis” by ziga-zaga (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn really hit the spot for me. I finished it in just under ten hours, spread over two days; each visit to the game felt like a little midday vacation, despite the mental stretching it involved. I can easily recommend it to anyone who likes their games to both demand and reward close attention and thorough investigation.

Obra Dinn applies a correct level of approachable kindness to an otherwise blood-curdlingly complicated logic puzzle. You must identify and catalogue the fates of sixty people who either perished on or vanished from a drifting ghost ship, by way of dozens of walk-through dioramas with attached scraps of dialogue and sound effects. Were it part of the MIT Mystery hunt, the game would just leave it there. Instead, as an entertainment for mere mortals like me, it informs you every time you have any three fates correctly filed, locking them into place and removing any further doubt about them. That gives you a nice sense of forward motion, crucial during the midgame where a sense of unmanageable chaos starts to really spiral outwards all around you.

Through this mechanism, if you feel quite certain about two not-yet-locked fates, you can afford to try out some guesses — educated, or otherwise — if you’re only halfway-sure about a third. This costs nothing, and only the drear of exponential-combination matrices prevent you from trying it beyond one or two variables. The very moment you key in a happens-to-be-correct combination, the game snaps it up and locks it away — assuming you were right about the other two fates, at least! I performed this trick throughout my playthrough with no shame, and let myself do just a little bit of multi-dimensional brute-forcing towards the end when only a handful of identities remained foggy. I didn’t feel any less deserving of my completion for it.

I found the nature of its audiovisuals an interesting sort of bait-and-switch. Its screenshots arrested me when I first saw them, looking for all the world like scenes from a forgotten Macintosh game circa 1990, all stark black-and-white outlines with masterfully applied stipple-shading. In motion, though, this effect drops away, revealing itself as a mere (if very technically clever) filter applied to the game’s camera. It reminded me of Bob Zimbinski’s hack from 20 years ago that let you play Quake in a text-only terminal window, through a not-dissimilar technique.

However, this suits the game, since your interaction with the world comes almost entirely through exploration of time-frozen moments, peering closely and methodically at every person and other detail provided. This intentionally low-information filter allows the game to minimize the level of said detail it provides to a certain level of coarseness, eliminating the need for complex object textures while still allowing motion through a three-dimensional (and often artificially constrained) space. I thought it worked fine.

But really, the game’s sound design that surprised and impressed me far more than its unusal graphical style. I won’t list out all the ways that the instrumental soundtrack intertwines and synchronizes itself with the visuals in one delightful way after another; you’ll discover them for yourself as soon as your own playthrough gets going. Suffice to say that Obra Dinn presents its tutorial information so unexpectedly jauntily that it sets a background mood of fun and discovery even as it proceeds to unspool a most hairy tale of extremely grim nautical doom. Pretty perfect.

Typically, objects in a 3D adventure game are either passive set-dressing, or keys — in whatever shape — for which you must find the right locks. I can’t recall the last time that so many little details of a 3D world proved relevant, with all the unlocking happening only in my own head (and assisted with a real-wold notebook). Refreshingly inside-out, your character carries the sole in-game “lock” with her at all times — the manifest of the ship’s sixty lost passengers and crew, a blank space next to each to record their fate. Once you’ve seen all the dioramas at least once, the game frees you to start keying in answers in any order you choose, and really does leave it wholly up to you how to go about it.

There are multiple “break-in” points that will soften up whole sections of the over-arching logic puzzle, but you need to find these on your own, and choose which to dig into first. This feels, pleasantly, like a crossword puzzle, as does the fact that solving any of it makes the remainder easier, as you slowly spread order and meaning across an initially blank chaos. You revisit the same scenes repeatedly and on your own schedule, each time returning with updated context and a changed perspective while you gradually work out how everything fits. The content of these dioramas never changes on repeat visits, but the way you see them often does just the same — and that feels pretty magical, and very cool.

If that sounds even a little fun to you, then you should try this game.

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A drawing of three French Revolutionaries wearing Phrygian caps and tricolor cockades.I support people having any gender identity they wish, referring to themselves by any name they choose, and assigning to themselves any set of pronouns they feel most apt. I think people have as much right to vary these as they do their hair or their clothes, and for similar reasons. I, consquently, reserve the right to stand to one side questioning any person’s taste on any or all of these matters, and they have all the beautiful freedom to ignore my twitching eyebrow, and the world shall roll on. So far, so good.

Over the last few years, it has become increasingly popular in various social circles I move through to both choose and then conspicuously advertise one’s preferred pronouns, giving them shared or even equal billing with one’s name. This trend has developed to the point where, over the last several months, more than one person has noticed that I do not do this in any of my online profiles, and has asked that I start. I have always demurred, and promised to unpack my reasons in writing sometime. This essay constitutes my first attempt to do so.

In general I avoid answering the pronoun question entirely, if I can. If asked for preferred pronouns directly, I say “I don’t have a preference.” If encouraged to choose a “pronoun sticker” or a similar piece of nametag-flair at a gathering, I’ll go without. So far, nobody at such an event has given me an overt Where is your ribbon, citizen? challenge about it, even though it feels increasingly inevitable. Still, unless we enter a point where not wearing pronouns is like not wearing pants, I will continue to politely decline to pin them to my lapel, real or virtual.

My reluctance comes down to two factors: a distaste for obligatory political signifiers, and a desire to avoid implying that I care what people call me. I want to be clear that both of these are very specific to me personally, and do not represent any expectation regarding anyone else’s behavior. But it is me we’re talking about, here — the ways I prickle at people asking me, specifically, to modify how I choose to present myself to the public, setting aside anybody else.

Every part of my public presentation as I currently implement it, whether you see me in-person or just as a row on a spreadsheet, cues a bog-standard-binary masculine identity, which has — to my great and lazy fortune — never changed since birth. Today, this includes my name, my manner of speech and dress, how I carry myself, and how I wear my beard. As such, for me, advertising “my pronouns” feels redundant: any good-faith assumption based on immediately available evidence, and delivered by pretty much any human old enough to talk, will almost certainly fit just fine.

Now, an argument goes that one in my position can, and perhaps even should, pin on pronouns as both a statement of solidarity with our friends having non-conforming gender identities, who may have great practical reason to choose and display preferred pronouns, and also to help normalize and demystify this practice. That’s fine! I can even remember the first time I saw a fellow boringly cismale acquaintance fasten a “he/him” to his Twitter profile, and how I found it surprising, and then thought-provoking. It delivered its intended psychic payload, and I became wiser for it.

But, I resist the implication that not literally wearing a symbol of solidarity means that you do not support its underlying stance. I did not join my friends, a few years back, in tinting my online avatars green in sympathy with Iran’s citizens, though I held them in my heart. Nor did I tint my avatars purple to show my shock and sadness at Prince’s passing, though I felt it. I wear no insignia overtly declaring my nationality or other political allegiances, even though I certainly possess these things. I never festoon myself, my laptop, or my car with any candidate’s banners during election season, though god knows I can get unshy about who I support.

In short, I feel sufficiently protective of my presentation that even strong feelings of membership with or support for a group makes me extremely reluctant to wear its signage. Perhaps this comes from a fear that pinning one movement’s symbol to my breast would falsely imply its nearness to my heart more than any other group I belong to? Regardless, I much prefer to dress myself “neutrally”, as much as possible, letting my social and political alignments show through my words and deeds, rather than through pins and ribbons.

I wish also to advance my long-time personal policy of being extremely easygoing about my name. I tend to not correct people who get it slightly off-angle, unless they’re sitting across a desk from me at the DMV or whatnot. I often find myself thought of as a Josh, or a James, or a Justin. I understand why, and I just let it slide, and everyone has a better time for it. More rarely, people will intentionally hang creative names on me; that’s fine too, if delivered in good spirit. (My most treasured nickname of “Jmac” came from this, in fact. A photographer at my college newspaper made it up on the spot one day, and then immediately liked it so much that he told me it was my name now. I liked it too, obviously.)

Given that I have long felt quite fluid about what people call me to my face, then, it seems disingenuous to imply that I care much at all what words people use to refer to me behind my back — the very definition of third-person pronouns. I really and truly do not care. And again, I understand how and why other people may care very much, with the language used to describe them, themselves. But for me, this level of interest not only doesn’t apply, and suggesting otherwise even conflicts with how I view myself, and how I desire others to view me.

All told, then, the prospect of conspicuously wearing an obviously redundant declaration of gender identity as both a political in-group identifier and a standing order of personal-label prescriptivism simply does not fit me well. The thought of it makes me squirm, like wearing a shirt with horizontal stripes, or a shade of red that simply doesn’t become me. It’s asking me to add a new, highly visible element to the way I have long dressed, and it clashes. With all due love and respect, I have to decline, and hope that I can make up for it with the way I live my life.

Finally, I want to suggest that if you, reader, feel as I do, you can also simply leave it blank. The “worst” that will happen, in my experience, is that folks who feel especially obliged to tread carefully around gendered language may default — and perhaps with some quiet exasperation — to using they/them when talking about you. I have, in fact, overheard this applied to me at least once. And, honestly, as a long-time booster of this form (ever since Language Log threw in its lot for it many years ago), I find my passive advancement of it a perfectly acceptable side-effect.

My working title for this post was “My pronouns are 🤷‍♀️/🤷‍♂️”. You’re welcome.

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I hereby add my small voice to the rising chorus of those with their minds changed by Yoni Appelbaum’s “Impeach Donald Trump”, published in The Atlantic this month.

This article presents an unexpected treasure born of difficult times, building its appeal for immediate action on a fascinating and foundational American history lesson. Trump’s presidency, Appelbaum writes, contains numerous parallels to the short and calamitous administration of Andrew Johnson, who took office upon Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Popular history views the subsequent attempt to impeach him, which failed in the Senate, as a national embarrassment. Appelbaum argues, convincingly, that the procedure instead worked exactly as it meant to: the mere presence of official impeachment proceedings weakened the president, putting his many inadequacies at the center of the national conversation. He was subsequently swept from office by Ulysses S. Grant in the next election.

Appelbaum argues that the time has come to apply the same tonic, no less potent for the century-and-a-half that has since passed. That an actual pack-your-things-and-go impeachment result remains unlikely with so many Trump-loyal Republicans in the modern Senate is beside the point. Rather, an impeachment proceeding would properly channel the national outrage against our utter failure of a president into the mechanisms designed by the Founders for this very purpose, paralyzing his destructive administration and drastically slowing the rate it can daily damage our country’s principles. Oh, how they would struggle, but impeachment proceedings would exert a powerful hold on Trump and his vile coterie until the next election can sweep them all into the midden where they belong.

The article is rather long, and I recommend setting aside between 30 and 60 minutes to read it in its entirety.

I feel moved, too, by Jason Kottke’s reaction to Appelbaum’s article:

I was struck by a real sadness. What a massive waste of time the Trump presidency has been. America has urgent challenges to address on behalf of all of its citizens and they’re just not getting much consideration. Instead, we’ve given the attention of the country over to a clown and a charlatan who wants nothing more than for everyone to adore and enrich him. Meanwhile, the US government and a populace bewitched by breaking news is stuck in traffic, gawking at this continually unfolding accident. And we somehow can’t or won’t act to remove him from the most powerful job in the world, this person that not even his supporters would trust to borrow their cars or water their plants while on vacation. What a shame and what a waste.

This reflects my own attitude quite accurately. I support moving immediately to fix the Trump problem, because one should always prioritize extinguishing a fire in one’s own home, no matter the circumstances. But my heart breaks over the opportunities that this conflagration has already eaten up, and what costs still lie ahead in terms of national time and attention.

In mid-2016, I often said that I looked forward to Hillary Clinton becoming one of the least popular American presidents during their own time in office as she enshrined strict and necessary climate-change mitigation into law, over the kicking and screaming objection of her venal and short-sighted constituents. Not only did we not get this, but official national policy has instead steered us directly towards the cliff’s edge. I fear that nothing can stop it now. I still want the best America possible, but now less to help shepherd the world away from disaster, and instead to give us firm and wise leadership we can look to while we all brace for impact.

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I’m halfway through Lords of Chaos, a book about the establishment of the Black Metal music genre and its attendant subculture among Northern European youth in the 1980s and 90s. It puts particular focus on Varg Vikernes, one of the Nordic scene’s founders, and a very eager interview subject. At the time of the book’s original publication in 1998, Vikernes was a few years into a long prison sentence for burning several ancient Norwegian churches, and later stabbing to death one of his fellow foundational metalheads. The book’s authors found him quite happy to pass the time sharing his memories and experiences of the scene, right up through his own bloody exit and beyond.

Despite our obviously opposite natures, I feel an uncanny entanglement with Vikernes and his world. Born within a year of each other, he and I both experienced formative years in cold places, he in Norway and I in Maine. As a rather vanilla geek-o-nerd, I never associated with any kind of music scene, but certainly my hobbies put me in contact with inland Maine’s own thriving metal culture, which loved fantasy role-playing games as much as I did. I made friends with several long-haired, zine-reading knuckleheads who looked just like the many photographs of 20-year-old Vikernes and his colleagues found in Lords. They, too, had a tendency to dress in all black, own things like chainmail and spiked maces, and sometimes pass the time just walking into the woods with two-handed firearms and blasting away at nothing in particular.

Strangest of all, Vikernes and I share a common self-chosen name. Discarding his given name “Kristian” as that of the religion he came to despise, he initiated himself into Black Metal by renaming himself “Varg” — Swedish for “wolf”, and rich with the Nordic-heathen symbolism he treasured. In 1991, as a teenager discovering the internet, I chose the same thing for my all-important online handle, and probably right around the same time. (I Anglo-transliterated mine as “Worg”, of course, per the entry in the D&D Monster Manual.) While I shed the silly pseudonym with the delayed onset of adulthood some ten years later, it still seems a bizarre coincidence.

But for all these eerie parallels, and for the quite engaging way that authors Moynihan and Søderlind relate his story in Lords of Chaos, I find no call to kinship with Vikernes. My young friends were harmless, but the book paints the darkest parts of the early-90s Scandinavian metal scene as a nihilistic swirl of arson, murder, and suicide — rather too sensational to easily believe, but all well documented in the contemporary press and corroborated by interviews of Vikernes and others.

Beyond that, most any modern reader would quickly dismiss him and many of his colleagues as Nazis, and find strange the way the decades-old book sort of tiptoes around the fact — up to the point of spelling out “National Socialist” far more often than using the much more efficient term. I did find interesting the story of how the earliest wave of Nordic Black Metal based itself on popular notions of Satanism, but then many bands pivoted on its anti-Christian tenet and began embracing a brand of neo-Odinism instead, one that saw itself as a sort of Aryan anti-colonialist movement striving to return Scandinavian society to its pagan roots. Adopting fascist, racial-purity philosophies atop this remained optional, but bands like Varg’s own Burzum took them up gladly.

I just now chose to skip a whole chapter featuring young Vikernes ranting from prison about Nazi UFOs in order to get the the book’s next major section, which promises to examine the music itself. But before I dive back in, I had to look up how life has treated Varg in the 20 years since Lords of Chaos first hit the shops. Obviously, I found his Wikipedia entry, which links to his blog, whose most recent posts mix the same blood-and-soil talk of his younger self with excited news-links to new role-playing game materials. That discovery more than anything cemented my feeling of uncanny and unwilling connection with him, I think.

And Burzum remains on Spotify, with all the albums Vikernes produced through the length of his 21-year sentence and up through the present. The book describes his mid-career output as moody electronica, what with the artist losing access to bandmates or instruments other than his in-prison computer. I find myself interested to listen to it, the impressively flexible work of an unstoppable passion, despite my utter repulsion from the personality driving it. Spotify, too, doesn’t quite know how to host or handle this artist, straight-up calling him a racist in its own blurb — alongside photos of the now 40-something Vikernes posing gray-bearded in ridiculous Viking regalia, staring right out at my 40-something self.

I amuse myself to think that we are the world’s least effective arch-enemies, along multiple axes.

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A three-panel comic strip titled 'Dream Lover', depicting characters from Wuthering Heights. Edgar: 'You think you're just a romantic hero, don't you.' Heathcliff: 'No I don't.' He holds up a copy of Wuthering Heights. 'Where in the book does it say that?' Edgar says 'Right here!' and points to the cover, which states 'by Emily Brotnë, a woman.'
Detail of a Hark, a Vagrant! page by Kate Beaton.

Immediately after finishing my first read-through of Wuthering Heights last month, I cursorily sought some low-hanging modern responses to the novel. I had my eye out especially for readers who, like me, had mixed feelings about Cathy and Hareton pairing off at the end. Instead, the most common immediate reaction I found came from those who read the book expecting a gothic romance, and instead got… whatever Wuthering Heights is. In the preface of the 2003 Penguin edition I read, Lucasta Miller recalls how she eagerly started into the book at age twelve, fresh from seeing the 1939 film adaptation — which veers quite a bit from its source. She ended up shocked and confused at reading not the romance she wanted but the biography of a monster.

Since that classic-Hollywood treatment elides literally half the novel’s major characters (largely by dint of nobody having any children over the course of the story), Laurence Olivier’s version of Heathcliff can manage only half as much horribleness as his textual original. He fills in the gaps with rather vanilla romantic tropes of love spurned and regained, tidily resolved within a hundred-minute runtime. Its producers chose to streamline the story by making co-protagonists of Heathcliff and Catherine, and so the movie ends when she does. The book, however, belongs solely to Heathcliff, and not only gives him a richer and deeper existence while Catherine lives, but follows his obsessed and calamatous descent into vengeance afterwards.

I’ve read references to how Brontë worked contemporary notions of gothic horror into Wuthering Heights, and assume these often refer to its surprising incorporation of the supernatural. But, as a reader, I found myself more literally horrified at Heathcliff’s personal transformation over the course of the novel. He speaks true when he proclaims that he and Catherine are one, in that her death makes his own living heart rot away. He becomes a sort of high-functioning undead, burning with hate at everything around him that dares to remain alive, seeking to punish every such life around him with a state of subjugated wretchedness.

A month ago, only about halfway through the book, I wrote this:

The novel, let us be clear, is hilarious, describing one outrage or misadventure after another befalling two little families living in the moors after a howling outsider, the earth-elemental named Heathcliff, crashes into their sleepy orbit and upsets their equilibrium for generations. I have laughed out loud with shock and joy several times so far.

I stand by this description of my experience, certainly. Early-novel Heathcliff, young and powerless in a world he didn’t make, can only sputter and fume with knee-slapping impotency about all his frustrations. This culminates in perhaps my favorite moment in the early story (and one which very much does not exist in the 1939 film), where Hindley’s drunken attempts to stab Nelly in the face makes baby Hareton go flying over the bannister. Heathcliff happened to be pacing around and grumbling downstairs at that moment, and absent-mindedly caught the baby before realizing the situation. This makes him fly into a rage at yet another lost opportunity for bloody vengeance! This may have been the point at which I had to put the book down and write a Fogknife post.

But boy, did I stop laughing once I got deep into the latter half, with a fully empowered Heathcliff meting out his long-awaited revenge on the two families’ next generation. Not satisfied with merely assuming ownership of both their estates, he completely destroys the lives of two children, and makes a game attempt on a third.

The most chilling passage in the book, to my eyes, arrives in chapter 21. Heathcliff, having played a long con to become Hareton’s foster father, gloats at length to Nelly about how he has carefully and cruelly stunted him with intellectual deprivation, teaching him to value incuriosity and dullness — and all so he can imagine how much disgust this would bring to the boy’s father, were he only alive to see. He cackles that Hareton has become “gold put to the use of paving-stones”.

In the same passage, he dismisses the similar project applied to his own son, Linton, as “tin polished to ape a service of silver”. Linton spends his short life a dissipated weakling under Heathcliff’s direction, unwittingly wasting his potential as much as Hareton does. We get the sense that Healthcliff sees him a mere tool to secure his ownership of the Grange and the erasure of its former occupants, with no value afterwards. Healthcliff ultimately lets him drop dead, literally, so he can return to his passion-project of continuing to torture his memory of Hindley via Hareton. One isn’t sure which of the two boys represents the greater tragedy.

As difficult as I found it to swallow, Heathcliff’s true monstrousness made me love this novel all the more. The fact is, I hunger for more truly horrible villains in my fiction. I feel done with comic-book bad guys who don’t even try to elicit negative feelings from their audience. Nobody really hates the Joker, or Cobra Commander, or Ernst Blofeld, despite their claims to “evil”. Sure, Darth Vader blew up a planet, but he never once boasted about how much pleasure he took from it. Nor did he stretch its destruction out over a decade, chortling as he watches each life destroyed in slow motion, and composing fanciful similes about his enjoyment.

The true “OK, this isn’t funny anymore” moment arrives when Heathcliff makes his big mistake, trying to exert control over young Cathy, the last remaining free character in the tiny world of Wuthering Heights. With her already grown into young womanhood, he can’t simply suffocate her mind as he did to the boys, so he resorts to tricking her into imprisonment, and then beating the crap out of her. He slaps our dear narrator Nelly to the floor too, and he may as well have reached out from the pages and cracked me one across the cheek.

(This comes several chapters after Isabella flees her hateful husband with little Linton. She merely intimates in her letter to Nelly the regular violence she withstood under Heathcliff’s hand, which sets up as possible this future scene with Cathy and Nelly, while keeping the full, horrifying force of it bottled until then.)

Heathcliff’s “shower of terrific slaps” jolted me the same way that The Shining’s ghosts dropping n-bombs did. “OK, it’s one thing to drive a man to axe-murder his family, but you don’t have to be racist about it” on the one hand, and “Sure, you can forcefully waste two young lives in order to show up long-dead aristocrats who pissed you off as a kid, but did you have to punch a girl” on the other. It left me shocked and unmoored and very ready for the ensuing chapters where Cathy accepted her situation, gathered up her patience, and used her undulled wits to convert Hareton and then destroy Heathcliff. I felt all too happy to have the book end with that particular unquiet sleeper finally taking his long-sought place in the cold and crumbling arms of his other half.

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A still from 'Inland Empire'. 'AXXON N.' scrawled in chalk, on a shadowy doorway, with a wobbly chalk arrow pointing off to one side.
Moral of both Inland Empire and Wuthering Heights: Falling asleep in apartments with weird stuff scrawled on the walls can lead to trouble.

In the introduction to the 2003 Penguin edition of Wuthering Heights that I read last month, Pauline Nestor describes the book’s world as dreamlike, limiting itself to only two locations and the stretch of moors between them. The whole rest of the world seems to exist in a fog. Characters don’t travel abroad so much as vanish uncertainly, later emerging from the mists rather than merely returning. Even the neighboring village of Gimmerton, ostensibly significant in the characters’ lives, receives only the vaguest definition.

This resonated with me because of the positively Lynchian aspects of Wuthering Heights that struck me towards its conclusion — especially when considered from the perspective of Lockwood, the narrator managing the outermost of the book’s nested frames. He reminded me, by the end, of Laura Dern’s character in Inland Empire. Both of them arrive at their respective stories as perfectly relatable and literal point-of-view characters. Within a few scenes, though, things suddenly tip into the dreamily strange, and the characters seem to lose their place amongst narrative layers; both must struggle to find a right-side-up ending that doesn’t obliterate them completely. Dern’s character may have a much more overtly surreal and unsettling journey than Lockwood does, but I can’t resist using it as a lens to re-examine Brontë’s work just the same.

As far as I can tell, we as readers end the book knowing almost nothing about Lockwood personally. He makes clear through repetition that he lives in London normally, and he tells Nelly that he leased the Grange for a year on a whim. This — along with his (comically futile) tendency to address Heathcliff as a fellow land-owning gentleman — suggests that he either leads a life of aristocratic leisure, or at the very least can afford to take a lengthy sabbatical by himself in the moors. If he does in fact carry on any business in the city, then he never expresses concern about letting it go personally unattended while he winters in the Grange.

At the start of the book, before this lack of definition can seem strange to us, Lockwood gets to relate some of its most memorable scenes. He arrives with a comic aura about him, a happy and only somewhat bumbling traveler wanting only to sight-see and meet interesting people. So he rambles up to the titular Heights, shrugs off a pack of angry dogs, and meets both cranky old Heathcliff and two grouchy young people who show him the bare minimum of required hospitality in a hilariously shocking parody of English etiquette. Lockwood does not know that the youths are the two survivors of Wuthering Heights’s core story, which can’t properly begin so long as he dilly-dallies within the frame like this.

And so he proceeds to his initiation via the unreal, sleeping for the first time inside the estate named after the book that invents him, and having at last his completely unexpected (and surprisingly violent) encounter with Catherine’s ghost. He awakens transformed: where a modern reader would expect this dream sequence to provide a bit of thoughtful foreshadowing, Lockwood will have none of it. Grasping the encounter with amazing literalness and immediacy, he accuses his hosts of setting him up in a haunted bedroom, causing a ruckus that ejects him back to the Grange filled with impatience and confusion. Awakened to the suspicion that he has managed to wander directly into someone else’s story, he summons his rental’s housekeeper to take breakfast with him and provide some expository gossip. Thus does the kind and chatty Nelly wind the clock back 30 years to properly commence the main narrative of Wuthering Heights, a layer she continues to command for almost all of the book’s remaining pages.

Throughout this truer telling, Lockwood fades into near-invisibility, but makes an effort not to disappear completely. By way of short interruptions that mark the passage of time in the outer frame (and acknowledge that Nelly’s long tale would realistically require a number of sittings to unfold thoroughly), he attaches a keep-alive ping at the start or end of the occasional chapter just to remind you, dear reader, of his continuing existence. A medieval cloister-dweller casting the shadow of his personal presence now and again in the marginalia of the other-authored work he otherwise transcribes with dutiful fidelity.

This leads us to what I found the novel’s most surreal moment, far moreso than its supernatural kick-off. Lockwood uses one of these breaks, at the end of the thirtieth chapter, to announce that Nelly has concluded her story. Then he says this (referring, at the start, to his medical excuse for lounging about in the Grange listening to Nelly’s recitation for several months):

Notwithstanding the doctor’s prophecy, I am rapidly recovering strength; and though it be only the second week in January, I propose getting out on horseback in a day or two, and riding over to Wuthering Heights, to inform my landlord that I shall spend the next six months in London; and, if he likes, he may look out for another tenant to take the place after October.

“My landlord”, of course, refers to Heathcliff, the protagonist of the story we’d just spent the last two hundred pages soaking in. So much time (and space) has passed since those initial, Lockwood-narrated scenes that we the readers have forgotten the common characters between them and Nelly’s otherwise stand-alone story, including but not limited to Heathcliff. I found this profoundly unsettling! Wuthering Heights has reached an ending, and — very much evoking Inland Empire, for me — Lockwood looks around and discovers himself on the set of the film he thought he was merely watching. And the cameras keep rolling.

But our man has had a long recuperation since his mind-bending encounter with Catherine’s howling shade, and so he not only takes this in stride but treats it as a singular opportunity to dig into the story he’s enjoyed so much. With the very next page, we find him visiting the setting of the novel that was just read to him and also within which he finds himself resident, and proceeds to interview the characters. Back into his comfortably default mode of a comical tourist, he even makes a little secret mission out of it, trying to discreetly deliver a letter from Nelly to Cathy, and of course fouling it up utterly. He similarly fudges an attempt, as the possessor of privileged information — having read the book, and all — to improve relations among the three, only goading them to peck and sting at one another further.

He leaves them in short order, frustrated, holding nothing more than an idle and knowingly ridiculous fantasy about running away with Cathy. Some might have ended it here, gone back to London and written fanfiction where they shipped themselves with whomever they wished, but that doesn’t suit our Lockwood. If it’s his lot to manage both ends of the frame-story sandwich, then he’ll do it right. And so, he arranges a reset.

Wuthering Heights’s concluding chapters form a recapitulation of its own preceding structure, in miniature. Again, in a date-stamped opening, Lockwood arrives at the Grange for flimsy reasons, and then immediately picks his way over to the Heights with a mind to say hello to Heathcliff. Again, he spies Cathy and Hareton within — but doesn’t bother trying to interact with them, knowing better than to try. Instead, he skips ahead to find Nelly, who cheerfully foregrounds herself one last time to relate the story of her former master’s end in the face of the childrens’ revolt.

And again, Lockwood experiences transformation through a ghostly visitor, but all sideways this time. He does not personally witness the final appearance of Catherine’s restless spirit; he merely hears about it, now holding hands with Heathcliff’s, as part of Nelly’s recited epilogue. And then something strange happens: Cathy and Hareton return to the Heights from their walk together, and Lockwood, seeing them again through the window, feels “irresistibly impelled to escape them again”. Lockwood and Cathy have become mutually immaterial to one another, and rather than having a bloody, screaming battle through the window as happened with Cathy’s mother, Lockwood plays it much more subtly and makes himself vanish from both that window and the whole of Wuthering Heights, now set to rights, forever.

But he holds onto Wuthering Heights for just a little longer, drifting over to the gravestones of all its fallen characters. In this very deliberate setting Lockwood accepts his own final reward, dropping the mic with his unforgettable line about sleepers in that quiet earth. Lockwood out. Only then does he let himself join the departed, dissolving with finality into the oblivion of “London”, beyond the book’s dream-gauzy perimeter. He has come a long way to get the last word in with both elegance and scenery-chewing, as befits his self-image. Even if it did take him two tries.

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A watercolor painting of Cathy sitting with Hareton under a tree, teaching him to read.
“Cathy and Hareton” by Kate O’Keefe. Used with permission of the artist.

Following up on my last post, I finished reading Wuthering Heights over my Christmas vacation. I find myself not just with a lot to say about this book, but with the complexity of my thoughts fanning outward most pleasantly as soon as I start writing them out. Accordingly, I’ll try spreading my wandering Wuthering thoughts over a few Fogknife posts, rather than try to mash everything into a single meandering essay. (Here I take a page from Todd Alcott stepping through his Star Wars thoughts, with no promise to be that interesting.)

None of these posts will hesitate to spoil deep plot details. Yes, yes, spoiler warnings for a 170-year-old novel, o merriment. Look: I didn’t know what was going to happen, and the ancient story managed to surprise me again and again just last week. What’s more, the critical introduction of the edition I read had the good grace and modern sensibility to lead with a wonderfully British reader advisory of plot disclosures as well. Anyway: you should read this book, it’s pretty great.

I found the landing place of the younger Cathy, one of the story’s few survivors, both beautiful and troubling. I can appreciate the grace and light that she brings to the ending with via her rescues of both herself and Hareton from Heathcliff’s terrible machinations. But as a modern reader, I had difficulty finding justification for her falling in love with crude Hareton so fully and so swiftly. My brows knit when Lockwood spies the unlikely couple smooching by the window, and Nelly’s subsequent three chapters of explanation didn’t really satisfy me in this regard. It seemed to play into stereotypical expectations of the feminine obligation to fix broken boys, uncomfortable even given the period setting.

Thinking it over for the sake of this post, though, I can’t help but convince myself of this improbable romance’s plausibility. Heathcliff had essentially imprisoned both kids, after all, and Cathy acted out of canny self-preservation to turn Hareton against his foster father so that they might both go free. As a prerequisite, Cathy had to pluck out the poisoned thorns that Heathcliff had spent years squeezing into the poor boy’s heart, and this in turn required a lot of patience and a degree of intimacy. Hareton becomes Cathy’s project, then, the one thing keeping her focused and hopeful in the dungeon that Heathcliff had made of Wuthering Heights. Under those stressful circumstances, who can blame her for slipping up a bit, and letting this necessary project-passion boil over into romantic love?

Still, it seems a shame that Cathy should marry the young dope, pledging to spend the rest of her days with him when both their lives, finally free, are only just beginning. But another only-now realization comes to my rescue: it’s dear old gossipy Nelly, and not Cathy herself, who describes the kids’ friendship(-with-benefits) as altar-bound. Yes, she tells Lockwood that they’ll tie the knot on New Year’s day, and yes, every Wuthering genealogical chart I’ve seen — including the one prefacing my 2003 Penguin edition — takes Nelly at her word, drawing a horizontal marriage-line between Cathy and Hareton. But I say: Not so fast.

In the text, Lockwood tells us that he pays his final visit to the Heights, where Nelly glomps onto his ear to relate the final act, in September. That would put a New Year’s wedding more than three months beyond the conclusion of the text. Therefore, I have all the wiggle-room I desire to imagine my own epilogue: now free to move about the land a bit, Cathy visits Gimmerton village and meets literally any other human being and starts to re-examine her options a bit. Maybe it gives her a taste for travel, and she rambles on down to examine her story’s own origins in Liverpool, the mysterious city that had coughed up Heathcliff some 30 years prior.

You don’t need to rush this, Cathy! Go take a little break, stretch your legs, you’ve earned it. And don’t worry about leaving Hareton at the Heights; if it turns out that you want to come back to him after all, I have every confidence you’ll find him waiting there. It seems quite doubtful that it’d even occur to him to wander off anywhere else.

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A photograph of three Christmas tree ornaments, each a little felt model of Kate Bush in a dancing pose, dressed as she appears in the video of her song 'Wuthering Heights'.
Kate Bush Christmas ornaments by Sean Bright. Photo by Naomi Frisby; used here with permission.

Last month my pal Melissa asked me if I’d read Wuthering Heights. As it happens, I had not. Like countless Americans of my generation, for me the book lies crusted with the patina of dread summertime required-reading lists, and I’d never found reason to update its mentally-archived status as a dodged bullet. (I think I chose Moby Dick instead that year, which at least held the promise of intriguingly seaborne violence.)

My friend, who had just herself read the book for the first time, went on to describe it as surprisingly filled with nothing but utterly reprehensible people, every one a villain. Even the characters you’d expect to elicit tragic sympathy from the reader in a gothic and sallow-cheeked novel of the period end up utterly detestable. She knew that this would prove enough to pique my interest, and I proceeded to borrow a 2003 Penguin Classics edition from the local library. Through it, have discovered such an overflowing cultural treasure chest that I felt the need to write something down before even finishing the first of the novel’s volume-breaks.

Such, of course, is the joy of reading old stuff, at one’s own pace. There is the central work, and then as much of its aurora of comment and criticism and reaction and derivation as you care to ingest, either alongside or afterwards. This edition of Wuthering Heights carries some of that within its own covers, blanketed by no fewer than five prefaces that go backwards in time as we read forwards. The deepest of them, sitting snug against the text, are introductory notes by Charlotte Brontë, she of Jane Eyre and the author’s sister. First, a eulogistic reminiscence of the exciting years when the young Brontës wrote together and saw themselves published (initially under three masculine pseudonyms), a period made shockingly brief by the younger sisters’ swift succumbing to tuberculosis. Charlotte follows this with a more businesslike editor’s note to the book’s second printing, which she oversaw after Emily’s death.

As Kate Beaton says in one of her pages of Wuthering Heights comics, Charlotte takes a surprisingly apologetic tone in her editorial, which the cartoonist summarizes as “Wuthering Heights: Sorry, Sorry, Just Give It A Chance OK?” Reading that introduction (which also contains a screed against fig-leafing the letters from printed cuss-words, amongst other surprises) succeeded in washing away my doubtful expectations for a stuffy drama of stiff aristocrats swanning about the titular manor. Charlotte makes plain that the book is about a monster who smashes a path from cover to cover, with a supporting cast of only slightly lesser goblins gnawing the pages in his wake; she describes how the novel’s earliest critics focused with a disapproving sniff on Heathcliff’s rudeness. Charlotte insists that her late sister had a gift for depicting a darker, more realistic, earthier side of human personality and relationships than one typically found in contemporary literature, and begs the audience to read past the initial shock and take in a singularly unforgettable work.

Well, you don’t have to tell me twice. Thus did my amazement with Wuthering Heights begin, before I’d even reached the first Arabic-numbered page. Needless the say, this has carried through to the story, which seems to me the clear ur-text for Snicket and Gorey and every other writer of dark comedies about terrible people published since 1850. The novel, let us be clear, is hilarious, describing one outrage or misadventure after another befalling two little families living in the moors after a howling outsider, the earth-elemental named Heathcliff, crashes into their sleepy orbit and upsets their equilibrium for generations. I have laughed out loud with shock and joy several times so far.

And the pacing! In the first chapter, the outermost narrator character (for this book lets itself get positively oniony with layered narrators) sets out to meet Heathcliff, his new landlord. He must battle a pack of dogs on his way over, and then he fights off a wailing ghost during his overnight stay. Then he gets angry at his host for setting him up in a scary haunted bedroom! And Heathcliff kicks him out, and commences to yell at the ghost! And that’s about when narrator number two insinuates herself into the telling, and all this happens before page 30. I had no idea what I was in for when I started this book; well into the middle now, I have just as little idea what will happen next, other that what misfortunes are foreshadowed by events in the frame-story before the narrative inceptions itself forty years into its own past.

Hark a Vagrant has five more pages of those wonderful cartoons about the novel, by the way: go to its archive page and perform an in-page search for “wuthering”. Beaton retired the project at around the point in the novel I currently find myself, alas, but this well illustrates just what I mean when I speak of treasure chests; just reading a little bit has pointed me at layers of culture I would have never discovered (or, anyway, never comprehended) otherwise, and it all happens alongside my read of the original text.

My reading has reminded me about the best potentials of social media too, and how sharing enthusiasm for something can lead one to a beautiful diffraction of related work. I’ve been chronicling my journey through Wuthering Heights on Twitter, and this is how one friend pointed me to magnificent illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg, and another to those Beaton comics. Meanwhile, I discovered that searching for “wuthering heights” on Twitter reveals few people mentioning the book but plenty the Kate Bush song of the same name from 1978, an apparently famous bit of culture that has somehow eluded me entirely for my whole life before now. And when I raved about that, yet another person — a complete stranger, this time — led me to find the Christmas ornaments depicting Kate Bush’s dancing her role as Cathy’s frozen shade pressed against Heathcliff’s window, and with which I decorate this post.

And given the season in which I write this, that feels full-circle enough for now; I should really get back to reading the book.

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Front cover of the book 'The Death of Expertise' by Tom NicholsI found this sour little volume by Tom Nichols a suitable companion work to Roy Scranton’s 2015 treatise Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. While I disagreed at the time with certain of that book’s core assumptions, it nonetheless inspired me to make room in my life for quiet reflection and study of the ancient humanities from around the world, a practice I have imperfectly pursued in the three years since. Similarly, as soon as I finished The Death of Expertise I purchased a subscription to a foreign daily newspaper — adding to the two domestic subscriptions I already had, both municipal and national, and thus implementing for myself the advice that Nichols gives his own students for broadening their daily intake of well-edited media.

This advice, granted, comes in amidst a sense of near-hopeless futility regarding its own aims. In the very paragraph containing the instruction, Nichols all but dismisses the students he delivers it to as spoiled brats who will almost certainly ignore him. This comes after an entire chapter about how higher education in the U.S. has become irredeemably broken, treating its students (whom Nichols refers to without exception as “children”) like customers paying for a rubber-stamp diploma and a good time, rather than humble initiates for genuine experts to either mould or reject.

Nichols seems aware, in writing this book, how much its tone and message slots neatly into the eternal Kids today, am I right? complaint, and how it risks dismissal on these grounds. But he persists, and I have to admit that I found it compelling. Yes, it presents a satisfyingly thorough I weep for the future argument that happens to coincide with my own allotted time on earth for middle-aged future-weeping, but it invokes some uniquely contemporary concerns in the process.

In particular, The Death of Expertise addresses the way that social media flattens all incoming messages, so that utterances from both learned experts and charismatic amateurs get presented to us as naturally equivalent. Or, increasingly, worse than equivalent, what with inscrutable algorithms always tracking our eyes and clicks and seeking to subtly emphasize more of what “drives engagement” and fires us up emotionally. This pushes into the background real news, researched opinion, and other information that that, like a salad of kale instead a scoop of ice cream, may seem harder to swallow but does us far more good. But, too late, Nichols writes: these semi-automated media platforms have a directive to keep us consuming their content, not growing as a result. And they have long since detected our affinity for soft serve.

Nichols ends the book with no advice for mitigating the great decline he perceives, or any optimism that society will pull itself from this tail-spin of stupidity. In this way, too, it resembles Scranton’s screed, smug in its surety that civilization as we know it cannot possibly survive another generation or two (though he pins the blame squarely on capitalism-accelerated climate change).

My ultimate reaction to both books, then, is similar: I extract a kernel of solid self-improvement advice from each, in defiance of their respectively nihilistic prognoses. And so I find a pleasant pairing of Nichols’ advice to improve the breadth and quality of one’s daily-news intake — turning down the noisy churn of social media and letting more vetted expertise into our lives — with Scranton’s imperative to become more conversant with deep-seated culture. I don’t do that primarily because of Scranton’s argument that this would improve human culture’s chances of memetically surviving the inevitable apocalypse. I suppose I’d have to accept that side-effect if worse came to worst, but it hasn’t yet.

Against a backdrop of despair, both authors offer compelling and complementary advice for bettering oneself through deepening one’s cultural knowledge and mindfully refining one’s intake of novelty. In the end, I can fix myself rather more effectively than I can the whole world, so I will happily recast these writers’ apocalyptic dirges as an ongoing invitation to act locally.

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