Here is my tumble of notes from listening through the adapted The Doll’s House storyline from Audible’s The Sandman radio play. As I wrote last time, this is the Sandman arc I have the most familiarity with, by dint of it being the contents of the first Sandman trade paperback I purchased as a hungry teenager. So: lots of notes.

The original comics use the pronoun “it” for androgynous Desire. This may have been the best choice in 1989, when the concept of non-binary gender identities seemed a little more fantastic, to most readers, than it does today. Wisely, Dirk Maggs’s normally hyper-faithful adaptation draws a line in the (begging your pardon) sand here, quietly substituting “they”, which I felt just as quietly relieved to hear.

I also appreciated the narrator making sure we understood that Desire is not so much non-binary as all-gendered. And that had to have made them a challenge to cast properly! Desire is portrayed here by a transgender actor whose vocal style I’d describe as “feminine-pitched masculine”, and who delivers Desire’s lines with a dangerous, raspy edge. Probably the full inverse from what I’d have assumed, and therefore delightfully—and appropriately—arresting.

Only upon this listen did I get the joke that the sole feature of Desire’s realm is a thousand-foot-tall statue-fortress shaped like Desire’s own glorious body not just because Desire exhibits supreme vanity, but also because it is an apt metaphor for an all-consuming, obsessive attention set upon a single object—human or otherwise—that blanks out the rest of one’s world into a gray fog. Small-d desire’s purest and uncut form, and Desire of the Endless’s stock-in-trade. And definitely the sort of thing I needed to be a little older to fully understand.

Also only upon this listen does it become clear that The Doll’s House sets up Desire as the whole series’s principal antagonist. I have no idea for how long this remains true, and it presents me with an unexpectedly fresh aspect of this series to keep in mind as I continue this listen-through.

I was surprised to see Hippolyta, who becomes a key character later in The Sandman, introduced here as a disillusioned superhero—further proving that the book keeps at least one pale toe in the DC realms for a while yet. But we’re done palling around with the Justice League; Lyta’s world sees her own costumed capers almost as a fetish or sexual identity, something she “came out of the closet” about in college, and which she now begins to feel ready to move on from. I now recognize this take as flirting with Watchmen.

In his portrayal of the title character, James McAvoy crystallizes the inhuman callousness Dream displays when, flush with victory over the rebellious Brute and Glob, he banishes Hector’s ghost in front of his horrified wife. Lyta has every reason to believe that Dream just casually killed her husband. (I mean, he sort of did.) And then he has the gall to claim her unborn baby as a citizen of the Dreaming, with a promise to return for it later! As an oh-by-the-way! It does strengthen Lyta’s vengeful motivation, set to unfold several storylines in the future.

I did find this scene little hard to square with the tenderness and sympathy Dream shows Rose later in The Doll’s House. It’s true that other characters again and again describe Dream’s heartlessness; elsewhere in this production we see the cruelty he shows Queen Nada, as well as his oblivious trampling of Shakespeare’s spirit. But both of those happened centuries before, and we see just as much evidence that he has softened a great deal, since. One imagines that, in the heat of the moment, he showed an edge of his older, far more terrible self.

Or: maybe he just has a thing for younger women. I did revisit the pages of Rose’s near-execution, in the comics, and Dream is embracing her, like a lover. He looks ready to kiss her, not kill her. Rose, both terrified and furious, demands tearfully that he just do whatever he’s going to do. Do you know what? I think he was a split-second away from making a big mistake—and Rose is far luckier at her unexpected rescue than she knows, given what tends to happen to the women whom Dream embraces.

An aside, stemming from that same first visit to the printed Doll’s House in ages: I easily recognize now that little Jed’s dreams, with the clear-line art, the numbered panels, and the boy always waking up with a start at the end, are all in reference to Little Nemo in Slumberland! This doesn’t come across at all in the radio play, and I don’t blame its producers for not trying to force it.

The various scenes of the Corinthian and his colleagues doing their thing are as horrible in content as anything that happened in Dee’s diner, but they’re far shorter, vignettes of no more than a page at a time. Thankfully, this also makes for an easier listen than the events of “24 Hours”.

I read The Doll’s House a few months before I attended my very first large-scale fan gathering, 1992’s PhilCon. I had no idea that the depicted “cereal convention” satirized any kind of real-world events that long-time comic book readers might be familiar with. This made for a slightly more alarming first-time fan-con experience than I might have otherwise had.

After the adaptation revealed its willingness to update Desire’s pronouns to match contemporary tastes, I wondered how it’d handle another outmoded term an upcoming scene held, where one con-goer monologues about his obsession with—to use the book’s language—”preoperative transsexuals”. And lo, he here speaks instead of “congenital eunuchs.” To which his interlocutor, reasonably, says “Huh?”, and he merely repeats himself, offering no further explanation. This works fairly well with the grim humor already present in the framing conversation, honestly.

Having read Lolita and then diving into its popular critique over the summer, seeing young Rose and middle-aged Gilbert go road-tripping and checking into a weird-Americana motel together got my guard up! But, besides Rose having ten years on poor old Dolores, Gilbert entirely deserves the trust she gives him. He is perhaps the best person in the entire epic, every bit the knight-errant he claims to be.

The actor playing Gilbert really sells the character by simply sitting up close to his microphone. His breathing is softly audible for all the dialogues he’s present in. Gilbert is an expansive man, not merely corpulent but possessing a large, embracing spirit—only appropriate, given the nature of his true identity. Hearing his breath softly fill the sound-space conveyed this so succinctly.

“Dream vortex” is a terribly corny name for the story’s macguffin, but I do appreciate it as a concept: it gives a tidy excuse for what would otherwise be an unacceptable level of coincidence in how the A and B and C plots all collide so rapidly. It’s a vortex! It pulls in dreams and sets them to swirling around it! Dreams like the ones we are now reading-or-hearing! Sure, fine, carry on.

I love the head-fake early on where we think we know where the story’s going, and then the title character immediately derails it. If I may paraphrase: Lucien says “Oh dear, we must find out who the vortex is, my lord!” and Dream says “Eh? No, I already know that. In fact, if you look closely, you can see her standing right over there,” and then gestures at the “camera”, since Rose, dreaming, provides our point of view. So good.

It seems strange that Dream would delay taking care of that vortex, an imminent threat to the Dreaming, and go off hunting for a handful of decades-missing dream-creatures instead. But we know he finds the work of killing the vortex necessary-but-distasteful, and also that he immediately knows the vortex’s identity and can reach it whenever he wants. So, on reflection, I think he is simply procrastinating! Solving the missing-dream mystery is more fun and interesting, and he can tell himself that he’s got a pin in the vortex meanwhile. Just gonna improve his mood with a spot of cleaning, first…

This adaptation has quite a lot of fun making Gaiman-as-narrator read aloud descriptions of all of Dream’s costume changes, including the one at the climax of The Doll’s House: garbed in an ultra-black cloak, but leaving his pale chest bare, “as is traditional for an executioner”. I caught that reference.

“What happened?” “You died. Let me help you up.” Such a great line.

Most unexpected cameo: Porpentine! Or her name, anyway, several times, during Barbie’s dreams. A spot of research tells me it’s an archaic form of “porcupine”, but I’ve only known it as the name of the inimitable interactive fiction creator.

Barbie and her dreams take center stage during A Game of You, which won’t start unfurling for another dozen episodes or so. I am not sure I ever made that connection, during my initial out-of-order reading of all the early Sandman stories.

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Please allow me to present some notes I took while listening to Audible’s recent radio-play adaptation of The Sandman, which I discovered earlier this month. I’ve finished listening to “Act I”, adapting the original comic book’s first twenty issues. They map one-to-one onto audio episodes, albeit with a bit of reordering. This post covers the first nine episodes.

These notes neither review nor summarize any of these stories. They simply present my wholly subjective reactions to my first “read-through” of The Sandman in many years, albeit in a non-textual format.

In some ways, even though I feel deeply familiar with the source, this audio production gives me my first ever true cover-to-cover tour through The Sandman, since I read the first half of the original 75 serialized comics out of order. As a teenager living in central Maine in the early 1990s, I could only buy trade-paperback editions of back issues as I happened to encounter them in bookstores, and even then only if I could afford them. So while I started to read the monthly chapters around their halfway point, with the A Game of You storyline, my experience with The Sandman’s initial stories involved buying and reading The Doll’s House first. I wouldn’t read the first story arc (More than Rubies) for another year, and it took me several years to finally obtain and read all the stories published before A Game of You.

As a result, I feel deeply familiar with The Doll’s House, comfortable with all the other early stories, and frankly pretty shaky with everything that happened after that—since for the most part I obtained and read the latter stories not as bound, bookshelf-ready collections, but as monthly “floppies”, none of which survived long after my purchase of them. (Each one quickly binned by my fastidiously tidy mother, or simply lost in one of my annual house-moves.)

Thus, these notes contain far more reaction to hearing the adapted Doll’s House than to any other story. In fact, I have so many notes about that story that I’ll split them into a separate post, after this one.

Overall observations

The acting and audio production throughout this adaptation is superb. I had a great time listening to all twenty episodes, and am eager to hear Act II as soon as I post these notes.

I would recommend this radio play to anyone—so long as they know what they’re getting into. This is a hyper-faithful adaptation of the source comics, starting with the first panel of the first page of the first issue and carrying on from there. It makes no attempt to streamline away any of The Sandman’s more awkward or dated material; it’s all here, performed by professional actors and sound engineers.

That includes way more gory horror than I had remembered, as well as lots of tonally strange references to circa-1990 DC superhero plotlines; the heroes even get guest-star roles in The Sandman from time to time. I do believe that both of these aspects get toned down as the series progresses, but they’re quite prominent in these early stories.

More Than Rubies

My summary to friends in a chat room: “The Batmobile running over an Italian horror movie”. Dream’s introductory storyline is such a mess, in every sense.

I wrote last time about the slow, shaky start with the Golden Dawn-type magicians who capture Dream and then can’t think of anything to do with him, and he responds by literally doing absolutely nothing, for three generations. The rest of The Sandman does build on this base, but it still seems such a weirdly static way to kick off a comic-book saga.

The rest of this first storyline becomes a Clive Barker-style horror tale set solidly within the DC universe, so we get to hang out with Martian Manhunter for a while, and John Constantine gets an entire episode all to himself. Arkham Asylum plays a prominent role, and the script seems a little confused about whether Gotham and New York are the same place or not.

It’s one thing to see all this stuff in the original comics, and understand it as artifacts of Gaiman et al letting The Sandman find its legs over its first several months. It’s quite another to hear every bit of it carefully produced and voice-acted 30 years later, warts and all. Entertaining, certainly, but very strange.

I had the strongest visceral reaction to the episode “24 Hours”, where John Dee (“Dr. Destiny”, on loan from DC’s rogues gallery) uses Dream’s ruby to manipulate the inhabitants of a diner into madness and murder. The original comic book was gruesome fun to read, but listening to it as a well-budgeted audio production, full of professionally acted suffering punctured by extremely specific sound effects, is another matter entirely. I imagined newcomers to the story getting to this part—when we have barely met Dream and no other Endless—and having no idea why they’re being subjected to all this.

The radio play’s more linear presentation than the two-dimensional comics page also clarifies the scale of the global mayhem Dee causes at the same time, with the whole world gone homicidally, apocalyptically insane. It sounds magnitudes worse than Thanos’s “Snap” from the Marvel movies—and yet everything goes back to normal by the next issue. Future episodes lightly retcon all this, suggesting that the effects of Dee’s madness upon the waking world did not extend beyond the diner. (This includes episodes later in this same audio production, again reflecting its ride-or-die literalist-adaptation stance.)

The kindly nurse asking Dee if his messed-up appearance is due to “the Big A” (that’s AIDS, kids) is perhaps the most interestingly dated bit in this whole production, aside from the way the script will literally mention 1989 now and again as the story’s present day.

And then we get to three one-episode stories:

The Sound of Her Wings

My goodness, I had no idea how much Death comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl upon her introduction. Our first sight of her is a spunky goth breezing across mopey Dream in cinematic Washington Square Park, bopping around and quoting Mary Poppins at him before we have any idea who this weird kid even is.

And I say “kid” because I learn from the narration—read aloud, throughout this production, by Neil Gaiman himself—that we are meant to see Death’s human incarnation as a girl in her mid-to-late teens. That’d put her at right around my age when I read these books for the first time, when she absolutely struck me as much older than that! But, I was a very sheltered kid.

This story marks the point where The Sandman starts to find its own voice, apart from all the “DCU” stuff, and it is the story I would show grown-ups in my life when I wanted to impress them with this comic book series that I really liked. It never worked. “I don’t get it,” my dad said. “She just goes around killing people?”

Tales in the Sand

A great story, and in retrospect it shows The Sandman exploring new storytelling modes with a rapidity that must have seemed so wonderfully bracing to those reading the monthlies, long ago.

(Sudden suspicion: was the desert’s “green glass” supposed to be Kryptonite or something? Would hyper-nerds of 1989 recognize a deep-cut DC reference here? I don’t want to know.)

Men of Good Fortune

Another fantastic stand-alone story. Also the first time the Audible adaptation deviates from publication order, placing this before The Doll’s House where it originally served as an intermission within it.

It’s a little uncomfortable living in 2021 and admiring ol’ Hob, whose supernaturally lengthy career contains some amount of implied murder and a full century of overt slave-trading. I know he shows up later in the series, and cannot recall offhand if he somehow pays penance.

When I first read this story, the name “Johanna Constantine” rang no bells for me. How fun to hear her show up here, and better recognize her place in the grand scheme of things. Her presence also shows that Gaiman doesn’t completely divorce The Sandman from the DC universe the moment that More than Rubies concluded—a mistaken idea I held, based on my out-of-order original reading, until I started listening to this audio production.

Technically Death’s second appearance, but the setting constrains her so much (to say nothing of the costuming) that I’m not sure it counts. I actually forgot all about her role here when writing my notes for the later Facade episode, the second story that unquestionably focuses on her.

I’ll get to all that next time.

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I have discovered the existence of a radio-play adaptation of The Sandman, the epic punk-gothic fantasy that originally ran as a monthly comic book from the late 1980s through the middle 1990s, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by many. As I write this, I am only forty minutes into the first 12-hour installment, which was released without my noticing in July 2020. I feel like I can already see the whole shape of it, and I have to write some stuff down.

Look, first of all: I already love this so much that I feel personally, somewhat uncomfortably pandered to. The Sandman is a very important work to me. I followed the story real-time for the later two-thirds of its monthly run, guided to it as a teenager by the new and strange voices I found on dial-up online comics forums. My very first, very awkward in-person fan experiences happened at a Sandman book signing my dad patiently drove me to, in a city four hours from home. (And it was at this signing I bought all the early chapters I’d missed.) In a real sense I cemented much of my young-adult personality around this slowly unfolding fantasy, even though I was far too sheltered and naive to appreciate any of the literary, mythological, or rock-and-roll references that it builds upon.

(Friends, its original comics-run had a letter column, which I am positive I wrote to, perhaps multiple times. I did discuss every month’s new issue at 1200 baud with that little forum of online fans, which Gaiman himself would visit from time to time. I coded a Morpheus NPC with a crude AI script on a MUD that I hung out on; he’d swan around and stare at you silent judgment, mostly. I tried to get a favorite philosophy professor into the book; he politely demurred. I never took up an ankh as accoutrement, but I did wear mostly black for many years. And so on.)

Just minutes into listening to this new adaptation, I felt amazed, delighted, and slightly worried to discover that it begins at the beginning: with the saga’s slow, awkward start as an early 20th century “weird fiction” pastiche, peppered with cameos from second-stringer DC Comics superheroes. The Sandman’s original, lengthy prologue features page after page of Aleister Crowley-style magicians holding debased rituals in gothic mansions with the title character technically present but barely having any lines at all—and, so far, this radio-drama adaptation positively luxuriates in acting out every single panel of it, not feeling any hurry at all to introduce us to the protagonists. I can’t help but wonder what a listener unfamiliar with the source material would make of this sleepy pace.

And I love every minute of it, so far. The Sandman collections I own are all packed away right now, so I’m left to rack my memory for the next, very different, and often extremely strange places the story goes as soon as it jettisons those silly wizards and the Endless finally take the stage. I wonder how much this work’s adapters commit to making it a circa-1990 period piece, modulo the parts set in 19th century San Francisco, or the Garden of Eden, or the recycled pages of a DC pre-code Vault of Horror knock-off. Will Matthew the Raven be there, and will his actor get his crinkly word balloons right? My goodness!

I came across this new play through a bus-stop poster advertising its second installment, which Audible just recently released. Because it has the title The Sandman: Act II, I thought it might be an audio-only sequel to the printed comics. Imagine my surprise and delight when I learned about its role as an adaptation, the twelve hours of prior content, and the fact that the first act is—as a Halloween gift—free, for a time.

It doesn’t surprise me that I missed its arrival in mid-2020, and for reasons beyond all the distractions afoot then. The Sandman strikes me as a deeply Generation X-anchored work: younger than the Boomer fantasy franchises that continue to receive one pop-culture retread after another, but too old to generate fresh conversation in modern online venues I inhabit. And this why I, who often feel like I occupy this same in-between gravity well, feel pandered to. But I’m going to put my headphones back in now, and get back to enjoying it. If I have more to say about it, I’ll say it here.

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This article includes mention of sexual violence.

It has interested me for some time that both of these two observations seem to hold true:

  1. In real life, my culture considers premeditated murder one of the very worst crimes possible, probably the single worst thing you can do to another person, and almost always deserving of the harshest punishment.

  2. In my culture’s fiction, murder is an exciting crime, but often not an especially terrible one. Make-believe murderers—whether gangsters, serial killers, or genocidal space warlords—typically embody a fun or sexy kind of evil. The crime itself might even be kind of fun, as with the “cozy mystery” sub-genre typified by media like Murder, She Wrote.

    Fiction does have non-murderous crimes my culture considers heinously unforgivable when they happen within stories, like sexual violence, or overt racism. A fictional murderer who bolsters their practice with rape or bigotry loses all sexy-fun cred, permanently demoted to only the hateful kind of villain, even if a memorable one.

I once heard, on an episode of “This American Life”, an interview with a woman who had lost her father to homicide, as a child. Ever since then, the disconnect inherent within murder-based entertainment stood out for her. In an attempt to convey what the ubiquity of light-hearted murder in popular culture felt like for her, she offered an illustration: Imagine, instead of Murder Mystery Party kits, one could purchase plans to hold a Rape Mystery Party. Gather your friends for a role-playing event where, whoops, haha, someone got raped! Everyone have fun finding the rapist!

I had no counterargument to this woman’s thought experiment, when I first heard it years ago, and I still don’t. Both rape and murder are among the worst imaginable interpersonal crimes—but if forced to rank them in awfulness, it feels correct that murder should edge out everything else. And yet, it’s often nothing in our entertainment; the make-believe people we spend so much time with kill each other constantly, in singles or by the boatload, as a fundamental and versatile plot device.

I’m certainly not against any depiction of death—even gnarly, ill-intended death—in fiction! But I find that as I get older I have less and less patience for cheap death. I’m at the point now where I have a lot of trouble watching a Star Wars show. Just all those lives snuffed out, in so many numbers, constantly, and nobody on-screen even seems to care or feel anything. It all looks like a weird nightmare, to me.

I don’t think it’s true that people en masse secretly approve of murder and want to see more of it in real life, or anything like that. And the disgust and distress that sexual violence reliably elicits in audiences shows that fiction doesn’t by its nature wipe away the awfulness of the most vile crimes. So why this disconnect between reality and fiction—in fact, one of the worst things that can happen in reality, and one of the most unremarkably common turns of events in fiction?

In my most recent thinking, it comes down to existential uneasiness, and how that hits so differently in real life versus fiction.

Death is something bound to happen to literally every person and animal and probably every other thing we know and love. Nobody is truly okay with this. I doubt that even people at peace with their own mortality are okay with this, not really. We don’t want to lose anyone, and we mourn when we do, again and again. The closer to the loss, the more it hurts. In this light, murder takes our grim shared situation and makes it so much worse, robbing one of our fellow brief sparks of what little time they had left. It is grossly unfair, the most unfair single act you could visit on someone, and everyone who loved them. So there’s that.

Death also plays a starring role in the majority of our stories, of course—think of the old saw “What’s the last story you heard where nobody died?”—with fiction giving us a way to examine death at a safe remove, abstracted from deeply personal existential terror. Our view of killing, I do believe, gets changed along with it. In the silvery moonlight of fiction, murder is simply the single most absolutely inevitable thing happening slightly ahead of schedule, due to a fellow mortal’s initiative. And when you look at it that way, it’s… kind of funny.

The humorist Gene Weingarten has a theory that joking and laughter is, at root, shouting in the face of death. I think something like that is happening here. It’s always at least a little bit fun to watch pretend people get killed, even in the most tragic scripted circumstances. It makes us feel a little less alone in both our own mortality and our ceaseless grief, past and future, for all our loved ones.

Fictionalized rape, by contrast, has none of this going for it. Sexual violence is not a universal or inevitable experience for all living things. In the murky twilight of fiction, where murder becomes a mere acceleration of timetables, rape remains an unspeakably terrible way to hurt someone—because audiences instinctually know that it didn’t have to happen to them, not then or ever. In this context, it easily takes murder’s place as the most grossly unfair act one person can perpetrate upon another.

It may be that personal trauma has helped bring me to a place where I don’t feel so easily or automatically entertained by visions of one person destroying another person’s body, the ultimate non-consensual act. I imagine histories for these characters, even the ones with no names, the gun-toting mooks the hero cuts down or flings from a plane or whatnot. I think of all the time they spent developing their mind and muscles for decades, only to get them punctured, crushed, or shredded beyond shape and function in a split second, because someone else chose to violate their bodies—bodies as precious and unique as the bodies of everyone I love. It is horror.

And I do like horror, sometimes… but only when it knows it’s horror.

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Photograph of a large rambling house on a Providence street corder. Chalked in careful, colorful lettering on one wall are the words 'in & of this body'.
House at Waterman and Benefit streets, Providence. Photograph by the author.

I read Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’s Providence after it received several recent mentions on my Twitter timeline. Its twelve constituent issues were published by Avatar Press between 2015 and 2017, so I’m not certain why I ran into excitement over it now. It does remind me how conversations about 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return still spontaneously break out in online spaces I inhabit, and as these works have similar appeal, maybe I just happened to overhear a similar burst of ongoing discussion about the comic book.

The story takes place partially in Providence, Rhode Island, a city I lived in for less than two years, but about which I have so many fond memories and associations. Providence appears here in its aspect as the hometown of H. P. Lovecraft, with a story set during his lifetime. I don’t count myself an especial HPL fan, and I make the obligatory genuflections to acknowledge the deeply problematic aspects of his work. But I do admit to feeling a slight special connection to him through our century-removed mutual love for gray old New England, and for this city in particular. And anyway, as a participant in 21st century western culture, I soak in HPL-derived stories and media whether I like it or not—just like you. This latter fact turns into a central theme of Providence.

Wikipedia tells me that Providence “is both a prequel and sequel to” two other comics projects by Moore. I did not know that until just now, so I can offer my deep enjoyment of this work as proof that one needn’t have read the others first. The past Moore work I instead compared this to was From Hell (which I’ve written about before). Both works play in the secret history subgenre of fantasy, with each putting forth the notion that magicians in centuries past engaged in sinister necromancy in order to fundamentally change the reality of the reader’s time. But that turns into a bit of a fake-out here!

For much of the work’s first two acts, I enjoyed Providence as a another modern “Lovecraft remix”, continuing the tradition of decanting that writer’s core concepts of cosmic horror into new stories palatable to a more tolerant and diverse 21st century readership. I’ve written about various recent examples in Fogknife before, including Night in the Woods, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, and The Outside*. As with these other works, Providence declares its independence from the source by making the protagonist someone that bigoted Lovecraft himself would reel at. In this case, Robert Black is queer and Jewish—albeit closeted about both, living as he does in early 20th century America.

I had a great time following the would-be novelist Black as he rambles around New England in an investigatory mode classic to the genre, meeting weird people doing weird things. He does not let the fact he often barely escapes from these interviews alive stop him from charming and befriending almost every subject. He’s a great guy—and perhaps a bit of a naive doofus, not connecting the extremely clear dots even as he writes them out longhand in the diary and scrapbook whose reproduction makes up about a third of Providence’s content. (This, too, reminded me of Moore’s extensive endnotes in From Hell, but in this case all presented wonderfully in-character).

The book quickly makes a sort of running gag of Black writing out “story ideas” for his novel that quite precisely describe the way every chapter drives him deeper into intractable peril. Deliciously, this starts to get less funny by degrees, his self-deceptive cover-story of merely conducting research for a novel growing ever thinner. As Black continues to congratulate himself on his own inventive imagination, it dawns on the reader how his subconscious desperately bangs at the mental partition, begging for his conscious mind to put two and two together. But alas—and in accordance to the rules of the genre that Black himself happily writes out—the sanity-preserving parts of his mind know precisely what they’re doing by absolutely refusing to know what they’re doing.

Similarly, the initial half of the story invites any reader with even a passing familiarity with the source material to feel familiar, even cozy. When Black spends a day hobnobbing with a community of fish-people, or shares a hypnotic dream with a scholar where an army of friendly cats bear them aloft over shadowy dangers, I recognize the Lovecraftian referents and feel quite grounded. But then, thrillingly, that ground gives way completely when Black at last arrives in the eponymous city for the final act, where occurs a meeting that speeds his own adventures to their wholly unavoidable close, and then shuts the book on literally everything else over a two-issue epilogue.

Horrible story! So much fun, and deeply, dizzyingly disturbing. Really just awful. It’ll make you feel terrible. I loved it, and I shall now vanish for a time into its panel-by-panel annotation fansite.

The remainder of this post discusses the ending of “Providence”, so stop here if you want no spoilers. For the record, the work contains a fair amount of explicit sex, both consensual and otherwise, as well as gory violence. I purchased and read it on my iPad as twelve individual issues via Comixology.

The epilogue of Providence left me feeling profoundly mournful. After some hours of quiet meditation in the dark—I could not possibly sleep, not after reading the final three issues last night—I realized how tightly it aligned with my fears about climate change.

The handful of survivors in the last pages find themselves in a world suddenly and radically transformed, perhaps due in small part to their own actions but mostly through larger societal and historical forces they had no say in. The horror was all around them for all their lives, and nobody seemed to care, at least until it was far too late for caring.

The new world seems to allow humans to exist, but only indifferently; the days of the earth as nurturing mother have come to an end. The survivors discuss the rationality of suicide, or escaping by embracing violent madness—with examples of both flowering graphically all around them. But in the end, they assert and retain their humanity by making the least sensible and most human choice of all: they decide to accept their new circumstances, and adapt as best they can.

And this, too, is my stance in the face of the non-metaphorical cataclysm already well underway. It’s all I have. I carry hope and optimism of a sort, but any hope for an alternate future—for an “elder sign” that would avert disaster entirely—has long since been carried away from me, in torn and fluttering pages, by the river of apparent inevitability.

Photograph of the Providence skyline, across a river. Painted on the river's concrete bank are the words: WHERE WILL WE GO WHEN THE WATER RISES
Looking north from the Point Street bridge, Providence. Screenshot from Google Maps.

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* I just realized all of these works are either written or significantly co-written by women, so how about that.

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An extreme close-up of Al Pacino's staring eyes, as Tony Montana in 1983's 'Scarface'.

I had some vague awareness of Scarface as the movie that the producers of Grand Theft Auto and various tangential works took all the wrong lessons from. I quickly learned how it lends itself to adaptation into video-game power fantasies and similar media: the protagonist, unburdened by morals, levels up at an exhilarating speed. While most media deriving from Scarface choose to elide the fact of Tony Montana’s terminal-velocity crashdown in the end, watching this movie at a safely noninteractive remove let me quite enjoy his whole three-hour ultraviolent parabola.

The brutally simple story makes for an easy watch, with quite gorgeous cinematography in places. The scene where Tony visits his mother for the first time happens in front of a perfect pink-and-purple sunset over Miami’s silhouetted skyline, miraculously captured behind the actors as they stroll up a suburban driveway. It doesn’t look composited, given the technology of the day, and it struck me as an amazing filmmaking stunt all in itself. As a Florida resident for much of the 1980s, I did soak in the ambience of every exterior shot—even if it was mostly shot in LA.

Before any of that, though, the film shocked me with its positively Trumpian opening text crawl, which took as fact that the Mariel boatlift involved sinister Cuba intentionally stuffing a caravan flotilla with its worst citizens, sending “the dregs of its prisons” into the United States. According to Wikipedia, this does reflect the popular American view of this immigration wave, at the time. I take it as harbinger of the hateful reactionary politics that Reagan would soon enshroud the nation within—a phenomenon well underway by 1983. The boatlift sounds like a fascinating and complex subject worth learning more about with over 40 years’ hindsight, and this film’s blunt, matter-of-fact stance sure sounds naive today.

Also more than 40 years old: Al Pacino while shooting this movie, though one gets the impression that Tony Montana is supposed to be thirty or younger, per the apparent age of his cadre. (Also per the actor playing his mother, who Prime Video’s pause screen informed me was only four years Pacino’s senior.) Ain’t nothing wrong with this very common bit of Hollywood Movie Magic, of course, but I took especial note of it here because his true age clearly made it easer for him to look completely worn out and haggard during the film’s final act. So, that worked out!

(Writing the previous paragraph felt familiar, probably because I had similar observations about Laurence Olivier’s age-discrepancy with his character in Rebecca—only going in the other direction!)

Looking worse for wear than Mr. Pacino himself is the fact of his casting as a Cuban immigrant, thick accent and all. A choice like this seems flat-out impossible today (and not without reason), no matter how skilled the actor. “What were they thinking?” has no answer either, other than good old “The past is another country.” I can only reflect on how interesting it feels to realize one has commenced to collect these within the geography of one’s own lifetime.

Michelle Pfeiffer co-stars in her first major screen role, and while she looks fantastic (if a tad underdressed), most of the scenes with her feel like such a drag. Her character never rises above a two-dimensional gangster’s moll, having opinions but no will, like a mouthy housecat. Despite giving her a lot of screen-time, the film declines to explore the tragedy of her existence as a powerless trophy who keeps herself numb with endless drugs. At least she becomes a little more interesting towards the end, as the only person in Tony’s inner circle able to escape his final reckoning alive.

Three bits of culture that I didn’t know originated from this picture:

  • The Kill Bill-style super-zoom-in on the protagonist’s eyes with WHEEP WHOOP synth music in order to let us know they’re about to ape out on some poor schmuck. The first time this happens in Scarface, any modern audience will have to laugh, even though it’s suppose to be tense I guess? And it happens twice more after that!

  • Schwarzenegger’s eponymous Terminator character, who would first storm cinemas a year after Scarface’s premiere, undeniably stole his look from “The Skull”, a shotgun-toting Bolivian assassin who appears only in the final scenes of the movie to completely chew up the last bits of scenery.

  • Back in the 1990s I had a cadre of friends who all called each other “mang”—both in person and online, spelling it out that way in texts—and I just now realized they were all specifically imitating Al Pacino’s interpretation of a Cuban accent.

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Hiddleston and Swinton as the vampires named Adam and Eve, chilling in a Tangiers alleyway.

What a pleasant surprise! I knew next to nothing about this 2013 Jim Jarmusch picture, now streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video. But I was in a good mood after watching Orlando through the same channel, and felt open to a subsequent evening’s giant step 20 years forward in Tilda Swinton’s acting career. I didn’t even know who co-starred—a delightful discovery, given my household’s recent love for Loki.

Prime tags it as “Horror”, incorrectly. Only Lovers Left Alive presents a romance of that rare sub-type depicting two people already in a mature and healthy relationship, which they draw upon to support each other through a shared crisis. In this case, the two people happen to be vampires. That’s merely the spoonful of sugar that keeps the medicine from clotting, as far as I’m concerned.

Only Lovers gives us an engaging story told with style and subtlety, with a secondary theme of entangled particles tunneling through the whole runtime. This starts directly with the opening shot: the protagonists “Adam” and “Eve” spinning and counter-spinning in their respective lairs on opposite ends of the earth, linked by the coincidence of the same vinyl record spinning for both of them.

The movie explicitly invites us to wonder why the two live so far apart from one another, going as far as having a third character ask it out loud as they make plans to reunite—and then it declines to give us a definitive answer. Instead, the film leaves it as an exercise for the viewer’s emotional intelligence, given what we learn about these two characters during the time we spend with them. I really liked this.

I got the impression that Eve and Adam have grown long used to swinging in these cycles, together for a time and then apart again, and that this oscillation lends their supernaturally long relationship stability. Then again, maybe the fantasy element needn’t come into it: I have an entirely non-vampiric couple of friends who also love this movie in part because they felt seen by this depiction of two people wholly entangled, and yet who seem to thrive best when given a degree of separation.

We might also conclude that trouble manages to find these two bright souls more easily when they burn together, even briefly. One of the compounded crises that the pair faces in Only Lovers concerns an uninvited houseguest, an estranged member of their vampire clan, who—quite unlike the protagonists—plies her charm and beauty* in the manner of a pathologcial narcissist, entirely selfish with neither regard for others nor expectations of consequences. I quite appreciated this implication that even fantastic blood-drinking vampires would have to deal with the problem of entirely realistic attention-draining vampires, just like the rest of us.

Good movie.

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* All the vampiric characters are stunning, of course. Swinton and Hiddleston are both achingly gorgeous here, and even John Hurt’s wizened and infirm old vamp looks fantastic.

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A screenshot of Super Metroid's ending animation showing the hero Samus Aran in her powered armor, smiling and giving the player a thumbs-up.
Samus mildly approves of my 9-hour, 50-minute clear time. According to the Super Metroid wiki, ten more minutes and she wouldn’t have bothered taking her helmet off for this victory pose.

Last week I finished Super Metroid for the first time. I played it on Switch, via the stack of emulated Super Nintendo cartridges available through the console’s online service. This groundbreaking game of highly kinetic and deeply atmospheric exploration has aged astoundingly well over the last quarter-century, and I can recommend it to modern players without reservations.*

And, yes, my time with Super Metroid, and with Nintendo’s classic-console emulation software, moved me to write last month’s post insisting on simulated CRT scan lines when playing emulated video games. That emulator has further interesting features I’d like to focus on today. Specifically, by pressing the Switch’s trigger buttons—not present on the emulated games’ original controllers—you can quickly dump a game’s entire memory state into a file, or load a previous file into memory. This effectively acts as an always-available save-game feature, for every emulated game. Furthermore, holding the triggers down calls up a filmstrip-style view with browsable snapshots of your last several seconds of gameplay, any one of which you may select. Doing so instantly rewinds the emulated game back to that point.

Were these features absent, I don’t think I would have finished Super Metroid. With them present, I had one of the most pleasant, surprising, and thoroughly enjoyable gaming experiences of recent memory—and one tuned exactly to the level of difficulty that felt perfect for me.

For example, my battle with Ridley, the Metroid games’ iconic arch-nemesis, took me several tries. I fought fair and square every time, my fingers off those magic triggers. But: I respectfully disagreed with the design choice to put the in-game save-station so far away from Ridley’s room, requiring a time-consuming (and vaguely humiliating) trudge back through an obstacle course of lava-soaked platforms and mook-level enemies every time the scaly jerk pastes you. No, the first time I realized I had walked into Ridley’s arena, I used those triggers to time-turn myself right back out the door, and then again to set up a save-file bivouac in his foyer.

And you know what? Maybe I “cheated”, but—speaking as the only human player involved in this experience—I do not feel cheated. My use of the emulator’s save-anywhere and rewind-anytime features did not rob me of an ounce of enjoyment or sense of personal accomplishment. In fact, as I started breaking into the endgame, I felt great, because I knew I was going to finish—something I absolutely cannot say for so many wonderful games I’ve had to give up on and walk away from in recent years.

At the very same time I finished Super Metroid, my friends celebrated the news that Outer Wilds players will soon enjoy some new DLC that expands its original story. This coincidence of timing jarred me into imagining the Nintendo emulator’s time-warping features as standard in all video games, including very modern works like Outer Wilds. And from there, I rapidly adopted the belief that if a game lets you pause at any time, then it should let you rewind as well—where “rewind” can mean the Switch’s literal time-turn, or the ability to save at any time, or even just generous checkpoints. Enough to let you retry a mistake at minimal cost, however that best fits the game in question.

I haven’t written here about Outer Wilds, even though I think it’s one of the most impressive single works of electronic entertainment ever produced. I mean it: it’s a great game, and a true marvel to experience. It models the entirety of a toy solar system, as well as the extremely precise and complex ways its many parts interact over a twenty-minute period. The game gives you both the means and the motivation to explore every inch of its itty-bitty planets’ hand-designed surfaces and interiors, and the starlit spaces in between them.

It is also hard, and as unforgiving in some ways as a Dark Souls game. While I took great joy in its many subtle observational and navigational challenges, I find less pleasure in the many ways a single wrong move through a tricky, minutes-long sequence kills you instantly and returns you the game’s starting location.† Wending your way back to the spot you perished for another try can take several more minutes of focused attention and careful maneuvering—work that becomes undone in an eyeblink, if you once again manage to not quite stick the landing.

I can’t stand feeling penalized a palpable chunk of my personal time and attention for a half-second of incorrect controller input—and then being asked to do it again, now knowing what the punishment will entail if I get it wrong. Inevitably, I reach a point where continuing feels too stressful. It’s why I generally don’t play roguelikes or Dark Souls-style games, and it’s why, to my lasting regret, I don’t feel able to complete Outer Wilds, one of the most objectively amazing created worlds I’ve ever inhabited.

Now, Outer Wilds lets you pause the game at any time. Of course it does, why wouldn’t it? Single player video games have made a pause-anytime feature standard since before most of today’s game-players were born. No game needs to provide a diegetic explanation for this; your character needn’t be a time-wizard. Players just accept that games let you freeze the world whenever you wish.

I want to see this paradigm extended. Specifically, I wish to see it become normal that every game with the means to offer a pause function also offer some way to take back bad moves. As with pause, the game does not need to bend over backwards to justify it; it doesn’t have to be Braid or Prince of Persia and theme itself entirely around time-rewinding. Let the player say “whoops” and try that tricky jump again, in the exact same mode a game already lets the player say “hang on a sec” and answer the phone.

(Or how I rewind the movie I’m streaming to replay to a bit of key dialogue I missed due to local noise, or flip back two pages when I catch my attention wandering away from the novel in my hands. And so on.)

I really do believe that games like Outer Wilds would be a much more accessible experience for all players if they allowed you to drop a save-point anywhere you wished, or quietly checkpointed your last entry into some dangerous zone, or kept a running snapshot or two of the world-state on a ten-second heartbeat.

And I use the term “accessible” here deliberately! The AbleGamers Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes and supports accessibility affordances for game-players with disabilities, names “Undo/Redo” as one of the core features that video games can have in order to achieve greater accessibility to more players in more situations.

My accompanying ol’ Samus Aran through the shadowy caves of Planet Zebes last week leaves me firmly convinced that some sort of do-over function should exist in every solitaire video game, including but not limited to games of exploration and discovery like Super Metroid and Outer Wilds. At my current age and attention-budget, I absolutely needed the accessibility affordances that the Switch’s emulator provided, and I feel grateful for their presence. Looking at the game-win screenshot I took of Samus giving me that hard-won thumbs-up still fills me with real happiness and pride at my accomplishment.

And, yes, I did pull those rewind-triggers a couple of times during the closing credits to make sure I caught that moment for posterity.

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* No reservations, but one admonition: you should know the things that a player of 1994 would know from having read the game’s printed instruction manual. If nothing else, know that Samus has a dash ability from the start of the game, activated by holding down the controller’s B button. Nothing on-screen ever tells you this, and the infamous early-game “noob bridge” stymies modern players unaware of the fact.

† Or teleports you into interplanetary space without your ship, or flings your ship into the sun without you aboard, or otherwise traps you in an unrecoverable situation that forces a reset. These situations are all enlightening (and hilarious) the first time they happen, at least!

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Photograph of an old TV set, tuned to a staticky pattern.

After finishing Paradise Killer, I find myself quite enjoying the NES and SNES collections available through Nintendo Switch Online. Once again bound to full-time work, I lately keep my Switch on my desk and fiddle with these simpler games when I want an interesting distraction. Their two-button control schemes, uncomplicated rules, and playtimes measured in minutes make them a welcome alternative to poisoning myself on social media.

Beyond the nostalgic comforts found within these Nintendo collections, I’ve discovered some surprising gems, a quarter-century or more after their initial publication. And so I sat down to write about my favorites, but a short diatribe about emulating old games’ video came out instead:

When playing 20th century video games on 21st century hardware, turn on your emulator’s CRT filter, if it has one. To do this in the Nintendo Switch Online collections, select “⚙️ Settings” from either collection’s home screen, then select the “CRT Filter” option from the three “Game screen” choices.️

This filter simulates the scan-lines of a cathode-ray tube—in other words, the battered family-room or college-dorm TV sets that these games were designed for display on. I’m no video-tech connoisseur, but to my rheumy Gen-X eyes, the effect in the Nintendo collections looks quite realistic: the default sharp-cornered pixel-grid gets replaced with screen-filling swirls of uneven lines and overlapping colors.

As Jordan Starkweather’s wonderful CRT Pixels Twitter account illustrates, the best game artists in the CRT era set each pixel of every sprite with the intent that the wartime technology displaying them would blur and smear those little colored boxes, making delicate curves and shadowed gradations out of the regimented graph-paper blocks seen in an unfiltered emulation.

The innumerable and evenly lit LEDs of your laptop or flat-screen TV may want to display these games as a quilt of consistent chunky blocks, but that is not what the games want. The games want you to see them as beautiful streaks of analog light! Please respect the games and the people who made them, and turn on your emulator’s CRT filter, when available.

Image credit: “CRT” by Robert Anders is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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A bizarre cityscape painted in neon pinks and blues and studded with anime eyes, set in the middle of a jungle.

I just finished Paradise Killer, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Like Disco Elysium, which I also loved, it presents an interactive detective story with an unnerving and otherworldly setting, and paces out its narrative using a framework borrowed from other game genres. In this case, a combat-free FPS treasure hunt tells a story mashing up a Max Gladstone gonzo-horror novel with a Spotify vaporwave playlist.

While Disco Elysium’s RPG-based gameplay and slightly more grounded setting resonated more with me, I still had a fantastic time running and leaping and snooping my way across Island Sequence 24. I can recommend the experience to any adventure-gamer who doesn’t get motion sickness from this sort of thing.

I shall now present my three top tips for new Paradise Killer investigators, all spoiler-free:

Spend your money. As with countless other video games, money feels tight at first, and in Paradise Killer it may also feel worryingly finite. The island has more than enough cash scattered around to cover all your needs, though; keep exploring, and you will never feel poor for long.

If you come across something besides fast-travel access for sale, buy it immediately, even if it leaves you broke. No purchase is useless or premature, and you’ll earn that money back soon enough.

As for fast-travel points, pay to unlock at least one or two in every named zone. There will come a time when your wallet will feel comfortably heavy, and you’ll be glad to pay Lydia to drive you around now and then.

Ask every question. Though it may sometimes seem otherwise, you cannot harm the investigation by asking someone a “wrong” question. Go ahead and lawnmower your way through every dialogue option, in any order you want! (This is one place the game’s style deviates from Disco Elysium, notably.)

Sometimes a suspect will respond to a question with anger, or even a refusal to speak about some topic any further. When this happened to me at first, I felt concerned I’d screwed up the interrogation somehow. Having talked to other island-hopping friends and now having finished the game, I feel pretty certain that all these responses are inevitable, and none affect your future interactions with their respective speakers. They’re simply dramatic, is all!

Visit every map location. While the wonderfully low resolution of Starlight’s map makes it difficult to use for navigation, it does give you a handy list, visible from the get-go, of every major zone on the island. You need to visit and explore each one at least once before you can crack the case, even though some of them never come up in dialogue.

In my playthrough, I reached a point where my trail started feeling discouragingly cold, and I started wondering if I should just pack it in and present my underbaked accusations to the Judge. Then I noticed that Starlight’s map listed an area I’d never visited—and which, in fact, I had no recollection of any person or clue even mentioning. But there it was, in plain sight, from the first minute of the game! And, of course, my visit to it blew the case wide open once again.

Good luck and have fun in the grim neon future!

Image credit: An AI-generated image based on the prompt “neon ghibli brutalism”, posted to Twitter by @ai_curio right after I started writing this blog post.

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