houseofleavesLast year I read something online called “Ted’s Caving Page”. It was a short story about a spelunker exploring a cave, and I found it very, very frightening. Partly because of the story, but also because of how it was presented. It was long, unedited, and written in an rambly hands-in-overall-pockets style that took me off-guard. It was (deliberately?) amateurish, but that made it seem real.

If Ted’s Caving Page had come in a shiny new paperback with “CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED” on the front cover and “‘THE GREATEST SCARY STORY IN 10 YEARS … WOW’ – Ramsey Campbell” on the back…I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much, or so I suspect. It would have seemed crude, primitive, unworthy of its heraldry. And yet, hosted on a cheap Angelfire site, the story worked. It was a success not because of what it was but because of how it was. It’s popular to pretend that art is self-contained and is not affected by anything outside itself. In truth, art can be enhanced or destroyed by nothing more than its packaging.

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski compares to Ted’s Caving Page in a number of ways, but foremost is that the presentation is an enmeshed part of the story. It is a story-in-a-story about a man who, apartment-hunting, finds an abandoned manuscript about a very odd house. The house is the real story, but it’s one we’re told in between periods of commentary from our narrator. He talks about his love life, and his mother, and the darkness that seems to be gathering about him with each waking moment.

The manuscript is about a man called Navidson, who owns a peculiar house. Its walls, measured from inside, have a greater perimeter than when measured from outside. Rooms appear and disappear. Soon, a vast chamber appears, and Navidson begins to explore and document it using an Arriflex camera. At the beginning, the house seems like a metaphor for Navidson’s madness, but soon others are capture. If the house is nothing but a noumena of Navidson, then he is a danger to everyone around him, most of all his wife and children.

The narrator is unreliable. The book is unreliable. Some pages have only a single word. Some of them must be read by holding the book up to a mirror. There are scholarly references to various real and fictional articles, and there are fake (but very convincing) interviews with folk such as Stephen King and Anne Rice about the nature of the document. Sometimes what you’re reading doesn’t make sense, but it works as window dressing, creating the impression that you are reading things that actually happened. Little details, like the main character’s, relationship with his mother seem simultaneously irrelevant and hugely important.

Although the story is as gripping as anything I’ve read, critical pieces of information are ambiguous or missing, even at the end. This is not a book of answers, but a book of questions. You have to work for House of Leaves‘ very occasional revelations, which makes them seem all the more worthwhile. The cryptic, byzantine nature of the book invites the reader’s exploration…rather like a certain house.

This book creates a unique and special atmosphere. It’s as structured and planned as any novel ever written, and it does seem artificial in some ways, but that makes me think of The Blair Witch Project. The first five minutes, all you can notice is the shaky camera. By the end of the movie, you’ve forgotten that things like cameras even exist.

No Comments »

muslim-massacre460René Magritte painted a picture of a pipe with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” “This is not a pipe.” Of course it wasn’t a pipe, it was a picture of a pipe.

Muslim Massacre is a game made by SomethingAwful forumer Sigvatr (I refuse to call them “goons”) that lets you destroy little pixelly blips. There are lots of games where you destroy little pixelly blips, but in this one the pixelly blips represent Muslims. This has made it controversial. We can only guess at how many Muslims in real life have been killed because of this game, but it’s probably a lot.

The game itself is a nose-thumbingly cheap tribute to Postal. You control a true American patriot (hatriot?) carrying a pistol, although passing planes drop additional weapons like a shotgun and a rocket launcher. Your enemies possess everything from suicide bombs to burkas, and eventually you fight Osama bin Laden, Muhammad, and Allah himself. You use the WASD keys to move, and the mouse to aim and fire. Like games of old you can’t save your progress, so you have to beat the thing in one try.

Muslim Massacre is halal if pixelated violence is your creed. You can throw grenades that leave huge craters in the ground, fire rockets that send bodies flying like leaves in a gale, and each dead Muslim vents roughly twenty gallons of blood over the desert sand. Cheerful generic chiptune music plays over the slaughter.

However, I’ll say this: it’s probably not as outrageous as you’re hoping. As a game, Muslim Massacre is fun. As satire, it has a…mildness to it. The whole game involves shooting tiny sprites that sort of look like they have brown skin. A few changes to the art and Muslim Massacre would be just another shameless nostalgia trip to the days when Nintendo published official strategy guides and kids bought them. It certainly has some shock value (especially for people who want to be shocked), but it doesn’t go beyond what Postal accomplished ten years earlier, to say nothing of even older games like Custer’s Revenge.

One wonders why Sigvatr didn’t push the game’s concept further, into South Park territory. Why not allow pork-tipped bullets as an upgradable weapon, for example? If you’re going for edgy, why not go for the white-hot DEFCON 1 shit? Muslim Massacre is a paradox…too much, and not nearly enough.

Perhaps this game isn’t meant to be funny. I’ve read the creator’s webcomic, Electric Retard, which is a mixture of Monty Python’s comedy and Adam Lanza’s misanthropy. I’ve also seen his strange, po-faced apology where he tries to sell Muslim Massacre as an indictment of American foreign policy. Sigvatr’s funny like that. You’re never sure as to whether he gets his own jokes.

Anyway, the game came out, it upset people (but not to the extent where they’d pass up on free traffic by not writing outraged blog posts promoting it), then it went away. Maybe these games are offensive, maybe they’re not, and maybe “offensive” doesn’t matter. These kinds of games hurt nobody, and even if they do, the cure could be worse than the disease. Many people who promote freedom of speech are only thinking about their own speech. They don’t realise that there are a lot of ideas out there, and that – for better or for worse – they’ve opened Pandora’s box.

No Comments »

theshiningonesThis is the most pointless and boring fantasy series that I’ve read BY FAR. Even if it possessed one small testicle and had podiatric contact with a single withered buttock it would have more balls and kick more ass than it does now, which is none and more none, respectively.

The Tamuli is a series of three books featuring the character Sparhawk, who appeared in a previous Eddings trilogy called The Elenium. The Elenium was a feeble fantasy series in its own right, lightly fingering the reader when he wants to be fistfucked, but it had good characters and snappy dialogue.

This has good characters and snappy dialogue, too, but the story is rotten and decrepit to the core. These books run about a thousand pages in paperback, and I am unable to care about anyone or anything in them. There are journeys to strange lands and invocations of mighty magic, and they bore me. The Tamuli shows us how to do less with more – how write a book about gods and wizards and the end of the world…and make the reader yawn. Remarkable.

The book suffers from the same problem that torpedoed Brian Jacques Redwall series: villains that aren’t a challenge to the protagonist. Eleizer Yudkowski once advised fanfiction writers “You can’t make Frodo a Jedi unless you give Sauron the Death Star.” In this book, Sauron is a Jedi and Frodo has the Death Star. The heroes are always ten steps ahead of the villains. Battles are easy squash matches. Gods are on Sparhawk’s side. Spawhawk himself has the powers of a god. What gives? Miss Marple is at greater risk in her investigations than these guys.

Mostly, The Tamuli is a series of tedious happenings, and an overburdened edifice of a plot that’s sagging inward under its own weight. It’s never clear how much significance to assign to specific plot points. You don’t know whether they’re vital clues or filler…and there’s filler in abundance.

We get scenes about the wacky love life of Bevier, or the anthropology of the Tamul empire, and David Eddings’ fem-dom fetish. There’s a female warrior called Mirtai, and Eddings’ frequently reminds us of how powerful and strong she is (and how she’s a match for any man) in rapturous fantasies normally reserved for paid membersites with “goddess” in the URL. Enough, man. Getting creepy here.

Even more irritating is that he cuts interesting things out of the book. In The Hidden City it’s mentioned in passing that a huge battle has been won against Cyrgai troops. I might have been interested in that. Instead, I get it second hand. I’m reminded of when I was a child, and listened to an audiobook of CS Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy – with the climactic battle scene cut out to save space on the tape.

There’s lots of happenings and lots of detail in these books, and it all seems like the buzzing of flies. The Tamuli can be compared to a plate of mashed potato. Lots of crags and valleys and hills. Lots of interesting things if you’re a potato aficiando. For the rest of us, it is a lump of mashed tuber.

No Comments »