It took twenty years, but I am finally Quake-pilled.

My memories of the game weren’t especially good: a brown-gray hallway simulator with a groundbreaking but gameplay-crippling 3D engine and not even half of Doom‘s personality. Playing it again, I can see the things it did right. The pace is frantic. There are no mazes to act as speed-brakes on the carnage. Quake grows exponentially more enjoyable as you “git gud”, with an excellent flow-state and sense of physics. It has significantly stronger combat than Doom, whose enemies were (mostly) slow-moving turrets that fired shots at you while standing still. The only way id Software could make them challenging was by turning them into bullet sponges (does anyone get physically exhausted fighting Cyberdemons and Barons?), or by stacking hundreds of them into one level. Quake‘s enemies are fewer in number, but their speed and aggression is ramped up substantially.

In contast to Doom‘s large but static fights, Quake is chaotic, a neverending moshpit. A standard level has you diving to escape Fiends, dodging Voreballs, and trying to take shelter from the nearest Shambler’s lightning bolts, all at once. While I miss the sheer Normandy Landing size of Doom’s proto-Serious Sam bloodbaths, Quake conjures a greater intensity with about half as many enemies.

The Lovecraftian art style was groundbreaking, and oddly enhanced by the game’s primitive 3D blockiness. To this day, Quake has a kind of faceless, geometric horror, like Euclidean mathematics turned into dark, composting flesh. If you’re using some latter-day source port like Dark Places, I recommend playing on 640×480 with anti-aliased textures disabled (I play the original DOS game under emulation). Trust me: it improves the game dramatically. Shove your 4K superresolution and specular lightmaps up your ass. Trying to make Quake beautiful and yassified is not the path to nirvana.

What’s often forgotten about the Quake engine is how it transforms the battlefield. If an enemy’s blocking your path in Doom, you have to fight it. In Quake you can rocket-jump over that monster’s head and rain fire from a high position. Quake is ultimately a rich game, deeply-veined with tactical possibilities. There’s a reason the game is still deathmatched seriously to this day, while Doom’s primitive multiplayer is now mostly a curio.

But I’d be lying if I said Quake has the world’s greatest single-player mode. I’d also be lying if I said it has the world’s second greatest single-player mode. By the time you play the Elder Worlds sub-episode, the game is on life support. Sandy Peterson’s levels are just annoying, the spawns are horrendous, and Shub Niggurath is the worst boss since Scott Rudin. Wanting more (and better) I checked out Scourge of Armagon, a 1997 mission pack by Hipnosis Software.

Mission packs were as common in the 90s as day-glo hair scrunchies and yarler grunge rock singers. Some were lazy and borderline illegal: 3rd party companies bundling hundreds of user-made .wads from the internet onto CDs and attempting to profit off the work of fans. But others were professionally licensed and designed, and Armagon fell into that category. The levels are well-designed, probably more so than the original. It has new enemies, new weapons, new powerups, and even an ending cutscene—something id Software did not include with the actual game. It’s more of a new game over Quake than Doom II was over Doom I.

Does it have a new story? Yes. The usual “ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUDE TO RESCUE THE PRESIDENT?” mid-90s affair, which I’ve become nostalgic for. Keep it short. Why does every game need a massive story now? Who cares? Why am I watching two hours of cutscenes in a Sonic the Hedgehog game?

What matters is the game, and Scourge of Armagon redefines Quake in many subtle ways. Those little physics-based moments (like when you’d get sucked into an air vent) are now everywhere. Levels are more interactive than before: you can blow holes in walls, extend drawbridges, have buildings collapse on you, etcetera. There are nice aesthetic touches, like mutilated, writhing bodies hanging from racks on the walls. You can even make a statue of Jesus Christ come alive, and zap enemies from his eyes (this is something the devoutly religious Sandy Petersen would have doubtless vetoed).

I have to single out HIP1M3 (The Lost Mine), for being incredibly damned good. It’s atmospheric, spooky as hell, and is loaded with creative flourishes which perfectly fit the theme of it being in a mine (there are twisted mining cart rails you can climb, and a rock tumbler you have to dive through). It pisses on every stock Quake and Quake II map, and actually compares well with holy Doom classics like “Perfect Hatred” and “The Inmost Dens”.

Quake was conservative in its design. id Software wanted the game to be playable in software mode: levels were kept small and tight, and the monster count low. But by 1997, hardware accelerated-3D was clearly the way forward, and ports like VQuake and GLQuake were making inroads, so Hipnosis felt comfortable in pushing a bit more.

Typically, game designers never explored their engine’s full potential. It was left to third parties (as well as internet users) to invent weird tricks, and break rules. This might seem odd (how could Hipnosis Software have a better grasp of the Quake engine than Carmack?), but it makes sense when you consider how Triple-A titles are developed. The levels can only be designed when the game is 80-90% finished. The engine needs to be stable. The monsters and art assets need to be done. Level designers need to clearly know what they can and cannot put in the game. If you have designers work on early half-assed alpha builds, their levels often end up superseded and irrelevant. In the early days of Doom’s development, Tom Hall created some levels based on a primitive version of the Doom engine: these all had to be redone by Sandy Petersen a process that (as he later said on Youtube) took nearly as long as designing new levels from scratch. I’m not saying that the old-school Doom and Quake levels were rushed (although I wonder in the case of some of Petersen’s…) but they definitely didn’t benefit from months and months of meticulous design, like fan mods do.

The designers really liked traps. On HIP3M4, you are fighting some Scrags when the ground slides away to drop you into lava. Enemies randomly spawn in behind your back. Doors open up, revealing roomfuls of monsters. There are no Spawn traps (I can’t remember seeing any Spawns at all), but there’s a new enemy, the Spike Mine, that takes its place as the new Offically Worse Than Dick Cancer(tm). Other new enemies include the Gremlin (which, in a unique mechanic, can actually steal your weapon and use it against you), and the Centroid (which is incredibly difficult to fight on higher difficulties because he has a zero millisecond reaction time and just spams nails). Armagon’s a pretty weak boss who you can defeat by corner-peeking a pillar a bunch of times. He’s lackluster by the standards of Blood or whatever, but anything would be an improvement over Shub Niggurath in the original.

New guns? Mjolnir is a dog-ass melee weapon that I still haven’t gotten a kill with. The Laser Cannon is a weaker Thunderbolt with shots that bounce off walls (this is too unpredictable to be of any use). Both of these guns use cells, which are extremely rare and best reserved for the Thunderbolt.

Quake never needed more weapons. It needed a rebalance of the ones it already has. The shotgun becomes useless the picosecond you find the super shotgun. The nailgun becomes useless when you find the super nailgun. I cannot imagine why id Software thought this was a good idea: why have guns that the player never uses? It would have been easy to give the weak guns a niche purpose (maybe there’s some enemy that takes quarter-damage from every gun except the single-barreled shotgun?), so they retain some utility in the late-game.

The rocket launcher is still bullshit overpowered: it turns roomfuls of enemies into bloody spaghetti with a single shot, and ammo for it is everywhere. I don’t particularly like rocket launchers in games: they seem like crutches. No aim? No skill? No bitches? Just shut your eyes, spin in a circle, point your noob cannon somewhere and you’ll splash 50-100 damage onto the target, even when you miss by a mile. Quake has possibly the strongest rocket launcher in FPS history. Unless you’re fighting a Shambler (which resists explosions), you are wasting your time by using any other gun.

What would Quake would be like without the rocket launcher? Different. Surely some players are so used to it that the rocket launcher is Quake to them. And certainly there’s a fun side of the game involving rocket jumping and so forth. But I think its removal might make the game’s core combat loop a bit healthier, and less limited. I prefer not to use it, but the game assumes you will be crutching the rocket launcher 24/7/56, and gives you little ammo for the other guns.

The Super Nail Gun is an excellent weapon. It’s strong, has some skill to it (you need to track moving targets and lead your shots), and generally feels great to use. But I just never seem to have ammunition to run it. I wish the game would give me fewer goddamn rockets and more nails.

On the whole, the new content is fine. Quake will never be the world’s premium single player game, but Hipnosis’s work is a step up from the original. I played Scourge of Armagon on DOS. My first run through was a disaster: textures on walls kept corrupting, and the game would randomly crash to DOS. Then I applied the 1.06 Patch. I’m not sure if this actually fixed a bug in Quake 1.0, or if it fixed a file that erroneously copied from my Linux server. Either way, it now seems stable, although I get an occasional error message. hunk_alloc failed. I don’t know what that means. Probably the game thinks I’m too much of a hunk.

In the end, Scourge of Armagon wears you down, just like the first Quake. I liked it, but I think I was ready for it to end a few levels before it did. I’m not sure if I’ll play the other Quake mission packs. Probably time to move on.

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In honor of Villeneuve’s much-anticipated new movie, let’s not watch it and play the Dune II real-time strategy game from 1992 instead.

I first discovered the genre in 1999, with Age of Empires II. Lucky break, that’s still probably the best one. I then worked backwards through Age of Empires I (1997), Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995), Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994), then Dune II (1992), unwittingly playing games that had directly “inspired” (been ripped off by) the next. It was like following a river back to its point of origin—each game was clearly the same idea, just older and clunkier and missing more features. It was like watching a painting slowly get unpainted.

Dune II is the beginning of the line. The pencil strokes on a white canvas. The darkness on the face of the deep. For years, every gaming site (and the Guinness Book of Records) claimed it was the first real-time strategy game ever made. But history has now been revised, and now an obscure 1989 title called Herzog Zwei (on the Sega Genesis!) has the honors. RTS games are like punk rock bands. Each time you think you’ve located the first one ever, there’s an even earlier one, buried deeper in the archaeological record.

Don’t ever try to be a gaming historian, it’s fucking impossible. You can make the simplest statement of fact (“games can be played on a computer!”) and a smug asshole will “actually…” you five seconds later. The worst part about these pedantic corrections? They’re always correct. History is meaningless sand. Every fact can and will be rewritten. I once believed Wolfenstein 3D (from 1992) was the first FPS game in history. Stupid. I want to build a time machine*, so I can twerpishly say “actually, Catacomb 3-D came out in 1991″ to my ten year old self. But I’d be interrupted by a dozen other time-travelling clones of myself, each bearing their own corrections. “Actually, it was MIDI Maze in 1987″, “actually, it was Battlezone in 1980″, etc, etc. I’m just going to draw a line and declare by fiat that every game idea ever (from Pong to Fortnite to Battle-Raper) was invented in the early 1970s by a beardo with a PLATO mainframe. Fuck gaming forever. (And obviously, I would never misuse a time machine for such a purpose: I’d do the same two things we all would: save Hitler and have sex with my own grandfather.)

I am sorry for these bizarre rants. You probably think I’m on chemicals. Just remember: me being insane does not prove there are no cats living inside my hair-drier.

Dune II. What’s Dune II like?

Charming but creaky. You feel its age. Playing it is as awkward as it gets without moving soldiers using manually-typed x86 assembly pointers, but it’s clearly the template for a hundred later games. Everything that makes the RTS genre compelling is here: resource management, base-building, training and upgrading soldiers. Its paternity cannot be doubted. Dune II is the Yesugei to Starcraft II‘s Chinggis Khan.

(If you’re wondering, Dune I is an unrelated adventure game developed by a different studio.)

Dune II‘s MCGA/VGA 320×200 graphics are extravagant for 1992. When you load into a match, you are treated to the time-honored “Talking head explains the mission to you” thing (swiped from Sid Meier’s Civilization), which also become a genre cliche. The in-game graphics are exactly as bright and as colorful as you’d expect for a 1992 game set on the desert world of Arrakis (which means “very” and “not much”, respectively). There are four kinds of terrain: Sand(tm), Different Sand(tm), Gravel (where you construct buildings), and Spice (which you harvest and use to train soldiers, build buildings, and so on). It might be visual monotony (tetranomy?), but at least it’s clear and simple.

The game doesn’t have a story, it has a setting. Frank Herbert’s Dune. If you’ve never heard of Dune, let me bring you up to speed on the story: It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy blah blah something something Wookies Jar Jar Binks midichlorians #OscarsSoWhite #FireKathleenKennedy #GamerGate #ReleasetheSnyderCut

The Dune franchise was at a low commercial ebb by 1992. Frank had passed six years previously, and the questionable “revival” led by his son Brian was still many years away. In 1984, David Lynch adapted Dune into a fascinating film that left a Tsar Bomba-sized crater at the box office. Early 90s sci-fi was fearsomely hip and cool, and though Dune remained highly regarded, it was still a book from 1965 and loaded with storytelling conventions that had fallen out of fashion—the way characters have long internal monologues on the page, for example. It belonged to a different world, and was more comparable to Lord of the Rings than, say, Mona Lisa Overdrive.

I am struck by the sense that Westwood (or Virgin, who secured the rights) didn’t particularly care for Dune as a story. Instead, they wanted its galumphing “space-age Lawrence of Arabia” setting, which seems ready-made for videogame adaptation. This is like how Star Wars is compelling for its fantastic future-junkyard setting, and not its bog-standard “hero’s journey” plot. (Although this comparison gives short shrift to Dune, which unlike Star Wars has a very strong story).

You play as one of three factions, House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Ordos (who I don’t remember from the book, and according to Wikipedia, they aren’t in the book!). Unlike Warcraft (whose orcs and humans are largely mirrors of each other), the Houses diverge substantially in what they can do. Only the Atreides can recruit Fremen. Only the Ordos can make Deviators (who, in a clever touch, can convert enemy units to your side—this game inspired Age of Empires’ iconic “wololo” monks!). The game doesn’t let you train Sardaukar (although you do fight them in one mission), which feels like a missed opportunity.

The lore-heavy setting makes Dune II difficult for a new player. What’s a Wind Trap? If I’m under attack by Trikes, what units should I make to fight them? How many silos should I build? Warcraft is easier to grasp: it’s intuitive that peasants build farms and gather gold and lumber. It’s intuitive that an archer can shoot over a distance and is a good choice for defending a wall. Warcraft is a game of things you know. Dune II is an alien world that forces you to learn by building and trying.

Your Mentat (who can be accessed via the top-left icon) is little help: he provides flavor-text and worldbuilding but little useful information. “The Wind Traps provide power and water to an installation.” Uh, what’s “power” and “water”, in the context of the game? Why do I need these things? Most of the text seems written with the presumption that you want to know how things work in the Dune universe, rather than how to use them in the game.

That aside, Dune II is mechanically simple. If anything, you spend more time unlearning things that aren’t in the game: it’s primitive by modern standards, and many taken-for-granted features of modern strategy games literally hadn’t been invented yet.

There’s no “fog of war”. The map starts out shrouded in black, but when a unit scouts the black, the area stays visible forever. This allows for cheesy strategies, like sending a soldier on a suicide mission into the enemy base, you can watch everything they’re doing for the remainder of the match. There are no production queues. No waypointing. No “find an idle spice harvester” button. You have to walk to school uphill, both ways, in the snow. I did enjoy the fact that if you don’t have enough resources to build something expensive, you can partially build it, and then finish the job when you have more spice. That’s nice.

But the game’s most stark omission is its lack of IPX/SPX/null modem support. Dune II is single-player only, and to be blunt, the enemy player AI is not good enough for it to be single-player only.

The enemy AI in later RTS games was controlled by a script. I used to write them myself for Age of Empires II, which had a little programming language that offered great flexibility. Some fan-made AoEII AIs ran for tens of thousands of lines of code, and spent years in development.

Dune II‘s AI is a little different. In fact, it’s not really an AI at all. According to Westwood lead programmer Joe Bostic, level designers would hard-code an “end state” for the enemy’s base, and the AI would simply follow a template. This means Dune II’s AI does not surprise you, or react intelligently. It blindly follows a step-by-step sequence of rules. But as 21st century AI bros inform me, doesn’t the human brain work like that? Aren’t we all just rule-following robots? That’s right: you are exactly as intelligent as Dune II‘s AI. Westwood achieved AGI in 1992 and the world doesn’t know it.

Sadly, much of the game is decidedly unintelligent. Dune II only lets you move one soldier at a time. This is frustrating (and the game’s biggest problem): any move or attack command must be issued separately to every soldier in your army. Imagine being a general in real life, but you can’t just mass-order your men to the front. You have to go to their tent, one at a time, and crack open a beer before asking politely if they’d mind moving to a new position. War would become impossible. Universal peace would reign. It would be horrible.

It’s almost pointless building a big army in Dune II: you can’t effectively control it in battle. Even moving a single soldier requires three inputs. You select the unit, click “move” (or hit M), and then click the place on the map you want the soldier to go. Think of this as an equation: to move an army in Dune II, you must click 3(X/1) times, where X is the size of your army (and all “fractional clicks” are rounded up into whole numbers). To get eighteen Ordos siege tanks in position, you must click thirty-six times. That’s ridiculous.

By contrast, Warcraft lets you move soldiers in groups of four. The equation becomes 3(X/4): moving twelve spiders takes nine clicks. Much better. Warcraft II goes one better by eliminating the “move” button requirement: you just right-click somewhere, and the engine guesses from context whether you want to move or attack. It also lets you select nine soldiers at a time. The equation is approximately 2(X/9): so moving twelve grunts takes four clicks. Later strategy games have no selection limit. In Cossacks, you move an army of arbitrary size with just two clicks.

But this was 1992. The dark ages. A year when police beat up black people, and sex perverts became President. I forgive Dune II for not predicting the future (I can’t do that either), but it’s frustrating to lose battles that you know you could have won, simply because you can’t click fast enough.

Dune II is incredibly micro-intensive. I can’t stress this enough. You need to constantly be on the ball, hopping from base to battlefield and back again. Controlling your units is difficult at the best of times. Things just stop working in this game, for no good reason. Your spice harvesters will sit around uselessly at refineries, waiting for orders. Your soldiers will ignore enemies standing right next to them unless you tell them (one at a time!) to attack.

The game’s apparent simplicity is undermined by the fact that you must be everywhere on the map at once, giving orders, or reminding soldiers of orders you gave them five seconds ago. Frank Klepacki composed the music, but Dune II’s real soundtrack is clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick. This isn’t a game so much as a Gom Jabbar torture test for mouse springs. Remember, little Logitech, fear is the mouse killer.

The game is flat, both visually and strategically. There are no natural obstacles such as walls or cliffs. The entire planet of Arrakis can be traversed in a straight line. This makes it easier to play than Warcraft (where poor pathfinding will cause your soldiers to get stuck against stray trees and bits of wall), but limits strategy. There’s nothing to fight over aside from gravel and spice. There are no chokepoints or funnel-points or defensible positions. This, combined with the hidebound AI, ensures that every match plays out in a similar fashion.

The dense fog of choices that Warcraft II immerses you in (do you 1-hall or 2-hall? Grunt rush or tech straight to stronghold?) does not exist in Dune II. There’s simply a “correct” way to play the game: it can be solved like an equation, and once you know the equation…what do you do then?

Maybe investigate the real issue: does the game have worms?

Yes, the game has worms!

They are a bit disappointing, though. The sand vibrates a little, and then a Shai-Halud pops up, eats a soldier or two, and vanishes. You can actually kill them, if you want. Pretty lame.

So that’s Dune II. The first of its kind. Or the second, third, or fourth. Whatever it is, it inspired everything that came after. Few games are so heavily imitated. Its place in history is secure (as secure as history can be), but is it worth playing today?

I’d say so. Maybe for a few games, anyway. You might really like it, and extend those few games to many. I stopped after a few. To be honest, I am uncomfortable when playing ancient games. I irrationally feel like they’re going to break while I play them, like they’re porcelain Ming vases in a museum. But maybe you want to smash the fuck out of some Ming vases, so have at it.

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This novel’s sales pitch shines from it like a Vegas billboard: “a fairy tale…but dark and edgy. Bet you’ve never heard that idea!”

If your reaction is “I have heard that idea. Many times. Everyone has heard that idea” then shame on you. Stop being a dirty birdie.

King is far more influenced by fairytales than is the average author. He doesn’t borrow fairytale stories but he clearly uses their structuring and devices: much of his early work could be described as “morality-based supernatural revenge” (Carrie, Thinner), or “Faustian pact with the Other Side” (Pet Sematary, “Sometimes They Come Back”). In his nonfiction writing, King repeatedly deconstructs fairy tales as models of how to build gripping, effective stories. So maybe a straight fairytale will turn out to be one of the five or six things he does really well. Let’s see!

Fairy Tale opens strong. A young man named Charlie McGee Reade (who, in a bold stroke of avant-garde experimentalism from King, is not from Maine) rescues an old man, Howard Bowditch, who lives alone in a creepy house on a hill and has broken his leg. The two strike up a diffident friendship. The old man doesn’t reveal much of his past but seems to be very rich: he pays a large hospital bill with literal nuggets of gold. Soon, the boy suspects that Howard has a passageway to a magical fairytale realm hidden inside his shed (don’t we all?)

This old-man-young-man relationship is masterfully drawn. Howard comes alive as a cantankerous grump, as does Charlie as a reformed bully (and borderline juvenile delinquent) with anger management issues. How did he become “reformed”? Because one day, he had a realization. Why am doing this? This is not who I am. This tiny moment, barely a sentence on the page, froze me in place. I once had a similar moment in my own life. This is not me. I’d never seen it depicted in a book before.

Other scenes, like Charlie’s alcoholic dad, and Mr Bowditch in the hospital, are raw and powerful. Every detail is well-chosen, and feels true to life. King writes excellently when he writes what he knows.

But then Charlie leaves the real world and enters the fairy realm through the tunnel in Mr Bowditch’s shed. The book becomes a chore. The pace, already slow, becomes torturous. A pattern asserts itself where Charlie meets some weird person, has some weird interactions, receives some exposition so the plot can creak forward a little, and so on. This goes on for an incredibly long time. Fairy tales are brief and light for a reason: it’s difficult to spend a long period of time in a fantasy world without subjecting it to logical scrutiny. I started to look at the gigantic sheaf of pages remaining in the book with mounting concern.

King’s mythical faux-Scandinavian setting is largely cribbed from movies—The Wizard of Oz is a far more palpable influence than the Brothers Grimm—and isn’t that interesting. The fantasy land of Empis never seems real. “Of course it can’t, it’s a fantasy world.” No. Tolkien’s Middle Earth seems real. So does CS Lewis’s Narnia (more so in the later books than in the first). So what’s different here? Well, Empis feels small. Nearly everyone Charlie meets in his quest is someone important: they’re either an exiled prince or princess, an agent of the enemy, or a person of clear signifance to the story. Imagine walking down a street in America, and the first people you see are Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, and Martin Luther King Jr. You wouldn’t feel like you’re in America, but in a theme park version of America. Fairy Tale has the same quality.

Yes, the first Narnia book also has the “hero randomly meets the most important person in the land” trope. But later books stretch out Narnia’s horizons and add more detail. We soon get the sense that it’s a real place with a thousand years of history bubbling beneath its skin: wars, politics, alliances. And Middle Earth is fully-formed and believable from the first page of The Hobbit. By contrast, Empis never shakes the feel that it’s an incestuous little toyland with a couple dozen people in it. It’s transparently fake. We do not care much about what happens to it.

The haunted, mythic city of Lilimar initially proves an effective setting change. But the endless scenes in the dungeon take on a tedium of a D&D campaign where nobody will jog the damn story along. The villains and monsters are more idiotic than scary. Every challenge gets literalized in a really annoying way, with Charlie figuring out his enemy’s “weakness”, like they’re bosses in a videogame.

Charlie’s hair starts to change. Once brown, it becomes blond. His eyes turn blue. He’s now a Disney Prince, a dashing Aryan ubermensch. This breaks the first rule of fairytales: they must never be aware that they are fairytales. King’s frequent references to Rumpelstiltskin (as well as his own work—I noticed Cujo and The Dark Tower) make things seem even more fake. Charlie is obviously being selected by this land (through some obscure logic that starts with “writer’s” and ends in “convenience”) as its hero and champion. Yet Charlie doesn’t have much of a personal stake in this fake world, or the Gallien dynasty. His one motive is to find some artifact of eternal youth to save his dog. He is forever an outsider, and his outsiderness locks us out of the story, in turn.

But there’s a lot of stuff I like. The characters are well done and believable. All of the stuff set in the real world is fascinating. There’s a subtle twist at the end that (despite being arbitrary) causes you to rethink many things that happened earlier. But whenever magic enters the story, it ruins it, making it perversely unmagical. Can King write this kind of story? No, he cannot. May he not write another.

* Want an example? Here’s the foreword of the expanded version of The Stand, with emphasis (and edits for length) by me.

If all of the story is there, one might ask, then why bother? Isn’t it indulgence after all? It better not be; if it is, then I have spent a large portion of my life wasting my time. As it happens, I think that in really good stories, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. If that were not so, the following would be a perfectly acceptable version of “Hansel and Gretel”:

Hansel and Gretel were two children with a nice father and a nice mother. The nice mother died, and the father married a bitch. The bitch wanted the kids out of the way so she’d have more money to spend on herself. She bullied her spineless, soft-headed hubby into taking Hansel and Gretel into the woods and killing them. The kids’ father relented at the last moment, allowing them to live so they could starve to death in the woods instead of dying quickly and mercifully at the blade of his knife. While they were wandering around, they found a house made out of candy. It was owned by a witch who was into cannibalism. She locked them up and told them that when they were good and fat, she was going to eat them. But the kids got the best of her. Hansel shoved her into her own oven. They found the witch’s treasure, and they must have found a map, too, because they eventually arrived home again. When they got there, Dad gave the bitch the boot and they lived happily ever after. The End.

I don’t know what you think, but for me, that version’s a loser. The story is there, but it’s not elegant. It’s like a Cadillac with the chrome stripped off and the paint sanded down to dull metal. It goes somewhere, but it ain’t, you know, boss.

[..] Returning to “Hansel and Gretel” for just a moment, you may remember that the wicked stepmother demands that her husband bring her the hearts of the children as proof that the hapless woodcutter has done as she has ordered.

The woodcutter demonstrates one dim vestige of intelligence by bringing her the hearts of two rabbits. Or take the famous trail of breadcrumbs Hansel leaves behind, so he and his sister can find their way back. Thinking dude! But when he attempts to follow the backtrail, he finds that the birds have eaten it. Neither of these bits are strictly essential to the plot, but in another way they make the plot they are great and magical bits of storytelling. They change what could have been a dull piece of work into a tale which has charmed and terrified readers for over a hundred years.

That’s well put. It reminds me of something Barthes calls L’effet de réel: the inclusion of a small, seemingly irrelevant detail that is merely there “because that’s the way it really happened and so it has to be noted as such”. Stories will never be reality, but the Effect of the Real explains how they seem to be reality.

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