The Cellar (1980) is among the worst books I’ve read recently, and definitely the stupidest. Everyone in it seems to have brain damage. I gave up trying to decipher the motivation [insert person] has for performing [insert action]; it never made sense. Does it even have a single murder? All the characters legally qualify as vegetables.

It’s an obvious beneficiary of the 70s Stephen King horror boom; Warner Books were clearly just waving through every manuscript with scary monsters at this point. The Cellar became a minor classic in spite of itself, and an important early example (along with Jack Ketchum’s Off Season) of “extreme horror”, or “splatterspunk”: books where the point is gore and shocking sex acts. Yes ma’am, Laymon paved the way for the luminous literary talents of Edward Lee, JF Gonzalez, James “Wrath” White, and several other guys who should probably just quit and take up landscaping jobs.

Everything about The Cellar is just bad. Its only redeeming quality is that Laymon doesn’t seem like a cynic. He was probably trying his damndest to write a good book, he just wasn’t any good at it. Generally, books make you ask questions. Who’s lying? Who’s the murderer? Will the dog survive? Here, the main question I was asking was this: if the book starts drooling and ruins my upholstery, can I sue the Laymon estate for damages?

The opening scene is straight out of Goosebumps. It’s night, and a hard-headed father drags his fraidy-cat son to the creepy local mansion to prove that there’s No Such Thing As Monsters. There is, in fact, a monster inside, and it kills both of them along with an irrelevant cop character who seems to have wandered into the book by accident. The beast is described as white, with a snout. What sort of snout, though? A dog’s? A pig’s? Lots of animals have snouts, Laymon, and they all look different. I don’t magically know what the monster looks like, just because it has a snout. You need to use words to paint a picture here.

The mansion (we learn) is called the Beast House, and has been the site of many slayings across seventy years. Two men form an unlikely partnership to solve the mystery. One of them, Larry is a traumatized basket case who was literally anally raped by the monster (what?). The other is a badass Rambo-esque former spec forces operative whose name is “Judgement”, in a typically subtle touch from Laymon. The two men journey to the Beast House, and begin a long process of researching the town’s history. Is there really a monster inside the Beast House? Or is it all an elaborate hoax?

You probably see the problem. We already know the monster’s real – we saw it in the opening scene – so this is just wasted time. We spend literally half the book impatiently drumming our fingers, waiting for characters to figure out stuff that’s known to us.

The book’s secondary plotline is even worse. A woman called Donna receives a phone call. Her husband has been released from prison. She puts down the phone, packs her daughter into a car, and drives them far away, never to return. Her behavior seems so over-the-top and irrational that I wondered if Donna might be crazy, suffering from paranoid delusions. Maybe her husband’s just a normal guy, or nonexistent. That would have been interesting path to go down. A daughter trying to survive a clinically insane mother who has her trapped in a car.

…But no, her husband Roy’s a child-molesting mega-psycho who randomly kills every third or fourth person he sees and is tracking them down like the Terminator. The first rule of Laymon: if there’s a choice between a smart idea and a dumb idea, he always, always, always goes with the dumb idea.

Roy is perhaps the stupidest villain I’ve ever encountered. He has no motivation aside from raping and murdering his family. He’s stunningly incautious; he travels in a straight line from prison to the family home, discovers they’ve left, and flies into a rage at the nearest neighbor (causing them to call the cops). The guy’s a moron, and it’s implausible that he remains uncaught for five minutes. He couldn’t order a hot dog without attracting an all-points bulletin.

Donna appears to have no plan whatsoever. She drives and drives, crashes her car in a ditch near the town containing the mansion, and then hooks up (literally) with Larry and Judgement, finally joining them on their quest to solve the Beast House’s non-mysterious mystery. There’s some skeevy Skinemax-level shit where she puts on a swimsuit and both the guys ogle her. I was impressed that, while running from her psychotic husband, she found time to pack a swimsuit.

The sex scenes deserve to be quoted at length. He mounted me from behind, a manner unusual for humans as it is customary among many lower animals. At the first touch of his organ, fear wrenched my vitals, not for the safety of my flesh but for my everlasting soul. And yet I allowed him to continue. I know, now, that no power of mine could have prevented him from having his will with me. I made no attempt to resist, however. On the contrary, I welcomed his entry. I hungered for it as if I somehow presaged its magnificence. Oh Lord, how he plundered me! How his claws tore my flesh! How his teeth bore into me! How his prodigious organ battered my tender womb. How brutal he was in his savagery, how gentle his heart. This is written in the voice of a woman circa 1900, but still, yikes.

The plot twists in stupid directions, impervious to any logic yet discovered by mankind. I wonder whether Laymon ever wrote an actual ending – maybe I have to buy one of his other books to read it. He wrote a lot of them, their titles providing a fair summary of his unique, inspired take on the horror genre. Nightmare Lake. Night Show. Midnight’s Lair. Endless Night. After Midnight. The Midnight Tour. Come Out Tonight. Friday Night in Beast House. Night in the Lonesome October. Night Games. Night Ride. The Night Creature. You can kinda see him cycling through every permutation in the dictionary. He died in 2001, so the world will never see The Dark Midnight or The Night at Night, or The Night Tonight at Midnight.

Check out The Cellar to see just how bad 80s horror got. If Stephen King’s Carrie is “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls, Richard Laymon’s The Cellar is “No Way No Way” by Vanilla. Once, it was thought, horror called for understatement. The scares were more in what the reader didn’t see. Thank God Laymon and his copycats were there to show us the truth: real horror is about having sex with an animal atop a pile of mutilated corpses with their viscera arranged in a pentagram. Along with a detective story where you already know the answer. I’d have loved to have seen him screenwrite Twin Peaks: he’d probably tell us who killed Laura Palmer before she even dies.

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Mass shootings have killed a lot of people and created a lot of mythology: trenchcoats; clocktowers; grassy knolls; lone wolves; false flags; crisis actors; radicalization; warning signs. It’s a congealed, gruesome mass of images and slang, a culture trying to decode a thing that’s deadly, fascinating, and incomprehensible. Moths might create a similar mythology around flames, if they could.

A common trope is the second shooter. Early reports often describe two or more gunmen. This invariably proves false: the typical spree killer has no better odds of attracting an accomplice than he does a girlfriend, and with just two famous exceptions (and one unfamous one), mass shootings are conducted by a single man, working alone.

The second shooter appears to be a psychoacoustic phenomenon – scared people mistaking echoes and richochets for additional gunmen, and so on – but it’s eerily common, enough that the omnipresent advice people spam on Twitter includes “there’s almost never a second shooter”.

Nick Mamatas’s book has a strong hook: what if the second shooter was real? Michael Karras is a small-press hack-for-hire writing a book on the subject. His research isn’t going well…and then suddenly far too well, when he’s caught near the epicenter of a horrific (and strange) attack and witnesses the second shooter illusion first-hand. From there, things get weirder. His computer has been hacked. His research notes are being tampered with. Drones are following him.

I’ve read books on paranormal stuff (such as cryptids and UFOs) where it’s painfully obvious the writer stopped believing in it partway through. Karras is the opposite – a disbeliever converted by circumstance. What can he do, though? He’s up against the same paradox inside every conspiracy theory: if there were malign forces at work who could manipulate physics at will, to the point of making a person disappear into thin air…would you even try to expose them?

The story is pacey and well-written, with plenty of humor and a sharp eye for character. The dialog’s great: The Second Shooter is stuffed with thowaway lines (“Of course we have the wifi”) that just sound contextually right in a way that’s hard to articulate. Mamatas has a fantastic ear for how people talk.

The Second Shooter is a thriller, but it eschews airport novel cliches for moments of real creativity and inspiration. The book is packed with odd and unusual ideas – important plot points involve a MUD, an Ikea table, and the fact that a certain character knows what a TV rerun is – and the plot’s serpentiform twists are as unpredictable as a real mass shooting. There’s a sense of eclecticism throughout, like a song made up of all the wrong chords.

Mass shootings are absurd as well as scary (Columbine’s farcical “revenge of the nerds” narrative set the tone), and the associated culture of grifters and exploiters gives Mamatas a satirical target a mile wide. This is best seen in the character of Chris Bennett, a conspiracy-peddling shock jock (described as “having all the charisma of an empty chair”) who is clearly based upon Alex Jones. Bennett seems to view himself as Captain Ahab and Karras as Moby Dick, and there are loud hints that he might be involved in whatever’s happening to Karras. The two men are enemies, and Bennett never fails to be cartoonishly awful, but there are similarities between them, too. They both exploit fear for money. And they both exist inside a profit-driven media machine that – at a systemic level- does not want mass shootings to stop.

What Karras needed, he thought in darker moments, was another mass shooting […] Come on, special boy! Get angry! A slaughter close enough to drive to, with plenty of witnesses ready to talk about the tightly coordinated team of gunmen who had just torn through a school, or church, or shopping mall. He had the news on the radio, and the police scanner app running on his phone. Despite the shocking number of mass shootings out there, America was still a great big country, and on a daily basis a lot more people were dying of heart attacks and car accidents than they were at the hands of crazed gunmen.

I had a friend who was a kind of anti-evangelist for cryptocurrencies. He self-published a book about how Bitcoin etc are worthless pump-and-dump scams (yadda yadda)….but he himself owned cryptocurrencies! His rationalization went something like “well, if Bitcoin goes up in value, more people will want to read books about it, so I’m increasing my own market”. He was joking, but money still perverts incentives in interesting ways. Karras isn’t evil. Nothing he does is especially wrong. But he still makes his bread with the filling of graves; even if he isn’t pulling the trigger himself. It’s a grim way to make a living.

The Second Shooter isn’t perfect. It’s not easy for a book to be too smart but Mamatas wanders close to the line sometimes. The dialog (though lively and believable) has a Whedonesque quality, with constant dry quipping that damages the tension. Karras is just the cleverest fucker in the world, making jokes about Vonnegut to 7-Eleven clerks and dropping Situationist quotes into casual conversation. There’s a gag near the beginning about how Karras has only gone to mass once in ten years – maybe we’re supposed to laugh at someone called “Karras” being a bad Catholic. If that’s a pop culture reference, the book didn’t need it.

I kept hoping The Second Shooter would become rawer, less sophisticated, and more of a punch to the gut. But in the end, it’s just not that kind of book. Its ideas are ultimately Marxist/post-Marxist ones: mass shootings aren’t about blood in the streets: they’re about power relations, dialectics, images, struggles, spectacles, and so on. These aren’t irrelevent egghead distractions: if you’ve ever held an Online Opinion(tm) about whether we should publicize the name and image of mass murderers (or does this glorify the killer?), you’re touching upon ideas DeBord and Baudrillard wrote about forty years ago. It’s rare to see a genre novel that tackles such stuff directly, but The Second Shooter’s academic inclinations definitely put distance between it and the average thriller.

The ending is fascinating. Just when you’re ready for Mamatas to begin unwinding the complicated plot, he suddenly throws you into very deep waters. Like Neuromancer, The Second Shooter “resolves” itself in a way that’s actually more head-spinning than the original mystery. I liked the ending, but again, it probably won’t play well to those wanting a dumb action showdown while the hero explains what’s happening in monosyllables.

In an image-driven world, perception matters a lot, often more than the reality behind it. Once it was fashionable to talk about Fake News, usually as a club to beat your tribal opponents with. But as the second shooter phenomenon demonstrates, the biggest vectors of Fake News are our own eyes and ears. Even the clearest light and the purest sound still has to pass through your brain. If your brain thinks your genetic fitness could be boosted by perceiving something else, it stacks the deck.

In the aftermath of Hiroshima, John Hersey and Dr Takashi Nagai gathered testimony from “hibakusha”, or bomb survivors. Many claimed to have seen the bomb explode directly above their heads.[1]Bronowski, J., and Robert Jay Lifton. Scientific American, vol. 218, no. 6, Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc., 1968, pp. 131–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24926262 This is impossible – they would have instantly died. Most of them had probably been hundreds of meters or more from the hypocenter. But it shows the unreliability of first-hand experience. “I’ll believe it when I see it” used to be a skeptic’s battle cry; now it’s a credulous retreat back to faith. You can’t believe the things that you see. So what, then, can you believe?

The Second Shooter is an unusual book about a sadly common thing. It’s about a broken society refracted in broken images across broken people, where fake becomes real and fantasy supplants reality. Hunter S Thompson got off easy next to Michael Karras. What would he have done if he’d stopped over at Barstow, slept and pissed all the grass and mescaline and acid and cocaine out of his system…and the bats were still in the sky?

(November 11th 2021, Solaris)

References

References
1 Bronowski, J., and Robert Jay Lifton. Scientific American, vol. 218, no. 6, Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc., 1968, pp. 131–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24926262
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Everything it needed to be, but still not enough.

The first two Age of Empires games (from 1997 and 1999) are childhood classics that I played for a literal age. Particularly the second one. I’m uncertain on this, but if you added up all the hours I’ve spent playing Age of Empires II, I think you’d have a number equal to the hours I’ve spent playing Age of Empires II. The game was so satisfying, succeeding at everything it tried to do, with deep, economy-focused gameplay that took skill to master (the difference between a 1400 and 1600 ELO Age of Empires II player is just as large as in, say, chess) and visceral, kinetic battles.

The historic theme gave you context and a reason to care (“lead the Golden Horde against the Shah of Khwarazm” will always be cooler than “are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?”, for some reason) and the graphics were great, winning me over from Blizzard’s Starcraft, which was also fun but must rank as one of the ugliest games ever made. Age of Empires II’s matches played out a lot slower than Starcraft’s, but they had a bigger, higher build. Games with lots of players on a giant-sized map took on a deliriously epic quality, lasting for hours and hours, with backstabbing, politics, mounting desperation as resources dwindled, heroic last stands, ended friendships, etc. Think of all the fun things you’ve done and rank them from 1 to 10. Unless “eight player Age of Empires II LAN party where everybody’s drunk” is on the list, the most you’ve experienced is a 9.

2002’s Age of Mythology was step backward. It had some cute stuff and a lot of polish, but the new 3D engine didn’t look good and Ensemble Studios had some questionable ideas, like making higher-tier units take up multiple population spaces, causing you to hit your population cap the moment you tried to do anything fun (or so it seemed). And it was the start of the epoch where games coddled you, and didn’t allow you to make mistakes. For example, you can’t delete your town center. Not that you’d really want to, but I still feel philosophically that if I want to delete my own buildings I should be allowed to. Age of Empires I and II had a libertarian “anything goes” ethos to game design. Age of Mythology was like being artificially confined at every turn.

I played Age of Empires III for a few hours and uninstalled it. I’d seen enough; the home cities, card system, and so forth just screamed “artificial complication”, and the idiot-proof game design had hit new levels, with villagers that collected infinite resources and never needed to be moved. All the depth was gone from the core gameplay loop, leaving the sense that the game was mostly just playing itself. The colonial theme was dull particularly next to the largeness of the last two games. In Age of Empires you take cavemen at the dawn of history, and create Rome, Egypt, and Carthage. In Age of Empires II you take illiterate barbarians and guide them into the Renaissance. In Age of Empires III you take 17th century settlers and turn them into 18th century settlers. Oh my God, I paid for the entire seat when I’ll only need the edge! The campaign was actually laughable: why am I fighting Illuminati cultists for the fountain of youth in an Age of Empires game?

In 2009, Microsoft disbanded Ensemble Studios for unclear reasons (the company hadn’t put a foot wrong commercially: even Age of Empires III had sold millions of copies), sat on the license for a while, then licensed it out to other studios (particularly Hidden Path Entertainment and Forgotten Empires), who all did various things that I call “the same game, but now on Steam”. These include Age of Empires II HD Edition, Age of Empires Definitive Edition, Age of Empires II Definitive Edition, and a number of add-ons and expansions such as Forgotten Empires. Each “improved” the game from a technical perspective, but none seemed really necessary, and they also had the effect of fracturing the already-dwindling community – Age of Empires II DE players can’t play with Age of Empires II HD players, and custom maps developed for Age of Empires II are not compatible with any later versions. I kept playing my CD-Rom version of The Conquerors for a long time.

And now there’s a sequel. A sequel that I wasn’t aware of until it launched. While I have an amazing ability to dodge million dollar ad campaigns, it’s also possible the game didn’t get a million-dollar ad campaign. Quiet launches are normally a bad sign (developers don’t want their game to get beaten up too much by reviewers) but this isn’t the case: Age of Empires II is decent and well thought out.

The game is basically a collection of all the series’ best ideas – which are 90% from and II, honestly – and puts them in one package, with some new gameplay improvements. It sticks closely to the series’ main concept – you have a town center, train villagers from the town center, use them to build houses and gather resources, etc – but there are little touches that are nice. As with previous Age games, you advance through multiple “ages”, each of which unlocks additional units and technologies. But where in previous games this would lock down your town center for several minutes (pumping the brakes on the game’s momentum), AoE4 lets you continue using your town center even while advancing. It’s a small touch but it makes the game a lot faster.

Advancing to a new age now requires construction of a “landmark” – you have your choice of several per age, which each offer unique buffs and perks. Chinese, for example, can choose to Castle with either a Astronomical Clocktower (“Acts as a Siege Workshop. Produces siege engines with +50% health.”) or Imperial Palace (“Possesses a large sight radius. Activate to view the location of enemy Villagers for 10 seconds.”). This is the exact same mechanic as Age of Mythology’s minor gods, but it’s not a bad idea.

The eight civilizations (English, French, Mongol, Rus, Holy Roman Empire, Chinese, Delhi Sultanate, Abbasids) are pretty different in how they play – it’s almost like learning eight different games. The Mongols get a kind of abusive Oovoo building that allows you to build two units at once – I have a feeling this will be patched soon.

Also, I’m glad they finally added “attack move”, 1995’s hottest new feature.

Beloved mainstays of the series all return, such as the trebuchets, relics, and Black Forest (an absolutely obnoxious map that every noob picks because you can hold off pushes forever with a few walls). The monks don’t go “wolololo”, but at least there are war elephants. God damn they’re big. They’re the size of buildings.

The minor changes above aside, it just doesn’t feel like a sequel. It’s just Age of Empires II rebooted for the 3rd or 4th time. I won solo against 2 hard AIs on my first game because of how close it was to AoE2, despite the fact that none of my old hotkeys worked.

The graphics are surprisingly drab. The 2D Age of Empires games only had 256 colors, but they worked hard to make every unit distinct with sharp color contrasts and animation cycles. Here, armies just blur into a blob of indecipherable 3D men. The graphics are just technically unimpressive in general. The recommended graphics card? A GeForce 970. There’s no map editor, because why would there be.

It’s clear why they’d draw so much inspiration from AoE2, as it’s the only game in the franchise that still has legs. But it doesn’t do anything to move a stale genre forward. AoM was flawed but at least tried some new things. AoE4 is super safe and takes no risks. They probably wore kneepads and padded helmets while programming it.

The game is fun, but only in a faceless and bland way. I still remember the AoE2’s William Wallace campaign, with that hilarious fake Scottish accent. It was great. AoE4’s learning mission is about a faceless tribe of settlers fighting faceless enemies, while a woman issues instructions in her best “your call is important to us” voice. It was just dull.

And while I hate to sound like a 2014 Youtuber ranting abouty ESS JAY DUBYAS ruining vidya games, there’s no gore, no references to genocide (the Mongols are described as a “a disciplined civilization, recognized for changing history in connecting the East to the West”), and nothing remotely edgy or offensive at all (I liked how AoK:TC let you literally research the Inquisition as a tech). This works against its historical aspect. There are female soldiers, too. Can’t wait for the upcoming DLC adding transgender people and furries and whatever.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep playing it for. It’s fine. But one of the many ways the world has changed since 2003 is that the real-time strategy genre has completely fallen dead. Out of curiousity, I went on Twitch and viewed the top-viewed RTS games.

Age of Empires IV. Mobile scam game. Mobile scam game. Starcraft. Hearts of Iron 4. Age of Empires II. Starcraft II (uhh?).  Mobile scam game…

The top 20th RTS game was Command and Conquer: Red Alert. A game from 1996. And if you take out the contemptuous mobile shovelware and mislabelled wargames, it would have been in the top 10. You know a genre’s in healthy shape when its 10th most viewed game is an MS-DOS title from the middle of the Clinton presidency.

The last viable branch of the genre is probably MOBA games such as DOTA and League of Legends, whose click-heavy isometric style is a clear artifact from the real-time strategy genre. I don’t know why the genre stopped selling, but it’s probably going to take more than another remake to bring it back. Age of Empires IV feels like a slickly missed opportunity. The title is bitterly ironic: this series (and genre) is indeed showing its age.

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