Review of Brian Keene’s THE COMPLEX

Please enjoy this review of The Complex, by Brian Keene. It is part of my Is That an Old Book? review series. There are a few spoilers, so if you’re like me and prefer to read reviews after reading the book, please be advised.

There are moments when we want to give disclaimers about expectations, when we want to say, “you may assume, it’s like this, but really it’s like this.” We hear lines like, “Oh, sure he’s a heavyweight champion who smashed a guy’s skull to splinters, but really he’s a teddy bear, no really…” I’ve heard Stephen King’s writing described this way when folks say things like, “Did you know he wrote The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me? It’s not all about blood and gore.”

To be fair, it shouldn’t be—most virtuosic artists possess depth and range. For example, besides A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin has also written the children’s book The Ice Dragon. Old school black metal vocalist Gaahl of Gorgoroth is also a vocalist for Wardruna, a group that plays traditional Scandinavian music. High quality artists tend to branch out. Brian Keene is no exception. Besides his seminal horror work The Rising, Keene has written stories with a wide variety of themes, along with non-fiction and essays. Many of his short stories that are dubbed ‘horror’ could arguably be considered thrillers (I’m thinking of I Sing a New Psalm from the Dark Faith anthology) or even magic realism (I’m thinking of The Last Things To Go, co-written with Mary San Giovanni, from anthology The Library of the Dead).

Here we are discussing his recent novella The Complex (Deadite Press, 2016), a visceral tale that combines brutal murder with social irony. It’s a novella that lets loose with heavy doses of flesh, blood, and the pure Cro-Magnon beauty of crude weapons, while at the same time offering subtly complex symbols and a touch of tasteful social commentary.

The story kicks-off by introducing an eclectic mix of residents living in a somewhat run-down, pre-fab apartment complex. When an attack of naked homicidal lunatics ensues, these neighbors must band together to thwart the onslaught. Among them are a writer teetering on the brink of suicide, an aged Vietnam vet wrestling demons of his past, a widowed cat lady mournful for her husband yet handy with his revolver, a young man who is becoming a young woman, a single mom and son, a pair of slightly dorky yet fairly skilled and ruthless young thugs, and a serial killer who may or may not be a hero.

As ever with Keene’s fast-paced horror novels, the reader can enjoy his dexterity in character development intertwined with the violent action. I’ve always considered this dynamic to be one of his most effective stylistic traits. Somehow he can believably weave a character’s history—such as memories of time suppressing a riot, or moments grieving for a relationship—into scenes where crazies are scratching through walls and reaching for their victims’ throats. While all quality novelists put this technique to use to some degree, I would say few can evoke as much depth in such a short narrative. Keene neither slows the pace down with info-dumping, nor does he make the prose sound hurried by using phrasing that is too condensed.

The story’s arc proceeds to detail what amounts to a running firefight (indeed, what a good number of these neighbors do have in common is pistol ownership). The leader of the lunatics is a gigantic naked fat man with a Hello Kitty tattoo on his torso dubbed “Tick-Tock” because of the way his skull snaps back and forth on his neck. The character recalls Urban Gothic’s Noigel in his sheer size and mercilessness.

I encourage anyone who feels like they need a break from slow-tempo stories and miss hard-rocking horror to pick up The Complex and enjoy the ride. For though I am touting its speed and its violence, let it not be said that Keene achieves this by sacrificing subtlety. Rather, the story uses symbolism to great effect. The well-woven interplay of violence and vulnerability, of weaponry and nakedness, serves to create an tension that crescendos in how a group of very disparate individuals attempt to overcome their differences and work together. In its tightly rendered conclusion, the physical imagery mirrors the climactic action in a manner that offers an ironic statement about mob mentalities and what it really means to see someone’s true identity.

The Complex also gives a unique perspective when it comes to world-building. Late Twenteith-Century critic Rosemary Jackson, in her book Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion, offered categories for fantasy stories that drew a difference between stories of the “marvellous” that take place in far-away magical lands (think Star Wars and Lord of the Rings), and the “fantastic”, where fantasy elements are stitched though realistic descriptions of everyday life (such as, to use Jackson’s example, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). While Keene’s work certainly fits into the latter, I would say that even among such writers there are categories of difference that flavor the styles. For example, while H.P. Lovecraft’s works contain overlapping characters and mythological figures, I would place him higher on the “reveal” scale—a story like The Thing on the Doorstep reveals, by the end, what’s really going on and why, with old Ephraim Waite’s motive of immortality lying at the root. In The Complex, as well as other works such as the aforementioned Urban Gothic, Keene steps back from this level of “reveal”—the motives remain blurrier, with hints and speculation adding to the tension. I would say this kind of world building is like the difference between an overtly sweet liquor like Jack Fire with its cinnamon assault, and a whiskey like Knob Creek, that has subtle, maple notes in its finish. While it is true that a work like The Rising does have what I would call a higher “reveal” factor when it comes to the origins of the zombies, overall I would say that works like The Complex, with plentiful action offset by symbolic subtlety and a delicate use of the “reveal”, can keep Keene’s work exciting and insightful for what I hope are many great books to come.

Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, forthcoming in July, 2017, with Seventh Star Press. He can be reached at yggsdrasil@gmail.com.

 

The Troublesome Nature of Sixteen Legs

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I’ve always been a writer who emphasizes that it is a mix of experience and imagination that makes a good story. One the one hand, Herman Melville shows us what experience as a sailor can do for making a whale story realistic. One the other, George R.R. Martin, having never been in a real sword-fight in his life (I assume), writes amazing and exciting longsword duels out of shear passion for the subject. I think both types of inspiration play an important role in informing the creation of horror stories. My collection Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, being published by Seventh Star press in the summer of 2017 employs this mixed sort of inspiration. And yet, while most of the stories possess both elements, one of the stories, The Red Path, draws heavily on an image witnessed in real-life at my father’s cabin in the north Maine woods. The picture here, taken on the shores of Junior Lake, shows a pair of rather striking water spiders engaged in a duel to the death. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, nature ain’t always cuddly. In fact, just before this picture was taken, a snake living in the nearby rocks poked his head out hoping for a meal, only to find the dominant spider pause the combat long enough to square off like, “You talkin’ to me?” The snake decided to find its meal elsewhere, and the dominant spider finished off its fellow and made what appeared to be a liquid meal of its carcass. Such wrath left an impression on the cameraman, and when writing The Red Path, ended up being an inspiration. Here’s to hoping the story’s as thrilling to read when the book comes out as it was to write.

A Sea Change and an Announcement

For the last ten years, since my first daughter was born, my wife and I settled in a house, and I undertook my long-distance commute to Manhattan, I have engaged in a ritual when I return on Thursday mornings. It is a rather traditional ritual in many ways, consisting of stopping at a pub on my way home from the Greyhound station to enjoy a whiskey and a pint with a few friends who also have unusual schedules. One of these friends is a retired doctor, who due loss of eyesight, has retired early from his profession. Another is also retired, an environmental scientist who formerly worked for the DEC and now spends most days hiking with his dog. The third is a barback/musician who knocks off around 11:00 a.m. from his early shift prepping the restaurant for the lunch rush, and the fourth is a property manager who happens to have Thursday afternoons free.

For nearly a decade, due to our unusual schedules (I am returning from a night shift making Thursday morning my Friday night), we would hangout, play darts, and (in the earlier days) carouse like young rakes not so young anymore. It was a moment in all of our schedules when it fit to do that before everyone returned to their responsibilities.

Occasionally we would pause our regular meetings, usually in the summer and around the holidays, then reconvene on our little island of time, picking up where we left off.

Now, however, there occurs a sea-change in this routine. I could feel it coming at the end of last year. Rather than become intimidated and let the foreboding overtake me completely, I decided I would ride with the waves. The first sign of the impending change came when at long last I received the official word from Charon Coin Press that they would not be publishing my book. I announced that in my last blog entry some months ago. When that happened, I hustled to look for a new publisher. In truth, it was a stroke of ill-luck that came at the end of a string of such blows, and I had to reduce time spent on many other aspects of my life (not just the Thursday hangouts—folks were telling me in all my usual haunts, trips to the woods, playing music, everything, hey Carl, where ya been?).

I was lucky in that the manuscript’s editor Margie Colton had a good lead in finding a new publisher, so I worked at doing everything I could to help that come to fruition. In the meantime, another factor struck a blow to the Thursday morning club, namely, the presidential election. I want to keep this point brief, because this entry is about a journey of my own and seeks not to digress into politics. Suffice it to say, that while I made my views known whenever the topic came up, on a personal level I remained neutral and determined that the political situation in the U.S. was bad enough without letting it ruin friendships.

This type of neutrality did not work for everyone, however, and some falling-outs occurred based in no small part on political differences. I could not blame people in the end for being pissed-off. Just as I could not bring myself to be anything but neutral when it came to personal relationships and politics, I couldn’t come down those who could be anything but neutral. It had been a hard season for everyone, and some folks just couldn’t bear to put their differences aside. Like irreconcilable differences in a torn marriage, sometimes it’s better to let go. So it came to the point where only certain members of the group could be present at certain times.

Finally came the proverbial “nail-the-coffin” as it were—and it wasn’t actually bad news that drove it in—it had nothing to do with my book, politics, or friends. It was my daughter deciding to take up the piano. It happened that Thursday afternoons was the best time for her to have lessons. Naturally driving your kid to her piano teacher precludes quaffing ale with your pals. This was a no-brainer for me—as contrary to popular belief… (ahem—many have seen photos of the fine beverages I’ve posted on Facebook—I have no regrets and continue to revel in the fact that living in the northeastern U.S. when it comes to beer is like living in southern France when it comes to wine—we have many of the best breweries on the planet, producing the finest ales available to humanity—even better, it’s not hard to acquire Kentucky bourbon on the side, and then of course, the jukebox, if no one’s available to pick live guitar…) …contrary to popular belief I am punctual in the call to the active life. I also believe in writing every day, like Stephen King describes in On Writing, when you are crisp and focused, and I especially am excited to drive Maddy to the music store to begin learning the keys.

So all of this added up to me going to McGeary’s Pub last week for one final Thursday morning to say goodbye to a ten-year tradition. I am sure I will see these folks when I get the occasion to stop in other times, but not on the weekly basis our little club had in the past. Oddly, when I arrived, none of the others were there. One of them had already called to say he was hitting the museum that day instead. Two of the others had been tentative anyway since the falling out. And although a few folks stopped in before I left and got to say so-long-for-now, the bar’s manager joked when I first arrived that I had a moment of peace that day, a little moment of quiet and reflection.

She was right—I did have a moment to think. Even more, I had a moment of revelation. As I walked from the Greyhound station in the no-man’s land that lay beneath Albany’s knotted network of highway ramps, as I passed by downtown’s mix of restored and decaying architecture, I realized that this walk had been essential fuel for me, an environmental inspiration of sorts that fed my concentration and my imagination. The very fact that my life has the odd schedule it does, that I travel long-distance to work, and that I surround myself very deliberately with a mix of urban wildernesses and rural wildernesses, serves chiefly to develop the themes that occur in my fiction, and soon everyone who wishes will get to partake in this long-time coming and finally ready to be published work. I welcome the inspiration the past has given me, but I welcome even more the changes that the future brings, and all of the possibilities that come with them.

So now we arrive at the good news: I have signed contract with Seventh Star Press to publish Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, edited by Margie Colton. It is no accident that the last blog entry announced its cancellation, and this new entry its rejuvenation. I am very excited to be working with Stephen Zimmer, one of Seventh Star’s founding members and a writer with whom I can already see I have many shared interests. For those who have been familiar with the project since the beginning, I am happy it will finally become available to read. Just as I have experienced a sea change in my day-to-day life, I welcome this all important new development with my publishing résumé. Details will be forthcoming on when the book will be released, but suffice it to say, after regular talks with the book’s new publisher, things will be happening in a timely manner and we will have both novellas and the six short stories available for purchase soon. I am extra excited to offer not just the reloaded, “director’s cut” of Slash of Crimson, but my first novella taking place in upstate New York, Torn from the Devil’s Chest. Thank you to everyone who has helped this come together, and to everyone who has taken an interest.

I will also now be reviving the Crimes of Heaven and Hell blog for book reviews, essays, and other writing-related topics. Feels good to be pulling the oars in a strong, forward-current once again.

A New Direction

The time has come to announce a new direction for my writing, and in truth, it is long overdue. My collection Slash of Crimson and Other Stories, will not be published with Charon Coin Press as originally contracted. I wish to emphasize that this is due to circumstances beyond my or the publisher’s control, and also wish to add that I maintain a great relationship with the staff at Charon Coin. Jerry Benns and Margie Colton have become friends, and Margie has done amazing work editing the collection. When the book does get released, its quality will certainly owe much to their efforts. The good news is that there are some excellent prospects for the collection finding a new home. Alas, I regret being cryptic once again about the details, but such is necessary. As soon as I am able (and reasonably soon I hope), I will make a new announcement. I wish to express gratitude to everyone who has taken an interest in this project, to friends and colleagues, to readers and reviewers. Your patience is very much appreciated. I look forward to making good on the promise that what we’ve put together will be worth the wait. In the meantime, as we enter into the final months of 2016, I was thinking it might be fun to create a kind of ‘Best of Crimes of Heaven and Hell’ page, celebrating this arrival at a personal crossroads. Let’s hope the devil shows up to sign ancient curses with fresh blood, and remind us that wherever we might go, the higher the winnings, the more hell there is to pay.

Below find links to the five most popular Crimes of Heaven and Hell posts, based on the number of hits at the time they were posted. Thanks and enjoy!

One: Beauty’s Edge–The True Nature of Jack Ketchum’s OFF SEASON An essay about Jack Ketchum’s early novel that segues into contrasting different aesthetics within New England horror stories. I owe thanks to Adam Millard of thisishorror.co.uk for picking this essay last September for one of their best five horror picks on the web for that week.

Two: Review of Wrath James White’s THE RESURRECTIONIST A review of Wrath James White’s The Resurrectionist. It was a thrill to get a nice note from the author on this one. Author responses to reviews are like buybacks at a bar. You never ask, but it’s pure rock’n’roll when it happens.

Three: In Memory of Patricia Lissey-Moore A bittersweet farewell to my mother when she passed away in 2013. A personal essay with horror elements that honestly some readers thought a peculiar send-off, and yet, in our family, is wholly apropos.

Four: Watching my wife watch THE VIKINGS Let’s face it, my wife watching Vikings is hot.

Five: Vintage Review on a Darkly Dreamy Sunday Afternoon This essay about a partial biography of psychedelic rock singer Nico’s last days was also posted on Amazon, where it got quite a few helpful review marks, as well as many views here. While not ostensibly horror-related, upon pondering, one might glimpse brooding shadows and menacing currents within.

Thanks again to all who’ve taken an interest in The Crimes of Heaven and Hell. Emails can be sent to yggsdrasil@gmail.com, and I can also be found on Facebook as Carl Moore.

 

CREEPY CLOWNS ARE THE NEW ZOMBIES

“Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?”

–Fool, King Lear, Act I Scene 4, William Shakespeare

So are clowns the new zombies? I don’t mean to draw too much attention to a fad that will likely fade much faster than the undead who have risen and kept stalking through pop-culture for decades now. But I do think the media’s current fondness for “creepy clown” sightings, along with lots of pranksters joining in may be a certain kind of colorful canary in a certain kind of collapsing coal mine that is worth exploring.

Before we go further, though, I’d like to make a distinction between “creepy” clowns and what I’ll call “spooky” clowns. “Spooky” clowns, in my view, are part of an entertainment and arts profession that delights in performance art, imaginatively dark makeup and costuming, and engages in everything from fire juggling to stapling each other’s flesh to the strains of gypsy jazz. I’m very fond of spooky clowns, and when I went to Portland, Oregon, to a horror convention a few years back, an evening of smoking and drinking with spooky and brilliant clowns was by itself worth the trip.

But when I talk about current news articles concerning “creepy” clowns trying to lure kids into the woods for money, that’s an entirely different wad of face-paint. So what’s up with the clown-thing? It’s not like they haven’t been a theme for as long as zombies, vampires and werewolves. Google them and you’ll get the works—American Horror Story, Stephen King, Rob Zombie, John Wayne Gacy, to name a few. And yet the fact that we currently have this phenomena of news items about people seeing them “out of place” in typical yet menacing combinations of baggy clothing, wigs, and makeup, means there has been a new and foreboding incarnation of the threatening fool.

Literary criticism will tell us that fools and clowns represent an inversion of societal structure. Shakespearean fools subvert the roles of the highest and lowest in European history—who is the real clown, the king or the jester, they ask. Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin offers his theory of the carnivalesque—that everyday folks, when participating in “carnival” situations, such as, in contemporary terms, holidays like Halloween and traditions like Spring Break and Homecoming, can break out of traditional roles and commit subversive acts with impunity. Some would say the archetype of the creepy clown comes in part out of this tradition. And yet the point of the aforementioned “subversive” behavior is that it’s condoned—like you can go topless on Spring Break and still grow up to be a lawyer right?

So then, whence comes the menace, and more importantly, the current popularity, of the creepy clown? I think it’s likely a complex story, but I’ll offer what might be one clue here, starting with thoughts on the zombie-craze. This got me thinking about the clown sightings not so much because of what the zombie-craze is wholly about, but what I have frequently overheard people say about it in casual conversation—that the popularity of zombies comes from fearing that the masses are numb dimwits who do what they’re told. The zombies are supposedly symbols of people who work bland jobs and just live to eat and shop and don’t question their existence. They obey without knowing they are obeying. The heroes in zombie stories therefore, are the people trying to “survive”—live “real” lives—without becoming zombies.

Okay, let’s entertain that concept for a moment, that the “zombie” symbol can be tagged to whoever we think these zombie-masses might be. One could be a Trump hero fighting Clinton zombies or a Clinton hero fighting Trump zombies or a prepper-conspiracy-theorist fighting off Oak Grove zombies. However you cut it, it’s a cornucopia of rotten choices. But maybe that’s just where we bring on the clowns—maybe there’s a bit of a consciousness developing that there really is no “other” to deem the zombies. Maybe there’s a sense of trapped-ness that the idea of droves obedient undead consumers doesn’t conveniently sum-up.

Some have offered theories that clowns can be scary because their appearance occupies the “uncanny valley”. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese Engineering professor, coined the term when talking about why life-like robots can seem scary (see interview). Some argue clowns can occupy this “uncanny valley” with their “life-like” appearance with a face that is frozen in some ways like a robot’s. But here’s where I point out an important difference—typically, clowns’ faces are frozen in an happy state. They do not merely possess a life-like appearance—they possess a happiness-like appearance. Except creepy clowns aren’t happy. Creepy clowns, like John Wayne Gacy, would just as soon say “kiss my ass” (his last words before his lethal injection) after killing your kids. They’d just as soon stab you as jingle their bells and giggle. A disturbing notion, but then, think of it in contrast to the folk-theories on the zombie-craze—maybe the people with the bland jobs shopping at the mall who before were going to metaphorically eat your brains, maybe they’re not so obedient after all. Maybe for some of us, there are cracks showing in the smiles painted on our faces. Maybe when we scratch our heads, wondering where all the so-called random violence is coming from, maybe there’s a little bit of orange hair and greasepaint under our nails. I offer the possibility that the popularity of the creepy clown-craze could be a backlash to forced happiness, an anger that forced discord between our outsides and the insides can have dangerous results. Ever have to give service with a smile when inside you are not smiling at all? Ever considered that feeling that way every day is freezing your face into a grotesque state of happiness and anger?

Of course most of the time we can separate stress from leisure, say that’s how the polka-dotted ball bounces and move on. But I do wonder, in a time of increasing automation, a time when concepts of an automated dystopia are coming frighteningly close to reality, if the idea of the vengeful clown, frozen in a smile, has become too appealing for some of us to resist. For these folks, it’s time to stand in the weeds beside the highway with a wig, baggy pajamas and a steak knife—just as a prank, of course—we hope…

Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, forthcoming from Charon Coin Press.

Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Crimes of Heaven and Hell is back in action. Find below an installment of the Is That an Old Book? review series. For more on that concept, the link is here. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that a health issue, combined with a rigorous writing and revising schedule with my publisher, has kept me more than occupied, and the blog has had to go on sabbatical. It’s back however, and I hope this fall will be a fruitful time for all forms of writing. As for an update on Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, I have been in recent communication with Charon Coin Press that we are still on track, yet do not yet have a release date. As soon as I know, it will certainly be announced here. In the meantime, enjoy the following review of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself:

A friend first handed me Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself because they knew I was a George R. R. Martin fan. Of course, the series A Song of Ice and Fire has gotten so popular its mere mention threatens the conversation with the juggernaut of its massive context rumbling over all else. This type of phenomena takes attention away from the aesthetic that made such stories popular in the first place. In the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, a significant part of its strength lies in its mercilessness. The story is merciless not only with its characters, but with any form of the comforting hope that usually accompanies fantasies and other stories that are considered to lend themselves well to escapism. With The Blade Itself, Abercrombie delivers a story that rekindles that sense of how extremely difficult it is to have a feeling of hope in the face of crushing odds and forces that leave a protagonist trapped and vulnerable to fate. An even more intriguing aspect of Abercrombie’s effort resides in the story’s lack of relying simply on whether a character lives or dies to create drama, but whether a character is able to reach their own realistically developed personal goals and desires. Survival of the soul becomes as important as the survival of the body beneath the looming specter of invasion and war.

The book draws an intriguing contrast between innovative characterization and common fantasy themes. Many of the scenes take place in a large city called the Agriont, a sort of late medieval fortress mixed with budding mercantilist berg. The ruling oligarchy and military vie for power while trying to simultaneously prepare for an invasion from the north. Jezal, a slacker of an army officer from a wealthy family, prepares for a fencing contest against a hardened champion while trying his best to ignore more serious political realities. Unsure of his odds, he detests his training and trainer, and remotely fears what an actual war will mean for his future. He develops some redeeming qualities when, against his better judgment, he finds himself falling in love with his commanding officer’s sister, Ardee West. Ardee is herself an exiled peasant who resents her dependence on her brother’s station for survival. Abused and powerless, she knows the limits of her option too well. Though a somewhat minor character effaced by most reviewers, she earns interest by well-sketched frustration and attempts to maintain her own a quiet yet gritty brand of bravery. Her self-destructive habits reflect an internal turmoil over how to confront her situation head-on without empowering her with some kind of ridiculous deus ex machina, oh-just-cast-a-spell or draw-a-sword solution. It is this type of real decision making set within a fantasy context that revives the aforementioned feeling of merciless fate one got in the early installments of A Song of Ice and Fire. The relationship between Ardee and Jezal, along with the build-up to the duel, becomes one of the book’s main story arcs and vehicles for developing the characters in the Agriont. Sand dan Glokta, another character who earns the reader’s sympathy very gradually, is a former POW turned torturer, who suffers constantly from his former wounds and present knowledge that helping the city’s ruling oligarchy is to paint oneself into a corner with a bucket of blood. Through these characters’ points of view we enjoy the unfolding tragedy of what amounts to a medieval dystopia about to devour itself.

As these events are taking place, another pair of story arcs, one in the frozen north, another in the desert south, begin to creep toward center stage. Logen Ninefingers, a reluctant northern warrior and former servant of a sadistic king, fights to survive as the leader of a troop of rogue bandits. A kind of Conan-meets-Robin-Hood figure, he regrets serving the cruel and instead enlists in the service of Bayaz, a merlin-like wizard who is returning to attempt to restore some balance to the lands. As close to ‘forces of good’ as the novel gets, Logen and Bayaz carry their rough ethics south to the Agriont and reveal a connection to the world’s rich history and mythology which allows them to make a bid to possibly thwart the dystopian oligarchy.

The novel contains many other worthy characters, as well as many other worthy subplots. Suffice it to say that the outcome of Jezal’s duel and love interest, as well as the outcomes of Logen’s and Bayaz’s quests, do not hinge simply on whether they live or die. Without spoiling the duel’s outcome entirely here, I will only say that the well-sketched resolution might have one reviewing the meaning of the word ‘Pyrrhic’. While I grant that the action sequences might be a little slow for some readers, overall, The Blade Itself offers enough originality and insight to make it a welcome addition to the ranks of high-quality ‘adult’ fantasy, with the especially impressive quality of not relying on simplistic kill-or-be-killed outcomes.

RETURN OF THE JADED: WATCHING MY DAUGHTERS WATCH STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Even as a kid who liked sci-fi and grew up when the original Star Wars movies came out, I was only ever a moderate fan. The closest I came to excitement was when I was seven years old and saw the first episode (which in the story’s chronology is the fourth). The swaggering Han Solo was my favorite character, but I liked Luke, too, and all the excitement the movie had to offer.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out, I was a little older. I was starting to get to where I could appreciate the story’s darkness, though was borderline with the episode’s ending. I didn’t like that my favorite character had been frozen, and wasn’t sure how I felt about the Empire having won the day. I also had not yet adopted an understanding of In Medias Res when it came to narrative, the importance of how to use and perceive events starting (and arguably and in this case ending) in the middle of things. I also disliked the New-Agey aspects of this installment, the events going on with Yoda and Luke on Dagobah. I didn’t understand why everybody was going around quoting Yoda. He was just a little green guy that I didn’t realize teleported from the future to escape being a character in Harry Potter. You can’t blame him, and yet I wasn’t feeling the Force mumbo-jumbo. Still, I liked the straight up battles and remained a fan of the series, though with less enthusiasm than when I was seven.

Then came Return of the Jedi. I was twelve going on thirteen going on twenty by then. I remember being excited about the opening sequence. Jabba the Hutt had a cool mafia party going on at which part of the entertainment would be Luke’s execution. At that time, I had almost abandoned my interest in Luke’s character, and yet he rose in my estimation when he took on a little bit of attitude, threatening Jabba while still a prisoner. He acted calm yet meant business, like Dirty Harry with a lightsaber. I’d watched plenty of R-rated movies by then, was a Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger fan (in a time when my family didn’t have a VHS player, I was pretty good at scamming my way into age-inappropriate movies; for more on that, see the essay I wrote about seeing The Shining when I was ten years old).

Then something happened—all admiration I had for the third installment of the Star Wars series collapsed.

It was the Ewoks. The fuzzy little teddy-bear people. They did not compute in my twelve-year-old brain. It was more than just that they were little-kiddish. It was that they were a big thematic risk for the significant number of Star Wars fans who were young males already risking their dating future by openly playing Dungeons & Dragons and engaging in other nerdy pursuits. The Ewoks just took it too far. I was growing up in rural Maine and was pretty sure you could take Ewoks in December with black powder, and my father, avid hunter that he was, had a few skinned specimens hanging in the garage between the deer and the woodpile. Though I may not have put it in these terms at the time, I knew that an interest in the fantastic in film and literature would be mitigated as I matured by a growing appreciation for stories with grayer ethics, stories that relied less on the themes and conventions of the Epic and more on those of Tragedy.

Fast forward to 2016—I now have two daughters, Maddy, age nine, and Izzy, age seven.

“Wanna see the new Star Wars this weekend, kids?” I asked.

“Yay,” they said.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s go Saturday afternoon.”

And so we drove to the mall theater. Though I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies, I rarely actually go to a theater. As we entered the lobby, I got to enjoy Proustian moments of flashbacks to knowing we were entering while it was light, and would return to the car when it was dark. The girls got some treats (cotton candy, because it was $3.00), but not a soda (because they are effing $5.50). As we settled into our seats, I felt somewhat hopeful that maybe I would be able to regain some appreciation for the Star Wars series for what it was.

“Daddy, when are these previews going to end?” asked Izzy.

“Soon. I think,” I said.

“Is this gonna be another one of those movies where the good guys win?” asked Maddy.

“You don’t like it when the good guys win?” I asked back.

“They just always do,” she said. “It’s more boring.”

“Well, we’ll see,” I said.

“Daddy it’s still the previews,” said Izzy. “Can you get me a soda?”

“Honey, sodas are $5.50. We can get you some water.”

Supplies finally set and previews finally over, The Force Awakens made its symphonic start. Maddy appeared glued to the screen from the get-go. Izzy, not so much. Though the same age as I was when I saw the first movie, she doesn’t share her sister’s penchant for action and violence. I got ready to help cover her eyes when The First Order started wiping out the village in the beginning, but she managed to do without them. Maddy watched the whole thing and asked who different people were, thinking old people must already know all the characters.

“Hey, the bad guys are winning,” I commented.

“Yeah,” she said nodding and grinning.

I was starting to be kind of impressed—it took me until twelve to reach that level of appreciation for the dark side of the Force. Maybe she’s like me, I thought. I mean, she doesn’t need to be, but it’d be nice to share that perspective, Sith and Sithling laughing it up while the Jedi get their butts kicked.

As we watched, however, it became clear that The First Order was a significantly lamer set of villains than The Empire. The only place I could give them high marks was in appearance—Kylo Ren looked a little black metal. And though the scene with the rally alluded to clichéd images of World War Two fascism, Kyle Ren looked more medieval, like a dark Teutonic Knight. The best touch was the crossbar on his red lightsaber. Slender Man meets Nazgul. While the Jedi dress like the hippies who got thrown out of the yoga retreat, Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma mixed intimidation with a touch of beauty. Unfortunately, that’s where it ended. While I can appreciate the writers trying to differentiate Kylo Ren from Darth Vader, and make his methods of maniacal rage contrast with Vader’s aristocratic control, the change fell short due to Ren’s ineffectiveness in combat. At least Darth Vader actually dueled and held his own with Obi Wan Kenobi before Kenobi let himself be slain. When Han was killed, it’s as if the only way Ren could get away with it was by deception. And when Rei fought him later on, his inability to keep her from pulling a lightsaber through the air came off almost as a continuity error when juxtaposed with his stopping a laser bolt mid shot at the film’s beginning. While I understood and was cool with Rei as the hero, her victory over emo-boy didn’t come across as much of a conquest. I wanted her to take on a real corporate badass like Vader.

Well, as Maddy said above, the good guys always win. The intimidation factor and awe that came with it that I felt somewhat as a kid watching the first two movies just didn’t seem to exist for her.

For a moment, when Kylo was talking to the giant image of Commander Snoke, she seemed to perk up:

“Whoa, Daddy! Who’s that? He’s giant.”

“I think he’s supposed to be a projection, honey.”

“Oh. So why do they listen to him? Can he fight?”

“I don’t know. Hey Izzy, what do you think, is he scary?”

Snore.

I poked her, but she remained asleep. She did wake up in time for the end, and both girls seemed pretty into Finn’s and Rei’s victory over Kylo Ren, even if it was predictable.

“So who was your favorite character?” I asked when the lights went on.

“Rei,” said Maddy.

“Yeah, Rei,” said Izzy with a yawn.

“So you’re glad the good guys won again?”

“I’m glad because we get to go home,” said Izzy.

“It doesn’t really matter, because they just always do,” said Maddy.

She must have noticed I was crestfallen as we rode down the escalator, so she tugged my sleeve. “Cheer up, Daddy,” she said. “The good guys always win in the end, but the bad guys always win in the middle. And the middle’s longer.”

* * * * *

In Medias Res—perhaps that has proven to be the entire Star Wars franchise’s most redeeming quality. Though I was far over the series by the time episodes I-III came out just after year 2000, I had enough friends who liked them to tag along and see them in the theater. For the most part, these were even more painful, Ewok-y, and New Agey than Return of the Jedi. Forget the debacle that was Jar Jar Binks and go straight to the nauseating love affair of Annakin and Padmé. But there was a scene that I appreciated and appears now to me to be the key to the entire series—it came at the end of Episode III and consisted of Darth Vader stepping off the contraption that completed the transformation of the wounded Annakin Skywalker into the Sith Lord. The scene echoed the original Frankenstein, when the monster took his first steps off the operating table. At that moment, Star Wars became The Tragedy of Darth Vader, and though the audience knew that within the story’s chronology this took place in the middle and the good guys had a victory to look forward to in Return of the Jedi, in real time, this was the end of the series and succeeded in presenting to a contemporary American audience how it feels to recognize the choosing of evil over good, and how this can be emotionally cathartic. This is the series’ true triumph, a catalyst by which, as Nietzsche put it, “art approaches, as a redeeming and healing enchantress; she alone may transform these horrible reflections on the terror and absurdity of existence into representations with which man may live.” And so though I remain a skeptical Star Wars fan, I’ll give the series credit for being one of the few places where a relatively family-friendly American story has embraced the tragic.