That thing where the thing looks like another thing but isn’t.

I’ve been watching Riverdale (a fact which has prompted a little self-analysis of what exactly I like in a movie or TV show, but that is neither here nor there), and a recent episode did something that I’m sure there should be a term for.

(Spoilers follow. Oh yes.)

Riverdale, for those of you who don’t watch it, is a pulpy neo-noir crime soap teen drama thriller with a faintly retro feel. It’s clearly fond of classic movies (every episode is named after one, usually crime or thriller but sometimes horror). It’s not quite real in a couple of subtle ways. All the main characters are juniors, but they’re also seventeen years old, for example.

One of the patterns (not hard rules) is that leaving Riverdale doesn’t quite work. In the show, three people have done so. One is Jason Blossom: he died. One is “Mrs Grundy”; she made it to Greendale, but was murdered. One was Joaquin, who left by going on a bus to San Junipero – that’s the eponymous town from an episode of Black Mirror which is actually a fictional world where people’s consciousnesses are uploaded after death. (Before the show began, there was also Archie’s mother, and Hermione Lodge – in the context of the show, they both start outside Riverdale and come back to it.) Archie’s mother gets to leave again, but overall, the pattern you see again and again is that people don’t leave Riverdale, and if they do they die.

So. The episode I’m thinking of was called “Tales from the Darkside” and told three short related stories.

In the first, Jughead owes someone a favour, so he needs to deliver a crate to Greendale. He doesn’t have a car, so he asks Archie to drive his, and while they’re en route a tire blows out. A truck driver comes by; he says he’s going to Greendale, he’s got room for one of them and the crate if they pay him, and Jughead agrees to give him all his money ($18) in exchange for the ride.

The first thing the driver says, once they’re moving, is that for a minute he thought Jughead’s friend was Jason Blossom. The driver (played by Tony Todd) then starts telling Jughead about the Riverdale Reaper, a mass murderer from fifty years ago. They stop for gas, and Jughead discovers that the guy has a dead deer in the back of his truck.

Meanwhile, Archie calls a repair service, gets his tire replaced, and drives on. He reaches the point where the sign on the road says


and stops for a second. A deer crosses the path, strolls straight across the road, and disappears into the woods behind the sign.

And, alright, practically speaking, it’s not that anyone actually can’t leave. Archie catches up with Jughead and they make the delivery.

But in terms of subtext…

  • Jughead gets a ride from someone.
  • This person, in a show that loves and references movies, and which is specifically referencing horror movies with this episode, is played by the actor who played the urban legend/killer/living story from Candyman, and who was Death in the Final Destination series.
  • The first person the driver indicates he knew is a boy whose defining characteristic throughout the show has been that he’s dead. It drives the entire first season.
  • The first name the driver brings up (and he never brings up his own) is that of the Reaper.
  • This man demands all of Jughead’s money in exchange for ferrying him across the border.
  • We see a living deer as the creature that walks along the border between Riverdale and elsewhere.
  • We see that this man has a slaughtered deer in his truck; literally, the thing that marks the border, destroyed and made powerless.

This is absolutely the story of Jughead being stuck delivering a questionable substance to repay a favour. You know he’s not going to come to a Tales from the Crypt terrible ending. He’s got to stick around. We know this.

But it is also the story of someone being taken across a border by a stranger who is all but wearing a T-shirt saying “Ask me about my role as the Grim Reaper, Guardian of the Threshold and Ominous Bringer of the End.” And we know that as well, and we can enjoy the beats of that story even as we are sure they will never happen. And the beats of that story both exist and shape our expectations of what will actually happen.

There’s a word for this, isn’t there? Telling one story, but telling it in the shape of another?

Incluing at one remove

I’ve realized there’s a specific kind of world-building I’m interested in, and I’d love examples of it, if anyone has them: the kind in which the reader learns a truth about the world that is not apparent to the narrator/protagonist/viewpoint character(s).

Examples, off the top of my head

  • Petey” – TED Klein – probably the most full-fledged example of the lot, for reasons described below. None of the people attending the house-warming party know what’s going on. The attendant taking care of the former house owner doesn’t know what’s going on. None of them ever realizes during the text. But the reader understands.
  • The Events at Poroth Farm” – TED Klein (I sense a theme)
  • Fat Face” – Michael Shea
  • The Essayist in the Wilderness” – William Browning Spencer – the narrator assumes he’s observing the behaviour of crayfish. Those are not crayfish.
  • The Steerswoman series – Rosemary Kirstein

(The latter four are probably easier to pull off, in that the protagonists discover the facts they are ignorant of before the end of the story, but at a point where the reader already knows. “Petey”, on the other hand, does not do this and remains a story that in this regard is so beautifully executed I am in awe every time I read it. This makes it really difficult to dissect and analyze.)

It’s interesting that, with the Steerswoman exception, these are all relatively short works; two short stories, and two novellas. I imagine this might be the kind of thing that’s fairly hard to do without the reader growing exasperated that the characters haven’t figured it out.

Important Clarifications

Multiple viewpoint stories don’t inherently count. For example, in The Diamond Age, the reader knows more about the world than Nell and Hackworth and Judge Fang know individually, but what they know are factual details which are plausible within the presumed reality of the setting. The reader does not come away knowing that the world is reset-to-new-default-every-night-at-midnight in the manner of Dark City; that kind of thing would be a greater and occulted truth about the nature of the world, and not a default assumption within a future-set nanotech-driven earth. What I’m looking for is not merely a case of factual details being revealed, but of larger and different truths about the nature of the world being revealed.

The truth of the fictional narrative is not the default reality presented in the narrative. “Fat Face”, for example, presents a modern street-level existence; shoggoths are not assumed to be part of that default reality. The Steerswoman series presents a quasi-medieval-fantasy world which contains magic and which is just beginning to develop technology; the actual truth of the world contains things which are not assumed to be part of that default reality. But in reading each story, the reader learns a thing that they would not assume to be true based on the premise of the world.

Stories in which the narrator perceives A Secret don’t count. For example, say they’re running around seeing ordinary people as demonic creatures/animal-headed being which reflect their true nature/aliens only spottable with special sunglasses. If the narrator is right, then the reader doesn’t learn more about the world than the narrator. If the narrator is wrong, then the reader learns that the narrator is unreliable, and nothing special is revealed about the world.

(Technically you might be dealing with an unreliable narrator, but in a way which can also be reasonably described as them being an ignorant narrator.)

Finally, I’m looking for text only. This means that things like the I Am Legend movie do not count. It is a wonderful example of how what the viewer can see is really going on (as displayed on film) does not match what the protagonist asserts is going on, but I really want to see how this is made to work in text.

With all that said…

Suggestions? I’d love to read more of these.

Oh. Shucks.

It’s kind of interesting, how many times black canids show up associated with death, and specifically the transition/boundary of death.

Off the top of my head, you’ve got Anubis who embalmed the dead and guided souls to the afterlife. You’ve also got Cerberus, guarding the gates of the land of the dead.[1] But my favourite image in this regard–where my brain goes quickest, and what makes me smile–is Black Shuck. Black Shuck is an East Anglian creature of folklore; he’s a harbinger of death, and seeing him means you’re probably going to die soon.

Surprisingly enough, despite the less-than-friendly demeanour depicted in the image above, the stories mostly don’t seem to mean “soon” as in “as soon as he chews your leg off”. More of a “as soon as you have time for the full horror to sink in and to tell a few people” thing.

(That picture, by the way, is one I ran across around age six. I think I promptly adopted Black Shuck as the most awesome imaginary friend ever. You can do that kind of thing, when you’re six.)

To tangent briefly: the term Black Dog to refer to depression–as in the Black Dog Institute, or the “I had a black dog” animated video–was drawn from Churchill’s references to his bad moods as “a black dog on my back” (something akin to “getting up on the wrong side of the bed”), a colloquialism that also refers back to the black dogs of folklore.

I suspect black dogs have mostly been on my mind, however, because I recently reread Bob Leman’s “Loob“–in which the Goster County dogs are not friendly, not approachable, but ultimately a signifier that things may return to an idealised order, and are described as follows:

…almost a distinct breed, huge rangy dogs with blunt muzzles and smooth black pelts, who stood baleful guard over the farms of the county and patrolled the streets of the town with a forbidding, proprietary air.

It kinda fits.

[1] As to Norse mythology: I’m honestly not sure if Fenrir fits this mould or not. Canid, yes; associated with death, yes if you count the end of the world as a death; black, I really could not tell you. Garmr is a blood-stained watchdog that guards the gates of Hel, but again: could be lilac for all I know.[2]
[2] Probably isn’t lilac.

Post-apocalyptic vs post… well, post-something-else.

By Thibault Fischer; click for a better look.
By Thibault Fischer; click for a better look.

A while back, I got into a discussion with someone about post-apocalyptic settings, and they referred to A Handmaid’s Tale as post-apocalyptic. It didn’t seem to meet the definition, but I didn’t have a chance to sit down and actually hammer out what I thought the definition was until now.

I think (and this is possibly heavily influenced by what I currently take for granted) a post-apocalyptic setting has two elements; an apocalyptic event[1], and a destruction of the larger social infrastructure. That might be because there are too few people left to sustain it, because the roads were ruined in the earthquake and roads are kind of essential, because the things that have lovely Victorian clothes and far too many teeth are coming through every fifteen hours and twenty minutes[2] and it’s completely shot everyone’s focus to hell… For whatever reason, the larger social infrastructure is gone.

(By the way, the Fractured anthology has some very good post-apocalyptic stories. Just saying. Also you can currently see it on my GoodReads feed, down in the widget corner.)

If you get an apocalyptic event without a destruction of the social infrastructure, then what you have is either a reconstruction setting or a dystopia, depending on how people reacted. (This is how I’d classify A Handmaid’s Tale or 1984 if they’d been precipitated by an apocalyptic event[3]. This is also how I’d classify Deadlands, actually, with a side-order of monsters so deep in the shadows that almost no-one knows that there’s been an apocalyptic event.) There’s an apparently stable and effective government operating on a federal level over a huge territory; if that is post-apocalyptic, it’s so far post-apocalyptic that the apocalypse has become irrelevant.

I don’t think a reconstruction setting needs to have that large or effective a government, mind. I’d call Fallout: New Vegas more reconstruction than post-apocalyptic, with the world starting to knit itself together again, and the territories claimed by the various factions certainly aren’t continent-spanning.

(Also, I will just note that I still have a spare Steam copy of F:NV to give away, because I collect them expressly for that purpose.)

If you get the destruction of the social infrastructure without an apocalyptic event, then what you have is… well, it’s rather cynical, and I can’t think of cases where I’ve actually seen it. But if it doesn’t have an apocalyptic event to have happened after then it’s by definition not post-apocalyptic, dammit.

Just some thoughts, I guess. Feels good to get them down, even if I’m not sure where they’re going yet.

[1] I am absolutely willing to count slow or soft events as apocalyptic–total economic collapse, widespread drought or famine, humanity becoming sterile[4], etcetera. Doesn’t have to be bombs or plague.
[2] I’m short-changing Bob Leman’s “Window” horribly, here.
[3] I personally wouldn’t classify the event precipitating the Republic of Gilead’s creation as apocalyptic, but I understand that if you find the story focuses closely enough on the US, you can consider it to be so.
[4] See [3]; if you turn the narrative focus from “things potentially affected by an apocalypse” down to the narrower focus of “humanity”, you can tell an apocalyptic story even when the vast majority of life on earth will be fine. See also “There Will Come Soft Rains“, and yes, that was a deliberate link to the poem and not the story.

Coming in fast, because music.

I mean, look at this cover.
I mean, look at this cover.

Because rock’n’roll.

It’s been a really stressful few weeks, and I haven’t been saying much. (I got bitten by a German Shepherd last month, did I mention? Stupid owner.) I’ve been low on time and low on energy, but I ran across something and thought I should mention:

I ran into The Truth of Rock and Roll. (Scroll down.)

I’ve been tired enough that it’s been easy to drop onto TV Tropes and let it eat my attention and my time for fifteen, twenty minutes at a stretch (which is really longer than I’d like right now), and I wandered onto the page for The Truth of Rock and Roll, and…

At first I thought it sounded twee. But the tropes page mentioned a shout-out to that much-loved-by-me Walter-Hill-scored-by-Jim-Steinman this-is-where-the-80s-gets-kidnapped-by-the-70s-and-saved-by-the-50s heartsong of a movie Streets of Fire, and mentioned it was serialized on the author’s blog. And I figured, well, I’d take a quick look. Blogs are easier for me to read than ebooks, and if it’s serialized it’ll have natural breaking points, won’t take up too much time.

(It starts here, by the way. Five parts.)

Take a look.

Over the head of the narrator

Okay, here’s a question: I am looking for examples of fictional narrative in which the author and the reader both know and learn more about the world than the narrator/protagonist/viewpoint character(s).

Examples of what I am speaking of, off the top of my head:

  • “Petey” – TED Klein
  • “The Events at Poroth Farm” – TED Klein (I sense a theme)
  • “Fat Face” – Michael Shea
  • that story whose title I can’t remember from the New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird anthology in which the narrator assumes he’s observing the behaviour of crayfish

(The latter three are probably easier to pull off, in that the protagonists discover the facts they are ignorant of before the end of the story. “Petey”, on the other hand, remains a story that in this regard is so beautifully executed I am in awe every time I read it. I will probably be picking it up to look at it, but )

The important thing to note in these stories is that the truth of the fictional narrative is not the reader’s default reality (or, if one of these was set in Regency England or Ancient Egypt, their assumption of what a default reality should be). “Fat Face”, for example, involves shoggoths; assuredly cuddly, but generally not assumed to exist in real life. Contrast this with any one of three dozen narratives in which someone is running around the street seeing ordinary people as “demons”; I am really not hugely interested in examples of the latter, since they are generally a way to tell the reader about the narrator and not about the world.

Finally, I’m looking for text only. This means that things like the I Am Legend movie do not count. It is a wonderful example of how what the viewer can see is really going on (as displayed on film) does not match what the protagonist asserts is going on, but I really want to see how this is made to work in text.


The jaws that bite.

I am having one of those days, and today that day is one of those which involves trying to come up with a great long list of creatures (probably mythological or folkloric) which are particularly associated with biting or human-eating (most often corpses, but I am willing to be flexible).

Off the top of my head:

  • Ghouls. I don’t feel this one needs elaboration, except to point out that I do not mean D&D ghouls.
  • Redcaps, if the terrible bite schtick actually predates White Wolf’s Changeling: The Dreaming. I can’t actually find a cite for that (yet), and simply having huge teeth doesn’t count.
  • Aswangs. Creatures from Filipino folklore that eat human meat–corpses, but also the living, or unborn fetuses.
    (Fetusii? >googles< No, fetuses. Right, then–carry on.)
  • Zombies, the movie version. (The light of my life actually had to point this one out to me. I have no idea why.)
  • Werewolves, not because the bite is (sometimes) infectious, but strictly for the killing and eating of humans when it shows up. Also a hat-tip to CS Lewis and the classic line “Where I bite, I hold till I die, and even after death they must cut out my mouthful from my enemy’s body and bury it with me.”
  • Related to that, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. Not one I would have initially thought of, but the swallowing of bodies whole and in such rapid succession is impressive, even if they were alive. I may be being swayed by the fact that in some versions of the story, LRRH is actually called “Red Cap”.
  • Wendigos. Which I also do not feel needs elaboration.

Vampires specifically do not count, because of all the surviving/not noticing of the bite (at least the first time) and the distinction between drinking and eating.

Anything else coming to mind?

Sticks and string (and probably bloodthirsty radioactive mutants).

I am fond of post-apocalyptic settings. I’m particularly fond of ones with a retro-futuristic styling[1]; god knows why I keep coming back to that, since it’s not as if there haven’t been some beautifully detailed and realized post-apocalyptic settings which don’t conform to that aesthetic.  I imagine it hooks into that part of my brain that always argues for finding a diner[2] if one is looking for a restaurant.

I also knit.

These two things meet in my brain not infrequently, and apparently I’m not alone. Alex Tinsley is editing a book called Doomsday Knits, which also includes lovely photos and amusing flow charts to assist you in identifying your apocalypse, and I am so there. (I think that of the patterns I’ve seen on the blog tour so far, I am particularly fond of the Fennec shrug. Am just sorry I missed the Kickstarter.)

It’ll be coming out next month. Something to look forward to.

[1] For those who don’t know me: why yes, this covers the excellent game settings Deadlands and Fallout, particularly Fallout: New Vegas. For those who do: yes, I’ve got my brain in Deadlands and Fallout again.  Hush. It’s just one of those things that happens every now and then.
[2] This is occasionally overruled by other parts of my brain. My brain is large; it contains multitudes. Still, I acknowledge the impulse. Tangentially: diners are apparently called coney islands in Detroit. (Also, would totally accept Detroit as a future Fallout setting. Michigan has been sadly underused. Also Ronto.)

Breaking it down. (for SCIENCE!)

Missed this when it came out a year and a half ago – a new superglue that bonds at the molecular level, prompted by analysis of flesh-eating bacteria.

It contrasts particularly with some of the chemical screening assessments I’ve been looking at lately. The most upsetting of those cited an experiment testing a chemical compound’s toxicity, in which one of the dogs being steadily poisoned lasted for for nine hundred and ninety days before dying.

Please accept my assertion that those were not a healthy, pain-free nine hundred and ninety days, and let us move on.  (If possessed of pets, you may wish to have a small time-out in which to cuddle one or pet one of them for comfort. I am doing this thing.  I am also rambling all over the place.)

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