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Category: Nonfiction

The Ghost and the Machine: a journey through context collapse hell

Halfway through a session of D&D and the party have found an obviously-trapped treasure room. The rogue has written TRAP on the door in chalk. The players see this, and have decided to spend a solid half hour of real time walking into it, setting it off, desperately rolling saves to avoid being crushed, then backing out and trying again. The thesis seems to be that it has a pre-set damage limit and they can brute force their way to victory. 

This thesis turns out to be correct, but at this point in our story I don’t know that yet and I’m bored out of my mind. I’m sitting there thinking about technology, and the way we interact with it, and the way we navigate the digital landscape – software has become so complex it’s almost impossible for laypeople to understand, so we skate on the surface and learn to look for signs that emerge from beneath the ice. We don’t have the information necessary to understand WHY, but we still have to exist in digital space so we develop practical navigation techniques based on what we do know.

Like, oh I dunno, AI being bad at hands. 

Nailed it.

Which I thought was a pretty interesting analogy to a lot of indigenous knowledge that tends to get written off as ‘superstition’. You probably can’t tell me why an AI is shit at doing hands but you can USE the hands to spot it right away; my tūpuna couldn’t tell you WHY dried specimens of laetiporus portentosus were so good at carrying fire long distances but they sure as hell carried that fire. At no point in history have people ever stopped being people. 

We don’t always understand that though. Richard Dawkins certainly didn’t when he started a firestorm last year over the teaching Mātauranga Māori in schools and it’s been on my mind. Just as we live in a digital environment, our ancestors lived in forests and mountains and plains and they knew them like we know our tech, not in ways that require hundreds of thousands of words of jargon but in ways that worked. Tohoho look at these savages using inductive reasoning to come to practical solutions

And, y’know, there are modern Māori mycologists in universities studying laetiporus portentosus, it’s not like it had to stop there, and it’s not like modern mātauranga doesn’t incorporate modern scientific understanding, but if you’re stuck in the bush and need to move fire from place to place, that’s not necessary, you just need to know which mushroom to look for.  We look back on the past with a sneer of condescension and assume we’re better than them because we have smartphones. Can you tell me how your smartphone works from an engineering perspective? Can you build one from scratch? No, you push the buttons and it does what you need. I’m not being judgemental here, it’s just a fact, we’re living in an increasingly complex world and it’s important to stay humble about that, and maybe develop more of an empathy for the past in the process. 

Then I did the fucking stupid thing: I tweeted about it. 

I’m sorry Emma I forgot rule #1 is NEVER FUCKING TWEET

Not being particularly precise with my language because I really didn’t expect it to go anywhere, half-focusing on Twitter and half-focussing on the party faffing about with a trap, I fired off some quick thoughts. It got more traction than I was expecting but it was easy to ignore, people on the internet are allowed to be wrong. I grizzled a bit and got back to D&D, they’d successfully traded half their health for a necklace of fireballs and were actually moving. We finished the session, I went to bed. In the morning I checked Twitter and found all hell had broken loose. 

It is currently at 30,000 likes and it’s ruining my life. 

There are, as far as I can tell, two main camps, mostly consisting of Americans:

  1. calling me Matthew Hopkins/a mediaeval peasant and making fun of the savage who thinks photographs can steal your soul 

There is a thread you know. Where I panickedly try to get the stuff about mātauranga on the table. It hasn’t really helped. The tweet going viral is the first one, which is a bit vague and makes some poor word choices. I’m not super happy with “superstition”, but it’s one I’ve seen the Dawkins crowd throwing around a lot, it was stuck in my craw, and like I said, the tweet wasn’t an attempt at plumbing the depths of the universe, I was just bored at D&D and the thought popped into my head half-formed and I didn’t really think too hard about it. When it started popping off I made a better attempt to articulate myself. It currently has around 1/20th of the interactions as the first bit.

A writer from The Daily Show snarkily quote tweeted me suggesting I was on drugs. I’ve now seen multiple respected academics and journalists subtweeting me, twitter comedians suggesting that I’m the Victorian Child who’d be killed by being exposed to a cheeto (as I understand it, cheetos are Yank Twisties and they’re a bit shit). It’s all almost-exclusively based off the first bit, and there’s nothing I can do to change that. 

I mean you could delete it right? 

Oh fuck right, that’s the other thing.


I mean sure I could delete it, but I’m a struggling midlist writer whose last chunk of the advance is almost a year overdue. The only reason I didn’t lose my accommodation last year is because an uncle died; it does not feel good for my soul and anyway uncles are a finite resource and Marty seems fit as a fiddle. In 2020 I went megaviral a couple of times (500k for a terrible dadjoke during the most important and stressful week of my life thus far, jesus christ, had a nervous breakdown afterwards that led some very interesting places that maybe one day I’ll even tell yiz), picked up a lot of new followers, got a lot more people interested in my writing, and I need them to be interested if I’m going to have a career. Publishers don’t really do a lot of book promo unless you’re already huge, and I’m a debut who seemed shit hot in 2020 and I’m doing fine but I could definitely be doing better –  the choices right now are scramble up or slide down, and when the ground beneath your feet is collapsing you grab any handhold you can. 

I did a book plug in the thread and it’s kinda popping off, as far as any Twitter publicity can. The sort of person who resonates with that tweet in a way that leads to actually reading the fucking thread seems to vibe with the pitch (hey while you’re here). It kinda feels like I’m at minute 25 of throwing myself face-first at a trap and waiting for the necklace of fireballs to fall out. Maybe this time if I can tank the psychic damage of being crushed between two hordes of screaming fuckwits, it’ll be my big break. 

It probably won’t, but we’re all stuck on the wheel regardless of how close our legs are to giving out. Anger is engagement, the angry people get you into the houses of the sympathetic people and vice versa, and they both get you into the houses of the people who are going to help you maybe stop worrying about rent for five fucking minutes. If I were more economically stable I’d delete, lock, maybe go on a nice holiday to somewhere further away than Blenheim and let it all blow over. I can’t though, because there’s a tax bill coming and my publisher has ghosted me harder than that lovely sweet guy who spent the arvo taking shotgun blasts of my feelings. He’ll be back, right? Because I kinda need it right now. 

Jesus Christ Read The Fucking Thread

Isn’t knowledge great? And there’s so very much of it, like water in the ocean, like ice in the ice caps. The irony hasn’t escaped me that the people who refused to click twice to look for context are the same ones calling me an idiot who lacks critical thinking skills. It doesn’t matter: there are thousands of them and one of me, and I’m the one drowning. Part of me wants to endlessly agonize over word choices here but to be honest, my experiences going viral have taught me that a certain tranche of fuckwits could belligerently misunderstand a box of duplo. If people aren’t mad about this, it’s because nobody’s reading.

My heart is banking on the latter

I won’t speak for my wallet.

Sascha Stronach Commits Sacrilege

I’m not really a Christian. I grew up in a sort of very loose Easter-And-Funerals Methodism, I can recite the Lord’s Prayer and say Grace without embarrassing myself, I know enough to blag about when the Malaysian Government wouldn’t accept agnostic for my work VISA, but I mostly only find myself in a church by accident and I’m always anxious that my gay ass is about to combust. 

Now Catholicism is a whole ‘nother thing, the closest I can come to understanding it is that I read Harrow the Ninth twice, but I found myself in a cathedral today, attending a Christening, and I simultaneously realised two things:

  1. I don’t really know the rules
  2. I desperately needed to fart 

Particularly in times of stress, we process the familiar first, and as a singer I can tell you that place had superb acoustics. Hoo boy, some very clever architect designed it to amplify sound spectacularly, each footfall and rustle could be heard by every single other person in the building, I can imagine it’s wonderful for creating a sense of community, it’s hard not to be aware of everybody else, the way you’re all occupying the same extended piece of air.

Which I really needed to fart in. 

I could hear everything, and even the daintiest fart, I knew, would rattle the stained-glass windows like an artillery barrage. It really was a gorgeous space, lavishly decorated, a carved marble altar showing The Last Supper and a SECOND carved marble altar holding no less than seven Marys, dozens of Saints and angels staring down at me from all directions. Here, in descending order, is how I thought they’d judge me for farting in church.

  1. The Angels. There are a lot of them, they’re all very high up, they have swords, and I imagine they prefer a sort of Old Testament Justice, but on the other hand do their perfect bodies fart? Could they even understand what is happening? Did God make them with knowledge of farting? Surely not, farting came later, with mankind, I suppose God could’ve filled them in but I’m not sure how necessary that info would be to their holy mission. If they do know what a fart is, I’m a dead man.
  2. The Saint Holding a Book. Hoo boy, this guy looks like his first words were UM, ACTUALLY; there is a small boy at his side who is asking him a question and The Saint Holding A Book is giving him a look halfway between condescension and the perverse joy of getting to lecture somebody; the Saint Holding A Book would absolutely ruin board game night. Giant asshole, definitely wants you to know his loud opinions about farting.
  3. Mary Mother of God. I think she would also be relatively chill about church farts but on the other hand I would be utterly mortified to fart in front of my own mum (also present) let alone The Mum of God. File this one under “probably not an issue, but let’s not.” 
  4. The Baby Holding A Large Jug of Wine. Is this a saint? He’s certainly up there amongst them so I’m counting it. Despite potential Heavenly intervention I doubt his alcohol tolerance is very good, because he’s a baby. If I farted he would be too wasted to care, and also he’s a baby. 
  5. The Saint Holding a Leek. He’s too far away for me to read his nameplate, but even at a distance I can make out his expression of dignified anxiety, like a substitute teacher whose class is behaving a little too well. Dude had enough foresight to bring lunch, I am filled with a desperate need not to let him down but even if I fail I think he would be sympathetic. 
  6. Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Now there are a lot of Jesuses, outside of Mary he’s certainly got the numerical advantage, but they all seem preoccupied with getting murdered by Romans and even if he does notice, even my limited understanding of Christendom covers the fact forgiveness is his whole deal. Jesus holds the milk of human kindness, he can forgive killers and thieves, he is probably going to be okay with me farting in his gaff.

Caught between these impulses, for a moment I got the tiniest inkling of how Catholic Guilt works. I’m willing to belief jesus forgives and angels don’t, I feel pre-judged by Book Saint and more than anything I want Leek Saint to get back to the staffroom in one piece. Caught between awe, love, and abject terror, I got up, left the church, and farted until I was free from sin.

Writer Advice #1: There are No Rules

This piece is built around the defence of a very common example of “bad prose”, which uses some adult language and concepts. If you’re a young person or someone who might get in trouble with your boss right now, you might wanna mosey on. 

I don’t like writing rules. Writing advice? Sure, fire away, but there’s a tendency to treat general writing principles like immutable laws. Show Don’t Tell, strictly applied, would easily triple the length of the average manuscript, but a lot of folks in online spaces are evangelical about it, any instance of telling is an error and not a choice. 

I wanna put something out there: there are no mistakes in style, there are only choices. Some choices are harder to make work than others. Some choices require a peerless mastery of the craft that few of us (with the exception of, say, totally random example here, an early 20th century Irishman who was really into farts) will ever achieve, but none of them are objectively, factually wrong – there are choices you aren’t capable of executing right now, but that makes them the wrong choice for you right now, not a bad choice in-and-of-themselves. 

So here it is, the bit where I tell you why you’re allowed to replace said with ejaculated

It’s the ultimate example of bad prose, from 1000 different writers’ workshops. Said – as you’ve probably heard – is invisible, it doesn’t call attention to itself, it does the job and leaves without making a mess. Ejaculated is none of those things, it’s messy and loud, both formal and horny in a way that’s deeply offputting. The lover who’d say “ejaculate for me” is rarely endgame. It tends to most commonly be combined with “premature”; if it came on time, you’d just call it cum. It’s a funny word, it speaks to awkwardness, it’s the sort of word you’d hear from somebody who reads a lot of books and doesn’t go to a lot of parties. It’s also explosive, it’s big, there’s force behind it. All together, it calls to mind somebody inexperienced, intelligent but awkward, eager but lacking self control  

and, hear me out here

What if you want that? 

Tom’s face went red. “I didn’t think this was a date either!” he said. 


Tom’s face went red. “I didn’t think this was a date either!” he ejaculated. 

It’s a big choice. It’s certainly not a choice for every context, but my issue with so much writing advice is that it’s turned into writing rules, it’s unequivocal, NEVER do this, it is inherently bad craft. A lot of the time, it’s not actually a bad choice, it’s a big choice, it calls attention to itself, but sometimes that’s the goal. Big choices are harder to handle, they tend to be more contextual, and if applied broadly across a text they’ll cause absolute chaos. If Tom ejaculates every time, it’s ridiculous, but if he ejaculates and then he stammers during his date-not-date, you’ve done a huge amount of characterisation with a few small words. Said works 99% of the time, but 1% isn’t 0, and the average MS almost certainly has more than 100 dialogue attributions. Is Tom another guy in the montage of bad dates, or is he endgame who’s going to grow and change?  Could go either way, but we wouldn’t be asking that question if he didn’t ejaculate. 

Sometimes you can hit the gas too hard, but that’s harder than a lot of people think. Prose has a tempo and part of that tempo comes from choosing when to let the reader’s attention glide over the words and when to slow it down, make the reader stare or laugh or throw the book across the room. There’s certainly such a thing as bad purple prose, but there’s also good ornate prose, which can create a sort of literary maximalism, a feast for the mind. “He stood in a room” is invisible but what if it’s one of these rooms? 

Is it better art to just call it “a room” and move on? Well, it depends, and that’s sort of the point – unequivocal application of WRITING RULES tends to create slick prose, effortless, clean, uncluttered, but the point of art isn’t to be invisible

Which is why, sometimes, you gotta break the rules, you gotta ejaculate.

Becky, the Thermian Argument, and Intentionality of Art

This post will contain spoilers for the 2020 film Becky, and also talk a whole bunch about Nazism, so if either of those things is gonna be a problem, skip this one.

Becky is a film that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Or, it isn’t at all, but it a lot of its backstory and its villains’ motivations is never made explicit – it relies instead on implication, but that implication is not subtle. Let’s get the plot basics out of the way:

  1. Becky is a 13 year-old girl. Her mother has died at some point in the last few years, and now her father is dating Kayla, a woman of colour.
  2. They are together at the family’s cabin when a group of Neo-Nazis break in and hold them hostage, looking for a key with a valknut (a Norse rune commonly used by Nazis, also prominently tattooed on the Neo-Nazi leader’s hand) engraved in it that they believe is on the property. The cabin was owned by Becky’s mother for a long time prior to her death.
  3. Becky escapes the Neo-Nazis, the rest of the film is basically Home Alone x Rambo. At the end of the film, she is seen clutching the key to her chest.

We’re never actually told what the key opens, or why the Nazis chose this cabin, but I’m just gonna say what I think is very strongly implied by the text:

Becky’s mother was the member of the Neo-Nazi gang. She didn’t get caught during some big score, and she hid whatever they stole in the cabin basement. Becky knows her mom was a Nazi and is not just cool with it but actively sympathetic to the cause. She is motivated not by hatred of the Nazis or desire to save her new family but because she wants to keep the money.

symbolism? what symbolism? im sure the graphic designer who intentionally created this piece of official marketing material was trying to communicate that the movie contains both nazis and a teenage girl called becky and the fact the colours match is a total coincidence, colours match all the time in real life and it doesn’t mean anything, please help, I’m trapped in a bad crit factory and they’re making me do cinemasins, somebody please tell my wife i love h

Which is … apparently controversial? In a reddit thread on the topic, a user leaps to Becky’s defence and says that these are all perfectly normal teenage behaviours, which is bizarre to me. It’s a popular, upvoted response too. The film never explicitly states that Becky is cool with Nazis but, well … that’s not how film works.

In one of the first shots we see of Becky, in the first 5 minutes of the film, she is seen scribbling a pair of lightning bolts on her school work, beside her name. This occurs in the film’s timeline before she meets the Neo-Nazis, so she didn’t learn it from them. It’s honestly a pretty blink-and-you’ll-miss it shot, but once somebody points it out it’s pretty obvious. They’re drawn in a way that’s clearly meant to be a little ambiguous – they don’t look like SS Lightning Bolts, they look like two regular lightning bolts beside each other. I wish I could get screenshots, but Netflix gonna Netflix, but either watch it yourself or take it on my word that if this were a regular teenager you could believe that maybe they were just really into Harry Potter or something.

However, you’re missing a key factor: this is a film and that decision was intentional. It’s one of the very first things we see her doing. The director chose to establish Becky by having her scribbling twin lightning bolts on her school work.

Becky also shows open hostility towards Kayla, and again, if this were a real-life teenager you could absolutely say “what 13 year-old likes their mom’s new girlfriend?”

But Kayla is a woman of colour. They cast a black woman to play her (Amanda Brugel), and had the script draw attention to it; the Nazi leader does a speech about how his dogs are purebreeds, then glares at a black woman who is dating a white man while saying that mixing races makes them weaker. The screenwriter wants you to know in no uncertain terms that she is a black woman dating a white man, and that’s a thing Nazis take issue with. You know who else takes issue with that relationship?

If you believe this hostility is meant to be just normal teenager who doesn’t like her stepmom, then what purpose does it serve in the film? There’s no real arc about them becoming closer, and they barely even interact again until the very end of the film. It’s there intentionally, so why is it there? It does give Becky a pretence to not be in the cabin when the Nazis arrive, but they could’ve done that in a thousand ways that didn’t involve her glaring at a black woman and saying “my mom would’ve hated you.” Pointed word choice. Which again, if this happened in real life could mean anything, but since it happens in a film that is explicitly about Nazism, and in combination with everything else, starts to paint a picture that maybe Becky’s motivations aren’t those of an average teenager.

Becky also has blonde hair and blue eyes, neither of which are notable in the general populace but START TO MEAN SOMETHING WHEN TAKEN IN LIGHT OF THE FACT THAT CASTING CHOICE WAS AN INTENTIONAL DECISION BY THE FILMMAKERS, ARE YOU GETTING THE POINT YET.

There’s a tendency for fans to respond to media as though it’s Stuff That’s Really Happening rather than something been intentionally crafted. Dan Olson calls it the Thermian Argument. It’s often used to cover for weird and creepy material (“she’s really 1000 years old!”) but that same tendency also just leads to, well … a whole lot of really bad analysis. Dan obliterates the Really 1000 Old argument, so I want to focus on the lesser evil that got away unharmed.

So just one more time: in a film about Nazis, Becky, a blonde-haired blue-eyed teenager who shows hostilty towards every single person of colour she meets, is introduced scribbling twin lightning bolts on her schoolwork and is LAST shown clutching a valknut to her chest while ominous music plays and she stares creepily into the middle-distance.

Apex, one of the Nazis (played by walking Quebecois wall Robert Maillet) shows remorse for his actions; he attempts to help Kayla with her wounds, lets Becky go when he’s been instructed to kill her, and later he shows up to help her escape, and while he kneels and begs for forgiveness she shoots him in the head execution-style and then just screams.

The film sets itself up as a pretty familiar “slashing the slasher” film like You’re Next, then flips that on its head and makes you ask “exactly what sort of person is going to go rambo like that?” It’s not a cool empowering fantasy, it’s a movie about how cycles of intergenerational violence perpetutate themselves. Becky wants to be like her mom, and her mom was a Nazi criminal. Apex wants to break the cycle, and she is angrier with him than any of the unrepentant Nazis who were actively trying to kill her. None of this feels cheap or unearned or like a GOTCHA: if you pay attention, it’s there the whole time. It forces you to reasses how you approach this sort of movie – the word “deconstruction” is often overused but it feels appropriate here, because it’s a film that forces you to start pulling apart elements of a genre that you’d previously taken for granted – it changes how you look at other films. It’s cool! But it’s also the sort of thing where, if you just wanted to watch a movie about Slashing The Slasher Back, might cause you to ask some uncomfortable questions about yourself.

So since film never explicitly states it, apparently it’s ambigious. Not that I’m calling that redditor a Nazi, but the need to uncritically enjoy the film seems to have caused them to interpret it as Stuff That Really Happened in a sort of defensive thermian posture. I see it with media like this all the time and it drives me up the fucking wall. It doesn’t just reject subtle storytelling, it demands that characters turn to the camera and explicitly say what their deal is. It’s criticism that demands art make itself worse. And I dunno, call me crazy, but that sounds like the antithesis of criticism.

or, in short, Becky’s totally a fucking Nazi, and if you need to be told then you’re her next mark you’re not very good at media analysis and need to reconsider your approach.

The Jemaine Clement Sewer Goblin Incident: a retrospective

This is the story of the most Wellington thing that has ever happened to me. I wrote a breathless twitter thread at the time, but it has since vanished as part of my rolling deletion, and if it was lost to history I think our culture would be poorer for it.

Anyway, in mid 2018 I was sitting in Satay Kingdom, grinning from ear-to-ear, reeking of raw sewage, with giant dark bags under my eyes, inhaling roti canai with a worrying enthusiasm and getting sauce everywhere. When I looked up, Jemaine Clement was staring at me. I have no idea what his expression was trying to communicate. Maybe he didn’t see me at all, and was looking intently at the wallpaper behind me, but from where I was sitting he looked very much like a hare that’s just heard a drunken hunter barrelling through the woods. I live in constant fear that I am going to be the subject of an episode of Wellington Paranormal, and if that episode makes me laugh then that’s it, I’m done, my soul gets instantly yeeted out of my body and doesn’t stop until it’s in the next solar system over. 

It started in my shower. It wasn’t draining properly, so I went at it with a plunger, and suddenly I was up to my ankles in reeking black water, tiny shards of shattered bone, and waterlogged pieces of what looked like flesh and skin. You cannot imagine what it’s like to have a jet of sludgy black water and shredded bone erupt at your face, to realise you’re standing in a mess of jellied remains of unknown creatures (?people? No of course not, too small, but what if), to have no idea why the water is thick and black and clings to your ankles like it has always been hungry but has finally given its hunger a name. 

I do, it is – to use the common parlance of my people – real fuckeen scary mate.  

So the shower was fucked and the shitter was fucked, and generally it was just a nightmare. I called a plumber and they told me they would be in by morning. Then it started to rain. The rest of the chicken and black water erupted from the shower and toilet and began spilling out into my bedroom. I did not sleep the entire night, piling towels and sheets and anything I could find to bulwark against the rising tide of black water. When the rain finally stopped, my makeshift dam was about 30cm high. It reeked. Shit and food waste and a sort of earthy sulphur. I would later have to throw out every single part of the dam; no amount of cleaning would get the smell out of any of it.  

I have never been as happy as I was when the plumbers arrived. They figured out that the pipes were ancient, made of clay almost a century ago, and that a tree root had grown into one and fed on wastewater until it was so massive and swollen that it blocked the entire pipe, and all the house’s wastewater was going back up through the lowest point it could, my bathroom. Mud had stained the water black, and a cooked chicken that hadn’t spent enough time in the garbage disposal was apparently the final straw.  

The relief, my god the relief. I’d lived through a horror movie, lived through the hungry monster in my drain rising up against me. I hadn’t slept all night. I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime the day before. I had class in a few hours and needed to rush out the door. I’d just spent almost my entire weekly budget on two men with a big white van to come and save me the toilet demon.

So I did what any Wellington grad student does after a shitty night, and I went to Satay Kingdom. Satay Kingdom is legendary, it’s almost as important to Wellington’s students as the chips from the 3am buffet at KC Cafe. In an extremely gentrified Cuba Street, it remains one of the places to get a cheap, good, filling meal. I have never been as happy as I was when my roti canai came out; it was the morning sun over Helm’s Deep. I didn’t eat it so much as inhale it. I flapped the roti around so much I could swear I was about to become a bird and take off. And then I looked up, and multiple Grammy-award winning musician and actor Jemaine Clement was sitting at the next table over, talking to a man facing away from me, looking past him at me with a sort of dawning horror. I cannot imagine how bad I smelled. Just this terrible sewer goblin, this wee beast risen up from the muck, splattering the table with sauce, grinning so widely the top of its head is about to hinge off.  If he ever sees this: I am very sorry Sir, but in my defence I’d spent the night fighting monsters that came from up the toilet, monsters borne from our city crumbling infrastucture, an inquisitive and hungry tree, and a whole cooked chicken from Countdown.

Was I supposed to not get roti canai from Satay Kingdom?

A Spirited Defence of the Much-Maligned Hellboy 2019

My first pro sale was a story about a group of Guitar Wizards using the power of metal to literally melt the faces of an oncoming demon horde. I got home from a party at 3am, barely-coherent from a bad reaction of alcohol and psychiatric medication, and in my inbox I saw an email from a writer I’d met at a party years ago asking if I could write something for Esquire Malaysia’s Rocktober issue. I don’t remember the exact wording, but I remember the vibe: it didn’t matter what I wrote, but it needed to rock. 

I barely remember writing it, and I do not remember sending it. I woke up in the morning with a second email in my inbox telling me it was great, and they’d buy it. It’s called And All Hell Rode With Them, it’s in the October 2015 issue of Esquire Malaysia, which I believe is now out of print. It is a powerfully stupid story, but I’m not gonna lie, it rules. It’s still one of my favourite stories I’ve ever written, and I barely remember writing it. It knows exactly what it is and it just goes for it. I spend so much time wrapped up in anxiety that it’s incredibly refreshing to see what happens when I just fucking turn off everything else and go.

So much modern media takes itself extremely seriously. The sillier its source material, the harder it needs to let you know that it’s dark and real and important. It’s relentlessly pompous, all Nietzschean supermen standing in the rain and gurning up at God. Nothing sums it up better to me than the absurd bathos of the infamous “SAVE … MARTHA” scene in Batman V Superman. It’s a movie about Batman fighting Superman, it’s the ultimate playground argument, and everything about it is so fucking grim. There is no joy, no energy. It demands to be taken seriously but it refuses to acknowledge how silly its premise is.

Whoa is that a Christ metaphor? With the JOKER? Wowee.

Which is when I finally get to the point: Hellboy (2019) is good, actually. I’d avoided it when I came out: the Del Toro films hold a very special place in my heart, and Del Toro’s great strength is his compassion – there was absolutely no way a Grim and Gritty remake could retain it and retain the soul of those films. 

It knows this, and doesn’t even try. Hellboy 2019 does not have compassion. Hellboy 2019 is a nasty, violent film. It is also, I must report, super fucking fun. 

Is it as good as the Del Toro films? No, but it’s not trying to be. Hellboy 2019 has a guitar pedal, a chainsaw, and a dream of punching a hole in the sky; Hellboy 2019 opens with the titular Hellboy fighting a vampire luchador and it sets the tone perfectly; Hellboy 2019 is, at all times, about 2 seconds away from snapping its fingers and summoning a flaming motorcycle made of bones. I am not going to tell you Hellboy 2019 is a smart film, but it knows it’s stupid and it just kinda rolls with it. I was told it was another Grim and Dark reboot, but it is in fact an antidote to them. It is pure id, silly and over the top but also blessedly free of self-importance or the desire to be anything other than a good time. 

There’s a certain irony that one of the heralds of this whole grim superhero deal tried to do a similar thing to Hellboy 2019 with 2011’s Sucker Punch and totally fell flat, because it had the same unrestrained rollercoaster 14 year-old boy id but it just wasn’t fun. Its palate is washed out, its fights are limp and weightless, there’s an extended sequence of a woman undergoing a lobotomy where she fantasises that the doctor performing it is seducing her and it’s trying to say something (oooee isn’t it dark? She likes it, or she seizes control by pretending to like it, or something, who the fuck knows, it’s cheap sexualized violence against women trying to put on a fancy hat and pretend it’s something else). So much of that particular modern oeuvre is obsessed with being adult in extremely facile ways and it creates bloated, hollow, ugly products. There’s no joy in them at all, they feel empty and synthetic.

Pictured: ?action?

Hellboy 2019 does need to prove how dark and adult it is by hanging sexual violence over the heads of its female characters, because it is too busy having Hellboy beat a fomorian to death with a tree while Matt Bellamy wails YOUR ASS BELONGS TO ME NOW over fuzz guitars. Hellboy 2019 is crunchy and muscular, the soundtrack blares Muse and Alice Cooper and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, at one point a witch vomits out her entire intestines and they form into the shape of a second witch, who delivers a prophecy and then schlurps back into the first witch. Perhaps mostly tellingly of its intentions, Ian McShane is in it. 

It is very different from the Del Toro films, and got absolutely destroyed in reviews because of it, and I think that’s a mistake. Del Toro’s remain excellent. They have tremendous heart, which Hellboy 2019 does not, not unless it’s punching one out of somebody else’s chest. It is a nasty film, but it has absolutely no intention of being anything else. As the Lady of the Lake (Milla Jovovich in her pulpy element) paralyzes Hellboy with her dark magic, she reaches out a hand towards his face.  

“This isn’t gonna work,” he says, “I’m a Capricorn and you’re fucking nuts.” 

Get it? Because he’s got horns? This is perhaps the most Hellboy 2019 asked me to think about anything. The closest referents I have are Deathgasm and Brütal Legend, with a bit of Netflix’s Witcher adaptation sprinkled in. It’s a Frank Frazetta album cover come to life. It is metal as fuck and it does not care. I am choosing my words carefully here: Hellboy 2019 rocks. The closest to grim self-importance it gets is in the finale, which takes obvious visual cues from the art of Polish surrealist Zdzisław Beksiński for its particular vision of hell, but it’s a striking aesthetic and I’m here for it. Beksiński is popular in online alternative spaces for a reason. 

Is it perfect? God no. The editing is choppy, some of the VFX work a lot better than others (hello CGI Ian McShane, I can see why they’re pointedly avoiding shot-reverse-shot while you’re talking), Daniel Dae Kim cannot do a British accent to save himself, and much of the early film’s neon colour palette seems to drain away later in favour of the same boring blue/green colour grading of so many of its grim contemporaries (the neon comes back in a glorious final fight sequence scored by Mötley Crüe’s Kickstart My Heart, go watch it), but I’m willing to look past that and just get caught up in its raw energy. 

So yeah. Hellboy 2019 is stupid, but it knows exactly how stupid it is and just has fun with it. It’s not Hellboy 2004, but I feel like it should be reassessed on its own merits. Namely that is just rocks.

That’s Not A Plothole 2: The Devil All The Time

There’s no term that armchair critics love to misuse more than “plot hole”. I’ve shouted about this before and I’m gonna shout about it again. I haven’t seen people talking about this specific plot hole yet, but it’s a variety of “plot hole” people love to pick up on that bothers the fuck outta me.

So, there’s a moment in The Devil All The Time where a character pours lighter fluid on a box of photo negatives before dropping a match in it and setting it on fire. Going into WHY is spoiler territory and largely irrelevant. There are two important things here:

1) Lighter Fluid
2) Old photo negatives

Why is that important? Because old photo negatives are super flammable. Infamously so. Maybe an expert photo guy can be like “um ACTUALLY that’s xyz stock which is treated with abc and that means…” and honestly I don’t care: just play in the fucking space with me. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that our dude didn’t need to add lighter fluid. If I were CinemaSins, at this point I’d DING and I’d feel very clever.

But here’s the problem that’s probably itching at a bunch of you: so what? Like sure, the act is redundant, but is it crazy to think it’s something a human might do? The term ‘plot hole’ often gets chucked around to talk about characters doing a thing that’s a little illogical but people do incorrect things sometimes. It’s 100% believable that a human who doesn’t spend a lot of time with photo negatives didn’t realise they didn’t need it. It’s also 100% believable that they DID know and just wanted to give it some extra kick. The film does not go into any detail: the character doing the burning is not shown to be a photographer and we have little idea what went into the decision to use lighter fluid.

Maybe it’s the scriptwriter’s fault and they didn’t realise, but even if that’s true, it doesn’t disrupt the diegesis. It doesn’t ultimately matter whether it was the writer or the character who didn’t realise the lighter fluid was unnecessary, because the story still holds together.

  1. A character making a decision the viewer or reader wouldn’t is not a plot hole.
  2. A character making a decision that isn’t 100% the perfect decision to make is not a plot hole.

But these things get called plot holes constantly.

And fuck that, you know?

Satire and Clarity: Get Out vs The Hunt

It’s hard to find a movie that has drummed up more bullshit controversy than The Hunt. The goddam US president took to Twitter to shout about … really the opposite of what the film is trying to say. It’s a film about Coastal Liberal Elites hunting “deplorables” because they don’t consider them human, and the camera follows the deplorables—they’re not the bad guys here. Left and right were both furious at it for different reasons. 

That confusion didn’t come out of nowhere, and I think The Hunt lacks a certain clarity in its satire that could’ve otherwise made it great. This might ruffle a few feathers, but I think its closest comparison point is 2017’s Get Out.

They’re both satires of a certain flavour of ostensibly left wing person who uses the language of justice without any of the substance; a person who cloaks their evil in apologies and acknowledgements and appeals to grand ideals but doesn’t stop doing it. One of the film’s best scenes is where Kaluuya’s Chris is tied to a chair, about to have his consciousness overwritten, and the man stealing his body appears on video and apologises and insists that it’s not because he’s black, it’s because he wants his eye

I’m taking total control of a black man’s body against his will, I could not be enacting something closer to slavery without going out and buying a whip, but it’s not because I’m racist, man. I’m doing it for the art. I really need you to know that, because it’ll make me feel better.

The Hunt aspires to be that cutting but never quite reaches it—it’s too going for the same target but it’s too broad. It could’ve been to class what Get Out was to race. It’s got the right mix of schlock horror and social intent, it’s just … not quite there. 

God it comes close though. I spent hours afterwards trying to figure out why Get Out worked and The Hunt didn’t quite, and I think the answer is clarity.

What is Get Out satirising? The consumption and destruction of black bodies by white liberals who profess to know better. 

What is The Hunt satirising? White liberals exist and … don’t like Trump supporters? Are smug and like to condescend a lot? 

And it’s not like the villains in Get Out weren’t smug and terrible, but it was in service of a very specific point the film was trying to make. It was another twist of the knife, but it wasn’t the blade. In The Hunt, it’s the whole point. “White liberals can be smug” isn’t wrong, but it’s not the sort of substantial observation you can hang a film on. The villains constantly worry that what they’re doing is problematic; the moment where it comes the closest to doing anything with it is when they’re selecting who to hunt and a black man in a cowboy hat appears onscreen. The assembled hunters all shake their heads, then one says “if we don’t have at least one person of colour, it will be problematic.” 

That works. They’re talking about murdering somebody and their first concern is the optics. The language is a little blunt, but hey, it does its job. But every other time they do the same thing it’s … just a gag that dilutes that point they’re trying to make. They make the same “liberals worry about being problematic and correct themselves in conversation” joke half a dozen times and only once does it actually hit the mark. They’re just saying it because it’s funny to the screenwriter when liberals talk about microaggressions. 

What that does is create a film that’s more interested in saying “lol liberals” than actually exploring why the villains’ mindset is dangerous. The connection between that smugness and their erasure of working class agency and identity is never really explored. I really want The Hunt to be a better film than it actually is: Gilpin and Swank both put in great performances, and the world doesn’t have enough clever satire of the Hope & Change & Drone Strikes callous American liberalism that got us Trump in the first place. It’s a fine distraction, but it could’ve been Get Out for class and its failure to live up to that promise burns.  

The point of Blazing Saddles wasn’t “cowboys exist and are funny”. If it had stopped there, it wouldn’t have been satire. It might’ve been a good comedy, but I don’t think it would be remembered so fondly if it hadn’t known exactly why it was taking down cowboys. There’s a toxic myth about American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny being endlessly repeated in cowboy serials and it’s whitewashing an ugly, violent past and helping to support white supremacy is a target for satire, cowboys fart a lot isn’t. It was by connecting farting cowboys to the whitewashed, squeaky-clean image of the Western Serial Cowboy that Blazing Saddles did its actual satire. 

The Hunt is very consistent at getting across How The Target Of My Satire Act, but it falls over in trying to connect it to Why That’s Bad. And it’s not a difficult connection to make! They’re hunting humans for sport. They have a callous disregard for human life and they wrap it in the language of social justice to make themselves feel better

One moment some critics have attacked is 1) as close as I think this film comes to succeeding in its goals and 2) a massive spoiler so I’m gonna let you peace out of the next paragraph if you’re still planning to watch. Alright? Good.

So Gilpin’s character is the wrong Crystal Creasey. She’s a woman with the same name from the same town and the hunters didn’t bother to check, and now just some random woman with no Trump affiliation wrapped up in all this. The villains are pumping millions of dollars into their private kill ranch but they didn’t double-check that they had the right woman, because they saw A Redneck Name and assumed it had to be the same person. 

Because working class people are interchangeable to them

It’s not a plot hole, it’s that the characters didn’t give a shit about the identity of a working class person, and that not giving a shit came back to burn them. There’s your connect: they’re murderously angry not at Deplorables and Trump Supporters but at the working class in general and ultimately it doesn’t matter to them if they harm innocent people if it means harming their enemies. If the rest of the film’d had that sort of clarity, it would’ve been much better for it. Instead, it spins its wheels going “lol liberals sure do talk about global warming” which is like … yeah, sure? If you’re not willing or able to connect why that’s bad (e.g. “liberals talk about global warming a lot then do nothing to prevent it”, “liberals fund Greenwashing initiatives that are actually harmful to the environment but make corporations look like they’re helping”) then that’s not satire, it’s just noise. 

Howdy, welcome to the blog. Stick around. I wrote about plot holes and Birds of Prey a while back and people seemed to like it a lot so I guess I’m doing more of these now. I also put our my first novel last year, and it’s currently free on Kindle Unlimited. It’s about a cop racing against time to stop a plague tearing her city to pieces so it’s … currently unpleasantly timely but might be the catharsis you need. Tamsyn Muir called it “a wonderful queer noir fever dream” and she knows quality better than I do. Read it. Please, I need your approval.

Thunderdome Rules: How to Judge Flash Fiction Competitions Quickly

In 2012, I joined a flash fiction competition on the SomethingAwful forums. I also joined the next week, and the week after, and I came to realise in February that Thunderdome has been running for almost 8 years. This week was Thunderdome #400. Our weird little writing weekly writing competition has got people into grad programs, dream jobs, got people publishing deals with Big 5 Publishing Houses; The Dawnhounds started in a Thunderdome side group; the Discord channels spun off it house a terrifying array of Serious Authors who I know started out writing flash fiction about sentient farts on SomethingAwful.

Each week, Thunderdome has three judges. The head judge is the previous week’s winner, and the other two are people they’ve shoulder-tapped to help out. In eight years of Thunderdome, I’ve never seen less than 3 judges. It might’ve happened in a week I took off, but it’s extremely unusual and it takes a lot of coordination. 

One thing about judging Thunderdome is that you’ve got to read anywhere from 5000 to 200,000 words in about 48 hours and pick a winner. You’ve gotta do that with three people, often in different timezones. Since I’m one of the original members and I’ve won a lot, I’ve spent a lot of time in the judge’s seat, and at some point over the years I came up with a simple scoring system to help process a lot of different pieces of fiction in a very short space of time. 

I’m going to be using a specific example I ran, week #268: NEEEEEEEEERDS. It had 24 entrants, together writing almost 40,000 words. We got the results out in about 18 hours.  

The system looks like this: 

  1. Count the number of entrants, which we’ll call n
  2. Each judge must rank the stories 1-n
  3. An individual judge’s fifth-best story gets 5 points, their 20th-best story gets 20 points. 
  4. Add up all judges’ totals for each story 
  5. Divide by 3, get a final score for each story 
  6. One final round of checks: are all judges happy with the winner winning? Spot-adjustment based on discussion. 

It’s like golf: the story with the lowest points in the winner. It’s best with 3 judges, though it’s workable with 2–5. You’re trying to spread it out without creating a massive amount of work for yourself. 

It’s a bit mechanical on the face of it, but the fact that the judges are basically just preference ranking means there’s a lot of space for the art-ness of things to shine through. Your judges are following their hearts, and then you’re taking that in a structured way and outputting a number that lets you figure out exactly how everybody is feeling. 

If you’ve got weeks and months to turn the competition around, I wouldn’t use it as more than a neat little guide. If this thing needs to be out tomorrow, it can be a lifesaver. I brewed it up to hit TD’s aggressive deadlines, but as my career has thrown me to the four corners, I’ve taken it with me to other competitions and it’s proven an incredibly useful tool.

Even if you don’t follow the numbers purely, it’s great for getting your head in the right space, for figuring out which stories nobody really clicked with and helping to surface the ones everybody loved but nobody brought up in discussion, for having it clearly laid out in a way that helps everybody quickly and easily lock down the likely candidates.

It’s yours now. Use it wisely.

Writer Advice #0: Embrace your Bullshit

The first draft of The Dawnhounds came from a group called WAD. It was 2013, and Brandon Sanderson was releasing a weekly video of his creative writing lecture at BYU, through a channel called Write About Dragons, or WAD. Every week, we’d watch a new Sanderson video on Youtube, discuss it in a video chat, then we’d crit somebody’s latest chapter. 

If you’ve never run into Sanderson before, there’s two important things to note:

  1. He’s famously prolific
  2. He fucking loves rules

Which I don’t mean in a negative way: Sanderson has a rule for everything, and I think it’s a big part of how he writes so effectively—when he comes to build a house, the scaffolding comes pre-installed. Probably the most famous are his rules of magic, which I’ve seen bizarrely applied to everything from Bitcoin to 100 Years of Solitude.

The entire first draft of The Dawnhounds followed Sanderson’s methodology to a tee. I tried to write like him structurally, and I tried to write like him aesthetically. It was awful. It was a stiff, lifeless draft. It sat doing nothing in my drive for 4 years before I decided to try draft 2, and it ended up being an almost-total rewrite. 

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of Sanderson: he writes good books, and his methods clearly work for him. They catastrophically didn’t work for me. I wrote a book like Brandon Sanderson would’ve written it, but I’m not him, and it came across like a teenager attending a job interview in his big brother’s ill-fitting suit. 

A big part of why it didn’t work is because I scrubbed a lot of the things I loved, but felt self-conscious about, and that didn’t fit within the structure. There were no revenants, no circuit magic, no mushrooms, no LGBT people, no fight against fascism. It’s not unrecogniseable from the finished manuscript: there was a port city loosely based on Singapore, and a plague; there was a young cop racing against time to stop it; there was a vaguely Ottoman pirate captain called Sibyl Sibbi. The things in it were the things that I thought were marketable, were standard, were expected of fantasy. I was obsessed with the idea of making a Good Fantasy Book, based on what everybody else was making. It didn’t work. 

In 2015, I became obsessed with Dan Harmon’s story embryo. I’m a huge Community fan, on a level where I’ll defend season 6 to the death. Harmon’s essay was invigorating—it took the Hero with a Thousand Faces and animated it for me, for the first time in my life. I was raised on Save the Cat, and somebody daring to ask why we care about these stories blew my fucking mind. For a solid 18 months, every single thing I wrote followed Harmon’s embryo. It followed it on a macro level, but also within scenes, within individual interactions, every fucking place I could fit it. I was trying to crack the mathematically perfect story. It’s bullshit in hindsight, but it made sense at the time. I ended up in the same place I’d ended up with Sanderson: I love the guy who wrote this, but I’m writing generic shit that anybody could write

At some point in early 2018, I sat down with that first draft of The Dawnhounds. I hated it, but I liked the cop. She was the Straight Man to her husband, a police morgue technician. They were the first people to find an infected body, and they had fun banter. They’re the reason the draft was called, within WAD, “the ass mushroom book”. I tossed aside Sanderson’s rules, and I tossed aside the idea of writing to market. Instead, I wrote about the shit that I love: I love mycology, and I love old sailing ships. My dad’s an electrical engineer and he taught me circuitry from a young age, and I still love electrical systems. I love language, and the way it shapes our culture and our world. I love cosmic horrors. I love stories about LGBT+ people, and particularly stories that would’ve helped me as a teenager—stories about shooting stars burning their way right out of the night. 

My relationship with the cops also changed: I came out in 2015, and I got closer to the community, and I heard horror stories from my new friends. I grew up white and upper middle-class and extremely straight-passing, and the cops had always been good to me. I’d written a book where two nice bantery cops … solve a crime and their bosses shake their hands and everybody gets a medal and their city loves them. It was a safe story, and one that wouldn’t generate any major backlash, but I couldn’t tell it any more. 

I made the cop queer, and I made the department ugly and crooked and homophobic. I made the city a mushroom city. I added a magic system basic on circuitry. I spent too long on a conlang. I wrote a cosmic horror based on my own experiences with depression and suicide; a big ole’ wail of despair and fog and baffelement who lives in the emptiest place in existence. I wrote about opera and I wrote about the strings section and I wrote a whole lot about old sailboats. After years of trying to write somebody else’s story, I just took all my favourite ingredients and I made gumbo. 

It worked. 

I sat down with the final draft and I realised—after ten years and half a dozen scrapped attempts—that I’d written my debut novel. I didn’t follow Sanderson’s rules. It didn’t follow Harmon’s embryo. It didn’t have any marketable elements. Readers loved it. 

I’m not going to pretend I’m a superstar author, but I sat down with a fellow writer a few weeks and I asked: “am I a cult author?” and she grinned and said “fuck yeah”. This thing is selling; we’ve only got one box left from the second print run. It’s getting great reviews. It’s a contender to win the SJV for Best Novel at WorldCon 78. In an event that still baffles me, Tamsyn Muir read it without me or my agent sending it to her, and told me she loved it. I trust her judgement better than my own, so I guess I wrote a good fuckin’ book. I broke every rule I’d taught myself in the last ten years, and I wrote the best thing I’ve ever written. 

Don’t get too attached to somebody else’s structure or aesthetics. Your worst enemy is the voice that says “stories don’t work like that!”, who says that something you care about is something readers won’t. Be unashamed of your story, because that’s the only way it can be your story. 

In short: Love your bullshit.

It is uniquely, powerfully yours.