Haunted Houses

Earlier this week I published my newest zine of horror-themed microfiction. Haunted Houses contains fifteen very short stories about haunted spaces and the terrible people who inhabit them. The cover art is by @QuinkyDinky, and the zine contains interior art by @irizuarts. I’ve got a listing up on Etsy (here), and I’m also promoting the zine on Twitter (here) and Instagram (here).

This zine is quite short, with each story and illustration occupying only one page. This is partially a trick of formatting, but it’s also a result of careful editing. You wouldn’t want to spend too much time in these places, after all.

I have to admit that, even though I’m categorizing this zine and the two other collections of microfiction that preceded it as “horror,” I’m on the fence about what genre my stories actually belong to.

In my mind, the genre of horror isn’t about a specific set of tropes or narrative structures. Rather, horror is characterized by the psychological and visceral sensation of unease it inspires.

I personally prefer to think of most horror, including the stories I write, as “dark fantasy,” or perhaps simply “magical realism.” I’m not easily creeped out by fiction, mainly because the real world is so lowkey awful so much of the time. As I write this, the National Guard is setting up base at a West Philadelphia Target in advance of the presidential election next week, ostensibly as a “defense” against people engaging in civic protest. There are actual tanks in the parking lot of the place I go to stock up on toilet paper, and that’s really scary. But monsters? Not so much.

I’ve always tended to identify with monsters, and not simply because so many villain characters are overtly coded as queer. Monsters are about disrupting the status quo, and I can get behind that. Postwar American horror cinema, including the slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s, is all about interlopers quietly invading small-town America and infecting people. The story behind many of these movies basically boils down to this: Can you even imagine scary things like communism and feminism and civil rights secretly gaining a foothold in our town? (Stephen King goes into fantastic detail about this in his 1981 book Danse Macabre, if you’re curious, and I think the book still reads well and holds up in many ways.)

To me, monsters aren’t scary because I am the monster, which is an uncomfortable set of life experiences to try to talk about in fiction or otherwise. There’s nothing you can specifically put your finger on regarding why people treat you the way they do, but you know there’s something a little off.

Fuck Sigmund Freud and his weird misogyny and homophobia, but I think I’m on the same page with him regarding “the uncanny” as one of the primary components of horror. Freud got a lot of things wrong in his career, but something he gets absolutely right is that it’s difficult to discuss the uncanny in concrete terms.

The uncanny doesn’t just apply to appearance, of course – social interactions and environments can be uncanny as well. If what I’m writing is horror at all, it probably falls into the subcategory of social horror, which focuses on people behaving in a way that’s almost human, but not quite. Many horror stories are cathartic, in that the status quo is threatened but ultimately restored at the end. Even if things have changed, we can feel relief in the knowledge that at least they’re getting back to normal. With social horror, however, our anxiety is never resolved, because we now understand that the status quo itself is horrifying.

It’s difficult for me to talk about the details of my identity and life in a mimetic way. When I’ve tried, it’s been my experience that people either won’t believe me, will think I’m being manipulative in an attempt to elicit undeserved sympathy, or will be put off by the political elements underlying my descriptions of the ways in which I’ve had to move through the world.

The point of the stories in Haunted Houses is not to try to explain why certain aspects of my life have been unsettling, but rather to create a sense of the uncanny in order to communicate the sense of feeling unsettled for reasons you can’t quite explain. Sometimes my stories about haunted houses are about the hidden trauma of being queer in a society that goes out of its way to create monsters; but, in the end, I just really like telling stories about strange people occupying uncomfortable places. I enjoy exploring these themes both as a reader and as a writer, and I’ve found that summoning the courage to open the door and peer into the darkness on the other side is, if not total escapism, still good spooky fun.

And right now, at this specific moment in time, I think we can all relate to the uncanny experience of feeling trapped in a haunted space, because this is our daily life – we live here now.

Cats Will Kill You

I have nothing but the strongest admiration for everyone who shares their living space with one of these little murder machines.

I drew this comic for the Catsploitation 2 zine created and edited by Matthew Ragsdale (@blankvalleyfilm on Instagram). You can get a copy of the zine from Matthew’s store (here).

2020 Writing Log, Part 35

– I posted Chapter 42 of Malice, a modern AU Breath of the Wild fanfic.

– I edited Chapter 39 and Chapter 40 of Malice, thus completing the intensive editing project I started in June. Hooray!

– I posted the fourth story in Night of The Final Day, a collection of short vignettes about the minor characters in Majora’s Mask.

– I was accepted as a writer for Ties of Time, a zine focused on Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, and I went ahead and got started on my story. It’s about Ganondorf visiting Hyrule for the first time as a child, and I think I’m going to call it “The Flower Thief.”

– I don’t know if I ever included this in my writing log entries, but my story for the Press Start Fanfic Exchange is now publicly available! It’s called “The Queen’s Tears,” and it’s about the characters in Final Fantasy VI exploring the Ancient Castle, which is one of my favorite areas in the game.

– I sent the file for my Haunted Houses zine off to the printer and designed a bookmark featuring the work of the amazing cover artist to go with it. The printer I work with, Mixam, has a quick turnaround time, so I was able to put the zine on Etsy and send a few free copies to friends via an announcement post on Instagram. Once I get everything in the mail on Monday morning, I’ll probably put a similar zine announcement post on Twitter.

– I started sending acceptance emails to everyone who submitted to the Legend of Haiku zine I’m putting together. I got some incredible contributions, and I’m aiming for Sunday, November 1 as a digital release date.

– I posted a short comic about Ceres from The Demon King. If you’re interested, I also started posting my WIP of the story itself on AO3.

– Thanks to the magic of time travel, I was able to donate every species of fish to the museum on my island in Animal Crossing, thus earning myself a golden fishing pole and completing my set of golden tools. And finally, after months and months, I managed to grow purple windflowers.

Nevertheless, despite using Animal Crossing and every other trick at my disposal to stay engaged during Zoom meetings, I’m starting to experience extreme fatigue right at the point of the fall semester when the academic year usually starts to get interesting. We’re all doing our best, I guess. Let’s keep going!

( You can follow me on Patreon if you’d like to support my work! )

Taking Back the Means of Production

Comrade Himbo: Send Us Your Comics
https://pome-mag.com/comrade-himbo-a-call-for-submissions/

– This is a paid project. We will be paying $50 USD/page per creative team for each selected black and white comic, and $100 USD per each selected one-page color illustration.
– In addition to payment, we will provide 10 comp copies for comics submissions and 5 comp copies for illustration submissions for contributors to sell or distribute however they want.

This is a very clear set of submission guidelines that probably isn’t an interesting read for anyone except me. I copied the entire thing into another document to use as a reference for potential future projects of my own, because it’s quite good.

I’m especially interested in the compensation rates. What they’re offering seems like it’s on the low side, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is a very small press run by volunteers that’s basically going from Kickstarter to Kickstarter. It’s also important to keep in mind that the shipping costs for ten books are not negligible, especially if they’re being mailed overseas.

I ran across a Twitter thread the other day about how artists should expect to be paid well because art is a luxury. I agree in principle – of course I do! – but I think this is a bit trickier in practice. I’m going to say that, in the United States at least, the New York Times (and its subsidiary magazines) set the industry standards for illustration rates. According to professional illustrators who discuss this sort of thing on social media, this rate is about $1,200 per color illustration, with some artists being paid a bit less and some artists being paid quite a bit more. As you can imagine, however, not everyone can afford to pay artists on the same scale as the New York Times.

So you run into a Catch-22 situation. Artists should be paid at a fair rate, because of course they should; but, at the same time, it’s clearly discriminatory to say that only people who have the money to pay artists at the industry standard set by giant corporations should be allowed to publish.

This Catch-22 has been keeping BIPOC and LGBTQ+ presses and creators out of mainstream publishing up until this very day. To summarize a complicated story, presses aren’t allowed to exhibit at most publishing industry trade conventions unless they can prove that they meet certain standards regarding creator contracts. A small press that only publishes, say, crowd-funded anthologies of queer comics from emerging creators is not going to be able to offer the same contracts as a member of the Hachette group – and so they can’t exhibit. This is one of the reasons why, for example, even extraordinarily successful small-press publications are never going to be in most bookstores (or on their websites).

Publishing is a tricky business, and I don’t think it’s a reach to say that most small presses don’t go into it for the money. I guess what I’d like to argue for is a better sense of scale, as well as a more nuanced understanding of the necessary balance between compensating creators and not hemorrhaging money. Essentially, if you want to support minority and independent creators, you also have to support the independent presses and editors that publish, distribute, and promote their work.

Like An Adult

A conversation with a friend reminded me that “self-care” means actually taking care of yourself at work. “Working through the pain” is sometimes necessary in special circumstances, but it shouldn’t be expected, and it definitely shouldn’t be the default.

2020 Writing Log, Part 34

– I posted Chapter 41 of Malice on AO3. Finally! Only five more chapters to go!!

– I edited Chapter 31, Chapter 32, Chapter 33, Chapter 34, Chapter 35, Chapter 36, and Chapter 37 of Malice. Editing this mess has taken about six months, but I’m almost caught up! Thankfully, these last several chapters have been much easier to edit.

– I edited and submitted a two-page story and an accompanying illustration to the anthology of this year’s Philly Zine Fest.

– I submitted an application to be a writer for Memorabilia, a fanzine about the culture, history, and archaeology of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild.

– I also submitted an application to be a writer for Phobias, a zine featuring original horror-themed short fiction, comics, and illustrations.

– Both of these applications were surprisingly time-intensive, but I enjoyed putting everything together. I think the sort of work I do is a perfect fit for both projects, and perhaps this is my hubris at work, but I went ahead and cleared my entire writing schedule for December so that I can focus on the stories I’d like to submit to these two zines and Ties of Time (the Legend of Zelda zine I submitted a writer application to about two weeks ago). Fingers crossed!!

– I created an illustration to use for my third horror-themed short fiction zine, Haunted Houses. If all goes well, I should be able to send everything to the printer early next week!

– I created an illustration to use for the second announcement post for the Legend of Haiku zine I’m organizing. If you’re interested, you can find the post (on Twitter), (on Tumblr), and (on Instagram). I’ve already gotten some amazing submissions, and the WIPs I’ve received from the cover artist are phenomenal. This is going to be a gorgeous zine, and I’m really looking forward to sharing it!

– Speaking of which, the artist I commissioned to create a sticker to go with the zine sent me the final draft of the design, and it’s lovely. We went through a few color palettes, each more beautiful than the last, but I think the one we finally settled on is a perfect fit for the themes of the zine.

– I drew a short comic about Balthazar from The Demon King. I tried making a comic with this joke earlier this year (here), but I thought I’d give it another shot.

– I commissioned one of my longtime favorite fantasy artists, Marty Tina G., to create a character design for Gasper from The Demon King, and it’s exactly what I imagined. I am in head over heels in love with this strong and beautiful lady orc warrior!

( You can follow me on Patreon if you’d like to support my work! )

The Last Campfire

The Last Campfire is a puzzle-centric exploration game with no combat or danger that should take most players between three to five hours to finish.

If we can posit that there are three main genres of video games – shooting, it’s about depression, and Nintendo – The Last Campfire is definitely about depression. You play as a childlike little creature called an “ember” (who are like the red-robed creatures in Journey, but baby) that is either dying or already dead, and your goal is to move on to the afterlife. Along the way, you’re tasked with helping other embers that have gotten psychologically stuck and are unable to complete the journey on their own.

There are four main areas of the game – forest, swamp, marsh, and cave – and you have to help four embers from each area before you can progress to the next. To help an ember, you must first locate it in the overworld before entering its inner world, which consists of a single puzzle or short series of puzzles, all of which are spatial in nature and generally involve moving blocks or floor tiles. None of the puzzles are timed or involve physical dexterity, and you can reset each puzzle by leaving the headspace of the ember and returning. There’s no penalty for this, and loading times are super short, thankfully.

The game has an easy mode that simplifies the puzzles, but all of the puzzles are already so simple and self-explanatory (even for a dumb-dumb like myself) that this isn’t necessary. In fact, I’m going to say that playing on easy mode might actually be more difficult, as it removes some of the discrete steps intended to teach you how the game wants you to solve each puzzle. Either way, nothing important is actively hidden from the player, so you can solve most puzzles just by fooling around with them for long enough.

The difficult thing about The Last Campfire is locating the lost embers in the first place. Like a Zelda game, the overworld has its own share of puzzles, and it’s rarely self-evident where you’re supposed to go. There is zero signposting, and all of the screens that comprise an area have multiple entrances and exits (some of which are one-way), meaning that it’s easy to get lost. It’s also not immediately clear what you can and can’t interact with, and I have to admit that I had to consult a walkthrough very early on to learn that the player is expected to find and physically touch the ossified bodies of the lost embers in order to solve their puzzles and progress through the game.

Unlike the individual ember puzzles, it’s easy to get stuck in the overworld and not know what the game wants you to do. Although it’s fun to explore the beautiful environments, I think The Last Campfire would have greatly benefited from some sort of map. For me, this was the difference between the game taking three hours (which I think is supposed to be an optimal playtime) and taking almost six hours, which I mainly spent getting lost and having to consult various YouTube videos to figure out where I was supposed to go and what specific object I was supposed to interact with.  

I think that the game could also have benefited from giving you the option to turn off the voice acting. The English version of the game is narrated by a woman with the exact accent and vocal pitch and timbre of Björk. While this narration was cool at first, it gradually began to grate on me, especially when I would get frustrated. The actress sometimes puts a heavy “w” sound in some of her lines (as in, “the ember had mispwaced a memowy”), which can get a little too close to Elmer Fudd territory if you’re listening to the same line being repeated for the fifth time while re-entering an area or restarting a puzzle.

(I should say that I don’t mean to hate on Icelandic accents, which are lovely. Still, I think creating a Pavlovian association between frustration and someone’s voice has the potential to generate annoyance at anyone’s accent and vocal patterns.)

The Last Campfire isn’t as chill and relaxing as it seems to want to be, and most people are probably going to have to play it at least partially with a walkthrough; not because it’s actually difficult, but rather because of what I think it’s fair to call a certain immaturity of game design. Still, it’s an interesting little game, especially during the periods when it’s better about subtly guiding the player forward.

In a lot of ways, The Last Campfire reminds me of a 1992 Super Nintendo game called Soul Blazer, which was a very simple and sweet game about freeing the souls of a cursed world’s inhabitants by entering the dungeonlike spaces of their minds. It’s a neat concept, especially in the visual contrast both games display between the lush natural spaces of the outer world and the barren and overly complicated spaces of the inner worlds of individual minds. I also appreciate that both games acknowledge and respect the fact that not everyone wants to be “saved” by a hero. As one ember in The Last Campfire puts it: Not every problem is a puzzle to be solved.

More than anything, it’s the visual landscape of The Last Campfire that appealed to me, especially in combination with the atmospheric ambient music and the crisp sound design. I think that, if you enjoy this sort of game, the merits of The Last Campfire outweigh its flaws. I also think it has a decent replay value, if only in the sense that it may be more enjoyable to play for the second time once you know where everything is and what you’re supposed to do.   

Almost everyone who’s written about The Last Campfire has mentioned encountering a few glitches and frame rate issues. I played the game on the Nintendo Switch Lite and had no problems with that sort of thing at all. The game can easily be divided into short sessions (and its autosave feature is completely unobtrusive and stress-free), so I think it may be better suited to a small-screen portable experience.    

It’s True and They Should Say It

(Here’s a link) to the Buzzfeed article if you’re interested. It’s mainly about how people in their twenties and thirties can’t afford to live in cities anymore and feel intense loneliness and anxiety about feeling forced to relocate to the suburbs.

While I completely understand that it’s horrible not to have the agency to choose where you live, and while I understand that it can be emotionally devastating to be torn away from your friend group, I agree with the artist that the specific anxiety concerning “living with your parents” is largely based on an ideology of “independence” that’s socially constructed by a very small subset of people.

I don’t think I’m in a position to comment on whether this is a “white” thing, necessarily, but it’s definitely an American thing. A lot of other cultures, including many cultures in Europe, see the American insistence on single-generation households as not just absurd but actively pathological, and honestly, I tend to agree.