Barely Formed Thoughts: Shirley Jackson

Of course, I’ve been reading “The Lottery” since high school, and I recently listened to “The Haunting of Hill House” on audiobook, and I used to teach “The Lovely House,” but these past couple weeks I have been listening to a collection of Shirley Jackson’s other stories and sort of puzzling over them in my mind.

Initially I was surprised that they are mostly so far not truly “genre” stories – I’ve come to think of Jackson as primarily writing horror stories, but I see that that was because of carefully cherry-picked exposure to certain stories and not others. The stories I’ve been listening to lately seem very realistic, very gentle, and very unflinching. They seem to explore identity and more specifically the ways that identity can fade and shift. These are stories mostly about women, living women’s experiences in a world without cell phones. One follows a young woman who expects to marry today, but can’t find her fiancee; she goes on this Odyssean treck through town asking shopkeepers if they have seen him, etc. Ultimately, as in several of these stories, she loses herself in the search, with the strong implication that the apartment she tracks him to (where he is not present and at which he never arrives) may be the apartment she woke up in that morning.

Her identity merges into this lonely apartment in a way that reminds me of “Hill House” and “The Lovely House” as well, but this story is very much not a ghost story. I think right now I am fascinated by the way that Jackson uses the fundamental trope of the haunted house story – that habitation is somehow the same as self – and weaves it into these stories that otherwise read as mainstream, non-genre.

Many of these stories could almost be a conversation between a woman of some age and herself at a much younger or much older age. In one, a young woman living in a boarding house discovers that an older woman has been filching her possessions when she’s not home, and she very gently and politely and indirectly and hintingly sort of confronts the woman. Later, she sneaks into the older woman’s rooms and finds them just like her own, and she meditates on that until in the end the two women seem to merge. Again, the similarity of the apartments reflects the similarity of the women, and the story sort of drifts off with this haunting idea that the two women are only one, really.

In structure, in that tendency to drift off on a theme or an image, most of these stories remind me of Raymond Carver. Both authors in my mind make simplicity and matter of factness their primary building blocks. I’ll have to check the dates for them both, see if they were contemporaries, or if one of them owes influence to the other.


Pearl, since I defended

Today I resumed research for my dream vision book, looking to account for relevant scholarship written since my dissertation in 2010. It’s important to make sure that, if anyone is contradicting me, I account for their arguments in mine; it is also important to acknowledge those whose arguments align with mine in some useful way.

So far I’ve found two articles:

  1. Bloomfield, Josephine.: “Aristotelian luminescence, Thomistic charity: vision, reflection, and self-love in Pearl.” Studies in Philology (108:2) 2011, 165-88. (2011)
    Among other things, discusses imagery, in the poem, of broken or distorted physical vision and reflection, such as reflection off the spherical surface of a polished pearl. Physical vision is untrustworthy.
  2. Barootes, B. S. W.: “‘O perle’: apostrophe in Pearl.” Studies in Philology (113:4) 2016, 739-64. (2016)
    The Jeweler’s initial uses of apostrophe (direct address) are emotional and uncontrolled. In the dream the Maiden’s more staid and constructive apostrophes serve as an instructive example, so that after awakening, the Jeweler’s apostrophes are more appropriate, demonstrating part of his emotional recovery.

My argument has been that the dream frame enables the Jeweler to see his lost Pearl, the Maiden, with inner vision rather than physical vision, and that her theological lessons center on his disastrous reliance on physical senses rather than faith/insight. The dream frame enables him to (1) overcome the inadequacy of physical senses and (2) learn to approach his grief more constructively by the lessons and examples of the Maiden.

Not a bad night.

Morewood School Art

In college a few friends and I had a joke art movement named after the cafeteria where we shared meals. The artworks were often built in one way or another on cafeteria stuff and casual scraps of this and that. I had a sculpture made from a fork and a paper cup, called “American Gothic”, and a friend staged endless performance battles between the various parts of her meals. Artworks in the Morewood School of art were always dashed off very quickly, usually during a meal or between classes.

Recently I found one of my later Morewood School works, inspired by a new-age Madonna sculpture I saw someplace.

Somewhere in my papers, I have a similar triangles-and-circles “Death of Saint Sebastian”.

Reading “The Tombs of Atuan”

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t read this series as a kid, which is very surprising to me, since I was reading off my older brother’s bookshelf and I can’t imagine that Earthsea got past him. But I am reading them now, in my mid-late forties, with advanced literature degrees, and I’m Noticing Things.

I like this one better than “Wizard” – I like the way that Arha/Tehan approaches faith, the way the novel gradually unveils that this approach is itself a form of desperation, replacing the sense of self and identity that she was denied when she became The Unnamed. I like the way this eventually colors her experience and approach to the aftermath. I like the ways that Ged reassures her that her gods are real, even though they may be neither gods nor worthy of worship.

I find myself thinking of “Logan’s Run” of all things, another book where sheltered people who have been controlled by a destructive religious ritual face unknown tempters and emerge from their shelters into the world.

I find myself more interested in Ged in this book than in “Wizard” as well. Arha/Tehan seems to force him to share more of his own motivations and emotional gearwork than in the earlier novel. I like the way that “Tombs” adds cultural significance to several of the events of “Wizard.”

I finally find myself much more interested in the naming of names. I wondered reading “Earthsea” if Leguin might not be the originator of the notion of True Names. I suspect it must be older, though – what children can mistake the trouble that accompanies when Mother uses their full names?

But Leguin *could* be where True Names enter popular fiction. I’d have to go hunting. But now I am thinking of Madeline L’Engel, too, of Meg reminding others who they are by naming them, and being reminded in turn who she is. There is power in names.

I love the tiny scene where Ged calls a rabbit and they discuss whether magic is good only for big things like holding off earthquakes. Tehan concedes that perhaps magic is good for smaller things like calling a rabbit, and Ged demurs that what could be bigger than hospitality and how we treat strangers.

On the whole, I think “Tombs” is very rich, much richer than “Wizard,” although I also liked that book.

View all my reviews

Thinking about RPG Dice

Obviously most RPGs use some sort of randomizing technique to determine the outcomes of actions that could fail in some interesting way. Most systems leverage the randomizer to give advantage to skilled actions and disadvantage to unskilled ones: generate a random total, add your skill, compare the total to some target, maybe.

  • FATE
    You roll four Fate dice. Each one is a special d6 with 2 faces showing a plus (+), 2 faces showing a minus (-), and two blank faces. Pluses count as 1, minuses as -1, and blanks as 0. Total ranges from -4 to +4, with 0 being the most likely outcome. Adding this total to your skill gives you a minimum of Skill value -4, potentially a negative score. The possibility for a negative score is brutal. However, by rolling 4 dice you increase the likelihood of an average roll, meaning your most likely score will be close to your skill value.
  • D&D / Pathfinder / D20 systems
    Here you roll just the one d20 and add your skill value. The minimum score is skill value + 1, and you are equally likely to get an average roll, a very high roll, or a very low one. This maximizes randomness, but we are all so accustomed to rolling d20s, that who would really notice?
  • Percentage systems
    You roll d100 and try to roll UNDER the target. Still basically the same as d20, as far as I can tell.
  • Burning Wheel / Mouse Guard / Torchbearer
    You roll a number of d6s equal to your skill value. Each d6 that shows a certain number or higher is a success; other dice are failures. Your score is the number of successes. Minimum score is 0; Most rolls will come out to roughly 1/2 the number of dice you roll. These systems rely on an objective sense of how a given task is to set a target number, and assert a certain level of mastery for each skill rank. If polished work is difficulty 3, then to reliably DO polished work you need to roll 6 or more dice. These systems allow you to use extra dice by spending points that you earn through roleplaying. This indirectly means roleplaying improves your chances of successful action.
  • Dice pool systems
    Sometimes you just roll a number of dice and add up all the pips. Usually a higher skill value means you roll a higher number of dice. In this case, your minimum value would be equal to your skill number, and the results curve would be steeper the more dice you roll – the chance of getting your minimum on a single d6 is 1/6; the chance of getting your minimum on 2d6 is 1/36; on 3d6 it’s 1/216; the more dice you roll, the less likely you are to get an extreme roll. Of course, the size of your average roll also increases, so that’s nice, too.
  • There’s no reason you couldn’t design a system that always rolls 5d6 and adds the total to a skill value. this would be effectively equivalent to d20, but the distribution of scores would be more predictably average the more dice you roll. And the more dice you roll in such a hybrid system, the less impact your skill value would have.
  • Savage Worlds
    If you are good at a skill, you roll a bigger die; if you are bad, you roll a smaller one. Minimum score is 1, regardless; the reward of being skilled is in the higher maximum. If you roll your maximum on the die, you get to reroll and add the totals together, and you repeat this as long as you keep rolling the max on each die. PC/hero characters also roll a d6, so I guess the minimum is really 2. Notice that your chance of rolling the max value on a die decreases the bigger the die is. It’s ok, though. To get an 8 rolling a d8, you have a 1/8 chance. To get the same 8 on 2d4, you have a 1/16 chance. This system has a lot of volatility, maybe more than d20. Roleplaying can earn you bennies in this system, and these can be used to improve your action outcomes.
  • Cortex
    Games using the Cortex system (Firefly RPG, for example, or Castlemourn) also reflect higher skill with a larger die, but you roll TWO varying dice rather than one varying die and d6 as in Savage Worlds. For example, to fight with a club, you would roll your Melee Combat die and your Strength die, so if you are weak (d4 strength) but highly trained with the club (d12 Melee/club) you roll a d4+d12. Depending on your intention you might roll a different attribute; for example, if you were trying to use your club with FINESSE, instead of your strength die, maybe you roll your agility die and your melee/club die. If you are less clumsy than weak, this could improve your outcome substantially. This flexibility of choice emphasizes player choice and role playing in a way that interests me. Drama points also available to improve outcomes here. Not sure how they are earned.
  • Clockwork: Dominion
    This system also asks you to choose a skill and an attribute, but instead of dice rolling, you add the two scores together and draw a card that could be any number from -5 to +5. I’m not sure the distribution of the cards, so I don’t have anything useful to say about the results curve, but I like systems that allow the player to choose HOW to execute the action by specifying which combination of skill and attribute to use.
  • Torg: Eternity
    You roll a d20, reroll 10s and 20s and add them to the total. Compare the total against a table to determine the relevant bonus, and add that bonus to your skill value. This is unnecessarily complicated. It’s designed to create a LOT of volatility in the outcomes. Minimum outcome is still your skill plus 1, though, and you can spend possibility points to increase your total. I feel like possibilities accrue automatically, though, without regard for roleplaying. This system is a refreshment of the 90s Torg. I wonder if Luke Crane saw possibilities in Torg and said “I can do more with those! and then wrote Burning Wheel. I should look up the relative publication dates.


A Tale of Two Dwarves

A few years ago, I helped publish WTF?!, my favorite anthology from Pink Narcissus Press. We built the collection around two truly excellent stories, each so peculiar and idiosyncratic that it would be difficult to publish through more traditional channels.







One of those stories is “A Tale of Two Dwarves,” by Peter Berger. Pete’s story is based on the ascii-graphics world-simulator game Dwarf Fortress. It involves pomagranates.

Here’s an audio of me reading A Tale of Two Dwarves. I hope you like it! If you do, feel free to buy the anthology! And thanks to Peter Berger, for permission to do this!

A Dream of Climbing

As a kid I had a recurring dream of climbing. Sometimes I was climbing our basement steps trying to reach the kitchen, and sometimes I was climbing a fire escape. I had never seen a fire escape in person, but I had seen “Sesame Street,” and trust me to have nightmares from watching “Sesame Street.” Regardless of what I was climbing, I was always climbing to escape, and I always experienced gradual paralysis. It’s not that I fell down, though; it was more like trying to run upstairs through thicker and thicker air, until my legs just weren’t strong enough to push me any further, and the air was thick enough to keep me from falling backward. At this point, the Count would catch up to me and push me down over and over, counting each time I got up and he pushed me down again. “One! Two hahaha! Three pushes!” etc.

So today a passage from Lovecraft’s “Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” really resonated with me, super creepy. Randolph Carter has just asserted his acquaintance with the ghouls and resolved to call out in their language for help getting out of the pit where ghouls from all over the world throw the refuse of their grisly meals.

For the record, Randolph Carter also knows the ways and language of cats. Dreams are cool when you know how to work them. Also, what a great setting, the pit where ghouls all throw the used-up bones they’ve been gnawing. Wow!

Anyway, here’s the quote:

As he pondered he was struck by a flying bone so heavy that it must have been a skull, and therefore realising his nearness to the fateful crag he sent up as best he might that meeping cry which is the call of the ghoul.

Sound travels slowly, so that it was some time before he heard an answering glibber. But it came at last, and before long he was told that a rope ladder would be lowered. The wait for this was very tense, since there was no telling what might not have been stirred up among those bones by his shouting. Indeed, it was not long before he actually did hear a vague rustling afar off. As this thoughtfully approached, he became more and more uncomfortable; for he did not wish to move away from the spot where the ladder would come. Finally the tension grew almost unbearable, and he was about to flee in panic when the thud of something on the newly heaped bones nearby drew his notice from the other sound. It was the ladder, and after a minute of groping he had it taut in his hands. But the other sound did not cease, and followed him even as he climbed. He had gone fully five feet from the ground when the rattling beneath waxed emphatic, and was a good ten feet up when something swayed the ladder from below. At a height which must have been fifteen or twenty feet he felt his whole side brushed by a great slippery length which grew alternately convex and concave with wriggling, and thereafter he climbed desperately to escape the unendurable nuzzling of that loathsome and overfed Dhole whose form no man might see.

For hours he climbed with aching arms and blistered hands…