Lose 1d8 sanity: The Empty Man

Everybody, at some point in their lives, considers the idea that everything is meaningless.

I might be wrong about that, I suppose – perhaps there are a handful of souls out there blessed and/or innocent enough that they drift off to sleep at night untroubled by even the faint shadow of the fear that maybe it’s even worse than having made a fool of yourself at that party, or having been rejected by that beautiful person you loved so, or having no one to call on the blackest night of your life when there is only you and your thoughts and some questionable life choices in substance form, maybe none of this actually matters at all.

But if those folks exist, I don’t think I’ve ever met one.

I can only assume that David Prior’s had such thoughts quite regularly, based on his The Empty Man – a horror movie that I’m led to understand sells a rather different experience in the trailer than the one we actually get.

We open with a surprisingly-lengthy prologue in Bhutan, in which one of a small group of hikers has an encounter in a disturbing cavern that leaves him…injured? Semi-catatonic? Possessed? His friends can’t be sure, but let’s just say that when they all become stranded on the mountain overnight things Do Not Go Well for them. (I do not consider this a spoiler; this is a horror movie prologue, after all, and these are infamous for presenting us with characters who may not be with us all that long.)

From there, though, we transition abruptly to…Missouri (I cannot pretend I was not a little disappointed; how often do I get to see media products of any sort set in Bhutan?) Here the film introduces our true protagonist – James, a Broken Ex-Cop with one of those backstories one seems to require to become a Broken Ex-Cop. (You know the ones; they usually involve one or more dead family members and/or moments of personal weakness that leave our hero with lingering guilt.) We see him hang out briefly with a neighbor’s kid, a relatively ordinary-seeming teen except for the part where she seems very into the idea that perhaps none of our thoughts and ideas are really ours, that they are fed, or perhaps channeled, to us from some other place or being.

And then she disappears, her mother makes a plea for help, and we’re off to the races for a sort of smoky cocktail of urban legendry, oddly pleasant cults and their nihilistic leanings, and of course an exploration of our hero’s personal history and the truth(s) thereof.

It’s one of those movies about which I have some mixed feelings, I think. James Badge Dale as James is great – relatable, surprisingly funny at times. The visuals are well-executed and many scenes feature little easter-egg clues for those who are watching closely. There are several well-executed moments of surreal creepiness. The central conceits about meaninglessness and/or free will are uncommon and it’s interesting to see the way they’re handled here.

On the other hand: This film needs an editor. Or perhaps, as one of the reviews we looked at afterward suggested, it needs to be a TV miniseries instead of a movie. I love a slow burn, but this burn is very slow, more of a smolder much of the time. And yet, somehow, there is also so much going on: now it feels a bit like I Know What You Did Last Summer, now we have a bit that feels almost Midsommar-adjacent except for, well, the darkness of everything…And then there is the ending, which I could easily see inciting some rage in some viewers but does make sense with the other things the story’s trying to do, even if the reveals therein could maybe have done with a little more spacing between them.

The vibe I came away from this with most strongly, though? “Watching a game of Call of Cthulhu at the tabletop, only there’s just one player for some reason.” The way threads are picked up and then put down, the way there’s somehow simultaneously a couple of strong central ideas and kind of a jumble of things all round them, the way our protagonist is so very central to things (even, at one point, apparently encountering an urban legend in a way that would seem to “break the rules”). You can hear in your head the Keeper calling for a Sanity roll every so often.

Or, well, I can, because I am a giant nerd.

Should you watch it, hypothetical reader? Perhaps. Do you like the idea of sitting at the tabletop with a bowl of popcorn and a beverage, watching a player get themselves into all sorts of shit? Does the idea of an attractively-if-slightly-messily-presented meditation on meaninglessness appeal to you? Then go for it.

Some random things to enjoy

Because today has been bloody exhausting, let’s fall back on the old standby of listing some things I am into today.

Thing 1: The Faculty of Horror podcast. Long, thoughtful episodes, nicely researched and with citations in the show notes (for those of you who are big enough nerds like me that if someone mentions an excellent article about “stranger danger” in the 80s you think “ooh, where can I go read that…”) Today’s episode was about The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist, but there’s a wealth of good stuff in the backlog as well.

Thing 2: Doodle Bug the cat. Because LOOK AT HIM.

Thing 3: Someone has made an array of scented candles inspired by game worlds. I dig this, though I feel there are many ideas as yet un-mined. What would Morrowind smell like? Mushrooms and ozone and honey cake of some kind? What about the undersea city of Rapture (key question there of course would be: before or after everything goes to shit?)

Ooh, or Stardew Valley. Some sort of base note of freshly-tuned earth and the greenness of things, layered with cozy and comforting scents on top. If only there were a way to make it always smell a little like your favorite thing

TIL what a “Doberge” cake is.

So we’ve been watching Crime Scene Kitchen recently when in need of a “something to switch my brain off and have going in the background” sort of show. It’s reality TV; Art it is not, intellectual content, it is not.

But it is rather dumb fun.

Here’s the conceit: Several teams of bakers are turned loose in a kitchen where something has been recently prepared. From the items left scattered around that kitchen, they must deduce what it was and then reproduce it; the team either farthest from the dessert or with the poorest execution gets sent home, and the rounds proceed in this manner until eventually only one team remains.

Thus far it’s largely consisted of us watching the teams look at what’s in the kitchen, guess, and then proceed to create various goodies while the two of us look on and say things like guys what the hell there was obviously carrot in the kitchen it has to be a carrot cake okay?

The jokes are rather silly, the presentation is over the top, and the whole thing just seems a little…hokey? Or something? And yet it’s sort of weirdly enjoyable anyway.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just that I really like cake.

Oh, and for the record, a Doberge cake is a New Orleanian descendant of the Dobos torte that folds lemon into the dainty-little-chocolate layers mix. I’d never heard of it before, but I’m certainly curious now.

An unsuitable contemplation for a Friday

There is, literally, always some damn thing, isn’t there?

If there is not some drama in one’s personal life, there will be something at the office; if it is not that the underwire in one’s favorite bra has snapped it is that that one pair of jeans has at last worn through from long use.

It will be the furnace going out, or the oven element giving up the ghost, or the refrigerator leaking. Or it will be a leak in the bathroom. Or it will be an incursion of carpenter ants.

Or a dying plant in the garden. Or raccoons getting into the garbage cans.

Or a collapsed piece of furniture. Or a missed deadline.

Or a laptop that will not turn on.

Or a blog post that dies in the editor, without a single instant of warning.

Some damn thing.

I suppose you can tell things have gotten really stressful when there stops being space between the little catastrophes of living.

Some of these things are happening now, and some have happened to me before, and some of them have never happened but always seem to be just within range of happening.

And some of them I haven’t thought of yet, but are probably coming anyway.

It’s Friday. These thoughts are too grim for a Friday.


Today I was listening to Revisionist History talk about The Little Mermaid – from the look of things they’ll be discussing it for quite a while, but even this first episode made a couple of interesting points, I think.

I’d never really thought about how odd the Disney version’s portrayal of contracts IS – Ariel’s is rather Faustian, with the whole of the narrative sort of tacitly assuming that such a contract, once signed, is inviolable and unbreakable, never mind whether it was made on misleading or false premises, or whether all parties to the contract were of legal age (though now I really wonder just what the mermaid age of majority is, exactly.)

Younger me was pretty pleased with Disney’s happier ending for the story – Andersen’s original is pretty depressing, though if what Malcolm there says about him writing it in a kind of paroxysm of romantic rejection is true it…would actually make a fair bit of sense. The whole story is just searing longing, all the way down, and although Disney’s iteration has many fine points it doesn’t quite…burn like that.

Later, on Aria Code, La Traviata surprised me by echoing that same fierce yearning – “Addio del passato,” an equally searing representation of almost and not-enough and too-late, of the acknowledgment that to pass now, like this, will mean to lie forgotten in a pauper’s grave, forgotten too quickly. Not having gained that immortal soul the Little Mermaid craved so deeply.

Because it is that the original Little Mermaid wanted; the chance at more, at after, at a spiritual profundity that her long undersea life could not give her. The love of the prince was certainly nice, as means to an end go, but that Higher Thing…that more. Something worth losing your voice and your identity for; something worth walking on knives for always.

And in the same way Violetta – or the Lady of the Camellias on whom she is based, or perhaps even the real-world woman who inspired her – had a lovely life, of beautiful people and glamorous parties and witty partners, but love was something else, and to be remembered when she passed something else again.

To dance at the wedding that means your doom; to bear a public shaming from the man you love most in the world, for reasons you cannot explain. To cast away the knife that could have saved you; to yield up your own love for the chance at happiness of another.

The Little Mermaid flung herself into the ocean, fully expecting to become nothing more than sea-foam. Violetta sings of the existential terror of a pit without even a cross to bear her name. Marie Duplessis was buried in a pauper’s grave at first, her worldly goods quickly yielded up to creditors.

But then, the Daughters of the Air, and a chance at something greater after all.

And then, a kindness, and a tomb in Montmartre where to this day some still leave camellias.

A little hope in the end after all. If only things didn’t have to be so very dire first to get there.

Movie night: No boating accident

Yesterday I did two things for the first time in a while: I made popcorn on the stove, and I watched Jaws.

I’d read in several places around the internets that the trick to not-soggy stovetop popcorn is to clarify your butter first (and/or use ghee); although my attempt at clarification seems to have been more of a thisclosetobrowning situation, I think I can mostly report a success here. Things sizzled and crackled and eventually settled into a lovely little golden-y pool with a toasted bit or two clinging to the bottom of the pan and just a fine layer of milk solids waiting to be scooped off the top.

Popped some corn in coconut oil, dumped it into a large bowl, ran a drizzle of clarified butter around the edge, toss, add salt, toss again, et voila. More popcorn than a sensible human or maybe even two sensible humans should probably be eating in a sitting, though as is the way of all popcorn it was disturbingly easy to scoop up and devour in great, salty fistfuls.

It made sense, then, with such a movie snack on hand, to settle in for one of – debatably the – original summer blockbusters. This movie is older than I am, older than my husband is; it takes place in a particular flavor of small-town New England that may not really even exist any more, one where the only way to really be of a place is to be born there. (One of the film’s many background conversations is about this very phenomenon: “When do I become an islander?” “Never; you weren’t born here!” I chuckled to myself, but I can relate to that a little. I wonder if I am properly of Toronto yet?)

Anyway. I’m not sure why I’m a little surprised to find that it holds up, but it really does. Oh, sure, by today’s special-effects standards the “practical” shark is a little creaky (though I do appreciate the sense of weight to it), but it’s also barely in the movie. Most of the film goes by without more than a fin, some ominous, groaning strings and the occasional panic-stricken swimmer.

The main draw here is the performances, really. All of them are great, from the Mayor (You guys. That. anchor. suit.) to Roy Scheider’s beleaguered Chief Brody to Richard Dreyfus’s Exasperated Smart Guy Hooper to…well. Quint. (And yes, that monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis is still a hell of a thing.)

Is there anything I can really say about this movie that has not been said ten thousand different ways by…everybody who has ever written anything about movies? Probably not.

Jaws isn’t a horror movie, not exactly, though it borrows some of the horror movie’s trappings. We know straightaway what the terror out there in the deep is – it’s right there on the damn poster. There is no real evidence for malice as humans know it or even particular intelligence here. We’re not gazing into the void of the cosmic unknown – we know exactly what that bigass shark is going to do. Hooper tells us what it will do explicitly. A Great White shark is a finely-tuned eating machine that does nothing but swim and eat and make more sharks.

And that is what it does, or tries to do, and it is only through being more of a tenacious #@%& than the flawless eating machine that anyone manages to paddle their way back to shore in the end.

So…horror? No, not really. A thriller, perhaps, or one of those man-vs-nature adventure films, borrowing a bit of that horror vibe for effect.

I will say, though – to a pair of eyes watching it in 2021 there sure do seem to be some parallels between the anchor-suit-wearing mayor’s reluctance to do the right thing and close the damn beaches in favor of The Economy and…well.

(gestures vaguely in the direction of Outside)

I wonder what proportion of Amity Island would believe the shark was a hoax if the film were made today. Would some of them refuse to get out of the water? To close up shop? To stop running tours or whatever else it is they do?

Would even blood in the water convince them?

Anyway. The movie may predate me, but it’s still a worthwhile watch.

Bring some popcorn.


I have come to the end of a day and, as I suspect will be quite common for the next while, find myself feeling too exhausted to be good for very much. Between a full day of trying to juggle various office concerns, making dinner, preparing for and delivering the final presentation for a class I’m in, and discovering that someone close to me has injured themselves, and oh yes also there’s maybe a leak in our upstairs bathroom somewhere?…

Yeah, I feel pretty done.

The air outside is sticky and strangely-colored, the afternoon sunlight today casting sunset-orange pools of light onto the carpet rather than bright white. Some of the plants in our backyard boxes have keeled over – from the heat? from something else? – and don’t seem inclined to perk up, and I’m not sure why.

Then again maybe I know how they feel.

Oof. I shall try to be more chipper tomorrow, internet. Things are just rough at the moment.

Revisited read: Archer’s Goon, by Diana Wynne Jones

Has anyone else been having a hard time keeping up on their reading? I have.

I thought a couple of nights ago that perhaps I might get round it a little by picking up a “comfort read,” perhaps one of the YA books I’ve made the effort to hang onto. Several of those are by Diana Wynne Jones, an English author whose work I stumbled on via Howl’s Moving Castle, back before the film existed (and yes, the book is better even if the movie IS by Studio Ghibli.) I mean, how could pre-teen me possibly turn down cover art like that?

But perhaps we’ll talk more about Howl and Sophie later – I was more in the mood for Archer’s Goon when I raided the shelves.

One afternoon, thirteen-year-old Howard Sykes and his younger sister Anthea Awful arrive home from school to find that a Goon is taking up most of their kitchen. He’s here on behalf of someone named Archer, and he intends to collect a past due payment from Howard’s father Quentin – the two thousand words that haven’t been delivered this quarter.

So unfolds the first tantalizing little peek at the hidden world gradually unveiled in this charming little book – a family of seven mysterious wizards, all of whom have been “farming” various facets of life in the city (power, crime, law and order, etc.)…and one of whom has been doing something with Quentin’s quarterly words that really needs to be stopped.

There’s this whole world out there, you see. And it would be so very lovely to be farming that, instead of just the one town.

Even though I read this so often as a pre-teen that I think I might just have bits of it memorized, it was still immensely gratifying to read again – Jones’s prose is witty and delightful and if you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett – or know a younger someone that you might like to introduce to Terry Pratchett some day – you’ll find it easy to settle into.

The central conflict is straightforward enough – powerful and mysterious folk want something from our hero’s family, our hero’s dad decides he is absolutely not going to play along, and varying degrees of hilarity and/or chaos ensue. We’ve got a likeable young hero in Howard, an especially-vividly-rendered holy terror of a younger sister in Awful, and quite a number of funny scenes courtesy of the titular Goon and the histrionic Quentin, with a few surprisingly-touching little moments mixed in.

Adult me reflects that in a lot of ways this book is really about family dynamics. Yes, the events of the plot are focused mainly on the wizardly doings and the Sykes family’s resistance to them; yes, there is a threat that the world might be taken over if our heroes fail to think of a way out of things. But in a very real way everything happening here is about the bonds between one and one’s parents, one and one’s siblings.

Looking after someone in spite of yourself. The soul-jangling clash when the ego of one party in a relationship collides forcibly with another’s sense of responsibility. The way elder siblings find themselves responsible for – and occasionally blamed for – the actions of the younger; the younger siblings’ vigorous struggles for attention, for legitimacy. The way some of these relationships explode under pressure, and the way they are sometimes found to be intact after all. I recognize all of these things, and they feel oddly realistic against the backdrop of whimsical craziness.

…Though, I mean, honestly it’s also just good fun.

I may have ripped through it in one sitting, staying up far too late and setting myself up for a headache the next day.

Not sorry. 😛

In which I tackle a long-standing Situation

I am not the most organized person.

Actually that’s not quite true. In some ways I can be tremendously organized. Planning a trip? I’m ok there. Making sure I have ticked all the boxes on projects at work and following up on a pile of emails? Also okay. Herding the necessary cats to schedule a get-together? Can do.

Where I run into trouble seems to be the organization of physical objects in space. It is weirdly easy to put something down and forget about it, or to come up with a scheme for arranging something that seems like genius at the time, only I forget what exactly the plan was between then and when I next need it, so it turns out not to be all that useful.

Oh, my books end up on bookshelves and my clothes live in the closet and I can usually…more or less…make a space vaguely presentable. But fucking hell my pantry is a goddamn nightmare.

Partly this is because the shelves are very, very deep, and so there is a tendency for things to get shoved to the back if they’re not used very often; I can only JUST reach to the very back myself, and I am relatively tall.

I have long since resigned myself to never being one of those people whose real-world house looks like something from Instagram, but the Pantry Situation has been vaguely irritating me for months and months. This is especially true when I think I am out of something, buy it, and then discover oh wait we had some all along but it had got to the back of the damn shelves…

But somehow this irritation has never really turned into action, at least not yet.

Last week I spotted a moth fluttering about in the ground floor space of my house, and even though I know we’ve had something of a gypsy moth epidemic here in Toronto of late, and I am pretty sure that particular moth just fluttered in from outside…I had a sudden horrible vision of something lurking back there.

And suddenly enough was enough, and I immediately went forth to search the internet for its favorite pantry-storage containers for dry goods, and within the space of a few hours I had placed an order.

Yesterday the containers came. This morning I washed all of them out with soapy water, and they are patiently air-drying on my counter, and I have attacked the first of the terrifying shelves and purged it of its contents, fairly ruthlessly discarding anything unidentifiable, of a terrifyingly-distant age, or that otherwise seemed to be unsuitable for consumption.

And even just from trying to empty this one shelf, my kitchen is a mess, you guys.

And for some reason I started this the day AFTER garbage day.


Oh well. It needs to be done, so let it be done.

I’m probably not going to restore any kind of harmony to my kitchen any OTHER way.

Well, that was odd, but I learned something.

So, today I was walking down to the local fishmonger to buy some salmon. (One of the luxuries of working from home, I suppose.)

As I emerged into the steamy Toronto afternoon with my prize in hand, I vaguely noticed an unusually-pink car parked a little further down the street. Didn’t think anything of it in particular, but when I got close enough for a better look I noticed that whoever owns it has gone for an extremely distinctive paint job:

As far as I can tell, all the Germanic-looking words there are…cuts of meat. Kotlett. Schinken. Schulter. Lende. Not sure about “Ripple.”

So, someone out there had bought a relatively pricey-looking convertible (a Porsche?), added a “28” as though they intend to race with it, and then painted it to resemble a hog-butchering diagram. For some reason.

Did they intend to race with it?

For some time I could not decide if I wanted more to find out what the story was, or if I would rather never know, and preserve the glorious mystery of why on earth someone would do up a car this way.

In the end, as it often does with me, curiosity won out, and I discovered that in fact what this means is that the mystery driver is likely a fan of classic race cars: Behold the “pink pig.”

…And now I cannot decide if I am more amused, gratified that there IS an answer, or a little disappointed that it’s not just that some iconoclast decided it would be amazing to have a car painted like a butchery diagram.

Ah well. At least it’s not white like seemingly every other car in the world.