Hello, friends! Welcome to another edition of Cool People Column. For many of us, the global response to COVID-19 has created more time at home than we’re potentially accustomed to. For us at Heavy Blog, it most certainly has facilitated some enjoyable forays into all sorts of content. From Netflix shows to model building or collectible card game battling, current circumstances have definitely compelled us to dive into some great hobbies and content old and new.
As always, we’re excited to share with you what we’ve been consuming and interacting with over the past month. We’re all in this together, so please let us know what you’ve been enjoying in the comments below. We hope that the media here can help you find new and exciting stuff to sink your teeth into. So sit back, relax, and enjoy another foray into what’s cool in the world of Heavy Blog.
What We’re Watching
The Third Day (HBO Max)
Horror, particularly TV and film, has been undergoing a renaissance the past few years thanks to directors like Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, and Jordan Peele. The arthouse facelift they’ve provided the genre through their work with A24 and various prestige streaming services is contested; while it’s reached an entirely new audience who wouldn’t normally dabble in the macabre, lifelong horror diehards find it all fairly pretentious, or simply too highbrow for their tastes. I land somewhere on the fence myself, though I admit I’ve enjoyed most of their work. I don’t believe the treatment they’ve given the genre is so far removed and snooty as most make it out to be, especially given the existence of directors like Lars Von Trier and Yorgos Lanthimos who have been doing this for years in a more subversive fashion. I think the real reason people are irked by this new wave of “arthouse” horror is because it’s become mainstream and critically acclaimed without relying on the classic trappings of the genre, garnering the kind of attention hallmark franchises and career horror makers have not. Many diehards take particular aim at Eggers, director of The Witch and The Lighthouse, and Aster, director of Hereditary and Midsommar, as being unable to fashion an interesting narrative or pace, or for simply not being scary enough, with the payoffs being too underwhelming or confusing for the time it takes the slow burns to ignite. The Witch and Midsommar in particular draw a lot of this ire for being too slow or simply missing the mark, with a lot of emphasis on the latter’s use of sunlight throughout as being more of a detriment than a well-handled subversion of classic horror tropes. So what if I told you there was a Midsommar for people who didn’t like Midsommar?
The Third Day is a six-part miniseries that just wrapped on HBO Max starring Jude Law, and it’s got the grimdark, psychological folk horror that people wanted absolutely nailed. It also follows a vaguely similar setup, which in itself is a trope indicative of folk horror classics like The Wicker Man. Sam, played by Law, finds himself stuck on a remote island called Osea off the east coast of England after a run-in with a suicidal teenage girl. The people of the small island are preparing for a festival, which appears to be a long-held folk tradition following their particular faith, which only finds purchase there; a syncretism of evangelical Christianity and ancient paganism, localized to the lore of the island itself. The inhabitants of Osea are expectedly suspicious of outsiders, though they hope to draw tourists by turning their annual celebration into a music festival this year to boost their economy. Sam, trapped by the tides that close off the single causeway on or off the island, is forced to stay the night. He ends up in the company of the only other outsider on the island, a religious researcher named Jess (played by Katherine Waterston), who is fascinated by the culture and admits to having visited before.
What follows is a hazy, gripping, mystery-thrummed descent into madness as the history of the island, its people, and Sam’s involvement in it all unfolds. While solidly a thriller in the style of its contemporaries, it succeeds in finding that sweet spot of tension, release, and dread. At its core, The Third Day is a grimy, beautiful, waterlogged exploration of grief, loss, family, and duty, painted upon the backdrop of a secretive community on an island where you’re just as likely to find a shrine to a saint as the eviscerated carcass of an animal on display as an offering. If you’re looking for highbrow horror that doesn’t leave something to be desired, The Third Day is definitely it.
– Calder Dougherty
What We’re Reading
Ring Shout – P. Djèlí Clark
What if the KKK was actually a front for monsters from another dimension? What if their white hoods were references to these werewolf-like beings? What if Birth of a Nation was actually a ritual to summon these monsters? And, stay with me here, what if three African-American women hunted these monsters, armed with sniper rifles, ancient African magical swords, and heaps of badassery? These are the idea which inform Clark’s Ring Shout, a novel set in the 1920’s and benefiting immensely from his knowledge of African-American and American slave trade history. It’s equal parts awesome in its descriptions of magic and monstrous combat and intriguing for its depiction of the sheer wealth of slave culture and the many subcultures which grew from it.
John Darnielle – Wolf in White Van (2014)
As I started Wolf in White Van, there was never any doubt in my mind that John Darnielle’s lyrical prowess would translate to a different medium. The celebrated singer/songwriter behind The Mountain Goats has been a fixture of indie folk since at least All Hail West Texas (2002), but certainly ever since Tallahassee (2002). The main selling point for Tallahassee was Darnielle shedding his acoustic guitar and tape deck to collaborate with a full band, but I think the larger story is his significant leap as a lyricist. The larger narrative of a marriage dissolving in a crumbling Florida plantation house is formed by individual yet thematically cohesive songs, each sharing a different vantage point of how a fading relationship flutters and ultimately dies. Darnielle’s adept hand helped bring this story to life, with a lyrical style that balanced a quirky personality and references with raw emotional honesty.
All of this translates seamlessly on the pages of Wolf in White Van, a novel formatted in a somewhat similar way as Tallahassee. Sean Phillips recounts the events of his tragic yet eerily relatable life; a series of stories that speak to the subtleties of teenage mental health struggles and rebellion, which we seem to understand so clearly during adolescence yet completely forget as we grow older. As Darneille colors in Sean’s backstory in non-chronological order, we experience a case study in cascading decisions: how Sean becoming disfigured led him to create a play-by-mail roleplaying game, which in turn pushed him further into reclusion and triggered a fatal accident and subsequent legal proceedings. Along the way, Darnielle’s prose is engrossing, primarily because of his realistic narration and dialogue. As we uncover Sean’s inner thoughts and witness his conversations with others, we come to know imperfect characters who make decisions befitting their personalities, even if it’s difficult to understand their exact rationale. In other words, they’re real, genuine people.
Even the most puzzling decision Sean makes ties into one of the main focal points of the book. As he recovers from the accident that disfigured him, Sean starts creating Trace Italian, a turn-based game played through the mail similar to a “choose your own adventure” book. Players choose from a series of options, mail in their selection, and Sean responds with a pre-written narrative setting them on a different path. While a quaint plot device at first, the game becomes a key point of comparison to Sean’s life the more we learn about him. Every decision, however minor, triggers a different set of circumstances for each player, which only grows more complex as those choices layer on top of each other. In the same way, we see how seemingly small events in Sean’s life (or our own lives) can contribute to more consequential results. While we often want a clear impetus for every decision, it’s truly a web of choices that dictates our actions.
Perhaps most importantly, Darnielle conveys all of this in a way that’s addictive and downright fun to read, even considering the frequently tragic subject matter. While Darnielle was a seasoned writer by the time Wolf in White Van came out in 2014 — a year before The Mountain Goats released their fifteenth album, Beat the Champ — it’s still an impressive debut novel that has me excited to continue following his writing as closely as I obsess over his music.
Kim Stanley Robinson – The Ministry for the Future
Kim Stanley Robinson is an author whose works I have a “complex” relationship with to say the least. While there’s always something of value or interest in each of his novels, 2312 (2012) is the only one I could wholeheartedly recommend. The Ministry for the Future is now the second. Robinson’s newest novel shares a lot of similarities with his recent cli-fi writing, like New York 2140 (2017) and the Science in the Capital Series (2004–2007), telling of a near-future world adjusting to catastrophic climate change and the formation of the titular ministry which is charged with enforcing the Paris Agreement after a horrific heat-wave hits India.
Unlike most of Robinson’s earlier novels, however, human experiences rather than abstract ideas are at the forefront. The characters in The Ministry for the Future are fully fleshed-out people, rather than just mouthpieces for Robinson’s politics or hollow analogues of real-world politicians. The book remains dense with scientific rigour and visceral descriptions, but it’s the character focus that makes its climate catastrophe feel so much more real and urgent than those of his other novels. There’s a risk the book might simply be dismissed as a left-wing State of Fear (2004), except it’s far better written and the science is actually accurate. The world’s been waiting for “the great climate change novel” to come along, and The Ministry for the Future might just be it.
What We’re Listening To
Friends at the Table – Partizan
I’m not a D&D guy and while I’ve tried previously to get into role-playing podcasts and none of them have ever stuck. That includes Friends at the Table. But it’s something my partner has been increasingly getting into (she really likes The Adventure Zone, which is a completely different vibe to what we’re talking about here), so I decided to give their most recent season, Partizan, a go and—while it took some work—it’s definitely stuck this time.
After a few false starts I finally decided to just skip through all the character creation and world building stuff, which still takes up roughly half of the “first” episode (below) and get straight into the action. From the moment a giant deer robot riding side-saddle on an even gianter gorilla mech rammed full speed into a broadcast satellite I was hooked. At least once per episode since then I’ve found myself thinking “that’s the raddest shit I’ve ever heard!” the most recent ark had mobile ice fortresses, unstoppable zombie armies and weeping beast-mechs and that’s only scratching the surface. Now that I’ve got my bearings I’m eager to jump into all the auxiliary material and the Road to Partizan pre-season. Partizan is also the third Friends at the Table series, along with COUNTERWeight (2015–2016) and Twilight Mirage (2017–2018) that take place in the same universe, and I can’t wait to delve back into those once Partizan is over. This might be the best piece of fiction—of any kind—that I’ve consumed all year.
What We’re Playing
Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Surprising absolutely no one, I have a penchant for melancholic games. It seems as if platformers have been particularly apt to channel that kind of emotion lately, with games like Celeste for example doing a fantastic job of strumming on my heart strings. But it’s been a while since a game has made me feel as deep as Ori and the Will of the Wisps has. The game, a sequel to the celebrated Ori and The Blind Forest is a platformer Metroidvania. But you don’t need me to analyze the game itself; there are people who are much better at me than that. Spoiler: it’s great.
But I want to talk about is the atmosphere which the game deploys and, specifically, the music it uses. See, one of the main characteristics of Metroidvania is that you retrace your steps, coming back to areas you already know with newfound abilities. These abilities allow you to access new parts of said areas, triggering an intriguing and, for me, enchanting sort of exploration where the old and the familiar constantly reveals new face and facets of itself to you. As the game goes on, you start to feel attached to these environments and discovering new parts of them is delightful.
This feeling is amplified in Ori via the soundtrack. The trick is that it uses the same chord progression from the track’s main theme in almost all of its musical moments. It slows that progression down in darker segments of the game, making it more minor and morose. It speeds it up for chase scenes, makes it more chromatic in emotional moments, and more. It returns to it and discovers a new facet of it, just like the game does with its environments, characters, and abilities.
This is what gives the game it’s immense emotional impact. Couple that with a simple, yet powerful, story, amazing character design, and extremely fun mechanics and you have yourself an amazing game, one that is as fun to play in as it is to get lost in. If you’re a fan of platformers, Metroidvanias, great soundtracks, and good story, this game is a must play.
Caves of Qud
I bought Caves of Qud with nary a second thought about a year ago, instantly charmed by its marriage of retrofuturist 70’s-pulp-novel science fiction aesthetics with the endlessly fascinating emergent gameplay of Dwarf Fortress and the depth of early pencil-and-paper RPG systems that are a little too obscurantist on their face to see mass love the way more modern renditions have (let’s be real, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition would just not have the same appeal if they were still using THAC0). My excitement to try it drowned out any warnings that it was, to put it mildly, an unforgiving experience. I rolled a character, puttered around with it for maybe 20 or 25 minutes, went to go do the first quest, got ingloriously pelted to death with rocks by a pack of hostile baboons within seconds, and closed the game. And that was that for a while.
In the past couple weeks, though, I’ve found myself more drawn to playing video games now that it’s too cold and gray to sit outside and read in the evenings. Specifically, I’ve been itching for something adventurous and odd, something deep and weird and deadly that I can get lost in. Caves of Qud fits that niche perfectly. Outside of several hub towns and a few quest-specific locales, the world is randomly generated from seeds, and in keeping with the best emergent system-based games, what you come across while exploring the wilds of Qud is completely unpredictable (and unique to your character’s save file). I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe: fights breaking out between tribes of rock-slinging baboons and goat people with grenade launchers, religious zealots leading doomed assaults into centuries-old ruins protected by autonomous sentry guns, and a pack of fire-breathing birds swooping down onto a merchant caravan, burning everyone alive, and leaving their charred bones on the forest floor. Caves of Qud is fantastical and immersive in the best way; every time you enter a new screen, there’s a definite chance that you will see something that you’ve never seen before and you’ll never see again.
It is admittedly very hard to recommend Caves of Qud for a few reasons, or at least to not endorse it without a large caveat emptor. For starters, it is a fairly dense game, aesthetically, systematically, and mechanically, to the point of being impenetrable. This game has two difficulty curves: the typical curve of becoming accustomed to a game’s systems and skillfully adapting to what it demands of you is certainly present, but the first obstacle you face in Caves of Qud is figuring out what the fuck is going on. It’s also frustrating. Permadeath is the default way to play and you can easily be killed by even the lowest-level enemies. (You can turn permadeath off in the options, which I honestly recommend for the first few hours so you can get a better idea of how everything functions instead of just throwing characters away endlessly.) Snapjaws, Qud’s answer to kobolds, are the first enemies you will likely face, and even a pack of just a few can be deadly to a first- or second- level character if you let them get close. It is a game where progress is incremental, where death lurks around every corner, and whether or not you’ll understand exactly what you did wrong and how to avoid the same death on subsequent runs is dubious. Certainly, this all has an appeal to a particular type of person, and if you’re someone who gets your biggest rush when the brick wall you’ve been running into finally starts to crack, you might fall head-over-heels in love with this game. I know I have.
Caves of Qud does what many of my favorite games do: accept from the beginning that trying to please everyone is a futile endeavor, and instead of making something that has a broad appeal, make something that aims to be the most perfect realization of its core spirit that it can. If you can stick with Caves of Qud and stay alive long enough to start appreciating its esoteric and idiosyncratic personality, the reward is a deep, rich, and beautifully immersive experience that always has something new to show you just beyond the horizon.