All posts by Wesley

Charles Portis, True Grit

I have no idea I’ve only just gotten around to reading True Grit. I loved the Coen Brothers movie (which I’d been thinking was recent, but is a decade old now). The book is, as is often the case, better.

True Grit is a Western. A hired hand named Tom Chaney robs and kills 14-year-old Mattie Ross’s father. Mattie is precociously sober and pretty much the head of her household already–she does all her parents’ accounting–but also has a taste for Biblical eye-for-an-eye justice. She travels to Oklahoma in the dead of winter to collect her father’s body and Chaney’s debts. To that end she hires a dissolute but reportedly gritty marshall named Rooster Cogburn. Cogburn joins forces with LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger already on Chaney’s trail. Their attempts to leave Mattie safely in town do not work out for them.

They say my article is too long and “discursive.” Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a “graphic” writing style combined with educational aims.

Mattie is writing her own story fifty years after the fact and Charles Portis uses deliberate technical flaws as characterization. Mattie is rigidly formal, and opinionated, and when she thinks the world needs her opinion on a thing she’ll digress as much as she feels like, thank you. Mattie never uses contractions and puts words she considers vernacular or slangy in quotation marks, like “stunt” or “cowlick.” This is another assertion of her opinions, on language. These aren’t part of her vocabulary, she’s quoting words everybody else uses.

Mattie’s religion is fire and brimstone and accounting: “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.” That aside, Mattie isn’t humorless and True Grit is a funny book. Mattie has a dry wit, but she’s also sometimes not all that self aware. It can be hard to tell when she’s joking. At one point bandits demand Mattie explain the legal papers they’ve taken off a train. We get this passage:

It was a cashier’s check for $2,750 drawn on the Grangers Trust Co. of Topeka, Kansas, to a man named Marshall Purvis. I said, “This is a cashier’s check for $2,750 drawn on the Grangers Trust Co. of Topeka, Kansas, to a man named Marshall Purvis.”

In context, the repetition is hilarious–but is this Mattie’s deadpan attempt to convey her boredom, or has she stumbled into clumsy phrasing because she’s so pedantic about money?

Mattie writes about money with precision. She doesn’t say her family has land in Arkansas, she says her family has “clear title” to it. She remembers what she paid for everything and exactly what Tom Chaney stole from her father after killing him. But Mattie doesn’t love money for its own sake. She asks Rooster, “Why do you think I am paying you if not to have my way?” For Mattie money is control, something in short supply for a teenage girl in nineteenth century America.

Mattie’s father was in Oklahoma to buy ponies. She wants to sell the ponies back to the dealer, who doesn’t want them back. Her starting price is $300 but she eventually negotiates him into paying $325, about twenty dollars a head. The next day she returns and buys one pony back for ten. This happens through force of will more than anything. Mattie just presses harder, never concedes, and throws in a couple of legal threats, and somehow the dealer finds himself agreeing to everything she wants. The next day he’s sick, like Mattie’s drained him; she gives the impression she could kill people by staring at them too hard.

I saw the John Wayne version of True Grit once. It’s not good. It’s a close adaptation of the book but still manages to miss the point. It thinks Rooster is the hero–because, hey, he’s played by John Wayne, right?–and relegates Mattie to a supporting role. Kim Darby is miscast; she’s a 20 year old playing Mattie as a smart and stubborn but more or less ordinary teenager. Mattie is in over her head, but Darby’s Mattie is in over her head much farther.


LaBoeuf picked up a rock and threw it in my direction. It fell short by about fifty yards.

I said, “That is the most foolish thing that ever I saw!”

Mattie the adult narrator doesn’t seem much different from the 14-year-old self she’s describing. This is not because Mattie never grew up. She was already almost her adult self at 14.

From the minute she arrives in Oklahoma Mattie is taking care of other people’s responsibilities. She retrieves her father’s body for her family. She prods the law into moving against Tom Chaney. She puts Rooster’s semiliterate expense accounts in order. The same bandits Rooster’s been chasing ask her to tally up their loot. One of the questions True Grit asks is what makes an adult? Mattie doesn’t always know what she’s doing, but for all her faults she’s more responsible and just more together than most of the chronological grownups she meets.

Rooster and LaBoeuf are impulsive and petty and spend the trip alternately boasting and bickering and needling each other. They waste hours and a good chunk of their rations in an impromptu skeet shooting competition because for some reason it’s important to prove who’s the better shot. Rooster’s life is a long series of bad decisions and evasions of responsibility. He rode with Quantrill’s Raiders in the Civil War. Afterwards, failed as a husband and father and proved too incompetent to run a business. He supported himself by robbing an army paymaster and later a bank. He doesn’t notice any contradiction between his past and his work as a marshall. He certainly has no problem fudging his expense accounts, to Mattie’s annoyance, and he’s obviously lying when he claims he’s only ever killed in self defense.

If you have a passing familiarity with literary irony it won’t surprise you to learn the true grit of the title belongs to Mattie. Rooster and LaBoeuf are traditional Western hero types–LaBoeuf the dashing Texas ranger, Rooster the rough but wily drifter. They’re supremely useful in a Western plot but in ordinary life both are goddamn overgrown children. Mattie has the will of a freight train and survives a trip into the frozen wilderness and the loss of an arm, and she’s honest, educated, sober, and on top of her mundane responsibilities. At least, she’s on top of her responsibilities up to the point she decides to ride off after Tom Cheney. Mattie’s biggest flaw is her vengefulness; it makes her more like Rooster.


When a novel is in first person it’s often interesting to ask why is the narrator telling this story, and who do they think their audience is? Mattie’s tried to sell her writing but hasn’t had much luck with editors. I think Charles Portis meant us to assume Mattie is really telling this story to herself.

Fifty years later Mattie is a successful banker and pillar of the community. She’s also uptight, cranky, and strange. Her neighbors say Mattie never married because all she loves is money and her church, though as she observes herself she’s not the kind of woman most men of her era were looking for. People laugh at her behind her back. This is understandable; Mattie is in many ways a silly person. She’s rigid, stern, moralistic–she’s a stock character type, the unpleasantly respectable pillar of the community who turns up in small-town comedies. Mattie claims people “slander” her because she has “substance.” This is how she saves her pride.

Something that’s occasionally true of good stories but much more often true of bad ones is that every character is who they appear to be from the start. Most stories set characters like Mattie up to knock them over. A few stories give them unexpected depths. In True Grit we see the depths first and then realize Mattie grew up to resemble Margaret Hamilton in the sepia-toned bits of The Wizard of Oz.

The novel’s first line says “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” Mattie’s story is her proof she has a true, hidden self who isn’t who people believe she is, or would believe. Her decades-old adventure is so core to her sense of self that after Rooster died Mattie had him buried in the Ross family plot, though they hadn’t spoken in twenty years. Her neighbors laughed harder.

Sometimes a novel or a movie seems to sneer at a character, and want the audience to sneer too. Not a real villain, just somebody stuck-up or buffoonish who exists to be the butt of the narrative’s jokes. The wrong partner in a romantic comedy, say. It can be an interesting exercise to imagine who that character might turn out to be in a story that followed them instead. What’s their hidden self? True Grit is that story for a judgmental, rigidly religious banker from small town Arkansas who’s probably the comic relief in the stories her neighbors tell about themselves.

Max Gladstone, Empress of Forever

Vivian Liao, heroine of Max Gladstone’s space opera romp The Empress of Forever, is a tech billionaire. Elon Musk is mentioned by name as a colleague and/or competitor. This is… an interesting choice. Not that this novel is all “Yay tech billionaires!” It’s all about confronting Viv with the consequences of her own supervillain instincts, deconstructing part of the genius entrepreneur myth. It doesn’t appear to notice there are other parts it’s failed to question.

Viv is a nice billionaire. Sort of. Yes, she got rich by designing Clearview-style surveillance software, but she gives her workers free housing (in “targeted congressional districts”) and gets relief workers (branded with “Liao Industries livery”) to hurricane victims before FEMA. Her self-dealing charity has pissed off the vaguely defined near-future government. At any moment Viv expects to be hauled off to a black site for torture. So she disappears and hatches a cunning plan to hack into and take control of all the computers in the world, which is apparently a thing she can do. For high-minded purposes, mind you. She plans to save the world. (And maybe crush her enemies just a little.)

So Viv breaks into a very important server room and uploads a virus. In a welcome non sequitur, a green glowing Empress pops out of nowhere and sticks her hand into Viv’s chest. When Viv wakes up it’s thousands of years in the future and a space monk is fighting a knife robot.[1] What follows is portal science fiction, throwing a contemporary character into a space opera the way a portal fantasies send their protagonists to fairyland. It has a typical epic fantasy plot, the overthrow of a tyrannical monarch–a few thousand years ago, to avoid attracting alien predators called the Bleed, the Empress took over the galaxy and started pruning overly ambitious civilizations.

Structurally, Empress of Forever is an episodic story bookended by plot, like a TV series balanced between a continuing story and self-contained episodes. Viv visits different planets, deals with local problems and accumulates allies–Hong, the monk; Zanj, a crabby three-thousand-year-old warlord; Xiara, a pilot; and Gray, an intelligent mass of grey goo. Viv levels up and seeks out the Empress for a confrontation and a plot twist most readers will see coming long before Viv catches on. (I will have no compunction about spoiling this in a few paragraphs.)

Shortly after Viv wakes up she and Hong find themselves diving into a miles-long elevator shaft and wrestling a robot in free fall. During fights Zanj grows extra arms, hangs in midair, or moves faster than Viv can see. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, this book tends to resolve situations with action set pieces, and it’s the exaggerated, hyperkinetic action encouraged by unlimited CGI budgets. The result is that Viv’s adventures can feel arbitrary. This is one of those stories where you come away unable to recall what the characters did, but remembering how their relationships developed. Viv’s ultimate plan is “get everyone together and do a handwavy thing so we can reach the Empress and beat up on her,” which doesn’t feel clever. It’s more like a middling episode of Star Trek: Voyager where the crew solves the space anomaly of the week by emitting particles. But the important part of the climax is the thematic meaning and emotional core of Viv’s showdown with the Empress. The mechanics of how she gets there aren’t interesting. Luckily the novel is actually good at developing those relationships and delivering that emotional core, so they don’t necessarily have to be–although if they were, it would have been a nice bonus.

Empress of Forever keeps the narrator invisible, sticking to close third person. It feels less jumpy than books with this narrative style usually do because it has fewer points of view and stays in them longer. The novel only strays from Viv when her POV doesn’t have access to a vital chunk of story. The prose is readable–nothing special, but good enough for a lightweight adventure story, which is, after all, what this is. Stylistically it’s space opera written as epic fantasy. In SF terms, everything is full of nanites and internet; some characters mentally merge with entire fleets of spaceships, others are intelligent gray goo. Everyone’s constantly online, their minds uploaded to the space internet–the “Cloud”–which can rebuild their bodies and teleport them through space. In practice, everything is described in mythic language. People talk about the Cloud like a spiritual realm that holds their “souls.” They’re disturbed Viv doesn’t seem to have one.

The story explicitly riffs on Journey to the West (it’s most obvious when Zanj shows up; she has fur and a monkey’s tail). It literalizes, if not actual Buddhist philosophy (I don’t know enough about it to judge), at least a typical Western understanding of Buddhist philosophy. Viv finds she can escape handcuffs and see doors Hong can’t because she’s not hooked into the Cloud. The Cloud isn’t telling her (as it is Hong) that the handcuffs are locked and the door isn’t there. The Cloud is illusion, and Viv can see through it. Later Hong helps the gang escape from the Empress’s traps by recognizing they have no stable selves for the Cloud to pin down and bind: “There are pieces of me in all of you, and pieces of you in me. We are all empty of inherent form. Trace the threads of each of us, and you find not just the others, but the entire universe.” Their individual identities are shaped by the people around them, so they bleed into each other.

Which segues into the book’s other theme, undermining the Randian myth of the genius entrepreneur. The Empress is Viv, a few thousand years after taking control of Earth; Viv is a simulation of her earlier self given flesh. Viv branches away from the Empress when, forced to choose between a friend’s safety and victory over her enemies, Viv chose her friend. She learns to connect and cooperate with people instead of controlling them from the top down, nudging them with intrusive software or just ordering them around. Instead of treating people as minions or tools she puts their needs on par with her own. The solution to the Bleed is one Viv could come up with but the Empress couldn’t: to recognize it’s not an enemy, just a Cloud-based life form fighting the Empress’s control the only way it knows how.

But the book’s treatment of the genius tech entrepreneur myth is where we run up against its limitations. Yes, it realizes the lone genius is a myth. But why does it take the idea that Viv is any kind of genius at all at face value?

Vivian Liao is a recognizable type. Our culture sees certain entrepreneurs and certain companies as geniuses, innovators. They’re CEOs with the personae of gurus, people who get profiled in magazines. They’re young and enthusiastic about technology to the point of self-parody. They run tech or tech-adjacent companies like Uber, Facebook, Theranos, and WeWork. They have apps. That’s the kind of billionaire Viv is: the celebrity innovator. Her braid is her trademark, like Steve Jobs’s black turtleneck. She turns up on magazine covers.

Most of these people aren’t that bright.

They have programming skills, and they’re clever in specific ways that help them make wads of cash. Often this just means they have the charisma to talk investors into backing nonsense. Even the successful tech companies rarely do anything new or useful. Uber is just unregulated taxis you call through an app instead of a phone number, Facebook is a restrictive replacement for personal websites that sells your information to advertisers. Tech companies build smart juicers that do nothing customers couldn’t do with their bare hands and design algorithms camouflaging prejudice as math.

Ask a tech genius to solve a real problem and they’ll try to put it on a blockchain and feed it Soylent. Soylent is the archetypical example of modern innovation, actually, because it incompetently “solves” nonexistent problems in two ways at once: hardly anyone finds food so inconvenient they’re willing to trade it for joyless glop, and anybody with an actual need to go on a liquid diet already had better options.[2] I’m skeptical that the golden children of Silicon Valley would handle getting tossed into a space opera as well as Arthur Dent, much less the schoolteachers, stewardesses and office temps on Doctor Who.

Empress of Forever takes place in a world where entrepreneurs really are scintillatingly brilliant. Viv is exactly the sharp, adaptable prodigy the typical gushing profile would imagine her to be. This seems… well, unlikely. It doesn’t help that Viv’s vocabulary is full of ridiculous jargon: “She’d almost said minimum viable escape plan instead of a way out of this, but somehow she doubted the Mirrorfaith, whatever that was, knew much about development methodology.” She actually thinks of her decision making process as an “OODA loop.” But Viv’s knowledge of tech-industry philosophy and management-babble is precisely what Empress of Forever identifies as her superpower!

“[Viv] didn’t know this place,” says Empress of Forever, “but she knew how to manage a team.” Viv doesn’t understand the world she finds herself in and can’t access the all-important Cloud, but she’s a natural leader. At one point the gang’s spaceship is crashing. Viv doesn’t know how anything works but she knows (better than the 3000 year old woman!) what everybody needs to be doing, and coordinates it. Viv’s character arc is about learning to lead without dictatorial control. That’s a lesson a lot of real executives could use: the corporate world has pushed workplace surveillance to levels that would creep out Frederick Winslow Turner. But the issue is how Viv leads; that leadership is her natural talent is never in question.

One of the foundational myths of American business culture is that anyone with management training can manage any organization at all, even with no experience in its field, moving from marketing to health care to higher education. Empress of Forever takes this idea at face value. Viv founded Liao Industries; of course she can zap thousands of years into the future and immediately captain a starship. How hard could it be?

There’s precedent for this in fantastic fiction. One common character is the naïve but earnest person whose power is a talent for collecting friends and inspiring them to be their best selves. Think Farscape, or The Wizard of Oz. The hero may not be strong or brave or know the world very well but, like the Dude’s carpet, they really pull the group together. That’s what Empress of Forever is doing. So am I just looking for something to object to? Why did this story rub me the wrong way?

Well, it’s one thing when the natural leader is a wisecracking astronaut, or a kid. I’m more uneasy when it’s a wealthy entrepreneur. Our culture tells us these are our natural leaders even though they’re just clearly not, and that any leader can lead anything even though they just clearly can’t. And as I write this, thousands of Americans are dying from COVID–19 because a few million Americans thought a reality TV host could manage the executive branch of the federal government, and that President thinks his real estate developer son-in-law can manage a pandemic response. So on this subject I’m in the mood to be cranky.

Empress of Forever is a fun book. But it’s a book that sets out to teach us a lesson about billionaire entrepreneurs and ends up worshiping them anyway.


  1. The few comments on the excerpt I linked complain about the “tonal shift” and speculate on whether it’s deliberate. I’ve said this before, but SF fans are the most unimaginative and unadventurous readers in the world.  ↩

  2. Also, the Soylent guy thinks it’s more efficient to buy new clothes and give them away when dirty than to do laundry.  ↩

Dino Buzzati, Catastrophe

The title story of Dino Buzzati’s Catastrophe is narrated by a passenger on a train. As it leaves the station he watches a man rush up to a woman, apparently with important news. In the next town people seem agitated. As the train travels on, everyone outside seems to be fleeing in the opposite direction. A torn newspaper blows in through the window; it bears an ominous but frustratingly incomplete headline. It’s impossible to deny something is happening, but none of the passengers talk about it. Talking about it, whatever it is, would make it real. Finally the train pulls into a deserted station. The story ends as the narrator hears someone, somewhere, scream.

That’s typical of the stories in Catastrophe which are, indeed, mostly catastrophic. (A few off-theme stories creep in at the end of the book.) A couple of stories cross the line into actual sadism, but the best stories (and most of the stories count as best) feel like ominous dreams. Everything seems surface-normal but something is coming. You can’t tell what it is; everything just feels increasingly off. You wake up just as everything is about to fall apart.

My favorite is “The Alarming Revenge of a Domestic Pet.” A woman visits her aunt, who has a weirdly intelligent pet resembling a bat despite not looking like a bat at all. (It has the drooping face of a dog, and webbed feet.) The woman is repulsed. The pet wants her attention. The two have a battle of wills which ends when the pet tries to serve her liqueur. When she refuses, it angrily flips the switch on a nearby lamp and “there was a violent series of tremendous explosions and the distant crash of bombs echoed through the whole city, shaking the houses: the air was filled with the roar of a thousand planes.” (What’s most striking about this story is the contrast with the first lines, and the tone of the woman’s narration; Buzzati introduces the story like it’s a particularly interesting anecdote this woman told him at a cocktail party.)

“The Collapse of the Baliverna” is about a man who climbs the side of a building and breaks part of an old grating. Moments later, the whole building collapses. Was it his fault? Did anyone see? Is the man who just walked into his shop a blackmailer? It all ends there. Often these stories feel like the beginnings of longer ones, but carrying them on into actual plots would ruin them. They’d be too definite, too conclusive, no longer uncanny. And, anyway, doesn’t it capture how hard it sometimes is to imagine what the world might be like, after the worst has happened?

In “The Slaying of the Dragon” a hunting party rides out to kill a dragon. It turns out to be a feeble, aging mother dragon dependandt on the goats left by nearby villagers. The hunters stubbornly push on to the end of their quest, though it’s clear long before then they won’t come out looking like heroes. In “The Opening of the Road,” a party of civil servants travel into the country to officially open a new road. As they get further from civilization the road is always a bit further ahead, until the remaining officials find themselves grimly pressing on into a desert.

Buzzati’s best insight into catastrophes is his grasp of how, so often, they happen because no one acknowledged what was going on until it was too late. Everything is normal. Everything is always normal. It’s not polite to point out the thing we refuse to speak of; talking about it would make it real. In “The Epidemic” a Colonel comes down with the flu just as a secretary for the Dept. of Intelligence declares the epidemic only infects the disloyal. As his headache and fever get worse, the Colonel keeps coming in to work. He doesn’t want to be an inconvenient fact.

The Importance of Being Genre

Alix Harrow’s fantasy novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a very good book, and I enjoyed it. I’m a little conflicted about my enjoyment. The Ten Thousand Doors of January got me thinking about two kinds of subtext running beneath some types of speculative fiction to which it bears a distant family resemblance.

These themes aren’t related–at most, they sometimes intersect–so this essay will ramble, and I’m not sure how coherent it will ultimately be. Just bear in mind I’m not trying to tie everything together; I’m describing a Venn diagram where the circles ever-so-slightly overlap.

Subtext #1: You Flatter Us

There’s a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy written to flatter people who like science fiction and fantasy. Its heroes are smart, imaginative, and interested in strange ideas. In stories set in anything resembling the real world, they usually read actual SF or fantasy. People find them strange, dismiss them as impractical dreamers, or bully them.

All this is, if not like speculative fiction fans, at least like their self-images: Today geek culture is mainstream, but older fans still nurse grudges over lectures from teachers or bullying from peers about their then-weird obsessions. That’s why it’s a kick when a hero’s geek traits turn out to be superpowers. Science fiction geek heroes may be the only one who can solve a problem due to their ingenuity and special geeky knowledge. (Ernest Cline’s books are shameless examples.) Fantasy heroes either have honest-to-god magical powers connected to their imagination, intelligence, or love of reading, or are among the privileged few who can see magic or have access to portal or wainscot worlds.

At their smuggest, the lessons of flatter-the-fans stories are:

  1. Science fiction and fantasy are very special genres, and the fan culture surrounding them is also very special!
  2. Being, or at least resembling, a SF fan is a sign of intelligence and sensitivity!

I understand why sci-fi fans love this stuff–I can enjoy it, too, in the right mood. But I’m not sure stories telling fans they’re special are the stories they need right now. Again, these days stuff fans like is mainstream. Most pop culture caters to them already, and to the loudest, most aggrieved fans most of all.

Subtext #2: The Special People

Modern culture, geek culture especially, values people for what they are more than what they do. Sherlock Holmes has privilege but what makes him a hero are his skills, which theoretically anybody could learn with study. Contemporary pop culture heroes might be skilled, but they’re heroes because of powers or privileges nobody else can access. Our standard hero is the superhero. Superheroes are special because they’re aliens, or mutants, or just so rich they can build a batcave and train all day instead of getting a job. Even in a comic-book universe, any kid can’t grow up to be Superman.

It’s interesting watching existing characters evolve to fit the trend. The latest Star Wars protagonist, Rey, went from an impoverished nobody to the daughter of the emperor in two films (mostly because fans were loudly dissatisfied with the former option). The 1960s Captain Kirk was a man in his 30s who’d worked his way up through Starfleet; the new Captain Kirk is handed the Enterprise straight out of the academy. Doctor Who used to be a mediocre, underachieving Time Lord who fled Gallifrey out of boredom; now she’s an ex-super-spy whose superior alien genes are the original source of every Time Lord’s ability to regenerate. (And for a while now she’s been the last Time Lord in the universe, just to ensure no one has the authority to boss her around.)

The Part That’s Actually a Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is about January Scaller, a young woman at the dawn of the 20th century. January voraciously reads pulp novels and tales of adventure. (SF isn’t really a genre at this point, but she comes as close to fandom as she can–she even voluntarily reads Tom Swift books.) She can see doorways to other worlds. And she has the magical power to make things she writes come true, which she uses to open more doorways. She’s not just a fan; she’s become a writer herself, opening doors to worlds of her own.

So, yeah, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is wish fulfillment for fantasy readers. That’s no problem. I am a fantasy reader. And, honestly, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an excellent novel of its type. I’m not saying it’s deep–it’s unambiguous, easy to interpret, and unlikely to confound or challenge most readers. As with a lot of SF, I get the sense this book is pitched younger than the adult audience it’s marketed to. Unlike a lot of SF, it feels like a novel, not a pitch for the Netflix series many writers seem to want instead. It’s a book about learning, uncovering information, more than presenting breathless action.

Its metaphors don’t work only one way; they rhyme with each other. It’s a novel about doors, and traveling between worlds, but January is also liminal herself: as an upper class mixed-race woman in 1900s America she moves between social worlds. January alone is perceived differently from January in the company of her wealthy white guardian.

We see a couple of worlds in detail, one independent world and one pocket-universe refuge for people marginalized by 1900s America. They’re both vivid. The larger world, a place of islands, tattoos, and word-magic, feels more distinctive and complete than most epic fantasy settings in a fraction of the space.

Ten Thousand Doors’ prose has style, not an attempt at styleless transparency. It’s sensitive to narrative voice, even down to the niceties of capitalization. As the novel begins it’s already asking us to notice the difference between a door and a Door. Which comes in handy, since the book has two narrators: January herself, and a nonfiction book on Doors that becomes a biography of Adelaide Larson, a woman who travels through them.

(That second strand sold me on the novel. Fantasy and science fiction don’t spend enough time exploring the worldbuilding and storytelling possibilities of fictional nonfiction. If nothing else it saves time when you can just come out and tell the reader about the world instead of implying everything through plot, and it’s often the more interesting option.)

And then–here’s where I start revealing the things that ought to surprise you on first reading–that biography neatly transitions into an autobiography of Yule Ian, its otherworldly author, then connects back to January’s plot, which loops around to the very beginning of the novel as she sits down to write, and then past it.

One of my cranky literary opinions is that every story has a narrator. Yes, even when they stick to close third person, or “transparent” style, the whole way through. You’re getting the characters’ thoughts and feelings because someone is telling you them. Sometimes this narrator is a persona the author wants to present to the audience. Sometimes it’s a persona the author doesn’t realize they’re presenting. One interesting question to ask about any novel is who is telling this story, and why? Even stories in first person don’t always consider the second half of that question.

Here, it’s easy to answer. Ten Thousand Doors is a first person narrative wedded to a mostly third person narrative that gradually lets the first person take over. Each narrator is writing to a specific audience for a specific reason.

Meanwhile the real-life readers are in the position of those characters, being addressed by the narratives. The nonfiction strand, addressed to January, ultimately explains her background and powers: you are magic. January’s story turns out to be addressed to an amnesiac boyfriend: an unsuspected magical girlfriend is looking for you. Both reinforce the book’s wish-fulfillment aspects.

On a higher level, both narrators are metaphorical fantasy authors–dreamers, writers, fascinated by Doors–making their cases for the importance of fantasy. But they do a weirdly lousy job of selling what’s so awesome about it.

Everybody Wants Their Genre to Rule the World

Doors are a metaphor for books. Speculative fiction, mostly; books about other worlds and presumably other possibilities.

Doors, The Ten Thousand Doors tells us, are also change. They’re the source of wonder and innovation, where revolutionary ideas slip into our world from fundamentally different ones: “revolution, resistance, empowerment, upheaval, invention, collapse, reformation—all the most vital components of human history, in short.”

The European rebellions of 1848 hung like gun smoke in the air; the sepoys of India could still taste mutiny on their tongues; women whispered and conspired, sewing banners and authoring pamphlets; freedmen stood unshackled in the bloodied light of their new nation. All the symptoms, in short, of a world still riddled with open doors.

Are they, though? There’s a step missing here: The Ten Thousand Doors never tells us what these changes have to do with Doors. It’s like the cartoon about the scientist who solves a complicated equation by writing “then a miracle occurs.” The book insists Doors are change but can’t come up with a concrete example of the world changing because of a Door.[1]

You’ll notice these revolutionary movements happened in the real, Doorless, world. This is one of those fantasy stories set in the real world, which puts it in a bind. The novel can’t introduce changes that never happened or the world won’t look like ours anymore. It also can’t give Doors credit for real-world changes without denying credit to the real people who worked for them. True, a lot of social movements were in part inspired by books… but most of them weren’t the kind of books January reads. They were books like Das Kapital, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, or occasionally realist novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle.

Mostly Doors aren’t about changing this world, but escaping into other ones. Adelaide finds Yule Ian’s world and her true love. January’s African governess slips into a world free from European colonialism. A community of outsiders and marginalized people take refuge on an uninhabited Earth. And there’s nothing wrong with this. Sometimes people need an escape, a refuge. Weird, bullied people, or those who’ve been genuinely marginalized: The Ten Thousand Doors makes sure to provide portals for the non-white, non-male readers who rarely got to star in the fantasies of decades past. This is all good!

It’s just that there’s a gap between what Ten Thousand Doors wants to make of fantasy and what it actually provides. It tells us stories can change the world, but only ever shows them leading people inwards to their own private worlds. In a way, Doors are change–but only for the select group of people who get to travel through them.

A Bad Witch

I might not have given The Ten Thousand Doors of January a shot if I’d remembered Harrow had also written “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,”. “A Witch’s Guide” has a similar central metaphor but isn’t as smart, or as kind. It’s one of the most obnoxiously smug flatter-the-fans stories I’ve ever come across. It still won a Hugo Award. That might be why it won a Hugo Award.

“A Witch’s Guide to Escape” is about a librarian/witch who sees her job as connecting people with The Right Book, or, as she puts it, “divining the unfilled spaces in their souls and filling them with stories and starshine.” I must emphasize here that at no point in this story is there any hint of irony.

You get a sense of the narrator’s personality when she says “There have only ever been two kinds of librarians in the history of the world: the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around their lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches.” She’s the kind of person who thinks there are two kinds of people. And, like a Josephine Tey character, she thinks she can know a person by looking at them. The patrons she’s concerned about are kids. She barely speaks to any of them, but brief glimpses as they pass through her library “kind of [tell] you all you need to know” about their lives. She knows what they need, and what they need is always the same thing. Fantasy, king of literature and the literature of kings!

“And you really can’t do anything for the people who only read Award-Winning Literature,” she says, “who wear elbow patches and equate the popularity of Twilight with the death of the American intellect; their hearts are too closed-up for the new or secret or undiscovered.” Which is amazing. I mean, if the internet has taught me one thing it’s that sci-fi/fantasy fandom includes some of the most incurious and unimaginative people on earth. And a lot of people they’d dismiss as “mundane” are smart, thoughtful readers. The narrator can’t imagine anyone might read “Award-Winning Literature” and find things in it that are new, or secret, or undiscovered. I read fantasy and Award-Winning Literature and off the top of my head I could come up with a half-dozen “literary” novels with more of the new and undiscovered in them than in Brandon Sanderson’s entire oeuvre.

A social worker brings one boy in and suggests he read some nonfiction about his depression instead of another fantasy novel. She’s not as diplomatic as I’d be, but she’s not wrong. I read fantasy, and I’ve dealt with depression. I need some escape sometimes but I can confirm nonfiction is better long-term help in this area than fiction of any genre. The witch is incensed: “Anyone could see that kid needed to run and keep running until he shed his own skin, until he clawed out of the choking darkness and unfurled his wings, precious and prisming in the light of some other world.” And, I mean… does she not realize it’s possible to read more than one thing? No, fantasy solves all problems! Fantasy is the most important literature.

So the witch steers kids to the books she thinks they need. It doesn’t work–one kid, pregnant and desperate, kills herself. So the witch swears she’ll give the boy one of the really magic books, the ones witches keep from the public. And she does, and it’s a literal portal, and the boy vanishes into it. The story says this is a happy ending. Maybe from the boy’s point of view it is. We don’t know. The witch is telling this story, and she’s so disengaged from the kids they barely have any dialogue; we never get his point of view. From everyone else’s POV, both he and the pregnant girl are equally gone from the world. What’s the difference?

But everyone else’s point of view doesn’t matter. The witch is a fantasy fan, “A Witch’s Guide” is here to tell us fantasy fans are wiser and more sensitive than the common herd.

Guarding the Doors

January’s guardian belongs to the New England Archaeological Society. The NEAS collects powerful artifacts from beyond the Doors. Then they close the Doors behind them so just anyone can’t do the same. The NEAS are special, better than the mundanes. They know what’s best.

The NEAS are SF fans. They’re the fans who police the boundaries, set pop quizzes to sort “real” fans from poseurs, and whine when their comic books start to look less white and male. They memorize canons and amass Funko pops while blockading the doors to divide themselves from the herd, keep the club exclusive. What kind of world would this be if January could get in?

But even a lot of fans on the right side of these fights, who want to open the doors, are more like the NEAS than they’d care to admit. January’s magical powers, remember, mark her as sensitive and creative. She’s a character the Witch from “A Witch’s Guide” might like to see herself in. The Witch is a speculative fiction fan, and she doesn’t want to keep anybody out–quite the opposite. But, well, some people are just too dead inside to get with the program, am I right? If they had any imagination they’d gladly be assimilated into her Borg. She won’t accept that people who love literature beyond fantasy could feel the same love for it or get the same rewards. Fantasy is her refuge. She can’t stand the suggestion that anything outside her fandom could be as important.

I’ve seen aggrieved SF fans set up psychological barricades to protect themselves from ideas that might pop their SF-is-special bubbles. They don’t consciously police boundaries, but they have the same combative grudge about other kinds of art that they imagine litfic readers have about SF. They get defensive over even mild criticism of the things they love. They question the imaginations of the non-genre readers, performatively sneer at the books they were assigned in high school, or dismiss litfic as books about professors having affairs with their students.

The result is that SF is so frustratingly small. From the golden age onwards, most popular writers have come out of the same fan culture and read the same books. Most SF draws from a limited range of styles, themes, and subjects. During the “golden age” we got pulp potboilers starring white, male soldiers and engineers. Today, the standard is a low-subtext Hollywood-style thriller. At all times, the style hasn’t strayed far from the contemporary understanding of “transparent prose.”

The core, non-small-press part of the speculative fiction genres don’t learn from anything outside themselves. If SF is so special and powerful, and its readers so especially imaginative and sensitive, what could the outside world have to teach?

Super Genres and Supermen

Alec Nevala-Lee’s brilliant book Astounding is part biography of Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell (along with Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard), part cultural history of his disproportionate impact on science fiction. Campbell was a man of strong opinions, most of them bad. He was convinced science fiction was not ordinary literature–it might even be the most important literature. He once told Barry Malzburg “There’s going to be a moon landing because of science fiction. There’s no argument.” By that point he’d spent his entire career trying to prove science fiction could change the world.

Campbell spent World War II looking for ways sci-fi might contribute to the war effort, imaging Astounding as a laboratory where smart people could brainstorm new ideas. He sometimes pitched schemes at actual government employee Robert Heinlein. Campbell was so desperate to prove his genre could lead to a world-changing breakthrough that after the war Hubbard suckered him into using Astounding to introduce Scientology.

Nevala-Lee writes Campbell saw Astounding as “an evolutionary collaboration between authors and fans to develop ideas at blinding speed… his ultimate goal was to create a new kind of person in both the magazine and its audience—a competent man who might pave the way for the superman to come.” Campbell wanted to be one of those competent men. He was a reasonably smart man who thought he was brilliant–the Dunning-Kruger Effect in human form. He’d grown up precocious, and bullied.[2] The lesson Campbell took was that ordinary people can’t handle genius.

Science fiction of Campbell’s era was stocked with superhumans–people who were naturally smarter than the common folk. A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and Zenna Henderson’s People stories are famous examples. Campbell published Wilmar H. Shiras’s “In Hiding,”[3] about a child psychologist who discovers a boy is hiding his true intelligence because the people around him Just Don’t Understand. The story consists of the kid explaining seriously and at length how smart he is–running selective breeding experiments with kittens, publishing stories in magazines whose editors don’t know he’s twelve. The boy isn’t just bright–normal people can’t educate themselves up to his level through hard work. He’s an atomic mutant, genetically superior. Brains are in his blood.

January, meanwhile, is special because she’s literally magic, and she’s magic because her father is from another world. January’s a better person than the NEAS, she’s not interested in excluding anyone, but she can’t help being special. The abilities that metaphorically mark her as a fan and a creator are hereditary powers no mundane human could learn. January masters them instinctively. They’re in her blood. She’s a superhero.

(Magic powers are often hereditary in fantasy. If you don’t want magic to be absolutely ubiquitous, restricting it to a small part of the population is an obvious solution. But it’s weird that it’s usually genetic. Why does it need to follow the rules of heredity? It’s magic.)

The significant, plot-moving characters in The Ten Thousand Doors are people who know about Doors. Few non-door-aware people get names. The novel cares about how they support or hinder January, or her parents or governess, or her enemies. It rarely hints at what goals they might have of their own. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a struggle for control of fantasy fandom. Here, it’s the only world that matters.

One of the best small moments in The Ten Thousand Doors of January involves Adelaide’s journey to the island world. She needs a ship, and her Door is on top of a mountain, and she hires two Hispanic men to lug it up, and they’re the last people to see her before she disappears. And the book acknowledges the trouble this causes them! They’re not disregarded as extras–Adelaide’s biographer names and quotes one of them. We may not learn what January plans to do for the world outside her charmed Door-savvy circle, but this book knows January and her friends and family have responsibilities to others. The novel is calling Adelaide on her privilege–not just her white privilege, but her hero privilege.

The NEAS aren’t special–but neither are January and her parents. It’s easy to reject a villains’ assumption of specialness. Remembering to question a story’s assumptions about the hero’s specialness is harder. They usually aren’t conscious on the protagonist’s or the author’s part, so they’re more hidden.

Stories of special, magical people that lose this sense of perspective can be toxic. Heroes who are more special than everyone else aren’t held accountable for the collateral damage incurred by their adventures. Superhero movies often center the hero’s self-actualization while disregarding the background extras’ health and safety. They divide people into the special ones and the mundanes, and encourage the audience to identify with the special ones.

I know this post has rambled. I’m not sure it’s entirely cohered. But I do see points of connection between the gatekeeping fans; and the defensive, incurious fans; and stories about special people; and stories where those people are fans. The Ten Thousand Doors of January has the perspective and self-awareness they lack. On top of that, it’s genuinely well-written. Still, this book feels like a candy bar: I loved it, but I know if I consume too much of this stuff I’ll make myself sick.


  1. In reality, the biggest changes SF and fantasy made to the world are Scientology and the Disney corporation’s monopoly on the American imagination, neither of which were a win.  ↩

  2. Which, though it doesn’t justify anything, was probably partly in reaction to Campbell’s own obnoxiousness–for instance, he recalled “solving” games like hide-and-seek.  ↩

  3. Recently reprinted in the Library of America anthology The Future is Female.  ↩

Short Reviews of Weird-Adjacent Fiction

Jean Giono, A King Alone

Jean Giono’s A King Alone is a realist novel, but just for its uncanny tone it would probably appeal to fans of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood. It takes place over the course of several winters in a 19th century mountain village hemmed in by snow and fog. It’s a cloudy limbo where a man climbing down from a tree seems to come from thin air. Anything can happen.

What does happen is a murder mystery, followed by a wolf hunt, followed by.. what? The title might be more literally translated as A King Without Diversion. The “king” is Langlois, the hero of the first two plots, decisive in a crisis, quick with a gun, and the idol of the villagers. A King Alone deconstructs the adventure-novel hero. The real measure of a person’s strength isn’t how they cope with a crisis but how they cope with ordinary life.

A King Alone does interesting things with narration. The story is told by a village historian living a couple of generations after the events, reporting tales of Langlois secondhand, and seamlessly transitions into the voices of their original sources. The narrator is as often “we” as “I,” like the spirit of the village is piecing Langlois together from collective memory.

This book’s best asset is its otherworldly feel and uncanny imagery. A tree cradles murder victims in its branches, the pursuit of a killer is a weirdly slow and calm walk through clouds and snowdrifts.

Margaret Irwin, “The Book”

I recently came across Margaret Irwin’s story “The Book” for the second time–the first was in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird. It’s good, but I still haven’t read any of her (apparently few) others. She collected them in a book called Madame Fears the Dark which is not in print and not affordable used.

It’s a deal-with-what-might-be-the-devil story about a grimoire that’s found its way onto the shelves of a mild-mannered middle-class businessman. The plot’s predictable–the book presents Mr. Corbett with newly-written investment advice, asking for increasingly-alarming favors in return–but not every story needs a twist ending.

What’s distinctive is how the grimoire seduces Mr. Corbett. It haunts his library. He doesn’t notice it’s there at first; it’s just one of a batch of books inherited from an uncle. But every night the second shelf on the dining-room bookcase gains a strange gap, like something’s left to wander around. And Mr. Corbett has suddenly gone off books. Dickens isn’t funny anymore: “Beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering.” Jane Austen is “a prying, sub-acid busybody in everyone else’s flirtations,” Charlotte Bronte is “a raving, craving maenad seeking self-immolation on the altar of her frustrated passions.” The classics suck, and Mr. Corbett is the first person to notice! Obviously, this is because his mind is “so acute and original he should have achieved greatness,” but until then, Mr. Corbett reads to explore “the hidden infirmities of minds that had been valued by fools as great and noble.” When he finds the one book on the dining-room shelf not newly revealed as idiotic, he’s ready and willing to fall under its spell.

In other words, the grimoire corrupts Mr. Corbett by turning him into a smug, edgy contrarian. Anyone who’s seen too many Twitter threads of the Hey, what’s the worst book you had to read in high school kind might not find the idea too farfetched.

Elizabeth Hand, Wylding Hall

Any interesting writer (even a writer of the “every book is different” kind) will have subjects or themes they return to, because to be interesting a writer has to have interests. I’m only somewhat familiar with Elizabeth Hand’s work–I’ve read this, her mystery novels, and a few short stories–but her go-to theme seems to be counterculture types of the 1960s and 1970s dealing, gracefully or not, with aging, and leftover damage from decisions made decades ago.

Wylding Hall is one of those stories. It’s written as an oral history of Windhollow Faire, a Fairport Convention-style folk rock group, and their legendary final album, recorded at and named after the titular country house. There’s no “objective” narrator, just interviews with the surviving members responding to questions we never hear. The one missing voice is Julian, their lead singer, who vanished during production.

In form Wylding Hall a blend of folk horror and Arthur Machen. Under the surface this is a story about the proverbial kid who goes a little too far in search of something more and drops out or burns out. As with “The Book,” if you’re genre-savvy you can guess where this story will end up. That doesn’t matter: it’s effective in its details and watching it get there is affecting and chilling. This is one of the best stories of its type I’ve read in ages.

It helps that I’m a sucker for the horror tropes Wylding Hall leans on. The hall is a House of Leaves-style impossible space, accumulating styles like a centuries-long physical history of British architecture, expanding and contracting and revealing different rooms to different people. We also get uncanny media: a song may also be a spell, photos show something (and it’s quite a thing) nobody knew was there. And then there’s the fictional album at the center of the story: even in reality, there’s an uneasy aura around last recordings, final books, any artifact created just adjacent to a sad ending.

The key to pulling off this kind of story is to explain neither too much or too little. The multiple viewpoints help; Julian vanished forty years ago, and a lot of these people spent the summer stoned, and the proceedings have just the right amount of fog. In the end it’s not even clear whether Julian’s end was, from his own perspective, horrible or happy. Like A King Alone, this is a story where we only see the lynchpin character from outside. From outside it’s often hard to tell.

Random Thoughts on Recent Doctor Who

(I’ve expanded this post from some thoughts I had on Twitter. If you don’t care about Doctor Who, it probably won’t interest you.)

Earlier this month Doctor Who aired an episode called “Can You Hear Me.” Afterwards the BBC thought they had to apologize for it. See, at the end of the episode Graham tells the Doctor he’s scared his cancer might come back, and she replies “I’m quite socially awkward, so I’m just going to subtly walk towards the console and look at something. And then in a minute, I’ll think of something that I should have said that might have been helpful.” And a lot of viewers hated that was the best she could come up with.

I thought this line was inept, but not in the way most fans thought.

Yes, the Doctor’s response is disappointing, but that’s clearly intentional; anyone who thought it was meant to be cute or funny missed some cues. (For instance, look how the episode juxtaposes this scene with Ryan’s fears that traveling with the Doctor means not being there for his friends.) I sometimes feel like modern audiences have trouble interpreting fiction that doesn’t explicitly, unambiguously spell out how they’re meant to feel.

Instead, I was struck by two things. One points to a change in how the writers of post–2005 Doctor Who think about the Doctor. The other points to a weak spot in the show’s writing under the current producer, Chris Chibnall.


First: is the Doctor socially awkward? Most of the time the 13th Doctor’s distinguishing feature is that she’s more in touch with her companions’ feelings than usual. And I think that “usual” is new. The Doctor’s social awkwardness is a creation of the post–2005 series. The original series Doctors were eccentric and alien to ordinary day-to-day life. But they understood emotions, were usually empathetic, and charmed people more often than they offended them. They comforted their friends in times of distress on a regular basis. In the same situation, any classic Doctor–even the often abrasive 3rd or 6th Doctors–would have come up with something helpful to say.

The idea that the Doctor isn’t competent at people skills is new, and, I think, entirely a product of the modern cultural assumption that thought and feeling are opposed, and smart people necessarily bad at emotions and empathy. This assumption makes it hard for contemporary writers to see certain characters clearly. Take modern depictions of Sherlock Holmes, who is not nearly as cold or thoughtless in the original stories.


The other interesting thing about the “socially awkward” line is that it isn’t a line so much as a description of what the line is meant to do. If “Can You Hear Me” had come out under Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat, the Doctor might have said something that demonstrated she wanted to help but didn’t know how, but without coming out and saying so. By contrast, a fair amount of Chibnall-era dialogue has this… let’s say schematic quality.

For instance, “Praxeus” has its guest character baldly diagnose his own mental hangups to Graham. In a real person this would be a great psychological breakthrough and probably the first step to healing. As drama, it’s perfunctory.

Ryan’s confrontation with his father in “Resolution” is also literal. They don’t reveal their motivations and feelings through their dialogue, they just come right out and lay them on the table. Again, in a real conversation this would be healthy, and I don’t think it’s impossible to make a good story from it. But here it’s all text and no subtext. There’s nothing for the audience to interpret or dig into.

This brings up another point. It’s strange that this subplot is resolved when Ryan rescues his father from a Dalek. The emotional question at the heart of this plot is whether Ryan can trust his father to be there for him; it seems obvious that to really resolve this thread Ryan’s father needs to save Ryan. The emotional closure doesn’t logically follow from the action. There’s a series of exciting action set pieces, and then the resolution you’d conventionally expect at that point in the episode, and it’s sort of implied the latter happened because of the former. But that’s only because they happened in sequence, not due to any actual causality.

This is an occasional problem with the show’s plotting that I think relates to the dialogue problem. Events happen because we’ve reached the part of the episode where they should happen, even if they weren’t properly set up. It feels like they’re nodes in an unfinished plot outline the writers didn’t quite finish connecting, just like the “socially awkward” line feels like a utilitarian placeholder for finished dialogue that was never written.

Relatedly, “Can You Hear Me” is resolved when Tahira, a guest character, learns to “control her fears,” thus controlling the fake monsters the villain had pulled from her nightmares. But we never see how Tahira learns to control her fears–she spends most of the episode standing in the background, until at the right time the Doctor just says she’s learned it. It’s like the writers knew that was how the episode needed to end but weren’t sure how to get there, so they just sort of said that’s what happened. It’s a description of what the plot is meant to be doing.

I hate the common writing-advice doctrine of “show, don’t tell.” It’s badly overused and taken far too literally, especially in written fiction; too many novels drag on longer than they need to because their writers think they’re forbidden to summarize. But I have to admit it has its place. The last couple years of Doctor Who is the rare case where “show, don’t tell” might be good advice.

Margery Allingham, The Mind Readers

A well structured novel isn’t the same thing as a good novel. The Mind Readers, Margery Allingham’s last Albert Campion mystery[1] is a case in point.

Cover of The Mind Readers

By the standards of the novel-writing advice industry, The Mind Readers is a lean-to made of tinkertoys and string. The plot is disjointed. Characters drop in and out. The scene that feels like the dramatic climax comes before the actual climax, in which Campion passively watches a lengthy TV broadcast that functions as extended infodump and deus ex machina in one. But The Mind Readers is weirdly compelling. A less idiosyncratic novel wouldn’t have the same effect.

Allingham was one of the best golden age mystery writers and also one of the most underrated. She’s a better writer than Agatha Christie (though no one beats Christie at constructing puzzle plots) and I’d rate her best work alongside Sayers. She was always trying something new. The Campion books ranged from pulpy adventure to straight mysteries to character studies of criminals. She was still experimenting in her last book: The Mind Readers is science fiction. And though the iggy-tubes aren’t remotely plausible this is actual SF, not a detective story with a sci-fi MacGuffin: the exact properties of the SF element are tied to the novel’s themes.

The plot kicks off when Campion’s wife Amanda’s nephews[2], Edward and Sam, come home from school for a visit. They’ve brought a gadget they call an “iggy-tube” that, placed against the jugular, makes them telepathic. It’s not clear where they got the thing. There’s some suspicion it came from the island-based government research facility where Sam’s father works. (As anybody who’s read The Men Who Stare at Goats knows, in the 1960s governments were genuinely investing in ESP.) Well, where else could it have come from? It’s a breakthrough.

We learn why a scientist might have handed the iggy-tubes over to schoolchildren when Campion’s colleague Sergeant Luke tries one out. It’s traumatizing, overwhelming mental chaos, a tangled forest of thoughts and feelings, not all happy: “I thought they were all mine and it scared me stiff.” The kids don’t have the same problem. They don’t have the life experience to recognize the more difficult parts of the subconscious, or associate fraught emotions with painful memories. They haven’t yet learned to draw back from the forest; they’re not too panicked to weave their way through to the thoughts they want to receive. “The less you know the less you are afraid of the unknown,” as one character sums up.

There’s one problem: Sam has kept his iggy-tube connected too long. Without it, he turns vague and uncommunicative, and it’s a couple of days before he’s back to normal. Sam has temporarily forgotten how to function as an individual instead of a relay point in a grammar-school gestalt. Amanda’s nephews are turning alien.

Meanwhile, the adults are anxious. What does it mean for privacy when anyone can read your mind? (Only kids can use iggy-tubes now, but it’s early days; whoever built them will come up with an improved model.) More to the point, what does it mean for the intelligence community? Won’t someone think of the spies? Edward and Sam are nearly kidnapped by a politely nameless foreign power. Meanwhile a peer named Lord Ludor puts the island lab on lockdown. Ludor is the kind of man who’ll torpedo your career if he thinks you haven’t shown him proper deference. Telepathy could help Ludor control people or put them beyond his control entirely, depending on whether he’s the mind reader or the mind getting read.

Campion is on the island when it’s closed and is stuck there for a large chunk of the novel. Looking for a way out, Campion runs across an old acquaintance, an ex-crook and surveillance expert turned “lonely old man of the sea” surrounded by young technicians. He seems desperate for Campion’s company, which reminds him of when he felt relevant. But Campion feels extraneous himself. Not for the first time in the series–he makes not much more than a cameo appearance in Hide My Eyes. But this time the narrative focus stays on Campion while the real action is elsewhere–Edward has now disappeared entirely. Both Campion and the readers are sidelined together.

Here the murderer waylays Campion on the road. A lot of modern genre novels feel like attempts to recreate Hollywood summer blockbuster thrillers on paper, but a suspense scene can be a quiet conversation instead of a breathless set piece, and in a book that often works better. The confrontation with the culprit is the best written part of The Mind Readers, and it functions as exposition and suspense at the same time. It’s exposition as chess match: Before the culprit puts Campion out of the way he needs to know what Campion figured out, and when, and who else knows. Campion needs to put his death off as long as possible while learning everything the culprit knows about the plots surrounding the gadgets. Every line of dialogue is a calculated maneuver. Campion never gets the upper hand; when the confrontation turns physical, his enemy is younger and stronger. He’s rescued because Sam telepathically overheard his panic.

Unlike Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolfe, Campion aged in real time; according to Allingham he was “the same age as the century.” The Mind Readers was published in 1965, which puts him at retirement age. Campion’s ankle hurts and he’s exhausted. He’s old, and for the first time he feels it.

It’s a great scene; whatever flaws The Mind Readers might have, Allingham is at the top of her game. Which raises the possibility that the flaws aren’t really flaws. Keep that in mind during the last two chapters which, judged by the current consensus on how stories are supposed to work, are very weird.

The book ends with heroes and villains alike gathering to watch a television program on Amanda’s advice (delivered through the surveillance Ludor has put on her house). It’s a talk show. The guest is Edward. The host proceeds to deliver two chapters of exposition about everything that’s gone on in the background while Campion was on the island. Most of these two chapters are a transcript of the broadcast, which the reader watches along with Campion.

In short, no one gave Edward the iggy-tubes–he developed them himself. (It’s a long story involving some weird transistors found in a batch of ordinary radios.) Before the book even started he was testing the tubes with his classmates and writing up his findings for a junior science magazine (the TV host reads his letter out in full). After the kidnapping attempt Edward arranged his own disappearance, again coordinating with his classmates as well as Amanda. Then he went to a newspaper and demonstrated an iggy-tube to the editor, who set him up with the TV host.

What’s notable is not just that Allingham has ended her novel with a two chapter infodump. It’s that the broadcast takes the patient, reassuring tone of children’s television, like an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. (“Above all, do not be afraid. Your secrets are safe for a very long time.”) But it’s not the kids who need reassuring; they handle ESP just fine. The host is reassuring the grown-ups, who have discovered they’re irrelevant.

Two nations’ intelligence services spent the entire novel on a wild goose chase. The murder of the scientist achieved nothing. Campion, Sergeant Luke, and Lord Ludor were looking in every direction but the right one. Edward was in charge all along, and everyone else can only watch while he announces the fact on live television. Ludor is defeated by learning the situation is just plain out of his hands. His one last stab at relevance is to try to get the kids on side, offering them a job as soon as they’re out of school, but Sam shoots him down: “‘It’s very kind of you,’ he said seriously. ‘But do you think you ought to promise? There’s going to be a lot of change in the next ten years. You may not have anything for me to do.’”

And, yes, I know this sounds massively unsatisfying. The threads we were following never mattered and now they’ve been suddenly, neatly severed by a deus ex machina. It’s like everything we cared about for the last 150 pages was a waste of time. But it’s the perfect ending for this book, because it puts the readers in the same position as Campion. The rug’s been pulled out from under us by a clever kid who never meant us any harm but inadvertently left us feeling irrelevant and foolish.

The point of a novel isn’t to tell a clockwork-perfect story, with a well-crafted structure and all the beats in the right place. The point is to get the reader to experience certain feelings and think about certain ideas, which as far as I’m concerned Allingham manages here. Sometimes a weird and ramshackle novel has tools that aren’t in a well-crafted but conventional novel’s toolbox. Weird tools, with neon paint jobs, unexplained dangly bits, and racing stripes.

What Allingham is feeling here, the theme she’s grappling with, is how time and change seem to accelerate with age. When Allingham published The Crime at Black Dudley in 1929, television didn’t exist. Neither did the atomic bomb. Everything was getting stranger. If she was still finding new things to do with Campion it’s partly because so many old stories–the boys’ own adventures of the early novels, the polite high-society crimes that followed–didn’t make sense in this new world. In The Mind Readers she ushers Campion into a future that may not need detectives at all, much less detective-story novelists. Allingham’s husband completed one more book and wrote a couple of sequels of his own, but this feels like Campion’s last adventure–no big final act, just life overtaking him and leaving him behind. Maybe it’s time for the kids to start running things.

And maybe that’s okay? Again, that two-chapter infodump feels reassuring, like a trusted parental figure talking her fellow parental figures down from a panic. The sixties were a decade when a lot of older creators started getting cranky about The Kids These Days. Margery Allingham has seen the future. It’s bewildering, and she’s not sure she has any place in it. But she also seems to think the kids might be all right.

Allingham doesn’t have a simple message to impart. She’s working through ideas and feelings she isn’t sure about. I love novels that explore ideas without being sure where they’re going, and try to do too much, and seem to be doing some of it accidentally. They’re often more interesting and powerful than novels that know exactly what they want to say, and say exactly that. The Mind Readers is not a great book, and in some ways not even a good one, but it sticks with you. It’s good for stories to be a little messy.


  1. The novel she was working on when she died, Cargo of Eagles, was completed by her husband.  ↩

  2. Apparently by different siblings; the relationships feel as vague as Donald Duck’s relationship to Huey, Dewey, and Louie.  ↩

Perceval Landon, “Thurnley Abbey”

Perceval Landon is one of those writers remembered for a single story, the ghost story “Thurnley Abbey.” He was a journalist, a close friend of Rudyard Kipling, and travelled the world as a special correspondent for the Daily Mail and The Times. He accompanied Britain’s 1904 invasion of Tibet and wrote a book called The Opening of Tibet. Otto Penzler in his brief bio of Landon for The Big Book of Ghost Stories calls him “powerfully British in his attitudes and judgments,” which is probably a diplomatic way of calling him an enthusiastic imperialist. If so, his attitudes aren’t obvious in “Thurnley Abbey” beyond the assumption that a stint in India is a normal thing for a gentleman to have in his background.

Landon’s fiction was pretty much limited to a 1908 collection called Raw Edges. Apart from reprints of his one famous story it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere.

Generally I think criticism ought to minimize the time it spends summarizing plots. But sometimes working through a summary is the simplest way to pick apart what a story is doing, so that’s how I’ll organize this post. I’ll try to keep the description-to-analysis ratio within reason.

Like a lot of Jamesian ghost stories “Thurnley Abbey” has a framing narrative. The narrator is on his way to India, waiting for his ship to sail, and the prologue captures the feel of a tedious journey: “We slept after luncheon; we dawdled the afternoon away with yellow-backed novels; sometimes we exchanged platitudes in the smoking-room, and it was there that I met Alastair Colvin.”

Colvin is an obvious gentleman–later he gives his club as a reference–and makes “the usual remarks in the right way” but seems preoccupied. After dinner he makes a strange request: he asks to sleep in the narrator’s cabin on the ship. “And he coloured a little as he said it,” says the narrator. That flash of deeper feeling seems out of place in Landon’s polite, orderly prose. Gentlemen exchange pleasantries and platitudes. This puncturing of reserve–admitting weakness to a stranger–just isn’t done.

Colvin explains. His story begins as leisurely as the narrator’s; it’s not slow, it just doesn’t feel hurried. In India Colvin made a friend named John Broughton, who inherited a large estate and returned to England. Eventually Broughton decides to move into his manor, Thurnley Abbey. It’s rumored to be haunted; supposedly the ghost is an “immured nun.” Further details are thin on the ground.

Broughton thinks a former tenant spread the rumors to scare trespassers; certainly, he was known to enhance them by playing tricks with lights. He and Colvin agree that if one ever did see a ghost, one ought to talk to it. Broughton has workers in, laughing at their nervousness, and fixes the roof and installs electric lighting. He gets married, and Colvin goes back East. When Colvin returns to England Broughton asks him to visit, and do him a favor.

Colvin arrives to find a standard country house party of the sort Hercule Poirot detects murders in. A couple of guests trot out the standard lines about how they wouldn’t live in the Abbey for any amount of money. A woman at dinner goes on for a while about how wit is vulgar and all truly great art is melancholy and tragic.[1] Broughton can’t bring himself to tell Colvin what the favor is–he keeps putting it off until morning. He seems “somehow ashamed of himself,” trying to bring the conversation around to ghosts but changing the subject when Colvin asks directly. The most Broughton can manage is an odd joke as he drifts off to bed: “‘Mind, if you see a ghost, do talk to it; you said you would.’ He stood irresolutely a moment and then turned away.”

Colvin tells the first half of his story lightly but with emotional reserve. The prose maintains a polite distance from the reader. Colvin calls Broughton “a light-hearted soul” but “steady and capable” and steady is high praise. Gentlemen keep their upper lips stiff. They talk in bright pleasantries and banter (“‘Good old nun!’ said Broughton”). They’re undemonstrative, uncomfortable with and embarrassed by strong emotion. Broughton avoids asking Colvin for a favor because the favor is bound up with a shock. Talking about it would break the rules.

So it’s a big moment when Colvin wakes in the night and feels something: “I know that my heart stopped dead, and my throat shut automatically.” And the feeling comes before we learn what the feeling is about. That Colvin feels anything this strongly is more shocking than the shock that caused it. After 4,000 words of calm Englishness, this is the story’s first moment of heightened emotion.

Then another unusual thing happens: just for a moment, we return to the frame story. Everyone else is in bed and the narrator and Colvin stare out over the water into the night. The story decelerates to a moment of absolute stillness. Colvin continues his story, and because Landon wrote this bit extraordinarily well I’ll quote the next paragraph in full:

Leaning over the foot of my bed, looking at me, was a figure swathed in a rotten and tattered veiling. This shroud passed over the head, but left both eyes and the right side of the face bare. It then followed the line of the arm down to where the hand grasped the bed-end. The face was not entirely that of a skull, though the eyes and the flesh of the face were totally gone. There was a thin, dry skin drawn tightly over the features, and there was some skin left on the hand. One wisp of hair crossed the forehead. It was perfectly still. I looked at it, and it looked at me, and my brains turned dry and hot in my head. I had still got the pear of the electric lamp in my hand, and I played idly with it; only I dared not turn the light out again. I shut my eyes, only to open them in a hideous terror the same second. The thing had not moved. My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated. Another cinder tinkled in the grate, and a panel creaked in the wall.

I’ve rarely come across a fantasy or horror story that better depicts a certain kind of fear or shock, the kind where time seems to stop for a moment while your brain processes what’s happening. “Thurnley Abbey” has been anthologized a lot, and some editors call it one of the most frightening ghost stories in the English language. If so, it’s not because the events of the story are particularly frightening (the same plot could just as easily be turned to comedy). It’s just particularly good at convincing us its narrator is afraid.

This paragraph is, again, very still. Colvin’s description is precise and clinical, and the slow cataloguing of detail reads like one of those moments when absolute shock slows time to a crawl. His playing with the dangling lamp-switch is perfect, the kind of thing people do when their minds haven’t caught up to their situation. And again there’s a new intensity to his reactions, a previously unsuspected emotional range: “my brains turned dry and hot in my head,” “My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated.” These are palpably physical states the reader might have been in, or can at least imagine, and they’re more vivid for the contrast between this scene and the story’s earlier reserve. The emotional contrast and Landon’s masterful control of pacing make Colvin’s awakening feel like a night terror or fever dream on paper.

Then, from a dead stop, “Thurnley Abbey” floors the gas pedal. Colvin decides the figure is a dummy set up as a practical joke. Like a switch his utter terror flips to white-hot rage. He leaps forward and punches it in the face. When it doesn’t resist he pulverizes it, pulling it apart, stomping the skeleton, leaving not a single bone in one piece. It’s sheer mindless frenzy.

Colvin grabs a skull fragment and bursts into Broughton’s bedroom, screaming something-or-other, but Broughton doesn’t react as Colvin expects. Broughton is too terrified to speak, only shrieking when he sees the bone. He grabs it, makes for the door, but trips and drops it. Everyone hears shuffling footsteps coming down the hall.

Here the story takes another unexpected emotional turn. Broughton and his wife hide their faces in the bedclothes and after a moment Colvin joins them. This is awe, in the old-fashioned sense. What you’d feel if a god descended from the sky. It’s not just that no one wants to see the Nun, it’s like they’re not even worthy to gaze upon her. She comes softly into the room and gently picks up her bone. Then she just leaves. “At the end of the corridor I thought I saw something that moved away. A moment later the passage was empty. I stood with my forehead against the jamb of the door almost physically sick.”

These emotions feel vivid partly because of the contrast with the story’s first half. Another reason is that “Thurnley Abbey” pays attention to the fallout. A common ghost story strategy is to stage the climax, then get out while the reader is still reeling, but “Thurnley Abbey” covers the next few hours of Colvin’s life. He and the Broughtons are explicitly traumatized–in modern terms, they may have actual PTSD. They sit up together until dawn, barely speaking; “we all three knew that our reason had gone very near to ruin that night.” They have to negotiate what to do in the morning because no one can stand to be alone. Eventually Mrs. Broughton thinks she might be all right alone for five minutes, with the windows open, while Broughton and Colvin check Colvin’s room. They do, and apart from some blood where Colvin cut his hand there’s no sign of the mess. Broughton only says “half as a question, half as a reproach, ‘You didn’t speak to her.’”

It’s an intense story. On my first reading it didn’t even occur to me to wonder: why has Broughton never spoken to her? Living with her as he does, he must have noticed the Nun is benign. At no point does she do anything but watch and endure. There’s no sign that she’s even offended at being torn apart, which, given the speed at which she reassembles herself, has got to be a minor inconvenience. She’s quiet, curious, and patient, and Broughton and Colvin’s reactions seem to have almost nothing to do with her. She seems to unconsciously carry an aura of terror, harmless in herself but a catalyst for loss of emotional control in the living.

I’m not a strict death-of-the-author adherent, but writers often really do write more than they intend. I don’t know Landon’s intentions; probably he just wanted to write a scary story. But it feels like something deeper is going on here. People don’t run from the Nun, they hide their faces. “Thurnley Abbey” feels suffused with shame.

Maybe it has to do with those “powerfully British” attitudes. Remember, Broughton came back from soldiering in India to accept his inheritance. Colvin still travels back and forth and reads himself to sleep with a volume of Kipling.[2] So maybe it’s significant that Broughton has taken possession of the Abbey, become its master, and rebuilt it to his liking… but the place has a prior inhabitant. One he can’t subordinate, kill, or move along. No matter what, she endures, an undeniable fact he has to confront. Is it any wonder he can’t bear to speak to her?

Then again, maybe it’s about the destruction of Colvin’s self-image. Colvin thinks of himself as a gentleman. He belongs to the right club, knows the right things to say and to do. He’s cool and steady; his honor and dignity are unimpeachable. He’s above everything. Until he encounters something he thinks is mocking him, at which point he discovers his reserve and honorable deportment are a thin veneer masking his chaotic, animalistic, rage-filled true self. In the Nun’s presence, he’s no gentleman. What’s worse, his tantrum doesn’t even accomplish anything. His rage is impotent. The victim of his violence can’t actually be harmed, and won’t go away; she pieces herself together and reproachfully continues to exist.

Either way, the Nun is a mirror. Colvin and Broughton can’t look at her because she shows them things they’re ashamed to recognize in themselves—most importantly that the world, and their own lives and selves, aren’t as much under their control as they like to think.

“Of course I am much better now,” says Colvin, “but it is a kindness of you to let me sleep in your cabin.” Now that Colvin knows himself, it’s hard to sleep soundly.


  1. This is a common attitude even today; a lot of people think only morbidly grim stories are truly Serious.  ↩

  2. An advocate of empire whose stories are still reprinted mostly because they seem so uneasy about their own imperialism.  ↩

Doctor Who, Celebrity Historicals, and Meddling

Fair warning: unless you watch Doctor Who this post will probably be of no interest to you whatsoever.

Recently news leaked about an upcoming story from the next season of Doctor Who. It’s a spoiler, I guess, although not much of one as it’s not the most original idea. The word is that Mary Shelley will meet the Cybermen, who will give her the idea for Frankenstein. In reality Frankenstein, like most great novels, was the result of a whole array of ideas and influences. Apparently in the Doctor Who universe Mary Shelley just saw a Cyberman. (This blog post assumes the description of the episode is roughly accurate. It could still turn out to be more complicated than that.)

I commented on Twitter that when SF stories explain a historical event was really caused by time travellers and/or aliens, they usually pick something that isn’t actually mysterious and come up with an “explanation” less interesting than what happened in real life. Doctor Who doesn’t often base entire stories around this concept. It’s usually a joke; an allegedly funny tag scene or name-dropping anecdote in an story about something else.[1] This is partly because the TV show rarely visits specific historical events at all. (The TV series, specifically–it’s more common in the books and audio plays.) At least, until recently. Between the Shelley rumor and season 11, the first produced by Chris Chibnall, it looks like the way Doctor Who uses history is evolving. This lets it tell different types of stories, but they’re story types with potential pitfalls.

You can divide historically-set Doctor Who stories into two categories. (Parenthetical caveat #3: Not the only possible groupings, just ones I’ve chosen for the purposes of my argument.) Type 1 stories have a historical setting, and may deal with historical themes, but aren’t about specific historical events–“The Pyramids of Mars,” “Black Orchid,” or “Thin Ice” (which uses a real event as background but isn’t about it).

Type 2 stories throw the Doctor into a specific, real historical event. This was more common in the 1960s when the show did what fans call “pure historicals”–stories with no science fiction elements aside from the TARDIS. (The only post–1960s pure historical is “Black Orchid,” an odd Peter Davison two-parter.) After the show went all SF, all the time, it’s hard to come up with examples. “City of Death” involves the Mona Lisa, but we never meet Leonardo. “Mark of the Rani” has Luddites but isn’t about them; they’re just background for bizarre Master hijinks. Before season 11 the new series had “The Fires of Pompeii” and… well, “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Day of the Moon” take place while history is being broadcast on television, but the Doctor is in the audience watching, just like us.

Most Type 2 stories are about the Doctor landing in trouble and trying to survive long enough to escape in the TARDIS. The historical event is usually wide-ranging enough to keep the Doctor away from the center of the action–the Reign of Terror, say, or the Parturition of India. You see why when you watch “The Gunfighters,” one of the few Doctor Who stories centered around a small-scale, local historical event. When we reach the big climax in episode 4, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, the Doctor is absent. There’s nothing for him to do there.

When the Doctor gets involved in real history there’s only two ways the story can go: she can observe, or she can intervene. First, Observation: the Doctor stands to the side and observes history without affecting it. This keeps historical figures at the center of their own stories, but reduces the Doctor to a supporting role in her own series. She isn’t participating in a story, she’s an audience member who has a closer seat than we do.

One variation on Observation is the story where someone travels back in time to change history, and must be stopped. It’s a popular idea but is almost never used in Doctor Who. The only time meddler stories in the original series are “The Aztecs,” “The Time Meddler” (both Hartnell stories), “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (in which the villains never manage to leave the 20th century), and “The King’s Demons” (another oddly old-fashioned Davison two-parter). “Rosa” is the only one I can think of from the new series. It rubs against the grain to have the Doctor working to keep everything the same; meddling is what Doctor Who is about. In fact, after the Hartnell era the show rarely mentions the possibility of changing history at all. In the new series “Father’s Day” and “The Fires of Pompeii” explain for the new audience what the Doctor can and can’t interfere with, but otherwise it’s assumed that changes, as the eleventh Doctor puts it in “Hide,” “mostly work themselves out.”

Another kind of Observation story sends the protagonist back in time to witness a famous disaster or injustice. Often it’s an event society is still processing–Quantum Leap used this model a lot and was specifically set up to take stock of the Baby Boomer audience’s experiences. The time traveler can’t make a big difference in what happens, though they might help a few people. The traveler learns more about history and the story follows their emotional journey as a proxy for the audience’s. “Witness to history” stories can be problematic. They’re often stories of privileged people[2] having feelings about things happening to marginalized people. That’s less of a risk the more distance there is between the audience and the history; for instance, an inoffensive literary example is Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. This is another plot Doctor Who almost never uses. The only one in the entire classic series[3] is “The Massacre,” and two things are interesting to note: first, it’s not an especially fraught tragedy for contemporary audiences, most of whom wouldn’t feel a strong personal connection to the persecution of Hugenots. Second, the witness is the companion; the Doctor disappears for most of the story. It’s as though this plot isn’t compatible with the Doctor.

The other way the Doctor can interact with real history is Intervention: let the Doctor, or the aliens she meets, inspire or intervene in history. This lets the Doctor be active but diminishes the agency of real historical figures, giving fictional characters credit for their accomplishments.

Which brings us back to Mary Shelley. Assuming the description is accurate, the Shelley idea works according to an inanely reductive theory of art and invention where every idea can be traced to a specific incident from the author’s life. (There’s a lot of this among the Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare crowd: Shakespeare must have been noble, because only a noble could or would have written so much about nobles.) It’s a condescending, teleological version of cultural and technological evolution. Our ancestors weren’t sophisticated enough to come up with their own ideas–they needed help from us, the smart future people!

Doctor Who has flirted with this attitude before. Seventies Who got a lot of mileage out of Chariots of the Gods?, with aliens boosting ancient cultures a la von Däniken. And it tends to agree with Star Trek that low-tech cultures—including present-day Earth, from the Doctor’s perspective—need to be protected from anachronistic technology they’re not ethically developed enough to handle. Which I find dubious inasmuch as not everyone can handle the technology we have in real life. Let’s go for the edge case and consider nuclear weapons. If you showed a nuclear missile to random medieval people and explained what it did clearly enough that they really understood it, would they really be any less likely than people today to ask “Why the hell would you even build that?” By contrast, plenty of moderns assume we could survive a nuclear war and on more than one occasion in the last century we actually almost blew ourselves up. We have more information than our ancestors. In many ways, on average, we’re more enlightened. But that doesn’t mean we’re smarter. And it’s important to remember that our descendents will consider us ignorant and morally deficient in ways we can’t predict.

The time traveller who hands a historical figure their big idea is an inane gag, but scriptwriters never tire of it. Doctor Who has “explained” H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and even Richard Nixon’s penchant for recording himself. On Quantum Leap Sam Beckett invented everything from the lyrics of “Peggy Sue” to the Heimlich maneuver. Back to the Future had Marty McFly writing the music of Chuck Berry, which was not only insulting but, inasmuch as it gave an average white kid credit for the work of a black man, also racist.

In classic Doctor Who, once you’re past the Hartnell era historical celebrities rarely appear onscreen at all. After “The Gunfighters” in 1966, the first historical figures who weren’t illusions or robot duplicates didn’t appear until 1985’s “Mark of the Rani” and “Timelash.” Modern Doctor Who invented what fans call “celebrity historicals”–stories where the Doctor visits the past and teams up with a famous historical figure. Charles Dickens or King James I wander into a standard Type 1 historical Doctor Who story and act as a one-off companion, with the Doctor and the guest sharing the role of the hero–or anti-hero, in James’s case.

But it sounds like in the Mary Shelley episode the Doctor is going to be at the Villa Diodati while the Byron-Shelley circle are writing their horror stories. This is a Type 2 historical story. What’s more, after a decades-long post-Hartnell dry spell season 11 has two of these stories: “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab.” And they’re different from previous historical stories in other ways.

First, these stories put the Doctor into segregation-era Alabama or the Parturition of India, history that’s both emotionally fraught and within living memory. Generally Doctor Who has stayed away from events that might be connected to painful family history for some of the audience. “Rosa” and “Demons” avoided trivializing their subjects, but it was a risk.

Second, these are exactly the kinds of stories Doctor Who hardly ever tells. “Demons” is a witness to tragedy story. Luckily it’s a good one–about as good as these stories can get, in fact. The writer is himself British-Indian and it’s a story about Yaz’s family that’s focused on her feelings, not the Doctor’s. And “Demons of the Punjab” is about witnessing and remembrance. The aliens of the week and the story itself are both memorializing the dead.

“Rosa”, meanwhile, is the first time meddler story since the Davison era. The script, co-written by a black writer, avoids most of the potential pitfalls of grafting a time meddler story to Rosa Parks’s most famous moment of activism. It doesn’t soft-pedal the racism or romanticize mid–20th century Alabama, which feels appropriately unpleasant. (I liked Quantum Leap but, steeped as it was in Boomer nostalgia, it presented a theme-park version of the past[4] even when it wasn’t appropriate.) “Rosa” doesn’t focus on the Doctor’s feelings and manages to avoid looking as though Parks needs the Doctor’s help. On the other hand, to offset the meddler’s work the Doctor does a lot of behind-the-scenes manipulation and stage managing, which is still not a good look. And the episode’s “Sound of Thunder”-style butterfly effect theory of time travel, in which small changes can rewrite history, has unintentionally problematic implications. The premise of the meddler’s plan is that just having a different bus, or a different driver, on the day Parks refused to give up her seat could derail the civil rights movement. This is different from how any other Doctor Who story has handled changes to history.[5] For one thing, if every episode worked on these assumptions just stepping out of the TARDIS to buy a newspaper might shred the web of time. More to the point, the idea that some asshole messing with a bus schedule could stop Rosa Parks from making her mark on history is at odds with the fact, which the episode itself acknowledges, that she was a committed activist. The butterfly effect model of time travel suggests progress is fragile. All human achievements, large or small, are the products more of random chance than of human effort. A time traveler steps on a butterfly and decades of social progress are undone.

There’s a progression in Doctor Who’s use of time travel. The classic series used it mostly as a way to move between settings and genres. Russell T. Davies introduced the celebrity historical. Steven Moffatt brought in twisting, achronological storylines in the tradition of (albeit much simpler than) Primer. And Chris Chibnall is introducing traditional time travel premises that haven’t been seen much in Doctor Who.

“Rosa” and the upcoming Mary Shelley episode are celebrity historicals mixed with the Type 2 historical story: the Doctor makes a guest appearance in the historical figures’ own stories and gets involved in the events that made them famous. This is new. I mean, sort of new, in a not-actually-new-at-all sense. The spinoff media, the books and audios, do this all the time (Big Finish, as I mentioned above, has even used more or less this exact Mary Shelley idea). But in the actual TV show it’s rarer than you’d think.

There’s a reason for that: again, there are only two ways a story centered around the event that made the celebrity famous can go. The Doctor can be involved in the celebrity’s big moment, but then it’s going to look like the show’s giving her partial credit for their achievements. Or the Doctor can stand off to the side and watch the celebrity do their thing, in which case she’s not the actor but the audience. In either case, somebody’s probably going to be Poochie.

That’s Poochie as in “Itchy and Scratchy and.” The Poochie is a character who shows up partway through a story, encroaches on the cast’s narrative roles, forces them to react instead of acting, and looks cool and super-competent mostly because when the Poochie is around everybody else is less cool and competent. When the Doctor gives H. G. Wells the idea for The Time Machine in “Timelash,” he’s the Poochie–turning up in Wells’s biography and inserting himself into Wells’s most famous books. On the flip side, in “Marco Polo” the Poochie is Marco. He steals the TARDIS and the central narrative role from Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor. For seven episodes the show becomes the Marco Polo show, guest starring Doctor Who.[6]

I have one firm opinion on how Doctor Who ought to use history: if you’re going to do a celebrity historical, the celebrity should guest star in a Doctor Who story instead of the Doctor guest starring in the celebrity’s story. An original Doctor Who story can make room for more than one hero without shortchanging any of them. But the celebrity’s biography is an existing story and it’s hard for the Doctor to insert herself into it without to some extent hijacking it. I’m not interested in watching the Doctor become Forrest Gump, wandering into the frame whenever someone else does something interesting.


  1. There are exceptions; see the paragraph on von Dänikenism.  ↩

  2. If nothing else, the time traveler is temporally privileged in that they’re going back to the future as soon as the story ends.  ↩

  3. The original 1963–1989 series. It feels like the distinction may be meaningless soon, inasmuch as the new series is pushing 15 years old, but it’s what everybody calls it.  ↩

  4. I kind of cringed at how weirdly ignorant the TARDIS crew are of the dangers of Alabama in the 1950s; despite everything, they start the episode acting like they’re wandering around Disneyland. Later Graham turns out to be so well informed about Rosa Parks that he even knows the name of the bus driver, so why is his reaction to landing in the 1950s “Can we meet Elvis” and not “Hey, maybe this isn’t the safest place for my grandson?”  ↩

  5. With the possible exception of “Turn Left,” although in that case Donna’s left turn didn’t change real-world history.  ↩

  6. “Marco Polo” is one of only two missing Doctor Who stories I would not be excited to have back; the other is “The Celestial Toymaker.”  ↩

W. F. Harvey, The Double Eye

M. R. James was unusual among ghost-story writers in that every story he wrote was at least mildly interesting; most weird writers of his vintage aren’t as consistent. But many have a handful of good stories and sometimes I even find one that hasn’t been reprinted to death.

W. F. Harvey is one of those writers. The Double Eye collects most if not all of his weird stories and it’s a mixed bag. Some of his stories are brilliant, the rest you’ll forget as soon as you read them. They’re all very short–my two favorites are both under 2000 words. Harvey is jocular without writing outright comedy. He’s sometimes ironic but only mildly so; for instance, a potential murderer might be reported to a psychiatrist by the accomplices he’d tried to recruit. Harvey usually avoids outright ghosts and it’s often unclear whether something supernatural is going on or his characters are having mental breakdowns. (He wrote at least two stories about a man thinking he’d been cursed by a woman who might merely be upset with him.) The worst story in the collection is mildly racist, has a mild racial slur for a title, and would have been better buried and forgotten. At the other end of the quality scale are the two stories most people will have heard of, “August Heat” and “The Beast With Five Fingers.”

“The Beast With Five Fingers” is the ur-story of the disembodied hand subgenre. “August Heat” is weirder. (And takes hardly any time to read, so you might as well do so.)

One hot morning, James Withencroft, an artist, draws a picture of a prisoner on trial. He has no idea why–it just popped into his head. Withencroft has never seen the man before in his life but he’s distinctively large, so when Withencroft goes for a walk and passes that exact man Withencroft spots him at once. Mr. Atkinson and Withencroft are immediate friends. Atkinson is a monument-carver, carving a sample tombstone for an exhibition. Withencroft’s name is on it, and today’s date. Atkinson has no idea why–it just popped into his head. The coincidence creeps Withencroft out, so Atkinson invites Withencroft to stick around until midnight, just to make sure nothing happens to him. As the story closes, Atkinson is sharpening a chisel while Withencroft reflects with an odd detachment that the heat “is enough to send a man mad.”

“And it was only the day before yesterday,” he said, “that I told Maria there were no such things as ghosts!”

Neither of us had seen a ghost, but I knew what he meant.

“August Heat” has been reprinted in a lot of ghost story anthologies–not just weird stories, ghost anthologies specifically. Which is interesting because it doesn’t have a ghost, or anything supernatural beyond two extraordinary coincidences and the implication, putting them side by side, that something is about to follow from them. But why? It’s the obscurity of the story that’s disturbing. There’s no Twilight Zone irony, the characters haven’t brought them on themselves through character flaws. There’s no suggestion that Atkinson is a hidden psychopath, or anything other than the genial man he appears to be. Withencroft and Atkinson have had premonitions of a murder which is about to happen only because they had premonitions of that murder. The event has no beginning; the effect is its own cause. The story feels haunted not by an apparition but by a strangely meaningless future.

My favorite W. F. Harvey story is “The Clock.” It’s one of his less anthologized stories, but googling turned up the text online. It is, again, short but effective.

“The Clock” is an excerpt from a letter to an old school friend. The unnamed writer is asked by a friend of her aunt to go to her shut-up house and retrieve a travelling-clock. She agrees. The story vividly conveys the uncomfortable feeling of being the only person in a dark, silent, deserted house where she’d normally have no legitimate reason to be: “I did in fact feel rather like a burglar, and I thought that if anyone did happen to see the front door open, I might have difficulty in explaining things.”

The writer heads upstairs and finally finds the clock in a back bedroom. It’s still ticking. Which is weird, because no one has been in the house, so who’s been winding it? “Then, without quite knowing why, I shut the door on to the landing, locked myself in, and again looked round the room.” Then she hears something coming up the stairs. Not walking, but “hopping up the stairs, like a very big bird would hop.” Then it pauses, and starts scratching at each of the doors in turn. The writer flees out the window, and as she looks back she sees the window has shut behind her.

Another book I read recently was Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie. I found Fisher’s ideas an interesting lens through which to look at Harvey’s work. Fisher identifies “Weird” and “Eerie” as modes often used by weird fiction.[1] The Weird is easy to describe: it’s something alien and out of place that intrudes on the mundane world, like the crawling hand in “The Beast With Five Fingers.” The Eerie is trickier. It’s an impression of meaning, intelligence, or agency out of place–either present where it shouldn’t be, or absent where it should. Fisher gives the example of an “eerie cry” for the first type, as in the cry of an animal which seems to carry some unusual intelligence or meaning. An example of the second is a mysterious ruin which once had a context and purpose that’s now entirely forgotten. Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is.

W. F. Harvey’s main interest is the eerie. He does tell weird stories–“The Beast With Five Fingers” is a good one. Another is one of his rare outright ghost stories, “Account Rendered.” But Harvey is less fond of ghosts and monsters than most weird writers–he likes coincidences that might not be coincidences, delusions that might not be delusions, and people or animals who might be more than they seem. “August Heat” is both his most famous story and the one that best represents his work; its paradoxical tangle of precognition and predestination is thoroughly eerie.

In that light, “The Clock” is an interesting case. It’s certainly weird. But unlike the Beast With Five Fingers, the whatever-it-was in “The Clock” is never seen and has no hint of backstory, and the purpose of its behavior is obscure. The complete lack of context makes the story feel as eerie as it is weird.

That sense of the eerie doesn’t have anything to do with Harvey’s prose–not all his stories are alike, but like I said earlier, most are breezy and jocular, specializing in a sort of light detective-novel style. He only occasionally dips into stream of conciousness[2] or varies his tone or pacing much. When Harvey’s on form his plots are inherently disquieting even when baldly and simply described, and the lightness of tone contrasts ironically. Contrasting horror and wit is a common strategy in weird stories of Harvey’s era, especially in stories by British authors. It’s often very effective.

Look, for instance, at “Account Rendered.” A Mr. Tolson hires a doctor to put him under anesthesia for half an hour around midnight. While Tolson is under an old man like “a timid but inquisitive tortoise” opens the door, sticks his head in, and observes that Tolson is busy but there’s no hurry and he’ll come back another time. Later the doctor investigates and discovers Tolson hires a different doctor every year on the same night, and no matter where in the world he is, at midnight the old man puts his head into the room. The premise of this story is memorable in itself–I’ve read a lot of ghost stories and among the less inspired ones ideas repeat, but this is new. And there’s something disconcerting in the mundanity of the ghost and its polite relentlessness.

“The Follower” is one of Harvey’s less successful stories. A writer, like Harvey himself, lives near a couple of academics named Canon Rathbone and Dr. Curtius who are researching ancient manuscripts they brought back from overseas. One night while gazing at their house he gets an idea for a story based on them. The next day the academics happen to drop in. The protagonist’s sister suggests he could write about Canon Rathbone’s work and the Canon gets flustered, stammering out that he’s really not into fiction–it’s too sensationalistic. As the academics leave, the writer feels obscurely that he’s been warned off.

The outline of this story has a lot of eerie potential, but in Harvey’s style it doesn’t work. It’s too ambiguous. If “The Follower” had been written by (for example) Robert Aickman it would have been suffused with odd details suggesting something weighty moving under the surface of things. In Harvey’s story Dr. Curtius makes a few odd gestures–nodding at odd moments, stirring his tea in a way the writer thinks is strange–but nothing he or Canon Rathbone do seems all that unusual, and they aren’t in any way menacing. Rathbone seems more embarassed than anything. It feels like the writer is getting worked up over a mundane coincidence.

W. F. Harvey’s weird tales are at their best when the overt events are undeniably strange. When they could be just funny coincidences… well, then, they probably are just funny coincidences. The voice he uses in most of his stories encourages me to assume the least extraordinary explanation for everything. It’s reliable, sincerely friendly; I compared it to a detective-story voice, and it feels like, as in a fair play detective story, it’s not palming any cards. When Harvey’s working, though, he really works. The Double Eye feels padded, but Harvey wrote enough great stories that you could fill at least one volume of more modest size.

(Other stories not mentioned above that I’d include in a notional Best of W. F. Harvey include “Midnight House,” “Across the Moors,” “The Tortoise,” “The Ankardyne Pew,” “The Tool,” “The Dabblers,” and “The Flying Out of Mrs. Barnard Hollis.” “The Star” and “The Man Who Hated Aspidistras” are also good, but are comic stories with no weird content and would be an odd fit.)


  1. Fisher doesn’t claim these are the only two modes or effects weird fiction has; they’re just the ones he’s concerned with.  ↩

  2. There are exceptions; for instance, “The Sleeping Major.”  ↩