Armchair Detective: The Elke Retreat Incident (Gary Dale Mathias & friends)

This one’s quite a story. Some tales end in mystery, and some become mysterious part-way through, but this one goes further, and more or less has nothing but mystery from the outset. We’ve just passed the fortieth anniversary of the tragedy that struck Gary Mathias and his four friends in a remote part of Plumas National Forest in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, and that seems to have stimulated writing online about it. Here are the best sources I can find. Both seem to draw heavily on this Washington Post article written around the time of the incident.

Five young men ranging from 24 to 32 in age, one (Mathias himself) a US Army veteran with schizophrenia, the others either formally diagnosed with learning disabilities or informally considered “slow”, set off one Friday to drive about fifty miles from their home town of Yuba City to Chico to watch a college basketball team play. The men were all themselves members of a basketball team for the handicapped, and were themselves looking forward to playing an important game on the Saturday.

They saw the college game, then bought snacks in a nearby shop. And that was the last place they were seen alive. On 28 February 1978 their car was found abandoned near Elke Retreat, on an unpaved road above the snow-line in the Sierra Nevada, a long drive from Chico and more or less opposite from the way they would have gone to get back from Yuba City. The search for the men had to be abandoned after a few days because of a blizzard, and in the end it was not until the snow had melted in June (good grief!) that four bodies were found.

One of the men, Ted Weiher, was found in a Forest Service trailer, nearly 20 miles further on from the abandoned car. He was wrapped in sheets, lying in a bed, and based on beard growth it was estimated that he might have lived up to 13 weeks after he was last seen. There was ample dehydrated food in a storage shed adjacent to the trailer, but most of it had not been eaten and, although the trailer had in it matches, items like books and furniture that could have been burned and even a heating system fed by a butane tank outside, no attempt seemed to have been made to heat it.

The bodies of two of the others were found near the road between the site of the trailer and the car, and that of a third a couple of miles to the north-east of it. “Bodies” here mostly means bones, really – they had been partly eaten by wild animals, too. As for Gary Mathias, he’s never been found, although his tennis shoes were in the trailer, suggesting he had at least been there.

Well, what do you make of that? There are obvious similarities with the Dyatlov Pass incident, but at least there we know why the group of hikers were where they were. Here, we can’t even be sure of that.

As an armchair detective, you don’t have any forensic evidence beyond what’s already public, so most of what you can do comes down to working out “assuming everyone here was acting like rational human beings, what’s the likely sequence of events?” There is a major wild card here though; everyone involved either had some kind of mental disability or a mental illness. At some point in any scenario, therefore, they may well have not been acting rationally (not that anyone acts rationally all the time anyway, especially not if lost, frightened and/or beginning to succumb to hypothermia).

There is an obvious temptation to read a sinister meaning into the absence of Gary Mathias’ body, but the bodies of people who go missing can sometimes simply be very difficult, even impossible, to find. In one recent case in England, a pensioner-cum-local celebrity  was missing for eight months before his body was found, and it was lying in woods near a busy shopping centre in Bristol, not in a remote wilderness. It isn’t something I would necessarily consider relevant.

As they say,”when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” If you find someone dead in a wilderness area, they might possibly have died for all kinds of reasons. They might have committed suicide, been murdered by another person, been attacked by wild animals, been abducted in a UFO and left for dead. However, the most likely reason for their death – for any death – is always going to be natural causes, whether aggravated by being out in the wilderness or not. The most likely reason these men died is therefore natural causes. Since none of them seem to have had a relevant medical condition, those natural causes probably arose from the circumstances they found themselves in – cold, exhaustion and hypothermia.

In fact, the autopsies of the three men found lying near the road concluded that they had died of hypothermia. You have to wonder how well that can be determined when what you have to go on is mostly bones, but at least that suggests that there were no obvious signs of violence to be found. Ted Weiher was found to have died from hypothermia and starvation.

Some of the relatives of the men, at least at the time, dropped dark hints that the deaths were not entirely natural – “There was some force that made ’em go up there,” said one mother. “They wouldn’t have fled off in the woods like a bunch of quail. We know good and well that someone made them do it.” However, all those comments really prove is that the relatives,  totally understandably, had been to hell and back over what happened and were angry and bitter by the time The Washington Post reporter, who seems to have been the one who got hold of the relevant quotes, came calling.

I just don’t believe that murder works this way. If you told me I had to kill five people, somehow rounding them all up or chasing them into a wilderness area late at night and stranding them all there to die would not be at the top of my list of ways to do it. Honestly, it’s more like the way villains in Bond movies try to kill James Bond – conveniently inefficient.

Apart from it being quite a risk to take on five men, even if you’re armed and they aren’t, you’re taking a risk that you might get caught en route, a risk that they might not lie down and die as expected, a risk that you might strand yourself out there with them if your own car breaks down…Murderers often bury their victims in remote places (notably, none of these men was buried); they don’t actually commit the murders out there that as often, and when they do, they usually make sure they kill the victims.

However, the relatives were on to something here. The single biggest mystery in this case is why these men were up in the mountains at all, since they had no obvious reason to be there. It has been suggested that Gary Mathias had friends in Forbestown, half-way between Chico and Yuba City, and if they had been planning on visiting them, the group might easily have missed the turn-off in the dark and ended up on the road into the mountains.

But if that was the case, the friends in question said they had not seen Mathias for a year, and he didn’t phone them before hand to check whether dropping in on them late at night with four friends was OK or phone home to warn his own relatives of a change in plans. Who acts like that? (Possibly a schizophrenic at the start of a psychotic episode, although at the time of the incident Mathias was on his meds, so far as we know, and his symptoms seemed under control).

When the case was discussed on the online forum Reddit, a lot of posters suggested that the obvious answer was that the men decided to go up into the mountains to take hallucinogens/get high and that this explains some of the disastrous decisions made that evening. I think that probably says more about some posters on Reddit than anything else. It is true Mathias did have drug problems before his mental illness was diagnosed, but no-one else involved seems to have such a history. And, after all, they were all looking forward to playing a basketball match the next day. Tripping balls the night before doesn’t sound like great preparation for that.

Again, the wild card is in play here; maybe it sounded like great preparation to this particular group. However, was it really necessary to go deep into the mountains in winter to drop acid? I can’t believe there weren’t quiet places nearer to Yuba City where the locals would go to take drugs out of sight of prying eyes. Places like that are like Lovers’ Lanes; every community has them.

Frustratingly, we may never know exactly why the group took the most crucial decision they made that evening. My best guess would be that somehow they took a wrong turn, although I have no idea why they were trying to turn off at all, or why they didn’t realise their mistake earlier (there were maps in the car when it was found). The next mystery is why they abandoned the car and set off to walk 20 miles in the wrong direction. When the police found the car, it was in snow, but not really stuck in it, at least not in such a way that five men couldn’t have pushed it free. The car keys were missing, but the car worked fine when hot-wired and there was still plenty of petrol in the tank.

Why didn’t Mathias and the others just turn around and drive back, or at least leave the car and try walking back? There was an inhabited lodge only 8 miles behind them. Interestingly, there was a witness to this stage of events, a man called Joseph Schons who, on the evening in question, was busily engaged sitting in his car about 150 feet having a mild heart attack. I’m really not making that up, and incidentally, a lot of the writing about the case I’ve read casually throws in “having a mild heart attack” like it ain’t no thing.

Whilst Schons’ condition may limit how reliable his testimony is, he mentions headlights and a car behind him, with a group of people standing around it, and later using flashlights. It sounds pretty much like the group around their car trying to make it move, even though he thought one of them was a woman with a baby (it was probably a man with long hair holding some stuff). He tried calling for help, but they ignored him and turned off their lights, head- and later flash-.

This reluctance to reveal themselves may be one piece of evidence in favour of the drug theory; or it may just show that, stuck in the snow (as far as they were concerned) getting cold and starting to panic, they simply weren’t thinking straight any more. Perhaps, once again, their various disabilities were also limiting their ability to cope with the demands of an extreme and stressful situation. It is also possible that at some point, presumably after they turned off the headlights, they lost the car keys in the snow and were unable to find them, which would be one reason, even if not a great one, for abandoning the car.

Schons basically ended up doing what Mathias and the others should probably have done – staying in his car until the petrol ran out and then, heart attack having abated a bit, walking back to the lodge. At some point, the Mathias group decided to cut and run,  probably heading in the (wrong) direction they did because there were snowcat tracks leading to the trailer, and perhaps, in their confused state, that looked like the easiest route to civilisation.

It was actually a route of 20 miles through several feet of snow and the likelihood is that either two or all three of those found dead in the open later died along the way when they simply couldn’t go any further. Mathias, Weiher and maybe one of the others, showing admirable determination given their totally inadequate clothing and footwear, made it to the trailer. By that stage, though, the frostbite to Weiher’s feet was so severe that he was pretty much disabled (they were gangrenous by the time he was found). The other(s) clearly spent some time finding food for him and trying to make him comfortable. Maybe they even rested and ate themselves.  Mathias probably changed his shoes for Weiher’s larger ones, since he also was probably suffering from swollen feet through frostbite.

It then seems most likely that after some time passed (it’s impossible to say how long) Mathias and the other mobile survivor, if there was one, left the trailer, perhaps hoping to rescue their friends, perhaps hoping to reach help. They died before they could achieve this. Weiher was then left to die slowly, unable to access the available food or heat the trailer because of his injuries, perhaps also because the group had been afraid of being arrested for theft if they used anything more in the trailer.

As I said, quite a story, even if a very sad one. Basically, five lives were lost needlessly through a series of bad decisions made by nice people, most of whom were just not capable of making difficult decisions in extraordinary situations. I think the ultimate lesson is – if you aren’t confident that you can make those sorts of decisions, don’t put yourself where you might face extraordinary situations. Unfortunately, you can’t always predict when those will occur, but you can at least have a good guess. Like up in the mountains in winter, for instance.

More specifically, this case is great supporting evidence for the maxim that in a survival situation, it’s often better to stay where you are than to try to get out, especially if where you are is with a vehicle. If the Mathias group had stayed in their car overnight, they would most likely all have survived; if those who got to the trailer had stayed there, at any rate if they had used its facilities properly, they would probably have survived too.



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Book Review: Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

It’s become a cliché when writing about science fiction to say that it often tells you more about the time it was written than the future in which it’s set, that SF writers often predict technological change correctly whilst getting social change horribly wrong and that, like all writers, they aren’t always the best judges of their own work.

“Childhood’s End” tells you more about the time it was written (1952-3) than the future in which it’s set and Arthur C. Clarke was much better at predicting technological change than social change. The best evidence for both assertions is the following sentence, on p.102 of my edition, said of a black main character – “The convenient word “nigger” was no longer taboo in polite society, but was used without embarrassment by everyone.” And, yes, I would agree that simply having a black hero in the early 50s was radical thinking, but still.

And writers not always being the best judges of their own work? Well, my version of the novel has a foreword written by Clarke in 1989 from which it’s clear that his main concern wasn’t that he might have misjudged exactly how greater racial equality was going to pan out. It wasn’t that he has people still living in “Stalingrad” even after his irritatingly all-knowing aliens, the Overlords, have made generally available what amounts to a magic TV set allowing everyone to look at recordings of any point in history, which would presumably have included pretty solid evidence that Stalin was a bastard (something plenty of people believed in 1953 anyway). It wasn’t even that his aliens are irritatingly all-knowing (more of which later).

No, Arthur C.’s big worry in 1989 was that the plot of the novel turns heavily on telepathy and extra-sensory perception, and by then he had come to the conclusion that these were, as Henry Ford would have said, more or less bunk. They are, but that isn’t a problem in this or any other work of fiction that involves telepathy or ESP or plain old magic. If you establish your fictional world as being one where these things exist, then they do and no-one is likely to quibble about it. Anyway, the ESP is so basic to the plot that it could hardly be removed, so in an effort to make things more believable, he slapped on a prologue to make it clear that the action kicks off in the late 21st century, rather than the late 20th century, just to make all the anachronisms stand out even more. Sometimes, writers are their own worst enemies.

Anyway, you can sum up the plot of “Childhood’s End” in three sentences (spoilers!). All-powerful alien race take over the world, avert the threat of nuclear war and over the course of 150 years or so help mankind create a Golden Age for itself. Why? Because they’re keeping us safe until the children of mankind abruptly start to develop reality-changing levels of psychic power, whereupon the Overlords declare humanity over and haul off the kids to their own planet to merge themselves in with an Overmind made up of many other races that have ascended to the same higher plane of existence, and from which the Overlords have been taking their orders all along. Exactly why humanity, or any other race, would make a sudden evolutionary leap of this kind isn’t really explained, probably because it can’t be, psychic powers being more or less bunk.

Put that way, “Childhood’s End” has one important similarity with “Howard’s End” (apart from both having “End” in the title). They both provoke the question of the most important characters, “How come these guys aren’t the very obvious villains?” Given that neither E.M. Forster nor Arthur C. Clarke are writers of transparently bad fanfiction (that’s my job!), they aren’t stupid enough to try to actively make heroes of the Schlegels or the Overlords, leaving the question more open.

However, the reader is still likely to end up thinking that neither really even deserve neutrality. The Overlords kidnap hundreds of millions of children and call time on the whole human race because some sort of powerful psychic hive-mind thing ordered them to. Admittedly, there is the implication that the Overmind is so powerful that its requests are not to be gainsaid, even by an incredibly advanced alien species, but you could get executed for refusing to obey Adolf Hitler’s orders, and that cut no ice before the Nuremberg Tribunal. Equally, the novel presents the end of humanity as natural, inevitable and even for the greater good, but no doubt the Nazis thought that about the end of the Jews.

The irony of the novel seems to be that Clarke ended up creating such overweeningly powerful aliens that they effectively tore control of his own book away from him. Jan Rodricks, the black character mentioned earlier, is obsessed with space exploration. He ends up stowing away on an Overlord ship and visiting their home planet, only to be firmly told that “The stars are not for Man.” He accepts this too, although it’s by no means clear that what he has seen is exactly on an H.P. Lovecraft-level of mind-breaking. This belief is directly contrary to Arthur C. Clarke’s own views, to the extent that when first published the book included a disclaimer that the opinions in it were not those of the author! But, you just can’t argue with the superior intellect of the Overlords.

Essentially, what Clarke ended up doing was to create a whole race of classic Mary-Sue characters. They are far superior to puny humans – intellectually, in technology, in every other way – to the extent that all tension is sucked out of the book. It’s obvious from the beginning that there’s no way any human is ever going to stop them doing what they want, and they overcome all challenges with ease. And if they aren’t exactly presented as always in the right, what they are doing isn’t exactly condemned either.

The only real question for the reader at any point is what exactly the catch will be with their benevolent rule, because it would be inconceivable for the conclusion to be that the Overlords do it because they are a bunch of nice guys and for everyone to live happily ever after. When the answer comes, it is original, at least for the time it was written, but horrendously depressing. It leaves you thinking that if these are what benevolent aliens are like, Clarke might as well have written another saga of invasion by death-ray wielding Martians.

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Book Review: Howards End by E.M. Forster

To be honest, I think I preferred his Way.

Joking apart, though, “Howards End” is one of the more high-brow books I’ve written about here, and also the only one I’ve finished and thought: “I really don’t understand why this is considered a great classic of English literature.”

Margaret and Helen Schlegel are two cultured sisters, second-generation German immigrants, living in Edwardian London. In literary circles, it is Serious Business as to whether or not they are supposed to be Jewish, to which all I can say is that they never mention or, apparently, even think about, being Jewish, don’t seem to think twice about attending carol services at Christmas and that their deceased father sounds a bit keener on spending time in the Prussian Army than the average member of an ethnic minority in 19th century Prussia who’d spent any time in the Prussian Army would be. There was, in reality, a notable community of non-Jewish Germans in pre-First World War Britain.

The Schelgels are, apparently, middle class, although they are richer and live in a house that sounds much nicer than 90% of the people you’ll ever meet who call themselves “middle class” (they live off their investments, for heaven’s sake!) Anyway, our heroines get involved with the Wilcoxes, a caricatured family of rich but uncultured business folk who own the titular house, and Leonard and Jacky Bast, a decent but spectacularly dim clerk and his much older, very poorly characterised, wife. We never get any explanation as to why Leonard, who is only in his early twenties, lumbered himself with such a charmless woman, by the way; his novel has a running theme of “improbable relationships that exist because the plot requires them to.”

The sisters try to help out Leonard Bast, being an impoverished wretch with aspirations to culture, and the Wilcoxes, being…no, wait, the Wilcoxes don’t actually have any problems, other than the stock prejudices of cardboard cut-out Edwardian rich people, which they don’t see as a problem. Actually, other than Leonard and Jacky, no-one in this novel has any real problems that they haven’t dreamed up themselves – it’s like “First World Problems: The Book,” all written before the concept of a First World even existed. However, the Schlegels are intellectuals who have to bring culture to the uncultured and whose motto is “Only connect”. Somehow in the eyes of Forster and a lot of his readers, this makes them better than standard-issue Lady Bountifuls, whose patronising of the less fortunate would usually be the target of satire, not admiration.

And this brings us to my biggest problem with “Howards End” – how come Margaret and Helen Schlegel are not treated as the villains of the novel? At its end, one person is dead, another is in prison, various others have been emotionally devastated, and control of Howards End has passed from Wilcoxes to Schlegels, all because the latter, in the immortal words of Vic Reeves “wouldn’t let it lie.” They had to “help” and “improve” people who, by-and-large, weren’t asking for help or improvement, and in the process they destroy them and enormously benefit themselves. Of course, it was all done with the best of intentions, but, then, we all know what’s paved with good intentions. But, so far as I can tell, everyone including the author regards them as heroines. For my money, the real hero’s Leonard Bast, and he’s too pathetic for that role anyway.

The other major problem has, I think, been picked up on by some critics – the plot of this novel is, quite simply, implausible. Not just particular twists and turns, but the whole damn thing. It relies on people voluntarily being friends, indeed eventually on getting married, when they have no particular reason to be and seem to have very little in common. The novel starts with Helen Schlegel visiting Howards End and developing a crush on Paul Wilcox, the younger son of the family, which quickly ends in disaster and the sort of scenes that would be equally embarrassing to everyone involved in 2018 as in 1910. The crush ends and everyone swears off each other and decides that they will never speak of this again.

That’s believable. And, in real life, that’s exactly where the story would end – after the first four chapters. Schlegels and Wilcoxes would simply avoid each other ever after. But they don’t – they keep associating with each other, for credibility-defying reasons, and those Schlegels just won’t let it lie…It’s almost tempting to visualise E.M. Forster leaning back from his desk at the end of those chapters and thinking, “Shit! That’s the end of the story, and I haven’t managed to convey my Big Themes about Class and Culture and Only Connect yet! Oh, well, never mind, just carry on regardless.”

It’s probably worth remembering that Forster lived in an age when people still unironically spoke of Questions, with a capital Q. The Social Question, actually mentioned in “Howards End”, The Woman Question, the Irish Question (every time Gladstone got near answering it, the Irish changed the question). For decades, writers like Charles Dickens or Emile Zola had been churning out huge tomes in which the key point was addressing some great social concern or other, and in a sense, that was your plot. Some novelists still try to do this, but in the modern world, it’s increasingly difficult to get anyone to take this seriously. If you want to hear some semi-literate hack’s “hot take” on social issues, you can find it in Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post. Or on WordPress, for that matter.

Forster had big Questions to address, and he ploughed on with addressing them, plot and characters be damned. In a sense, that’s why, in spite of being such a flawed book, “Howards End” has survived as a “classic”. One definition of a classic work of literature is “one that you have to study in school or university”, and there’s nothing easier to teach than a novel with themes obvious to even the dimmest student which also tie in handily to readily-available historical material. The essays will more or less write themselves, and once a novel ends up on a syllabus, it has a certain audience guaranteed.

And the other reason “Howards End” has survived – adaptation fodder, of course. It was a TV series only last year; it’s been made into a film; in fact, five of the six novels E.M. Forster wrote have been made into films at one time or another. I haven’t seen the TV or film versions, but no doubt the plot makes more sense by the time scriptwriters have finished with it and the characters are less improbable with actors giving them a third dimension.

Of course, it is absolutely relevant that late Victorian/Edwardian times seems to be the favourite era of everyone who likes to gawp at overdone frocks and fancy country house locations, and it is authors of that period who seem to live most off adaptation. I mean, the only thing you ever read about Henry James’ novels is what a chore they are to read – would anyone still bother if there weren’t films?

And Howards End itself? It’s a symbol of England, or something, although the real reason its in there is that it’s based on the house E.M. Forster grew up in. Unfortunately for him, that house is in what is now Stevenage. Once they’d finished developing that as a New Town, it was part of a giant concrete eyesore inhabited by exiled fans of Arsenal FC (and the young Lewis Hamilton). I don’t think E.M. Forster would have connected well with them.

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Book Review: Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans

Nothing is simple about this novel, not even its title. “Against Nature” is the one the translator of the edition I own went for, but it has also been known as “Against the Grain”. Some English speakers, if required to refer to it, just throw their hands up in despair at translation and use the original French title, “A Rebours.”

It was written in 1884 by a Frenchman with a Dutch name I have never been able to pronounce, Joris-Karl Huysmans, about another Frenchman with a Spanish (?) name I also tend to pass over quickly, Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes (bless you!). If you’re thinking, “Oh, no, a Victorian novel – must be a doorstopper with a hideously involved plot and a cast of thousands”, then be reassured. It’s about 200 pages, des Esseintes is for all practical purposes the only character and as for the plot, well, here’s the plot of “Against Nature”.

Arty French aristo decides modern life is rubbish, locks himself away with a bunch of art and books in a house outside Paris, thinks a lot about things and suffers from an ill-defined disease that’s implied to be mental in origin at some points and venereal at others, although the symptoms don’t sound much like either to me. Eventually those symptoms get bad enough that his doctor decides that if he doesn’t go back to living a normal life he faces “insanity speedily followed by tuberculosis” (which isn’t how TB works either, but whatever). Lamenting his fate, des Esseintes returns to the lamestream. That’s it. Really, the weird and unexplained disease is about all “Against Nature” has in common with a writer like Dickens, who des Esseintes, incidentally, doesn’t rate.

People who write about literature call des Esseintes an aesthete (true). They call him a Decadent, also true in that he comes from a novel which is part of the Decadent movement of the 1880s-90s, all purple prose and self-conscious reaction against Victorian morality in favour of aesthetics. If you’ve ever read “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, you may remember the nameless “novel without a plot” which obsesses Dorian so. That novel’s based on “Against Nature”, Oscar Wilde being a huge fan, and there are elements of des Esseintes in Dorian.

However, if I wanted to describe des Esseintes for the internet generation I’d put it this way – he is the Ur-Hipster, the ancestor of every pretentious twerp who claims you’ve probably never heard of his favourite band because it’s so obscure and complains how “mainstream” his hobbies are getting. Popular things that des Esseintes doesn’t like, largely because they are popular, include Oriental rugs, Nature, democracy, diamonds, pearls, roses, “the rising generation” -*shakes fist* “Millennials!” – Moliere, Voltaire, Cicero, newspapers and the colour blue.

At the same time, though, des Esseintes is also the Best Hipster. He may be an elitist misanthropic snob, but he does have the intellectual weight to back up his eccentric opinions. He’s exactly the sort of classy gent that the guys in fedoras in all the mocking image macros wish they were.  Huysmans is also a good enough writer to keep you reading his character’s extended rants about what he hates (and loves) and why, primarily by way of lashings and lashings of purple prose.

For example, des Esseintes dislike of blue comes out in the four or so detailed pages that Huysmans devotes to his decisions on what colour to paint his living room and how to furnish it. Des Esseintes takes thirteen pages over his opinions on Latin literature, nineteen or so over his views on French literature, eleven on making perfume and (I swear I am not making this up) four on how exactly to gild and bejewel the shell of his pet tortoise so that it makes just the right contrast with his rug.

Well, it really ties the room together.

I have to admit, though, that I have a personal reason for liking this novel and this character, in spite of the absence of everything I would normally say is important in a work of fiction – character development, a plot and so on. Leaving aside his aesthetic opinions, des Esseintes faces a lot of the same struggles I face all the time. Can I live  with the people around me, and if I can’t, whose fault is that? Is the society I live in as big a mess as it looks, and if so was it ever better in the past? Can I really accept the Christian faith or not, and if I accept it, can I live up to it? Des Esseintes, in theory an atheist but highly attracted to Catholic artistic traditions, agonises about the last one a lot, probably reflecting Huysmans’ own struggles ahead of his eventual conversion a few years later.

Des Esseintes’ own solution to his problems, retreating from the world, is one I have found tempting in the past. It doesn’t work for him, but I can identify with the desire. I could see myself doing what he does if I had the money, the classical education and the fantastic art collection (I don’t), and I’m honestly not sure if “ending up like des Esseintes” would be an apotheosis or a terrible mistake.

Every time I read “Against Nature” I’m faced with this question of whether the main character is me at my best or me at my worst, and I suspect that’s what draws me back to it. Nothing makes for great art like ambiguity, and “Against Nature” is a book towards which I have a lot of mixed emotions.

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Video game review: Code: Realize – Guardian of Rebirth

How do you solve a problem like “reviewing video games whilst at the same time being terrible at playing them”? Well, I suppose you could, in theory, just lock yourself away in your room for weeks and play like crazy until you’re a true ace. But life is short, gameplay is long and I have a day job to do. Then, there’s always the George Wood approach – be an amazingly terrible reviewer (look up “Gaming in the Clinton Years” for the entertaining results). In spite of all evidence to the contrary, though, I would still claim that I prefer to avoid making a complete idiot of myself if I can at all avoid it.

Here’s my solution – review a visual novel, the genre where story is everything, gameplay is minimal, and if you’ve seen someone’s video of it on YouTube, you might as well have played it yourself. Such is “Code:Realize – Guardian of Rebirth”, and before going any further I’d like to thank ChorpsAway, Devious Vacuum and Dirili, who all did Let’s Plays of this game and thus saved me having to work out where the hell to actually buy it.

“Code:Realize” is a steampunk anime romance in which you play Cardia, a girl who has been hidden away in a secluded mansion in Victorian Wales by a scientist father who has told her that she is a monster who must be kept away from others. Given that she has dangerously corrosive acid for blood and a weird glowing jewel-thingy called the Horologium for a heart, he’s got a point.

At any rate, Cardia is rescued from her prison by Arsene Lupin (gentleman thief and famous literary character) and Impey Barbicane (genius engineer, rather less famous literary character and, in this game, the comic relief and thus a bit of a prat). They all head off to Steampunk Alternate History London, most of whose technology was invented by Cardia’s dad before he mysteriously disappeared. There they hook up with several other famous literary characters and/or real-life historical figures in an effort to find Cardia’s father (spoilers – he’s not a nice guy when found), solve the mystery of who or what she is and, inevitably, save the world along the way.

Oh, and because it’s a romance game, Cardia also gets to work out which of the several guys around her will be her One True Love, and those choices have consequences for the story. Victor Frankenstein, Abraham van Helsing and the Count Saint-Germain, all looking a lot younger and prettier than the source material or real life, are the romantic options along with Lupin and Impey.

It should be fairly obvious from even this cursory summary that “Code:Realize” doesn’t have an earth-shatteringly original plot. Alan Moore did “famous characters from novels team up to do good” in “The League of Gentlemen”; a Japanese descendant of Arsene Lupin was the central character of the “Lupin III” anime decades ago; at its climax, the “true” route even has vague overtones of “Return of the Jedi”.

However, it does make its plot work and most of our heroes are likeable or at least tolerable, or you get reasons for the less likeable things they do. Our villains are – well, you could call them proper villains. Let’s just say that if you like your bad guys to laugh evilly and act hammy, you will not be disappointed. Some of the ham deployed by the voice actors here transcends the language barrier, and possibly the time-space continuum.

The very nature of the medium means rather heavy demands are put on the suspension of disbelief. As always with visual novels, the artist only drew so much, and what they didn’t draw isn’t there, so the same backgrounds tend to come up repeatedly regardless of whether or not they’re supposed to show the same places. For the same reason, particularly epic battles have a habit of happening off-screen (or you just have to take the narrator’s word about the intense combat going on against an empty background) and there’s an awful lot of dialogue instead of action. You suspect that most real-life antagonists would have killed these heroes several times over given their habit of stopping to have long conversations with each other in the midst of fighting.

However, if you can keep disbelief suspended, there are rewards. Everyone gets some character development, especially Cardia, who begins as a girl with little knowledge of the world and a crippling lack of self-confidence caused by her belief that she is a monster, and ends as one who believes in herself as a human being. This mostly works through the power of true love rather than her own actions – although Cardia does get her moments as an action heroine – but then, this is a romance game.

It is rather old-fashioned in that way, with quite a bit of Cardia being a damsel in distress for the boys to sweep in and rescue. If you find that scenario problematic beyond belief, you won’t like “Code:Realize.” If it’s your favourite romantic fantasy, you’re probably the target audience.

The writers also seem to have done enough research into English history to make the setting convincing. It goes without saying that everyone looks and acts very anime, but at least this isn’t just Japan under another name. It’s fairly obvious that the real Queen Victoria wasn’t either the inspiring heroine or the megalomaniac villain that she gets to be at different points in this game. Real 19th-century Welsh people probably weren’t a bunch of superstitious peasants subject to regular famines and willing to form torch-wielding mobs at the drop of a hat either, but then what would a monster game be without a mob or two of angry villagers?

In the end, I was entertained by “Code:Realize”, and if you can turn off your inner cynical meanie and stop nit-picking, so will you be, and that in the end is what matters. Apparently the game has now been turned into an anime, which at the very least should show the action sequences more fully, so if you’re committed enough that too is presumably available somewhere.


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Not The Nostalgia Chick: “Della says: OMG!” book review

It’s got a black cover, it’s got internet references in the blurb (“WANT ❤ AND LOL?”), it’s got a content warning about “strong language” – “Della Says: OMG!” is clearly aiming to be an edgier piece of teen fiction than “Avalon High”…


Well, maybe not quite that edgy. However, this is a novel where the 16 year old heroine, both in her narration and in conversations with her best friend, mentions sex quite a lot and indeed eventually gets to do the wild thing with the object of her affections, so it definitely goes further on that front than Meg Cabot does. The author, Keris Stainton, is British – maybe our publishers are a bit more comfortable with grungy realism in their teen romance than American ones.

Ms Stainton was apparently a book blogger before she wrote this, her first novel, and she seems to have made a career out of writing afterwards, having published several more since it came out in 2010. “Della Says: OMG!” is the tale of the eponymous girl and her twin quests (a) to get together with Dan Bailey, the boy she’s had a crush on since primary school and (b) solve the mystery of who stole her diary and is selectively leaking particularly embarrassing pages of it. Is it bitchy rival girl Gemima Lee? Is it Della’s bitchy rival sister Jamie? Is it Mr Malone, the old guy from the store, but wearing white bedsheets and a ghost mask (“and I would have got away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”)?

I probably shouldn’t be treating stalking and harassment so lightly, but that’s one of the major problems with “Della Says: OMG!” At no point do you really get a sense that the stakes are particularly high, in either of the main plots. Dan kisses Della in the first chapter, and from then it’s really more a case of the relationship gradually developing than of “will they or won’t they?” Dan’s your typical wish-fulfilment boyfriend. A nice kid, sensible, emotionally mature – everything most teenage boys aren’t. He’s never going to belch loudly at an utterly inappropriate moment for a laugh or tell Della he can’t come out for an obviously made-up reason so he can play video games with his mates all evening instead.

As for the stalker, they seem to specialise in sending pages from the diary either to Della herself or to other people who either turn out to be predictably supportive (like Dan) or in ways Della can intercept. For a stalker, they’re amazingly considerate/incompetent, and thus totally lacking in real threat. And whilst you might not be able to guess who, you will probably be able to tell from the beginning that’s it’s one or other of the bitchy girls, because having a bitchy girl rival as the baddie is one of the oldest tropes of media for teenage girls.

Which takes us on to the other biggest problem with the novel – the characters. Only Della, Dan and Della’s friend Maddy really get a lot of characterisation – Dan’s nice if unrealistic, and Della herself, although generally a sympathetic and likeable character, comes across as a borderline nutter for having a crush on Dan from her first day in primary school until the age of 16 (11 years!), without doing anything about it, even talking to him.

What the hell is wrong with this broad? If you’d asked me at 16 who I’d met on the first day of primary school, I wouldn’t even have been able to tell you. Keris Stainton also apparently believes that you notice who the cutest boys in class are “even at that age”, which, to be honest, is not at all the way I remember sexual maturation working. To be fair, Della does frequently describe her lack of confidence, and a lot of shy people have crushes they never worked up the nerve to ask out, but this is extreme.

You also have to wonder what teenager in 2010 was still keeping a written diary, as opposed to using some form of social media. Again, to be fair, Stainton does try to explain this away, but it all makes a lot more sense when you read in the acknowledgments a mention that she herself lost her diary at a party thrown by her sister (it’s not clear whether this was as an adolescent or an adult).

The novel being partly autobiographical, like a lot of first novels, might explain some otherwise rather weird bits, such as Della and Dan’s apparently shared love of 1980s music like “Madness, Simple Minds, the Cure.” Whilst I can’t but sympathise with characters who admire the fine ska sounds of the Nutty Boys, it’s still a stretch to believe this would be true of most modern teenagers.

It makes more sense if this is really a version of Keris Stainton’s early life, and this autobiographical aspect might also explain why she occasionally seems to forget her characters’ exact age. Maddy wears “High School Musical” pyjamas “ironically”, which makes her sound more like a twenty-something hipster than a teenager. She says “I’m a social smoker and this is a social occasion.” I too, have met that person, but it wasn’t until university. And some of her and Della’s conversations include the sort of comments the thirty-somethings in “Sex and the City” might make.

The minor characters are pretty much all either unbelievable or annoying in some way. The bitchy girls are just bitchy – no real explanation needed. Della’s sister Jamie does get explained as, basically, an insecure attention-seeker, but that’s all done via narration from Della (“Show, Don’t Tell”). A lot is made of Della’s mum being a model in the 80s, but given that she ended up as a housewife up North, my guess is it was more like “C & A catalogue model” than the Cindy Crawford Della seems to think she was. In fact, Della finding that out might have been a more interesting plot than the ones she gets.

Della’s dad is supposed to own a chain of delicatessens, one of which Della works at part-time, but he’s a dire stereotype – a sitcom dad who exists to be bumbling and make unfunny jokes that his daughter can be embarrassed by. He comes off as so committed to being a full-time prat that it’s hard to believe he could be a successful businessman who married a model. His suppliers probably love him though. If you want shot of some past-their-prime horsemeat-based sausages, this berk will pay top dollar. Bob, Della’s co-worker at the shop, is (I think) meant to be the sort of gay best friend the “Sex and the City” characters pal around with, but since the gayness is only implied the level of interest he shows in a teenage girl’s love life honestly make him come across as more of a sexual predator.

A final point – the setting for this novel is Lancashire, which is where Keris Stainton lives. Given that the town appears to have a cathedral, and trips to Blackpool, Lytham and Manchester are all no big deal, I think it’s meant to be Blackburn. But you wouldn’t really guess if you weren’t told this in the narration. About the only distinctly Lancastrian thing the characters do is go on a day trip to Lytham (truly, they are the young and the reckless). So, whilst you have to give the author credit for setting it somewhere a bit unusual, it might as well have been London for all the good it does.


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Not The Nostalgia Chick: “Avalon High” book review

Up till now, all my book reviews have been of works which might be called stereotypically male: macho lit. Well, I got bored of ploughing my way through novels about crooks and commando raids, so I thought I’d change tack. I’ll be reviewing a few stereotypically female/girly books, to shake things up. Hence the title – I suspect some of what I review will be remembered nostalgically by someone, but I’m not female and I’m not Lindsay Ellis (you’ll never find me dabbling with “being funny”, “being successful”, “making some money” or “being in a much-posted gif where I get sausages thrown in my face”).

“Avalon High”, which was published in 2006, is by Meg Cabot, who’s written a string of novels aimed at teenage girls. She’s probably best known for “The Princess Diaries” series, which were so successful they got turned into theatrically-released films starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews. Apparently there’s a film of this one too, albeit only a Disney Channel movie.

I’ll be honest with you – people tend to read/watch internet reviews for amusing snark at the expense of bad movies, books or whatever. However, once you get past the awful pink-and-purple cover clearly designed to minimise the risk of any cootie-ridden male buying it, “Avalon High” is basically a good and enjoyable book, within its genre limits. The 16-year-old protagonist, Ellie Harrison, is mostly believable, relatable and, frankly, a breath of fresh air after all the over-the-top macho dipshits from the military fiction I’ve previously written about. She’s supposed to be a nice girl from Minnesota (“Oh ya!”)who’s moved to Annapolis in Maryland, and I buy that. You’re supposed to be on her side, and I was. If you care about role models in kid’s fiction, she’s a fairly good one.

I’m pretty sure that a teenager in 2006 wouldn’t use “Not!” at the end of her sentences quite as often as Ellie does. That was the sort of thing that I used to do as a teenager in 1992 (note for kids – please don’t do that sort of thing) and it must surely have been dead fourteen years later. However, that’s a minor gripe.

I’m also not as convinced as she is that “being tall” amounts to a colossal personal flaw and definitely means she can’t be pretty, but since there are real women who seem to believe the same, I’ll let it pass.

Perhaps the most surprising thing  about the book’s plot is that Meg Cabot makes no real attempt to try to make much of what I would have regarded as the biggest plot twist. Ellie moves from Minnesota to Maryland with her academic parents, and at the titular high school falls in with hunky quarterback, Will, his cheerleader girlfriend Jennifer, Will’s sidekick, Lance and Will’s stepbrother and rival, Marco. As soon as I read the title and saw those names (and bear in mind, Will’s full name is A. William Wagner, as the book constantly reminds us), I thought “this is going to be a modern spin on the legend of King Arthur, isn’t it?” And blow me down if that isn’t just what it is.

Now, admittedly, I’m older and (perhaps) more widely read than the intended audience, but Cabot really hammers the King Arthur stuff home before the formal “reveal” that each of the main characters are the reincarnation of someone from the legend. Or at least, that their eccentric English teacher who’s possibly Merlin and possibly also close kin to Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer believes they are, because the ending deliberately leaves whether this is all true or not as an open question.

Ellie’s parents’ specialist subject is mediaeval history. Her mother is specifically an expert on Arthurian legend. Ellie floats around in swimming pools a lot. Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallott” gets quoted at the start of every chapter. We’re told on p.7 that she’s named Elaine after said Lady…I can’t believe even teenagers would not pick up on this at a fairly early stage. I’m fairly sure I knew about the tales of King Arthur, mostly courtesy of Rosemary Sutcliff, by the time I would have been old enough to read “Avalon High.”

To be fair to Cabot, there are a couple of twists within the twist, as it were, so being fairly up-front about this doesn’t kill the dramatic tension. But I still think it’s odd not to keep the whole “reincarnation of the court of Camelot” thing a bit more under wraps and go lighter on the foreshadowing. The other big problem I have with “Avalon High” is the characterisation of Will and Marco.

OK, Will is supposed to be King Arthur reborn, and he is being portrayed through the eyes of Ellie, who fancies his pants off. He is, inevitably, going to look heroic, insofar as an upper-middle class American teen in a fairly realistic world can look heroic. However, even taking this into account, he still behaves so impeccably that he edges towards being a Mary Sue. This kid never puts a foot wrong. His stepbrother’s a sociopath, and he tries to reason with him. His girlfriend cheats on him, and he’s calm and rational about it. Men decades older than him have been known to flip out in the same position (including the actual King Arthur, who declared war on Lancelot for his adultery), but not Will.

I’ll admit that some of the Mary Sue-dom is a bit hard to determine. Cabot is, on the whole, good at making her teenagers sound and act like convincing teenagers. For instance, to a man and woman, they do not believe the Arthur thing when they are told about it. Will is treated as profound for saying things like “unless you’re Native American, I don’t think you can go around telling other people to go back to their country” or “I want to make a difference in the world. I really do. But I don’t want to do it by blowing people up”. That’s exactly the sort of simplistic stuff you would think was pretty deep at that age, so I can’t quite tell if that’s because he’s one teenager talking to another (who fancies him rotten), and thus great writing, or because Meg Cabot still thinks that’s pretty deep, and thus bad writing.

As for Marco – well, he essentially behaves like a one-note bad guy from start to finish. We find near the end that he does have genuine reasons for resenting Will’s father, at any rate, but most of it just comes off as brattishness maturing into something even worse. Again, he is the reincarnation of Mordred, and thus pre-destined to be evil, but as with Will, it is a bit black-and-white to believe.

I mentioned earlier that “Avalon High” is set in a fairly realistic world, and with a few exceptions that could mostly be explained as non-magical if you wanted to, there isn’t really any magic in this tale of King Arthur. That’s true of a lot of the original legends too, which is a nice touch, and one thing I do like about the novel is that in manages a more-or-less realistic level of drama with a subject where you could easily go much further. The big climax involves one character pointing a gun at another. In real life that would indeed be an enormously dramatic moment, but in a lot of films or TV shows happens about every five minutes. No-one escapes underground terrorist bases single-handed in this book.

Well, that’s “Avalon High” for you. Sadly, as I am Not the Nostalgia Chick, you don’t get a sketch now. I also resisted the temptation to visit (if the site’s still up) as urged by the cover, so I can’t bring you the “cool princess fashion tips” or “great e-cards and comps” it promises. You’ll just have to imagine me in a battered tinsel crown, probably getting bratwurst thrown into my face.




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