Decomposition: Tales of Botanical Horror

My newest short fiction zine, Decomposition, collects six short stories of botanical horror and dark fantasy. It features a number of guest artists and spot illustrations, as well as a gorgeous cover created by the botanical art wizard Frankiesbugs. I’ve listed the zine on Etsy (here) if you’re interested.

The past few years have been tough for me. It’s become somewhat taboo in American culture to admit that the pandemic wasn’t the best thing to ever happen to you, so the less said about this the better.

I have to admit that I’m a gremlin who doesn’t really care about germs, but for a while I found it very difficult to relate to other people. I didn’t want to see other human beings at all if I could help it. This is why, after I moved to Philadelphia, I started spending a lot of time wandering around abandoned spaces.

Philadelphia is a fun and interesting city with a steadily growing population and multiple vibrant local cultures, and I find it annoying when people take pictures of a normal street or an early-morning empty parking lot and tag their photos as “urban decay” on social media. That’s just rude. Still, I think it’s easier to get funding to build new construction than it is to repair existing structures, so there’s a surprising density of ruins and wild spaces in and around Philadelphia.

What surprised me while walking around the emptier areas of Philadelphia is just how quickly most architecture returns to nature. Maybe stone castles and granite walls and asphalt roads can last for centuries without maintenance, but a normal house or Burger King or whatever is going to last for one or two decades at most. It’s only going to take about five years before the roof goes; and then, once the water damage gets started, that building is finished. The shell of the walls becomes its own little ecosystem, with plants pushing up through the brick and concrete. In Philadelphia, fig trees and sumac shrubs grow wild just about everywhere, providing food and shelter for insects, birds, and larger animals like opossums and raccoons.

On one hand, it’s lovely to see these pockets of green in postindustrial urban areas. On the other hand, it’s a bit creepy how aggressive plants are in taking over space formerly occupied by people. If you think about it, plants have been on this earth for hundreds of millions of years, and they will remain here long after the last human draws its final breath. Their green dreams are beyond our comprehension as their roots silently feed on the soil of our bodies. Plants are forever growing and forever hungry, and they’ll take everything back from us eventually.

Be Green, Do Crime

Despite my interest in horror and dark fantasy, I’m very normcore in real life. Still, I am willing to engage in civil disobedience in order to touch grass. If I can’t afford to live in a neighborhood with flowers, then I’m just going to have to plant them myself.

This comic received a lot of support when I posted it on Tumblr, by the way. (This) is one of my favorite responses. Kudos to my fellow urban gardener for the addition!

Plant Space

No one in this house is “productive.” 🌿

Inspired by my annual reading of Sarah Ahmed, I drew this as a reminder to myself that there’s room for stillness and silence in the ongoing resistance against systems that seek to exploit our energy and labor. It ended up becoming an unintentional self-portrait. I was thinking, “What sort of person would live in a house like this,” and then I realized, “Oh right, I do.”

A lot of my plants have been all across the United States as I moved from apartment to apartment while chasing jobs in a market that depends on people like me, by which I mean young(ish) people who are willing to cut their connections and uproot their entire lives in order to have a small chance at getting their foot in the door of an unnecessarily competitive industry. Academia especially is built on exploited and largely uncompensated labor, and there’s so much survivor bias that not even the people who have experienced and suffered from this precarity acknowledge how harmful it is to everyone involved.

It’s wild how the vast majority of critiques of capitalism are contained within the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is all about doing things and being productive; and, in exactly the same way, most critiques of capitalism are about doing things and being productive. To give a classic example, Marx says that workers need to utilize the “muscle power” and “vital force” that have been harnessed by capitalism and redirect their energy and labor to overthrow the system. I would argue that not doing things and not being productive is an equally valid means of resisting capitalism. Sarah Ahmed, who has just as fraught of a relationship with academia as I do, has argued the same thing: Don’t allow yourself to become a tool in the hands of people who are intent on breaking you.

After being destroyed by a “dream job” that I almost had to kill myself to stay on top of, I made a firm decision to take it easy and chill out for a bit. Part of this decision is deprogramming my instinct to be “productive,” but a lot of it is simply taking the time to be quiet and listen while creating the space to appreciate the sort of time-consuming writing, scholarship, and art that’s been marginalized and pushed aside by the constant demand for new content. Like my plants, I’m going to sit still and soak in the sun.

………also, I needed an “author photo” for my summer project, a zine about Gothic botanical horror. 💀🌱

Growing Up with The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda series has been criticized for its formulaic writing, but one of the strengths of its archetypal characters is that they allow room for multiple interpretations. I was born in the same year as the Zelda series, and my perspective on these characters and their stories has shifted as I’ve grown older.

When I was a kid, I loved Link. I had no innate skill as a gamer, but I enjoyed the thrill of running wild in Hyrule. I may not have fully understood the game mechanics, but this meant I was always discovering new things. Despite my many deaths, I reveled in the certainty that I was a force of good fighting for justice, and it was comforting to know that all I had to do in order to succeed was to follow the marks on my map.  

In my late teens, I began to identify more with Princess Zelda. As my view of the world became wider, I realized that it wasn’t always the best course of action to charge forward with an unsheathed sword. I also came to understand that it was impossible for me to be a lone hero. There were times when I would be at the mercy of forces beyond my control, and sometimes I would need to rely on the strength of other people to achieve my goals.  

Now that I’m an adult, I can’t help but sympathize with Ganondorf. The world is infinitely complicated and filled with impossible decisions. Even though you may have the best of intentions, it’s inevitable that some people will see you as a villain when you challenge the status quo. If you want the power to change the world, you have to forge your own path, and no one will give you a map marked with signposted quests to complete. Still, as long as you’re making your own rules, you might as well be stylish and have gorgeous hair.

The Legend of Zelda series has become a type of modern mythology. The games continue to be relevant not just because of the strength of their gameplay, but also because of the resonance of their archetypes in the lives of the people who grow up with their stories. Instead of growing out of the Zelda series, I’ve found that I’ve grown to appreciate it more now that I can relate to the characters through multiple levels of lived experience.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This essay and its accompanying illustration were originally published in Coin-Operated Press’s Nerd! Zine anthology. You can check out the zine on the press’s website (here).

Today’s gender is…

…lizard! 🦎

I used to have a pet iguana, and I never learned whether it was a girl or a boy. It was fascinating to me that this beautiful and handsome creature could exist in the world without a gender and be perfectly fine, and I still think that’s neat. I was a weird kid, but I knew what I was about.

My Great Outdoors

When I moved to West Philadelphia at the beginning of the pandemic, the neighborhood was a mess. The city sanitation workers were on strike (good for them!!), and trash was everywhere. No one had trimmed the vegetation growing along the sidewalks, and there were all sorts of weeds and flowers pushing their way up from underneath the piles of loose rubbish. Most of the university students and faculty had evacuated the city, and no one was walking around outside to begin with, so the crows and opossums had gotten bold. It was quite nice, actually.

I don’t intend to suggest that there was anything “good” about the pandemic, which was and continues to be a nightmare, but I have to admit that it was still a welcome relief to be able to walk around outside while feeling like I was just another part of nature.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This is a comic I created for the third issue of Nature Held Me Close, a zine about “gender dysphoria and the great outdoors.” Free digital copies of all three issues of the zine are available on its website (here).

Felis Decapoda

I spent part of my childhood in rural Georgia in an old farmhouse that my mother went into bankruptcy to refurbish and remodel. Along with antique furniture, my mother collected stray cats, and at several points we had more than two dozen roaming around the house and yard.

I know that living in an historic farmhouse filled with expensive furniture and cats sounds like a dream come true for many people, and presumably this was the case for my mother. For me, however, it was extremely uncomfortable. I could never sleep properly, and I used to have nightmares about the cats eating each other and merging into giant mega-cats with far too many legs.

I don’t have anything against cats, and I’d like to adopt one of my own one day, but for the time being I’m happy being a dog person.

American Dream, New Jersey

True to my ambition to visit abandoned malls in New Jersey once I got vaccinated, I went to the American Dream mall in East Rutherford.

The mall is located across the river from Manhattan on a gargantuan plot of land that’s been in development since 2003, and you can get a good eyeful of the massive scale of complex while driving on I-95 towards the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel. From what I understand, the state of New Jersey has been working with various developers to create an attraction that will draw consumer spending money from the city and convince out-of-town tourists to spend the night in a hotel in New Jersey instead of New York, and the amount of money invested is in the billions of dollars. Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, allocated hundreds of millions of dollars of yearly subsidies into the seeing the development completed, which allowed it to project an opening in early 2020… and then the pandemic hit.

Parts of the mall are still under construction, and not all of its retail spaces are occupied, but it’s now open to the public. It is very new and very shiny. The pure white walls and floors gleam under soft white light, and there are fresh-cut flowers and public art everywhere. The empty storefronts and closed-off corridors are hidden by paneling covered in unique and gorgeous graphics, and there are all sorts of interesting pieces of modern furniture in the atrium areas. The soap in the literally sparkling-clean bathrooms is high-quality foam that smells like a garden in springtime.

The shopping seems to be relatively upscale, and the anchor stores are European chains like Primark and H&M. It’s not open yet, but there’s going to be an H-Mart in the basement, which I think is probably a nod to the East Asian retail strategy of having fancy grocery stores in shopping centers. It seems that the mall is also going to have a “luxury wing,” but it hasn’t yet been completed. They’re probably going to charge for parking in the future, but right now it’s free.

What makes this mall unique is that it also has a snowboarding hill, an ice skating rink, two mini golf courses, a Nickelodeon-branded theme park for little kids, and a huge and beautiful DreamWorks-branded water park in a huge and beautiful tropical biodome. There are a few other attractions that are still getting set up, like an aquarium that looks like it’s going to fit the aesthetic of being huge and beautiful and heavily themed in an offbeat artistic way that appeals to younger kids. If I understand the map correctly, the aquarium will have a giant ocean tunnel that will let you walk through a fantasy of a postapocalyptic underwater New York City, which is a bit morbid but still pretty cool.

And this entire place is completely empty. Just, completely empty. Except for a skeleton crew of retail employees at the stores and a few maintenance staff tending to the plants and flowers, there’s no one in the mall. American Dream looks like the international terminal of an airport if humans were to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth – very shiny and modern and clean, but deserted.

Anyway, now I’m wondering how you get the job of being a member of the gardening staff at a high-end abandoned mall that was a ruin before it even opened, because the people I saw tending to the plants and misting the flowers looked very peaceful and happy. It was some next-level Studio Ghibli magic, like Castle in the Sky except real.

If anyone asks, being a gardener in the ruins of capitalism is very much where I would like to see myself in five years.

We Should Improve Society Somewhat

This is my take on the viral Matt Bors comic. Someone actually said this to me about two years ago, and since then their comment has been living in my head rent-free. With this comic I hereby evict that unpleasantness and release it back into the wild.

I started drawing this comic earlier this year and finished it just to get it out of my drafts folder. In the time since I completed the line art, I made a firm decision to limit the negativity I post on social media. To be honest, most of the experiences that have had a major impact on my life during the past several years have been negative, but I’m not sure there’s any real use or meaning in representing them directly through autobiographical essays and comics. Instead, I’ve found much more satisfaction and catharsis in constructing analogies through the medium of fiction.

Also, I think there are a not insignificant number of people in the world (including the “yet you have a job” person) who tend to latch onto negativity to make bad-faith arguments about topics that could benefit from more nuance. Now that I’m at a stage of my life where I’m considering working on more collaborative projects, I’d prefer to keep that sort of interpersonal drama to a minimum. Thankfully, I’m in a better place now than I was when I started drawing this comic, and I hope the person who wrote this in response to one of my essays is in a better place too.

Still – fuck capitalism.

Whisper of the Heart


My husband is a fan of European football, and he spends a lot of time scrolling through football Twitter under a pseudonymous throwaway account. Most of the accounts he follows are British. He got annoyed with not being able to watch the region-locked videos people linked to, so a week or two ago he set up a VPN. (If you’re curious, he uses ExpressVPN, which is $8 a month and seems to be working nicely for him.) His computer now registers as being in the UK, and he employs this for the nefarious purpose of watching a few minutes of football videos a day and being amused by the British ads that Twitter shows him (mostly for snacks).

Even though he doesn’t use it much these days, my husband never stopped paying for his Netflix account, and it recently occurred to him that, with a UK address, he could watch British Netflix.

So the other day I was standing in the kitchen waiting for tea to brew, and my husband was sitting on the couch looking at Netflix UK. I asked him if he’s found anything to watch, and he started complaining that Netflix keeps trying to show him animated movies. He told he that they look Japanese.

I was like, “Okay, yes, go on.”

And he was like, “Have you ever heard of Studio Ghibli?”

That’s when I realized that my husband had never heard of Studio Ghibli.

. . . . .

My husband enjoys movies, but he’s in his forties and comes from a country where there hasn’t been a culture of anime fandom until relatively recently. He likes the Makoto Shinkai movies we’ve watched, which he calls “documentaries about Japan,” so I thought that Whisper of the Heart would be the best Studio Ghibli movie to show him. He loved it.

I loved it too. It’s been about ten years since I last saw Whisper of the Heart, and I was not expecting it to hit as hard as it did.

Whisper of the Heart is about a middle-school girl named Shizuku who loves reading. Shizuku checks out books from the local library, and she’s noticed that there’s another kid’s name on almost all of the library borrower cards inside the covers of the books she reads. She ends up meeting this boy, who is her age but wants to study the craft of violin making in Italy instead of matriculating to high school. Inspired by his determination to follow his dream, Shizuku decides to follow her own dream of writing a fantasy novel.

Shizuku gets really absorbed in her writing. She tells a friend that she has no appetite because she’s too preoccupied with her novel, and then she eats shortbread cookies so she can stay awake while she’s writing in the evening. She stops hanging out with her friends after school so that she can fantasize about her novel while walking home. She only puts in the bare minimum of work necessary to get by at school, and her grades drop. She gets explosively irritated when people interrupt her while she’s writing. When she’s done with the story, she gets super neurotic about feedback. She cries a lot.

I was just sitting there, like, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

How dare Hayao Miyazaki come into my house and call me out like this.

. . . . .

The range of what my husband does and doesn’t know about internet culture is a mystery to me, so I was surprised when he asked me if the anime girl from the Lofi Hip Hop Radio channel on YouTube is modeled on the protagonist of Whisper of the Heart.

The answer is yes, of course she is. This reference is so obvious to me that I never thought about it as something other people might not get.

Because I teach upper-level seminar classes that don’t have any formal prerequisites, I spend a lot of time thinking about what my students do and don’t already know. I treat grad students like the educated adults they are, but it can sometimes be difficult to tell with undergrads. At George Mason, most of the students were either immigrants or the children of immigrants, but they had all gone through American public high school, so I could assume that they were vaguely aware of certain cultural touchstones. At UPenn, on the other hand, the students who went to public high school in America might actually be a tiny minority. Each new microgeneration of kids is going to create its own common knowledge base regardless of where they come from, so you have to be sensitive to that, but it’s just the nature of working with a large and heterogeneous group of people that there will be all sorts of things you don’t think about.

I went to college early, and then went to grad school right after college and got my PhD fairly quickly, so I was roughly in the same generation as my students for most of the time I was teaching. I’ve gotten older, though, as people tend to do. Now it surprises me when my undergrads are genuinely curious about Harry Potter because they’ve never read the books or seen the movies. Things I just absorbed by osmosis because I grew up with them are now units of knowledge that need to be explained, and that’s wild.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s what getting older is about – being able to pick up on more cultural references because I’ve had more years in common with the people who create media. And then I wonder when the cross-over point is going to be, like, when will I stop getting references because I’m so old that younger people no longer have any culture in common with me?

In any case, Whisper of the Heart is set in the 1990s but feels timeless. It’s still just as beautiful to me now as it was when I first watched it in college. The fact that the vast majority of anime fans under the age of thirty have probably never even heard of movie feels a little weird, but it’s also kind of nice. It’s wonderful that amazing stories were created in the past, but the genius and creativity of past work doesn’t need to be a burden, as there will always be cultural room to create stories in the future that build on the past but still feel fresh and new to each generation.