Midnight Gathering Halloween Zine

I’m excited to announce that my short story “Ms. Weaver’s Halloween Candy” is going to appear in a Halloween-themed zine called Midnight Gathering.

“Ms. Weaver’s Halloween Candy” is a Stephen King style take on the trope of the creepy older woman, by which I mean that it’s more about character-driven family drama than it is about violence and shock value. The protagonist is a fourteen-year-old girl who’s trying to deal with a rough patch in her life by investigating a rumor that a woman in her neighborhood makes her Halloween candy out of cats, and she inadvertently discovers that what’s actually going on is much more sinister. As someone who tends to root for the villains, I did my best to portray everyone involved in the most sympathetic light possible while still imbuing the story with a sense of creeping dread, and I’m very proud of the ending.

I started becoming interested in the Minotaur myth in 2017 while exploring Hyrule Castle in Breath of the Wild, and this is the first original story I’ve written that references it. I’m the sort of writer who has to tell the same story in a dozen different ways before I feel like I understand it, so it’s something I’ll definitely return to in the future.

This is not my first piece of original fiction to be published, but it’s the first that’s going to appear in print (fingers crossed). Perhaps 35 is a bit old to be celebrating this, but whatever. I was publishing nonfiction during my twenties, and the paths people take through life aren’t set in stone. It does feel a bit strange to be the “old” person in the room on zine Discord servers, but it’s also quite nice to see my writing appear alongside the work of up-and-coming artists who contributed a plethora of unique and interesting illustrations to the publication.

You can check out Midnight Gathering on Twitter (here). They’re going to be posting previews of the art and writing appearing in the zine every day for the rest of October, so it’s a good Halloween vibe. If you’re interested in picking up a copy of the zine, which will be shipping in December, you can pre-order it (here).

Mount Hiei

My story “Mount Hiei,” a dark fantasy about two young monks navigating the eerie twilight years of the Heian period, was just published in Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, a special issue of the journal White Enso. The issue is currently ongoing and free to read online (here), and “Mount Hiei” is on (this page).

In this story, a ten-year-old boy becomes an apprentice monk on Mount Hiei, which houses a temple that has been tasked with protecting the nation. The boy grows accustomed to monastic life but never becomes comfortable with the statues of the monstrous Guardian King venerated by the other monks. When he discovers a secret door leading into the mountain, he comes to understand why the deity is depicted in such a frightening manner – as well as what “protecting the nation” actually entails.

Mount Hiei is a real place, as is Enryaku Temple, which serves as the setting of this historical horror story. To the best of my knowledge, the practical details of monastic life are accurate for the time period. I was inspired by the fiction of the Japanese author Ken Asamatsu, who applies a Lovecraftian sensibility to Japanese mythology and folklore, and I wrote this story from a place of admiration and respect for the medieval war epic The Tales of the Heike, on which it’s very loosely based.

By the way, the editors of White Enso are still looking for personal essays and original fiction for the 100 Ghost Stories Kaidankai project. Although they’re selective, they accept shorter and more casual pieces, and the submission process is very chill and relaxed. The editors are a pleasure to work with, and they’ll also create a podcast recording of your writing! If you’re interested, you can send your submission (here).

How to Board the West Philly Ghost Bus

(1)  It needs to be after dark.
(2)  You should be standing at a bus stop.
(3)  You need to be horribly, desperately lonely.
(4)  You can’t have a specific destination in mind.
(5)  You’ll see a bus with no route number on the display.
(6)  It will slow down but not stop, so you need to chase it.
(7)  You probably won’t catch it, but if you do…
(8)  The driver will let you on without asking you to pay.
(9)  You’ve made it this far. You might as well sit down.

I’ve recently found myself asking people I meet in West Philadelphia if they know any urban legends. Most of what I’ve heard are rumors about real people who have become local characters or stories about bodies being buried under public places. (Because Philadelphia is a relatively old city, the stories about buried bodies are mostly true!) A few people also told me about a ghostly SEPTA bus, which is famous enough to be mentioned a few times online.

According to the stories I’ve heard from university students and friendly strangers I’ve spoken with at local bars, the ghost SEPTA bus picks up people late at night, but only if they have nowhere to go and no one to miss them once they disappear onto the bus. 

There are actually a number of non-supernatural SEPTA buses that drive back along their routes through West Philly when they aren’t in service, and I occasionally see them pick up city maintenance workers and hospital staff late at night. What’s different about the ghost bus is what happens once you get on.

Apparently, there are three possibilities. The first is that the bus vanishes, and you’re never heard from again. The second is that you’re now trapped on the SEPTA bus along with the other desperate and unlucky souls who boarded before you. The third is that the bus travels back in time, albeit within a span limited to the history of the bus, and that you can signal the driver to stop when you’ve reached your desired destination in the past. 

The third possibility seems the most likely, as no one who has vanished or become trapped on the bus would be able to tell other people how this process works. Then again, it may be that a person who boards the mysterious SEPTA bus seems to vanish or sit in stasis from the perspective of someone who’s still in our timeline. There’s only one way to find out for sure…

Apartment Hunting

I moved to Philadelphia earlier this year. The circumstances weren’t ideal, and I only had a few days to find an apartment. I went on a few tours of large buildings and fancy condos, all of which were way out of my budget. Besides, I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that anyway.

I decided to pursue a different strategy. Instead of looking for listings online, I drove through several neighborhoods and took photos of places with For Rent signs outside. I sat in my car, made a list of phone numbers, and agreed to meet with anyone who picked up when I called.

This was how I found myself standing on the sagging porch of an old townhouse in West Philly with ornamental spires above the windows and a historic registry plaque beside the front entryway. A woman with a colorless suit and a severe haircut met me at the door and handed me a blank application form. Just in case, she said.

The interior was much larger than I expected. I’d never been inside a townhouse before, and I wasn’t prepared for how far back the hallway would stretch. The doors were strangely small, and the ceiling seemed far too high. This must be the building’s historic character, I told myself. Local color. The realtor wasn’t interested in conversation, so I stopped to take a picture of the crown molding, which was ornamented with carvings of infinitely spiraling vines.

When I looked up from my phone, I realized that I was alone. The hallway in front of me was dark, so I turned around and began walking back the way I came.

There were more turns and staircases than I remembered. As I walked, the floor grew spongy underneath my feet. My shoes made unpleasant squelching noises with every step. I started to notice that there were small mushrooms crouching in the corners of the walls and creeping up the support beams between doors.

I swallowed my embarrassment and called out to the realtor, but no one answered. I tried dialing the number printed on the For Rent sign, but no one picked up. I was lost, I realized. I’d somehow lost my way outside. At least I still had the application form.

It’s not so bad, all things considered. I was alarmed at first, but I’ve gotten used to it, and it’s not as if there’s anything I can do. I guess I live here now.

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This was my submission to the 2020 Philly Zine Fest Anthology. You can download a free PDF copy of the anthology (here). The Philly Zine Fest is held in West Philadelphia every November, and you can stay updated on Twitter (here).

Root Letter

Root Letter is a mystery-themed visual novel that should take most people about six or seven hours to play. I’ve read a number of positive reviews of the game, so I went ahead and downloaded a copy onto my Nintendo Switch when it went on sale at the end of the year.

You play as Takayuki, a thirty-something white collar worker who’s left his job at a design firm and has a bit of free time before he’s scheduled to start a new job. When he goes home to visit his parents, he finds a set of letters from Aya Fumino, his pen pal from his senior year of high school. He’d exchanged nine letters with her, but he discovers a tenth at the bottom of the stack that he doesn’t remember reading. In this letter, Aya tells Takayuki that she can no longer continue their correspondence. She apologizes, saying that she has killed someone.

Takayuki decides to try to find her in Matsue, a city on the Sea of Japan about halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima. When he arrives at the address on the letters, however, he finds an empty lot. A passing neighbor tells him that the house burned down fifteen years ago, so he checks the records at the city library. He learns that, while a girl named Aya Fumino used to live in that house, she died twenty-five years ago, long before she could have written to him.

Why did the house burn down? Who was pretending to be Aya Fumino? And who did she kill?

With a week of free time and an intriguing mystery on his hands, Takayuki sets about tracking down the seven friends his pen pal mentioned in her letters. None of them want to talk to him, however, and everyone claims not to know anyone named Aya Fumino, even when presented with her photo. Your goal, as Takayuki, is to find and interrogate these seven adults in an attempt to figure out who “Aya Fumino” was and what happened during her senior year of high school.

There are five possible endings to Root Letter, but its gameplay is almost completely linear. You use a drop-down menu to move between various locations in Matsue as you follow various hints and clues, and the “Think” command on your menu will (almost) always tell you where the game wants you to go next. The interrogation scenes feature a few Ace Attorney style elements that involve presenting the right piece of evidence at the right moment, but this is also extremely linear. There’s no reward for exploration or creativity; but, thankfully, there’s no punishment for failure. Root Letter is much more of an interactive novel than a game, and it’s not interested in derailing your progress through the story.

The ending you see is determined by your choice of how Takayuki responded to the letter from Aya Fumino that’s presented at the beginning of each of the game’s chapters. You’re given two sets of choices per letter, and your options tend to fall into discrete categories at don’t make much sense unless you already know which ending you’re trying to unlock. Like the shitty casual gamer I am, I chose a “normal” (to me) range of mixed responses and got the worst ending, in which the whole mess about Aya Fumino was a government conspiracy to cover up an alien invasion.

My advice would be to avoid my rookie mistake by consulting a guide to the endings before you begin. Don’t worry about spoiling yourself, because Root Letter’s story is so convoluted that none of the endings will make sense if you haven’t played the game.

It’s my understanding that the “default” ending, meaning the ending you’ll see if you always choose the first response option, is a bittersweet story about missed connections, growing up, and letting the past go as you move on with your life. Another ending, the “Cursed Letter” ending, is about the power of teenage imagination to create both urban legends and personal identity; while another, the “Princess of Himegamori Forest” ending, is a horror-themed exploration of local Shintō folklore.

One of the main benefits of playing the Last Answer edition of the game (as opposed to the original 2016 release) is that it contains an optional “drama mode.” The drama version of the game uses photos of real actors and locations; and, based on what I’ve seen, the photography is quite polished and surprisingly faithful. Having played the game through once with anime illustrations, I’m looking forward to playing it again in drama mode at some point in the future.

While Root Letter pushes the player forward with the strong forward momentum of its mystery story, it also invites you to take time to appreciate the sights of Matsue. As Takayuki, you’ll get to stay at a traditional hot springs inn, stroll through the forested grounds of Matsushiro Castle, visit art museums, and eat at trendy cafés. Root Letter leans especially hard into its celebration of the local cuisine, and I’m excited about the prospect of being able to enjoy photographic depictions of Matsue’s food culture.

Unfortunately, some elements of the game haven’t aged well, probably because they were never attractive to begin with. To give an example, one character admits to a violent attempted rape, and the other characters just sort of shake their heads and move on. If this assault only comes up briefly and is never mentioned again, why include it in the story at all? Likewise, “Aya Fumino’s” fake suicide is teased fairly early in the game but isn’t given any dramatic weight. Rather, it’s played purely for shock value, with the implicit understanding that this sort of thing is just what moody high school girls do.

Some of the most uncomfortable parts of the game involve a character nicknamed “Fatty.” This character’s entire arc is about how he’s overweight, and about how overweight people are weak and gross and unlovable. In order to psychologically break this character during his investigation, Takayuki taunts him with chocolate-covered potato chips, which he can’t resist because, at the deepest core of his being, he is and will always be a big fat fatty. The whole thing is super gross, especially in combination with the casual gay panic thrown into this chapter. I feel that this is one of the many instances in which a more judicious localization could have made some slight changes, not to erase this type of bigotry and meanness, but to mitigate it somewhat.

The player’s enjoyment of Root Letter is largely based on its story, so it’s a shame that the translation is so lackluster. It’s perfectly serviceable, and it’s far from unreadable, but it has numerous quality control issues that would be tedious to list. My main complaint is that the translation received very little localization, which is frustrating in terms of both story and gameplay.

Regarding gameplay, the lack of a localization has rendered it somewhat difficult to talk to or interrogate people, as there are numerous instances in which none of the dialog choices make the slightest bit of sense. The game isn’t that complicated, so you can brute-force your way through the poorly translated bits by trial and error, but it goes without saying that you shouldn’t have to.

It’s tricky to discuss the situations in which localization would have been preferable to a direct translation without resorting to an infodump, but I can give one example that’s fairly self-explanatory. One of the friends Aya Fumino mentions in her letters is nicknamed “Bitch.” In Japanese, the loanword bicchi doesn’t necessarily mean “mean girl,” as it does in English. Rather, it’s the 2015 version of gyaru or kogal, and it refers to a teenage girl who dyes her hair and uses tanning lotion and dresses in trendy clothes and pays a lot of attention to the entertainment industry. The English equivalent of this term changes from decade to decade; but, given that Takayuki probably went to high school around 1998-2001 or thereabouts, “valley girl” or “Barbie girl” might work. The character nicknamed “Bitch” is actually quite friendly, so listening to the other characters talk about how much they used to admire their friend “Bitch” is bizarre.

Root Letter has some definite rough patches, but I want to emphasize that I enjoyed this game. I spent a week playing it, reading for about an hour every day, and I had a lot of fun with its ridiculous characters, charmingly convoluted plot, and unapologetic embrace of virtual tourism. I’m happy that I finally got a chance to play Root Letter, but I’m also happy that I was able to get the game on sale, because I’m not sure it’s worth more than $20.

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince is a 2D puzzle platform game about two small children making their way through a creepy murder forest. Unlike similar games (such as Limbo, which jumps immediately to mind), The Liar Princess might best be described as an interactive storybook. The game’s emphasis is not so much on puzzles or platforming, but rather on using the conventions of gaming to help deepen the player’s connection with the characters as they travel through the story together.

This game was created by Nippon Ichi Software, which has developed a reputation for cute horror games with titles like Yomawari: Night Alone and A Rose in the Twilight. Still, I think The Liar Princess isn’t so much horror as it is dark fantasy, or fantasy with a few creepy elements and a touch of dark humor. There’s nothing explicitly violent or disturbing in the story or imagery, and the game itself is quite easy. I probably wouldn’t give this game to a young child, but playing it was a relaxing experience for me as an adult horror fan.

The plot and the gameplay go hand-in-hand, much like the eponymous princess and prince. The story has strong fairy tale elements, with a wolf asking a witch to turn her into a human so that she can save a prince. The prince’s misfortune is the wolf’s own doing, as she accidentally blinded him with her claws. The player’s goal is therefore to help the “princess” escort the prince to the forest witch to be cured before he discovers that she’s the wolf who blinded him. In her beast form, the wolf is powerful and impervious to attack, but she can only hold hands with the prince to guide him forward when she’s in her human form. The wolf can change forms at will, so the main challenge lies in positioning the prince in exactly the right way so that he can walk forward while remaining safe from harm.

The Liar Princess has five levels with four stages each, with a short prologue and a longer “final boss” level. (I’m using scare quotes because this final level is more of an obstacle course than an actual boss fight.) It’s relatively easy to figure out most of the puzzles through trial and error, and the death of either character usually only results in a small setback that generally involves the welcome reset of a specific puzzle. The game also gives the player the option to skip a stage after ten minutes if there’s a puzzle that’s just not clicking. Most of the actual fun of the gameplay involves searching each stage and taking calculated risks to find secret collectibles, which unlock pages of concept art and segments of the forest witch’s backstory. More than anything, The Liar Princess reminds me of the Metroidvania-lite feel of Super Princess Peach in that there’s no real sense of danger and failure is never punished.

The sort of people who complain about games being “too easy,” including no small number of professional reviewers, didn’t hesitate to make that complaint about The Liar Princess when it came out in English translation back in early 2019. The undemanding level of difficulty isn’t a deal-breaker for me personally, but I have to admit that the game isn’t without annoyances. There are a few number puzzles in the third level that are bizarrely tricky, for example, and sometimes it can be hard to tell whether you’re taking the incorrect approach to a puzzle or whether there’s been a glitch in the hitbox for a certain switch that isn’t triggering for some reason.

That being said, the main appeal of this game is visual, with its expressive characters and stylish backgrounds. (In fact, I might even go so far to say that The Liar Princess is perfect for people who love the visual design of Hollow Knight but don’t have the patience to deal with the gameplay.) The character designs are especially interesting and creative, from the weakest enemy in the first stage to the flower-eating “mole” creatures at the end of the game. Although the basic shape outlines are cute and simple, there’s always a fun twist somewhere – when the first mole creature opens its mouth, for instance, you are in for a treat. The game plays with its visual style to make all manner of (relatively gentle) jokes about how the prince doesn’t know that the characters he encounters are all people-eating monsters, and these jokes collectively raise questions about “blindness” and “monstrosity” that are subtle but engaging (and not in the least bit ableist).

My favorite part of the game is the wolf herself, who makes horrible decisions but is basically decent. Despite the fact that she is clearly lying in a way that hurts other people and herself, you can’t help but sympathize with her as her good intentions lead her increasingly astray. The development of the friendship between her and the prince is extremely cute, as is the way both characters smile when they’re holding hands. I’m also a fan of the unapologetically evil witch, and it’s worth seeking out the game’s collectibles in order to learn more about her story.

The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince isn’t a perfect game, and many people will probably think it’s too easy and too short. Playing it from start to finish took me about five hours, including the time I spent going back to earlier stages in order to pick up collectibles I missed and rewatch the cutscenes I unlocked. Despite a few frustrations with the gameplay mechanics, I loved The Liar Princess. I’m somewhat surprised that this game is considered to be a niche title, because it’s refreshingly accessible and a lot of fun. Although the most obvious comparison would seem to be something like Limbo, The Liar Princess actually feels much more like Journey – it’s a visually immersive and relatively chill game about loneliness and companionship that’s easy to dip into for fifteen minutes at a time when you want to relax and unwind.

Haunted Houses

Earlier this week I published my newest zine of horror-themed microfiction. Haunted Houses contains fifteen very short stories about haunted spaces and the terrible people who inhabit them. The cover art is by @QuinkyDinky, and the zine contains interior art by @irizuarts. I’ve got a listing up on Etsy (here), and I’m also promoting the zine on Twitter (here) and Instagram (here).

This zine is quite short, with each story and illustration occupying only one page. This is partially a trick of formatting, but it’s also a result of careful editing. You wouldn’t want to spend too much time in these places, after all.

I have to admit that, even though I’m categorizing this zine and the two other collections of microfiction that preceded it as “horror,” I’m on the fence about what genre my stories actually belong to.

In my mind, the genre of horror isn’t about a specific set of tropes or narrative structures. Rather, horror is characterized by the psychological and visceral sensation of unease it inspires.

I personally prefer to think of most horror, including the stories I write, as “dark fantasy,” or perhaps simply “magical realism.” I’m not easily creeped out by fiction, mainly because the real world is so lowkey awful so much of the time. As I write this, the National Guard is setting up base at a West Philadelphia Target in advance of the presidential election next week, ostensibly as a “defense” against people engaging in civic protest. There are actual tanks in the parking lot of the place I go to stock up on toilet paper, and that’s really scary. But monsters? Not so much.

I’ve always tended to identify with monsters, and not simply because so many villain characters are overtly coded as queer. Monsters are about disrupting the status quo, and I can get behind that. Postwar American horror cinema, including the slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s, is all about interlopers quietly invading small-town America and infecting people. The story behind many of these movies basically boils down to this: Can you even imagine scary things like communism and feminism and civil rights secretly gaining a foothold in our town? (Stephen King goes into fantastic detail about this in his 1981 book Danse Macabre, if you’re curious, and I think the book still reads well and holds up in many ways.)

To me, monsters aren’t scary because I am the monster, which is an uncomfortable set of life experiences to try to talk about in fiction or otherwise. There’s nothing you can specifically put your finger on regarding why people treat you the way they do, but you know there’s something a little off.

Fuck Sigmund Freud and his weird misogyny and homophobia, but I think I’m on the same page with him regarding “the uncanny” as one of the primary components of horror. Freud got a lot of things wrong in his career, but something he gets absolutely right is that it’s difficult to discuss the uncanny in concrete terms.

The uncanny doesn’t just apply to appearance, of course – social interactions and environments can be uncanny as well. If what I’m writing is horror at all, it probably falls into the subcategory of social horror, which focuses on people behaving in a way that’s almost human, but not quite. Many horror stories are cathartic, in that the status quo is threatened but ultimately restored at the end. Even if things have changed, we can feel relief in the knowledge that at least they’re getting back to normal. With social horror, however, our anxiety is never resolved, because we now understand that the status quo itself is horrifying.

It’s difficult for me to talk about the details of my identity and life in a mimetic way. When I’ve tried, it’s been my experience that people either won’t believe me, will think I’m being manipulative in an attempt to elicit undeserved sympathy, or will be put off by the political elements underlying my descriptions of the ways in which I’ve had to move through the world.

The point of the stories in Haunted Houses is not to try to explain why certain aspects of my life have been unsettling, but rather to create a sense of the uncanny in order to communicate the sense of feeling unsettled for reasons you can’t quite explain. Sometimes my stories about haunted houses are about the hidden trauma of being queer in a society that goes out of its way to create monsters; but, in the end, I just really like telling stories about strange people occupying uncomfortable places. I enjoy exploring these themes both as a reader and as a writer, and I’ve found that summoning the courage to open the door and peer into the darkness on the other side is, if not total escapism, still good spooky fun.

And right now, at this specific moment in time, I think we can all relate to the uncanny experience of feeling trapped in a haunted space, because this is our daily life – we live here now.

Cats Will Kill You

I have nothing but the strongest admiration for everyone who shares their living space with one of these little murder machines.

I drew this comic for the Catsploitation 2 zine created and edited by Matthew Ragsdale (@blankvalleyfilm on Instagram). You can get a copy of the zine from Matthew’s store (here).

It Never Happened

It Never Happened is my second zine of horror-themed flash fiction. It collects fifteen very short stories, as well as a spooky comic (that you can find here) by the artist Frankiesbugs.

This is the zine description:

This zine collects fifteen short stories about finding oneself in strange circumstances and adjusting to a new normal. Nothing that takes place in these stories actually happened, of course. Most of what transpires is a little creepy, but it’s important to remember that none of this is real. If you read these stories, you might not be real either, but don’t let that stop you.

I love autobio comics, and a lot of these stories came from my failed attempts to write comic scripts. What I realized during this process is that it’s very difficult for me to talk about myself. Although I obviously have no trouble sharing my opinions, I never know what to say when I try to describe my own life. All of the stories in this zine are based on real experiences; but, as the title suggests, none of this ever actually happened.

Or rather, that’s not entirely true. One of these stories is 100% factually accurate, but I’m not going to say which one.

If you’re interested, there are still a few copies of this zine (on Etsy).