Ceres’s Story Arc

I’m going to start writing my query letter for The Demon King soon, so I’ve been thinking about how to describe the story, which has two parallel threads that unspool in alternating chapters. The eponymous “demon king” Balthazar (he’s not really a demon king) is the main point-of-view character, as it’s his actions that push the larger narrative forward, but the role of his “nemesis” Princess Ceres (she’s not really his nemesis) as a deuteragonist is equally important and will only become more important as the story progresses.  

Balthazar’s plot arc in the first novella is simple: he says he will go to a temple and find a magical artifact, and he goes to a temple and finds a magical artifact.

Meanwhile, what’s going on with Ceres is more complicated and can’t be succinctly summarized.

Ceres opens the story by sending a hero to fight Balthazar. This “hero” is actually a convict whom she has effectively exiled, and she intends for Balthazar to dispose of him. He does so, but not before the hero kills two people and injures a third.

Back in Whitespire, Ceres grants a private audience to a viscount from an outlying territory who essentially asks to stop paying taxes. Ceres dismisses him, but she allows herself to be seduced by his daughter, who wants the viscount to step down so that she can manage her family’s estate. While engaging in an openly sexual relationship with the viscount’s daughter, Ceres realizes that the viscount himself is being manipulated by a shadowy anti-monarchist political faction. In an attempt to provoke the members of the faction to reveal themselves, Ceres orders the head of her intelligence staff to direct a covert attack on the viscount’s estate.

Members of a separate anti-monarchist faction, fearing that they will be blamed for this attack, offer a scapegoat in the form of an advanced student of magic – a grad student, basically – who has been distributing seditious tracts. Ceres has actually discussed the matter beforehand with one of the leaders of the grad student’s faction, who is her close friend (and happens to be the author of the ongoing series of romance novels that Balthazar is addicted to). She therefore exiles the student, ostensibly to die at the hands of the demon king but actually to study with his friend Melchior, a wizard from a foreign kingdom who has strong anti-monarchist leanings of his own.

Ceres has grown fond of the viscount’s daughter, and she doesn’t want her or her father to become pawns of court politics in the way that the grad student did. She therefore engineers a minor scandal involving the viscount, which serves as the excuse the daughter needs to transfer power away from her father.

At the end of the first story arc, the viscount and his daughter leave the castle alive and unharmed. Ceres hasn’t been able to figure out who was manipulating the viscount at court, but she’s content to have secured an ally in the viscount’s daughter, who will almost certainly manage her family’s estate better than her father.

All’s well that ends well, but the reader is left with the dangling thread of why Ceres is so amenable to the idea of deposing herself from her own throne. In addition, how does she know Balthazar, and why is she so friendly with him? There’s also the matter of Ceres having sent Balthazar a “hero” that he was given no choice but to murder. Balthazar alludes to the fact that this isn’t the first time Ceres has done this, which is even more disturbing.

At the beginning of the second story arc, probably at the end of the second chapter, Ceres is going to address this matter directly and reflect the main theme of the story back on Balthazar by saying that these “heroes” have a choice. What she means is that no one is forcing them to attack the people they see as their enemies, but this raises the question of whether Ceres is giving Balthazar a choice in how he handles the circumstances she has created. This digs even deeper into the story’s theme by suggesting that some choices aren’t so simple, and that people suffer when they try to deal with making these choices on their own.

Also I intend for Ceres to make a lot of jokes about oral sex in her second story arc.

This summary is much more complicated than the story itself, hopefully. Ceres is not an unreliable viewpoint character, and none of these plot elements are supposed to be confusing or mysterious to the reader.

In the end, the goal of all this political intrigue is to set up Ceres’s kingdom as a battleground while establishing that it is primarily a battleground of relationships and feelings.

If Balthazar is a means to look at high fantasy heroic quest narratives from a different perspective, then Ceres is my take on the traditional “pure-hearted princess” trope. Ceres is in her early thirties, and I don’t think a princess can survive that long in a position of near-absolute power without being extremely clever and at least a little evil.

The above illustration of Ceres was created by the stylish and magical Fernanda V. (@artesiants on Instagram and on Twitter + @artesiant on Tumblr), who draws bold and fashionable designs of witchy characters. The prompt I gave her was “an elven princess who is beautiful and ethereal but delights in destroying her enemies,” and I love how she’s mixed diaphanous skirts and delicate jewelry with a lightly armored Amazonian halter that leaves Ceres’s arms free and ready to handle any conflict that comes her way.

It’s so interesting to see how various artists interpret this character, and every illustration of her makes me even more committed to telling her story despite the occasionally stress-inducing intricacies of its twists and turns.

The Demon King Editing Notes

Starting in April, I’m going to begin putting together a formal query letter for The Demon King. I’d like to participate in the #PitMad event on Twitter at the beginning of June, and I’d also like to finish up this portion of the project so that I can go ahead and get started on the next novella in the series.

If you’re interested, this is my fifty-word Twitter pitch:

The Demon King is a high fantasy adventure comedy about a garbage wizard named Balthazar who seeks to claim a magical relic sleeping within the castle of a powerful and devious princess. Until then, he would prefer to be left alone so he can read trashy romance novels in peace.

I’m going to put the first novella through another round of intense editing in May, but I just wrapped up the initial set of major edits. I’ve been fixing typos and other minor second-draft awkwardness, but I’ve also been thinking about tone and structure, as well as how I relate to the genre of fantasy in general.

Although this will change as the story progresses, the beginning of The Demon King is largely an episodic comedy that plays with tropes from epic fantasy novels and video games. Instead of exaggerating or subverting these tropes, I’m interested in looking at them from the perspective of rational adult characters who fit their assigned archetypes poorly at best.

Each chapter is prefaced by a short introductory section modeled on the sort of “lore” or “flavor text” that a player can unlock in a video game by defeating a certain number of enemies, collecting a certain number of items, and so on. This isn’t made explicitly clear in the first novella, but these intro sections are written by Balthazar, the eponymous Demon King, who is addicted to romance novels and secretly aspires to be a writer himself.

I’ve been putting a lot of work into crafting an appropriately epic language for these sections. What I’m aiming for is a needlessly fancy style that borders on purple prose without being actually poorly written or obnoxious. In addition, I’d like for readers who come back to these passages after they know more about the world of the story to able to see where Balthazar is being ironic, where he’s being sincere, and where he’s flat-out lying.

I had initially italicized these sections in italics, but I think we can all collectively agree that italics are difficult to read. I therefore reformatted the text to remove all the italics on the chapter intro sections. I might put them back in to demonstrate that these are excerpts from “found sources” and not part of the main body of narration, but I think the character-specific perspectives of the chapters are clear enough that third-person omniscient narration stands out strongly on its own.

I also decided is that everyone is going to be represented as speaking English. If the viewpoint character – usually Balthazar – can understand what someone is saying, it won’t be accented with italics. Perhaps other characters might comment on the fact that he understands speech they don’t, but I don’t want to play games with fantasy languages. Along the same lines, I deleted all mentions of fantasy language names. Nobody needs that.

One of my most hated of all sci-fi and fantasy tropes is when a story gluts itself on constructed terminology, especially in lieu of meaningful worldbuilding. I therefore tried to keep fantasy words at an absolute minimum. The crow people (called starags, after the Gaelic word for “crow”) have their own name because it would be silly to call them “crow people,” and the concept of a “gaesh” (a type of semi-telepathic soul bond that facilitates magic sharing) is something that I want to feel strange and alien to the reader, but I think that’s it.

I leaned into this by using common words for elements that are native to the story. For example, Balthazar is not a “demon” in the usual sense of the word, the “gargoyles” who appear about halfway through the story are actually bat people, the “artifact” Balthazar is seeking is something highly unusual and specific, and the creatures that Balthazar calls “dogs” and “horses” are not dogs and horses by a long shot.

As the story continues, I think it’s going to be fun to play with the disconnect between what various characters take for granted as common knowledge, but I want this to remain comfortably in the realm of comedy and not venture into the territory of “who knows what secrets at what point in the story.” If anyone asks, you didn’t hear this from me, but plot is overrated. The plot of The Demon King is going to become more interesting and intricate as more layers of its story are revealed, but I want the reader to care about the characters before the plot ever becomes a concern.

That being said, there are major conflicts between the characters that have no easy resolutions, so I took care in my edits to make sure that each of the main characters states their goals clearly. Figuring out why these characters insist on pursuing these goals is the story’s primary source of forward momentum, so I’m doing my best to set up these mysteries while also providing ample clues and a healthy dose of foreshadowing.   

Hopefully the process of writing a query letter will help me clarify the themes and narrative structure so that I can continue to hone the story when I return to it in May for another set of edits.

For the time being, I’m hosting the first novella in The Demon King on AO3, and you can find it (here).

This post’s illustration of Balthazar is by the lovely @Lemonscribs on Instagram, who was kind enough to compare the character’s aesthetic of Katie O’Neill’s fantasy slice-of-life comic The Tea Dragon Society. What an apt observation, and what an incredible compliment!

Memorabilia Zine


This is a preview of the short story I contributed to Memorabilia, a Legend of Zelda fanzine devoted to the archaeology and architecture of Breath of the Wild.

“A Noble Pursuit” is about Rhondson, the Gerudo tailor who moves to Tarrey Town, embarking on a husband hunt to the Akkala Citadel Ruins after Hudson goes missing. It’s a story about exploration and discovery, as well as different views of the past and hopes for the future that awaits Hyrule beyond “happily ever after.”

Pre-orders are open (here) until Sunday, March 14. This zine contains more than a hundred pages of brilliant writing and awe-inspiring art. It’s certain to be a treasure to anyone who enjoyed exploring the ruins and history of Breath of the Wild – and to anyone fascinated by the lore and environmental design in Creating a Champion.

You can check out more previews of the zine on its Twitter account, @MemorabiliaZine, and on its Tumblr account, @memorabiliazine.

Balthazar as Antagonist


The Demon King
has ten chapters, and I’m a little more than halfway done with the first round of edits. I should be able to meet my projection of finishing by March 15, a month after I completed the first draft. The draft is only about 30k words, but progress is slow. The psychic damage I’m taking from finding typos and inconsistencies and unintended repetitions cannot be exaggerated.

This is only the first of five story arcs, so one of my main goals during this round of editing is to ensure that the central conflict is presented clearly and makes sense according to the somewhat limited information available to the reader. This is a short summary:

A powerful wizard named Balthazar wants to find a magical artifact hidden somewhere in the mountains between the kingdom of Whitespire and the ocean, which is highly poisonous. This artifact probably has something to do with the pure water coming down from the mountains and ensuring the prosperity of the kingdom. Balthazar doesn’t mention this artifact to his confidant Ceres, the reigning princess of Whitespire, who is presumably either unaware of its existence or unwilling to discuss it. If Balthazar does manage to find this artifact, the way he plans to use it will result in the downfall of Whitespire.

Balthazar is open with Ceres about his intentions to destroy Whitespire, but he makes no move to attack the kingdom, choosing instead to seek other magical artifacts elsewhere. It’s unclear why Balthazar is taking such a circuitous route toward his goal, but I hope the reader is able to get the sense that he’s not really the sort of person who would harm anyone if he could avoid it. He specifically doesn’t want to harm Ceres, mainly because he likes her.

There’s no significant antagonist in the story aside from Balthazar himself, as he’s going to have to do terrible things and hurt the people he cares about if he insists on achieving his goal. Unfortunately, he’s deadly serious about what he aims to do, so much so that it’s at the core of his sense of identity.

It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I’m inspired by the narrative structure of Homestuck, in which everything seems very silly and trope-driven until the reader gains a better understanding of what’s going on with the world of the story. I think it’s probably a fool’s errand to ask any given writer what themes they’re trying to express, but Balthazar has a line to the effect of “you always have a choice” that’s probably the closest thing to a statement of purpose I have regarding issues of individual freedom and dignity in the face of overwhelmingly horrible circumstances.

Also there are dick jokes, which symbolizes the fact that I like dick jokes.

In any case, once I finish this round of edits, I’m going to let the story sit for another month before writing a formal query. I’ll then do another round of edits before participating in several pitch events starting in late May. I’ll more than likely take the story offline at that point, but you can still read the draft as I edit it on AO3 (here).

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.

The Demon King, Chapter Ten

It is a beautiful day, and you are a horrible demon king.

What would you like to do?

– Make a pot of tea.
– Water your plants.
– Read a trashy romance novel.
– Have a nice chat with your nemesis.
– Take a long nap.

This illustration is by the magical Starstray (on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr). The prompt I gave her was “a very powerful and very fancy wizard who is very bad at being a demon king.”

I commissioned this painting to celebrate having finished the first book of The Demon King, which I’m going to call The Temple of Everlasting Autumn. It took me four months to write this 30k-word novella, and I’m going to take another month to edit it. I’d also like to put together some book cover style graphics to showcase each of the ten chapters. After that, it will probably be time to start thinking about where the project can go in the future. In the meantime, you can read the first draft (as I gradually edit it) and check out all the comics and illustrations on AO3 (here).

The Demon King, Chapter 9

I just posted Chapter Nine of The Demon King on AO3 (here).

This is the second-to-last chapter of the novella, and it’s meant to function as a narrative climax. At the beginning of the first chapter, Balthazar casually murders someone; and, at the end of this chapter, he destroys an entire ecosystem. He has his reasons for doing what he’s doing, but I want to make it clear to the reader that he’s not fucking around. I also want to make it clear that this story is not YA fiction, so the language I used in this chapter is a bit… tumescent, let’s say.

Even though its narrative arc is complete in itself, this novella is intended to be the first part of a longer story, and I hope this sort of explosive conclusion is equally satisfying and intriguing. I think it can be understood as a natural outgrowth of the concepts that have already been introduced, but my goal is for an astute reader to come out of this chapter with a deeper curiosity about the history and metaphysics of this world.

This illustration of Balthazar is by the brilliant Jennifer So (@hellojennso on Twitter, @jennosaur on Instagram, and @jennlso on Tumblr), who designed the character. This is actually the first character design created for The Demon King (back in November 2018), and I’m excited to finally share it. Jenn nailed the character on the very first draft, and this is how I’ve pictured him since then.

The Demon King, Chapter Five

The Bridges Under the Mountains
https://archiveofourown.org/works/26956795/chapters/67408192

This chapter was partially inspired by the Mines of Moria from The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s also a response to the part of Stephen King’s postapocalyptic fantasy novel The Gunslinger in which the hero Roland responds to the “slow mutants” who live in a tunnel through the mountains by shooting them. I always thought that was rude, even when I read the book as a kid. Couldn’t he have just, you know, tried talking to them?

The Demon King is, in many ways, my response to how upsetting I find the violence that’s taken for granted in a lot of science fiction and fantasy stories. It’s nice to be a hero, of course, but what might that type of world look like if you’re the sort of person who’s considered to be a monster?

How to Pass Academic Peer Review

An unfortunate paradox of academic writing is that, if people can read and understand your argument, then they will assume that you have done no intellectual labor. Conversely, if your reader has trouble approaching your writing, they will assume that your work is difficult because of the sophistication of your ideas. In order to publish your work in an academic venue, it is therefore necessary to create artificial barriers that serve to make your writing inaccessible.

Based on my study of the writing of respected and highly cited scholars in my field, as well as my numerous experiences with peer review, these are my suggestions.

(1) Long sentences

Many people drawn to academia think in complex sentences with multiple subordinate clauses and, when lecturing, may take several minutes to finish a single thought. When translated into writing, this style of intellectual processing is generally edited for concision and clarity.

Your job is to reverse the general philosophy of editing and make your sentences longer. The more clauses the better. Commas are largely unnecessary, but you should use as many semicolons as you can get away with.

(2) Large paragraphs

After a certain point, long paragraphs become needlessly difficult to read. This is why writers are encouraged to construct paragraphs of roughly five to ten sentences, with each paragraph beginning with a clear opening sentence that introduces and sets the tone for the material that follows. Writers are also encouraged to begin a new paragraph if their presentation or argument begins to head in a different direction.

In academic writing, however, you need to lose the reader, not help them follow you. It’s therefore important to keep your paragraphs as long as possible. When combined with longer sentences, large paragraphs will ensure that your reader skims the material instead of reading it closely.

(3) Walls of plot summary or decontextualized infodumps

A major element of writing nonfiction is the ability to present your information or opinion in a way that is carefully curated and summarized so that the reader can understand the most important points. The frequently referenced adage “kill your darlings” is an injunction to remove material that may be interesting to you but irrelevant to the reader.

Meanwhile, the goal of academic writing is to force the reader to perform intellectual labor by refusing to curate or structure information. You should therefore attempt to include as much raw information as you can by presenting facts with no contextualizing details or analysis. Extended plot summary filled with minute details is ideal, but you can also occupy space through prolonged references to secondary sources.

(4) Incoherent structure

In order for writing to be comprehensible, it needs to be structured in such a way that a sequence of events or arguments can be understood according to a chain of logic, with Sentence B acting as a natural outgrowth from Sentence A. This also applies to larger divisions such as paragraphs and subsections.

In academic writing, however, each unit of language should exist as independently as possible. Each sentence should be a world unto itself with no immediate connection to the sentences that precede and follow it. In addition, needlessly long paragraphs will help to ensure that the reader will struggle to understand the purpose any given sentence. Many first drafts display this lack of cohesion simply as a result of being unedited, so it’s often best to leave your first draft as it stands, especially in terms of weak or incomprehensible structure. Again, your goal is to make the reader perform intellectual labor.

(5) Unexplained (and potentially misused) specialist terminology

This should go without saying, but the one of the easiest ways to render your writing inaccessible is by employing as much specialist terminology as possible. A writer interested in communication will introduce specialist terminology, contextualize it, apply it through concrete examples, and use it in a consistent manner so that even a reader who has never encountered the terminology before should be able to understand it by the end of the essay.

In order to maintain intellectual superiority over the reader, however, you should keep your specialized terminology as decontextualized as possible. If you have succeeded in creating an incoherent structure, your reader will not be able to ascertain whether you’re using the terminology in a meaningful way, so it is not necessary that you understand the terminology yourself.

(6) Unexplained (and potentially misused) references

Along with decontextualized specialist terminology, you need to reference other scholarship in a way that is opaque and difficult to follow. As with specialist terminology, it is not necessary that you understand the scholarship you’re citing. It’s probably not necessary to read it at all, in fact. Rather, all you have to do is figure out whose names you need to drop and then do so as frequently as possible.

If you feel uncomfortable with this, it’s important to remember that many prominent theorists have large and complicated bodies of work that require years of study to understand, and that few people have the resources to do so. To give an example, you may not feel confident citing the work of someone like Franz Fanon or Judith Butler without reading or understanding it, but you need to pretend as though you have total understanding so that your peer reviewers can feel satisfied in being able to sustain the fantasy that they have total understanding as well. It’s very much an “emperor’s new clothes” situation, so use this to your advantage.

(7) Incohesive incorporation of feedback

If your manuscript is returned with suggestions for revisions, do not attempt to make sense of them. Address each item in a single sentence, and insert these sentences into your writing at random intervals. Each sentence is a world unto its own, after all, and a lack of cohesive editing will help to keep paragraphs long and incomprehensible so that the editor can’t be bothered to question your revisions.

If a reviewer recommends that you cite something, do so, and make no attempt to incorporate it into your existing argument. Remember, you do not need to have read and understood something in order to cite it, and you most certainly don’t need to agree with it.

(8) Uncritical incorporation of racist and misogynistic scholarship

In my first book, I wrote about how many of the dominant academic treatments of gender in Japanese popular culture don’t account for a female audience or accept the reality of women as anything beyond a philosophical construct. I argued that, if we can acknowledge the existence of female and queer writers, artists, and readers, then our understanding of contemporary transnational media cultures has the potential to be transformed in interesting and exciting ways. This project met with strong resistance at every step of the process, with peer reviewer after peer reviewer telling me that I wasn’t citing enough Western male scholars in my discussions of Japanese female creators. Even more curious, the theorists and scholars I was expected to cite were often men with opinions about race and gender that, to say the least, have not aged well.

I also realized, during my time as a tenure-track professor, that academia as a whole is frustratingly conservative underneath its mask of progressivism. Moreover, a not-insignificant amount of English-language scholarship is essentially a celebration of white heritage. There is unfortunately very little solidarity between women, queer people, or people of color when it comes to peer review, as many “outsiders” tend to justify their inclusion by overcompensating as gatekeepers. You therefore have to – you have to – cite white men who were (or still are) openly misogynistic and critical of “the lesser races.” If you are disgusted by this, as I am, and if you try to resist it, as I did, you will be perceived as not respecting the methodology of your discipline and not taking the enterprise of scholarship seriously.

A careful and experienced writer will be able to fix most of the stylistic issues (and issues regarding inclusion and cultural sensitivity) common to academic writing during the process of editing. If you want to pass peer review, however, you need to emphasize and perhaps even exaggerate such problematic elements. Again, the goal is to make your writing difficult to approach and understand so that you seem more intelligent.

You may be thinking that this “advice” is parody. Please allow me to assure you that it’s not.

As much as I wish this weren’t the case, I’m dead serious. I started off as an extremely “scholarly” writer, but I gradually trained myself to be more “accessible,” a word that’s almost always used as a passive-aggressive insult within academia. Unfortunately, I found that my success with peer review diminished in direct proportion to the growth of my skill as an editor. I therefore had to retrain myself to produce performatively esoteric writing, and I recently had two articles accepted for publication only after “revising” them according to the guidelines I listed above. No one knows more than I do just how utterly absurd this is, and I am very tired.

Perhaps you find academic writing and the process of peer review to be elitist and exclusionary. Perhaps you may also suspect that the fundamental structure of academic publication actively works to silence and discredit diverse voices and opinions. If this is the case, let me ask you the question I’ve been asking myself almost every day for the past year: Why are you so invested in academia, then?

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.