Sunday, 14 November 2010

Alan Campbell, Scar Night. The Deepgate Codex, Volume 1 (2006)

Good stuff: this is a cleanly- (and sometimes even well-) written piece of fiction, ingenious and fast-paced. My right forefinger kept sliding under the bottom right hand corner of the page, lifting it, and turning it so that I could keep reading. But—but.

It’s a novel with all the Gothic trappings: scenes, characters, props, bloodletting, dark gods, nameless horrors. And as such, whilst I enjoyed it plenty, I couldn’t ignore the way it wholly failed to drag its tentacles of dread over the tender membrane of my imagination. I was never scared; never spooked; never, really, put in any position beyond ‘oh, I wonder what’s going to happen next?’

Campbell, the blurb boasts, came to writing from designing video games. He designs his world with a video-game-designers professionalism, care, detail and flatness. The city of Deepgate has hanged (not hung, whatever the novel says: meat is hung [after checking: nope, I'm wrong and the novel is right ... it's hung]) suspended by massive chains over a bottomless abyss for, with splendidly vague and windy periodicity, a hundred generations. In the abyss is a fallen god, Ulcis, worshipped by the citizens of Deepgate. The characters are manifold, and include Dill, a last-of-his-race winged human 'angel', sexy kick-ass female [yawn] assassin Rachel Hael, sinister priests, mad goddesses, various sorts.

There have been, I’m well aware, video games that aim for the spooky (Silent Hill, say). Yet I have never been spooked by a video game; and I wonder why that is—wonder, indeed, whether my reaction is unusual. It seems to me that the real skin-crawling eeriness of the uncanny depends upon a kind of existential passivity (to put it more precisely: upon an existential passion), an opening of oneself to the appalling strangeness of the Other. But gaming, on the contrary (and the pseudo-gamy, such as the hectic, onward-thrusting narrative of a novel like this one) depend upon a simulacrum of activity. Pushing the buttons, leaning one’s thumb on the joystick, levering the viewpoint onward, exploring, going-on, moving through. All of that is too kinetic for the cultivation of a genuinely creepiness. I could go on, and suggest that the unheimlich requires us to revisit the home in such a way as to understand its unhomeliness. A novel like this is not really interested in the return home. It’s all about the there, none of it is about the back again. Campbell introduces his gnarly, ingenious chained-over-the-abyss city in order that we might explore it, visualise it, get used to it—and once we’ve done that Campbell disposes of it, severing the chains and casting it into the depths. The story must shed it and move on.


Abigail Nussbaum said...

I've always thought that hanged was only for people, hung for everything else.

I was unimpressed with this one. Not so much because of scariness or lack thereof - I get scared by things I can see (hence video games scare me more easily than they do you) but not things I read about. I just found the characters completely uninteresting.

Adam Roberts said...

Abigail, looks like you're right about 'hung' and I'm wrong.

The characters are more marionettes, occasionally well-carved, than people, I agree.

Have you really been scared by a video game? How interesting.

Adam Roberts said...

I might add, reading over my review again: it could be that the author wasn't aiming at Gothic eeriness or horror. But if so, then why all the Gothic trappings, the carefully imitating props and stylings?

Matt said...

I think re: video games you have to have played them enough. For someone like myself who grew up playing them, when done well they can be extremely immersive. I don't think of moving a joystick or a mouse, I just think of "walking over there" and do it.

I don't usually play survival horror games, but I can say that System Shock 2 was scary enough when I first played it that even though I was enjoying the story, the physical toll it was taking on me prevented me from continuing. I've heard a lot of people (not everyone of course) online say similar things about it.

Adam Roberts said...

That's interesting, Matt. But are you talking about being 'scared', or being creeped-out? Scares are easy enough to orchestrate: jangle the player's (or reader's) expectations, insert sudden shocks and so on. Creating an eerie, creepy, properly Gothic mood is something else I'd suggest.

I've not played System Shock, mind.

rreugen said...

I get creeped-out by games.

I noted the difference between "scared" and "creeped-out" and I guess I just function in a different way.

I am never creeped-out while reading a book. It happens that I am creeped-out while playing a game (Silent Hill, one of those) and while watching movies (the one with the girls in the cave, The Deep?), to the point where I'm not enjoying the experience anymore. I appreciate reading (and theater) more than gaming or watching movies, because they don't do that to me, they don't remove me from the artistic act.

Tom said...

Its been a while since I read this, but from what I remember the city exuded a brooding decayed (and at times borderline comic) melancholy, rather than a creepiness. More Gormenghast than Woman in Black.

That said there are moments, especially the giant pin-ball bit that could have come out of Super Mario 4.

Chris said...

Games that do created genuine creeped-outedness in me tend to do so by making me more passive - forcing me to watch scenes, taking away gear etc. The Cradle level in Thief 3 (from the same stable as System Shock) is a good example of this, and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, at least until it turns into a Deep One killing spree. But ultimately you always know that the game is finishable whereas in a genuinely creepy book, if people start to die off unexpectedly you can't just go online and find a guide on how to read it so that they live.

Adam Roberts said...

Chris, rruegen, I'm quite prepared to believe you know more about gaming than I do. As I say, my response my be unusual. Maybe if I played more, I'd have a different view on this.

Jacob said...

I've been reading my way backward through the blog and thought this merited a quick comment. Two points:

a) some video games do produce an effect by taking a degree of agency and motion away from the player. The tremendously creepy Thief games, which cast you as a burglar in a High Gothic fantasy city, have as their core mechanic the act of hiding very still and quiet in the dark corners of rooms, waiting patiently for passing palace guards or cultists or worse things to pass on by.

b) even when this is not the case, games can and do produce dread - that awful sensation of having to progress forward but knowing something awful is lurking just ahead, and the only option to avoid is is to disengage from the narrative entirely. (There's a great Sesame Street children's book called "The Monster At the End of This Book," which is page after page of Grover the Muppet begging the reader to close the book and not to turn the pages any more, that reminds me of this.)