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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Hauntology/Headology: Carpe Jugulum and Gothic Justice

The vampires in Discworld novel Carpe Jugulum may be modern, but the story is still firmly gothic. So who in the story is the gothic entity haunting the present?





A ghostly chill fills the air. You grip your beer nervously as a darksome specter approaches across the empty, deserted room. With a hollow sound, these words issue forth from the apparition:

"Hey have I told you about this great fanfic idea I had?"

You take a deep drink. It's going to be a long night.



If I was going to write a fanfic about Discworld, it would be set in Uberwald. It would be based on these pieces of information:

  1. We know that the witch Alison Weatherwax at the end of her life went into the dark lands of Uberwald. While she was there she staked at least one vampire. She did not, as people believed, Go To The Bad, then. For whatever reason, this old witch, who we know only as the grandmother of Granny Weatherwax, went into a land full of vampires and werewolves and centaurs and goblins and harpies and orcs, and she kept her wits about her while she was there.
  2. We know that The Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats, priest of Om, also went into Uberwald, several generations later. We know that he went with forgiveness at his side. We know that he went there to spread the word of Om and to bring Light Into Dark Places. While there, he used forgiveness to break the chains of a young orc named Nutt, setting in motion the events of Unseen Academicals and an end to the fear and superstition surrounding orcs.
    1. Note: "Forgiveness" is the name of Mightily Oates's battleaxe.
    2. The chains were quite literal; they attached Nutt to an anvil.
  3. We know that change might come after a long and difficult struggle, but it is possible.
  4. We know that witches always cheat.

There's enough there to start building a fic just on canonical grounds, I think. We've got some characters, we've got a setting, we've got some story hooks... there's enough to work with.

But what really animates, or reanimates, this ghost of a narrative the thematic hook that the book Carpe Jugulum provides.



Carpe Jugulum is properly Goffic for all that it plays with the tropes all over the place. I mean, it's a story with vampires and castles and a lurching servant named Igor and, above all else, witches. Very goffic indeed.

It's also a story about modernity and the horrors of modernity. This is where the story might feel a little out of step with the gothic tradition. The gothic is so deeply tied to hauntings--to the past reaching forward into the present. Yet here the gothic vampires are leading the charge into the Modern.

Shall we... re-hearse

The plot gets going when Verence, King of Lancre, unwisely invites a neighboring clan of vampires to his daughter's christening, because, well, inviting neighboring royalty is what you Do when you're a modern nation, and that's exactly what Verence aspires to turn Lancre into. Of course, everyone knows that you don't invite vampires into your house, and inviting them into your kingdom, well... it goes without saying that's just asking for trouble.

The trouble that arrives is the Count De Magpyr and his family, who are thoroughly modern vampires. Armed with a philosophy of eugenic perfection, the Count has trained his family to resist the banes of old vampires. He has drilled his children with holy symbols on flash cards, developed a taste for garlic (vampires are not, he points out, afraid of onions, so why just this one member of the Alium family?), and decided that they in fact do drink... wine.

Of course, they still murder and eat people. That hasn't changed.

This is important because the story's horror content stems from precisely this conflict. The Count and his family have modernized their way of doing vampirism, but are still quite keen on being brainwashing, person-eating vampires. The most chilling section of the book comes when the young witch Agnes Nitt, having attracted the attention of the Count's son Vlad, is invited to tour and marvel at the "reforms" the Magpyrs have made back home in Uberwald. Think, children coming of age through ritual bloodletting. Think, people queuing up to be fed to the vampire clan, in an orderly, reasonable system. Think, a nice new church bell that the vampires generously paid for.

Yes, these vampires invest in infrastructure.

These vampires are rational philanthropists.



Discworld's grappling with modernity is tied to its hypertextuality, and those qualities together are why the possibility of Discworld fic calls out to me. Discworld is a setting that changed over time, and those changes happened in a nonlinear way, in a way that branched and intersected without a hard center.

Oh sure, there's "reading orders" for Discworld. A fandom of something like Discworld probably needs to develop an affordance like that. How else can you hook other people into the fandom? And there's certainly a chronology to when books came out (though I gather Pratchett worked on more than one book at once). 

What you find if you look at those reading order diagrams, though, is a tangled web of interactions between different books and characters and storylines. The books are actually impossible to model in a linear way! I mean just look at this nonsense:



Maybe it's cheating to use the most confusing chart I could find... but this is the ONLY chart I've found that connects Small Gods to Carpe Jugulum. Oh, sure, there's no directly shared characters, but remember Pastor Oats, from the top of this article? Oats is an Omnian, which is Discworld's Christianity stand in.

The protagonist of Small Gods is Omnian Jesus, the most important prophet in Pastor Oats's theology, and a guy that started all the schisms and debates that Oats struggles with in the present day.

Can you see why there might be some reason to want to read Small Gods before you read Carpe Jugulum? Yet, this connection doesn't follow easily into a linear model following a stable group of characters through a largely self contained narrative, so it, like so many similar connections, tends to be erased.

Not that Small Gods is in any way a hard prerequisite. I'm not arguing really that we need to replace the linear reading model with what amounts to just a more complicated linear model. People get so hung up on Proper Orders these days. It's all quite bizarre to me, as someone who grew up grabbing The Sequel Tos at the library if they caught my eye, and turning into anime halfway through a 50 episode run on Adult Swim. Sometimes you've just got to grab the story as it makes itself materially available to you, you know? And from there you can build and follow the paths. 

You can start wherever, and navigate the story not as a line but as a whole landscape.

The knock-on effect though is that Discworld, taken in aggregate ends up being less about singular heroes and more about lots of different characters coming together to slowly but surely change the world. The story of Discworld, particularly once you hit The Truth and the books after it, is one of a world modernizing. Pratchett is clever enough and angry enough to recognize that modernization isn't always pleasant, of course. Hence the DeMagpyrs. But core to the books is the sense of making the world better and more just over time.

The way that Discworld gets there is not through a singular Great Reformer but through lots of people, the heroes of their own individual narratives, working sometimes in concert with others and sometimes in conflict. The protagonists of one series might be antagonistic in another, if only through misunderstanding or divergent aims. 

This is what is most intriguing to me as someone who still feels the urge to fic, now and again. There's so much that can be done with such a wide-ranging, deeply hypertextual setting, particularly when the lower-tier nonlinear structure is supported by a higher-tier thematic structure, one where the wider narrative is about the world as a whole.



One of the great things about a hypertextual narrative, of course, is that you can produce a bunch of individual stories that take divergent perspectives on the main problem of your setting. And if one of the main problems of Discworld is "how are we to progress toward justice," one of the main perspectives you'd want to include is the possibility of "progress" being monstrous.

This is the possibility the de Magpyrs represent.

There's plenty of parallels to the de Magpyrs through history, of course. Since I've got an art history background I most think of the Italian Futurists, so let's talk about them for a second here. The Futurists loved everything about progress and the dawning age of the machine. They also loved the idea of war and fascism and putting women in their place and so on. They united a worship of new technologies which gave rise to truly remarkable experiments in light and motion in art, while fusing it to a deep chauvinism and worship of past nationalist strength. Progress and modernity, yes, but monstrously so.

Intriguingly, Discworld's hypertextual structure allows for counterpoints to the de Magpyrs, examples of vampires that really are trying to modernize their way of life. There is Otto Chriek, adorably dedicated to photography despite the flashes of light which turn him instantly to ash. There is coffee-guzzling ambiguously gendered soldier Maladict/a, dedicated to her soldier companions. There are vampires that have found ways of dealing with their nature and actually making an effort to change.

The de Magpyrs are not, Carpe Jugulum makes clear, actually making an effort.

What really defines the de Magpyrs, like the futurists, is that they want modern ideas and modern technology of domination, but they don't really have an interest in changing their fundamentally predatory nature or relationship to other races. In fact, they've taken all these "modern" ideas and used them as part of a whole new ideology to justify them staying in exactly the same place they've always been in, just with an even more iron grip. This is actually arch-reactionary, even if it makes a lot of noise about progress, because fundamentally it's about preserving as much as possible a power relationship that, in this case, is explicitly feudal.

It doesn't matter, though, if you've got modern manners and a new modern church bell and new modern theories about bell curves and evolutionary fitness and the clash of civilizations. If your primary aim is to preserve power with an undead grip, you're not really interested in progress at all.



There's a sense in which reactionary politics are gothic--undead empires and all that--but Carpe Jugulum is already giving us a twist where the "gothic" monster comes in a guise of progressivism. It makes sense, then, that we can find a parallel inversion in the form of the book's gothic heroes.

The gothic haunting in Carpe Jugulum comes, if anything, from the coven of witches that are the book's heroes. It is notable that these witches are constantly derided by the Count as dreadfully old fashioned. They're just gothic enough that, unlike phoenixes and trolls, they don't simply need to be wiped out but might be recruited, but they are still, nevertheless, trapped in the past, silly village women who don't understand the changing times.

This underestimation of their power, paired with their ability to perceive injustice clearly through the fog of vampiric rhetoric, is what allows the witches to so effectively haunt modernity.

In particular, the key to Granny Weatherwax's victory over the vampires comes from an act of gothic haunting it'd be hard to match. Granny can't assail their minds--as the Count brags about repeatedly, the vampires are masters of their own minds!--so she goes for the one flaw in their defenses, the thing they never fail to listen to: their blood. Or, perhaps, their stomachs.

In one of the book's moments of straight horror, the vampire clan feeds on her, expecting to turn her into a vampire.

Instead, her blood turns them into Weatherwaxes.

This is played for the absurd, of course. Pratchett is ultimately a humorist, and he milks the image of vampires helplessly craving tea "with three sugars" for all that it's worth. But there's also something deeply unsettling about this chain of events. The idea of a mass vampiric feeding is inescapably dark and tinged by sexual violence. Granny, as the horrifically abused party, takes her revenge on the vampires by haunting them, getting inside them, taking them over and turning their rapacious hunger and unquestioning reliance on violence against them.

The vampires made an effort to boost their immunity to everything but their own desires. By hacking the craving they never even once sought to challenge, she renders them distracted and fallible. This is a gothic haunting, all the more so because it's ultimately the vampires' own inability to grapple with their past and the repressed reality of their violent exploitation that does them in. 

This reversal works fantastically on an aesthetic level. Granny is more than a little vampiric herself. Much is made of the fact that she can put not just her consciousness but all the information about what makes her her, all that data, into other creatures--owls, hawks, bees, and, as it turns out, vampires. While she "borrows" her body lies in a comatose state, a state so alarming to viewers that she needs to hold a card letting them know she'll be coming back. The card reads "I Aten't Dead." 

Things that aren't gothic don't generally have to carry signs stating that no, really, they're still alive.

Witches, on the whole, also lurk gothically. Not just Granny, but Agnes Nitt, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlic, all partake of the gothic. All the witches in this story cheat and part of their cheating is manipulating what people assume about witches. In times of trouble they might use a fishing lure as a crystal ball. In times of respect they might wear fake warts in order to play the part more fully of the intimidating dark spellcaster. I genuinely haven't done enough research to know if the claim that witch burnings happened at the cusp of modernity, the development of the capitalist mode of production, in order to break matriarchal power, holds water... but it has a tempting ring to it doesn't it? As progress marches on, the witches retreat into gothic shadows, or into the mask of old docile femininity, and in this way they survive to haunt the future.

In that haunting lies the possibility of rebellion. Take Agnes, for example. Her cheat is that she has another identity born of her own self doubt, her second thoughts. This identity is named Perdita, she's a nasty, spiteful girl, and, being a second mind inhabiting Agnes's own mind, she is immune to vampire logic. 

Pratchett has lots of fun with Agnes's magical competing personas, but this split is also an interesting example of the kind of false consciousness the vampires impose on people... and the limits of that false consciousness. Agnes may fall under the spell of the de Magpyrs' charming, rational ideology, but her second thoughts, her conscience or consciousness of justice, is always there ready to object. This is part of the "headology" of the witches--their ability to know their own minds and the minds of others, not through mind reading but through simply knowing people, most of all themselves.

One of the most inspiring moments of the book comes when Agnes is brought to see the grotesque servitude of the people suffering under the de Magpyrs. At one point she notices the mayor--a human--overseeing the ceremony that will see the children of the village bound symbolically to the vampires, reacting with sick, mechanical obedience to the small talk of the cheerful vamps. Agnes, appalled, finally lashes out at her captors/attempted seducers, and, unexpectedly, reveals to the townsfolk that Granny has weakened the whole clan. What follows is an impromptu rebellion, as that repressed part of the village consciousness comes boiling up through the haze of ideology, false consciousness burning away as people recall old traditions, traditions of torches and pitchforks.

The mayor of the town dies in the impromptu rebellion, but he dies with his chain of office in his hands, determinately using it as a garrote to strangle one of the vampires that had been making smalltalk with him, moments before.



So. If I were to write a Discworld fic.

This fic, as I imagine it, it would be structured pretty differently from normal Discworld novels, which even, when they have multiple plot threads, do come together fairly neatly.

This story in contrast would be set in two different time periods, follow two different characters, and they would eventually intersect, at least in the sense that it would be clear they have an impact on each other.

But the protagonists would never act upon each other more than indirectly, by hints.

The first strand would follow Alison Weatherwax. The second would follow Pastor Mightily Oats.

As far as the actual plot is concerned, well, I haven't really thought about that too much. I'm a very structure-first sort of person, you know. It's really that structure that fascinates me, though. Because in general terms I would love to see Alison Weatherwax lay the groundwork for something that Mightily Oates ultimately accomplishes. Think of it as a larger scale mirror to what Granny and Agnes accomplish in the village. Agnes doesn't know that Granny has weakened the vampires--she thinks Granny might BE a vampire! She simply acts out of instinctual revulsion to the mechanized butchery of these Modern Vampires. Nevertheless, these separate actions, in separate moments of the book, combine with the repressed fury of the oppressed to create a revolution.

That's the kind of dynamic I imagine this fic might explore.

It makes some sense. Like I said, we know Alison and Oats both went off into Uberwald, and when they did they went each in search of their own kind of justice. These characters are certainly heroes, though in very different ways, and in different eras. I just finding myself captivated by the idea that perhaps they encountered the same community, a community in some need. And perhaps Alison Weatherwax wasn't able to do something at the time, perhaps she wasn't able to win whatever contest she was drawn into...

And perhaps she responded by laying the groundwork for a far future strategy that Mightily Oats was able to capitalize on, to win.

This kind of structure makes a lot of sense for Discworld, I think, which has already toyed with directly interlocked narratives like this, with Thief of Time and Night Watch wrapping to an extent around the same event through radically different scopes. But more than this, it makes sense for Uberwald, Discworld's gothic parody land. This is, after all, gothic to the core: this is the gothic as the haunting of the present. This is Hauntology, the dead and the living finding a way to speak, a way for the living to fulfill a promise of justice to the dead.

It's also very definitely cheating, in a most witchy way.

When you die you're supposed to lose. You're not supposed to keep playing the game after you die.

Within both the strange hypertextual space of a setting like that of Discworld, and within a kind of gothic approach to the struggle for justice, there's space for some cheating.



I'm cheating myself here, of course. 

Like, I'm basically doing analysis of this novel by way of... a book that only exists as a vague fanfic outline in my own brain.

This is obviously critical nonsense. I don't think there's any critical mode that suggests writing plot summaries for an unwritten fanfic is the best way of getting at a text's meaning.

I'm going to do it anyway, though, because if witches can cheat, so can I.

And I think it makes some sense. After all, all these pieces are there, not only in Carpe Jugulum but in Discworld as a whole, just waiting to be picked up. They are themselves a kind of promise that the story might go on, might take on new dimensions and geographies and thematic questions. Is it really cheating if the game board is set up so that anyone might pick up the pieces even after the original player is gone?

It's impossible to say whether what I'm interested in writing resembles at all what Terry Pratchett would have written... but there's a part of me that really rebels at treating Discworld like a dead world, like something to be preserved under glass. I wouldn't ever claim Pratchett as a definitive gothic Marxist, or that he set out to create a Hauntology here, but the sense of a need for justice that boils up in the series is potent enough that I want to at least claim its possibilities as resolutely open.

So this is my sense of Carpe Jugulum, as understood through the ghost of a book that could have been. Perhaps it's better not to attempt to realize the book--in some ways the ghost of the book might be more useful as a critical object than any actual fic I could write. I certainly don't feel up to the task of matching Pterry's wit.

But if nothing else, imagining the possibilities does let me assert that, in my own imagination at least, Discworld aten't dead.


This Has Been

Hauntology/Headology

GNU Terry Pratchett



2 comments:

  1. "I don't think there's any critical mode that suggests writing plot summaries for an unwritten fanfic is the best way of getting at a text's meaning."

    Borges might disagree.

    Overall, absolutely lovely piece. One of my favorites of yours, I think. It had never occurred to me that the novel pulls the same trick as Granny ("I ain't been gothic-vamped, you've been gothic-witched"), but seems so clear now.

    I'm a little amused that that chart is the most complex one you've found, because the first thing I looked for was the Equal Rites-Tiffany Aching link, and it's not there. Esk's cameo isn't that important to the book it appears in--to the point that I don't even remember which book that is!--but it's vitally important to Esk's own story, because it answers the question Equal Rites kept posing but never answered, "What happens when witch and wizard magic coexist in the same person?"

    That the answer turns out to be "a Time Lord" has always delighted me, hence that being the connection I looked for.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You think you could really build, from Borges, a defense of fanfic-as-criticism? It might be possible, if you used some Reader Response stuff as well... hmmmmmmm...

      That's a huge connection, you're right. I mean that just goes to show how deeply intertextual the later books are. They're really so much about the way all the pieces of the world bounce off each other. It's so remarkable and yet so seldom commented on, from what I've seen at least!

      Delete

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