Wolf 359: Far From Home, But Close to Danger

Wolf 359
Logo design by Sasha Lamb.

Podcasts are a great modern media for storytelling. I’m actually looking to get into the business myself. But until that day comes, let’s pause and have a moment to enjoy a nice science fiction series about the good folks crewing a space station in Wolf 359.

The story takes place on the space station Hephaestus, set in orbit around a red dwarf star designated Wolf 359. Doug Eiffel, our narrator and protagonist, is the lowly Communications Officer assigned to the station against his will. He attempts to pass his shifts with tons of pop culture references and a constant sweep of the outlying star systems for radio chatter (and possible signs of extraterrestrials). Meanwhile, Eiffel contends with the tough Commander Renee Minkowski and the elusive Dr. Alexander Hilbert, whose lives he sometimes complicates with his lack of professional standards. Eiffel finds solace in his chats with the station’s artificial intelligence, Hera, and occasionally he proves useful whenever a crisis hits the station. Which is often.

It’s easy to see the reusable dynamic between our main cast members. Doug Eiffel plays the snarky, down-on-his-luck protagonist, sometimes by his own schemes and sometimes not. Commander Minkowski is the straight man to Doug’s antics, no-nonsense about each job, but also carrying a heart of gold for everyone on board. Dr. Hilbert varies between eccentric in his mad scientist stereotype (complete with wacky Russian accent!) and downright threatening when the plot kicks in. And Hera, the station’s AI, is ever cheerful and happy to serve… except when she’s not and something is going horribly wrong. Which, again, is often.

I realize that some listeners got tired very quick of this gimmick, and I can see why. I mean, it is a gimmick. In my opinion, it still works for the show. These common roles are good at both comedic and dramatic moments, whether to set up a running gag or to play out the tension of the latest crisis. Much like Welcome to Night Vale, Wolf 359 has several small narrative arcs that serve to deepen the ongoing danger of the environment, without losing too much of the original humor and charm that attracts its audience.

Sure, sometimes the conflicts feel as though they’re setting up for a very obvious resolution. And sometimes they’re not, with plenty of curious twists and upsets. I do think, though, that some of the show’s deeper moments aren’t so much about Doug or Minkowski or Hilbert (the human characters) as they are about Hera (the AI). Her shifts in tone and her evolving personality quirks have yielded some of the most nerve-wracking tension in the entire series, and remember, this is a podcast that features a space station that’s frequently lost orbit and almost fallen into a red dwarf star. Hera’s storylines owe a lot to the writers’ talent and to Michaela Swee’s acting.

I know that Wolf 359 doesn’t have quite the small town horror that a popular podcast like The Black Tapes or Kings Fall AM has, but it does have a charm unto itself. It’s equal parts comedic and tragic, and it never fails to leave me smiling.

New episodes of Wolf 359 are available through their official website, iTunes, and SoundCloud.


Bibliography: Wolf 359 (podcast). Created by Gabriel Urbina. Written by Gabriel Urbina and Sarah Shachat. Produced by Gabriel Urbina and Zach Valenti. Perf. Zach Valenti, Emma Sherr-Ziarko, Michaela Swee, Cecilia Lynn-Jacobs, Zach Libresco, Noah Masur, Michelle Agresti, Scotty Shoemaker, and Ariela Rotenberg. Music by Alan Rodi. Kinda Evil Genius Productions. Broadcast:

Flash Fiction: “Missing: Cat from the Other Side”

My hand to God, I wrote this story just hours ago at a Write It Up! meeting in Burbank. It was a wonderful experience, and this story is appropriately funny and spooky, since Halloween is just around the corner.

Enjoy!


Missing: Cat from the Other Side, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 850

Thump! Thump!

Whatever was making a racket outside Beth Halloran’s bedroom window deserved to be shot. She turned over and took a long-suffering glare at the empty spot beside her in bed. If he’d still been alive, Frank would have grabbed his Remington and done the job himself. But, ever polite, Beth dragged herself out of bed all the same.

She donned her robe and slippers, looking like some West Texan version of Arthur Dent. Trudging down the stairs, she grumbled a long list of obscenities. And Beth was more than ready to shout them at full force when she got to her front door.

But the stream of “F— you”s died in her throat when she saw the gentleman standing there.

“I’m awfully sorry to bother you, ma’am, I truly am.”

Beth found herself staring into the awkward-smiling face of legendary actor Tommy Lee Jones. For half a second, she thought that he really was that sheriff he’d played in that movie. Oh, blast, what was its name again? The one with Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem, she was positive. But here was Tommy Lee in the flesh, wearing a hideous sweater and blue jeans like it was no big deal. Just another fella out on a walk.

“I, uh… that is, I…” Beth’s brain temporarily forgot to make words happen. She still had enough propriety, though, to tighten the belt on her robe.

“Heh, yeah, I’m sure,” said the actor. He pointed his thumb down the street. “Uh, thing is, I’m in a bit of a pickle. See, my buddy Sean’s throwing a party in your neighborhood? And this here mangy cat breaks in and is causin’ all kinds of mayhem. Well, anyway, the cat’s gone and holed himself up in the old house on your block, and I already told Animal Control I’d go and get it for ’em.”

“Oh… okay?” Beth stared. “Which house did you say it was?”

“The house on the end of your block.”

Beth crossed herself. “Oh, mister, you don’t wanna go in there. That Chesterfield house is haunted!”

But the good Mr. Jones just flashed her a winning smile. “Well, haunted or not, I need to get that cat. Can you help me, ma’am?”

Beth thought very strongly—really, she did—about closing the door in his face. Chalking all this up to a weird dream.

So, naturally, she found herself trudging through a long-abandoned backyard with Tommy Lee Jones an hour later. And yes, she was still in her robe and slippers. They were, after all, the nicest set of clothes that she could find to wear right then.


The Chesterfield house creaked and swayed in the late October wind. Its Victorian lines stood out from the rest of the cozy suburb, from a rusty weathervane that squealed every time it rotated to rotting wooden planks that crackled in the dead of night. Beth watched windows drift open and shut all by themselves, even when the wind wasn’t blowing.

And as she ducked to look around the leaf-strewn patio, she could have sworn that she heard music.

Like someone playing a piano. In a house that had been abandoned for 20 years.

Now she really had to find that cat, if only to get the hell outta there.

“Aha!” Tommy Lee Jones exclaimed. He crouched behind a rosebush. There was a fierce yowl, and a moment later, he came up holding a gray, snarling housecat. It hissed and clawed at the air, but did nothing to break free or erase the movie star’s big grin.

And as Beth breathed a sigh of relief, the lights in the house behind her turned on.

All at once.

She froze. Out the corner of her eye, she saw Mr. Jones do the same. Only the cat moved, still squirming in the man’s grip.

Beth watched as a silhouette of a person appeared in a nearby window. And then another. And another, and another still, until every single window of the house had a ghostly figure standing in it. No faces or distinguishing features. All she saw were shadows. Long, heavy shadows that blocked out the light coming from behind them. And now that piano music was louder than ever.

Loud and persistent.

From the Chesterfield house came a whisper, like a whole bunch of folks talking all at once.

That’s ours,” said the shadows.

Beth locked eyes with Tommy Lee Jones. Then they both looked down at the cat.

Without a word, he let go. The cat meowed as it landed on the grass and ran straight toward the house. It darted around Beth’s legs and headed through the now-open back door.

When the door closed itself, the lights inside the house turned themselves out again. The shadowy figures vanished with them. A moment later, the music stopped, too.

Beth and the actor looked each other in the eye again.

“M-Mr. Jones,” she asked, “can I, uh, interest you a cup of coffee?”

Tommy Lee Jones smiled, but she could tell that his heart wasn’t in it. “Yes, ma’am, I… I believe I will.”


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Path: Let’s Go Explore the Dark Woods Like Teenagers

Copyright © 2009 by Tale of Tales
Copyright © 2009 by Tale of Tales

Fairy tales provide a lot of material to work with in modern media, and it’s amazing how many works can get a lot of mileage out of stories like Little Red Riding Hood. The ongoing animated series RWBY is one example. Another is the video game The Path (not to be confused with the Hulu series starring Aaron Paul).

Much like the original fairy tale, the premise of the game is simple. A mother sends her daughter out to Grandmother’s House with a basket of goodies, warning her to stay on the path. However, here we can play 6 different girls, all sisters. And the game itself only works if you leave the path altogether. Exploring the woods on either side reveals hidden items, collectibles, a Girl in White running around, and (for each girl) a mysterious stranger who acts as their “Wolf.”

Copyright © 2009 by Tale of Tales
Copyright © 2009 by Tale of Tales

Every character is fundamentally a Little Red Riding Hood archetype: a cute, somewhat innocent girl having to walk a dangerous road. But what makes these girls so intriguing are the little hints and clues about their personalities (and various traumas) that you can uncover when they find clues in the forest or when they meet their respective Wolves. If all you do is follow the path and go straight to Grandmother’s House, you’ve learned nothing. You’ll never distinguish the sisters from one another, which is what makes this game so damn intriguing.

And what are these girls seeking by straying from the path? Some gamers say it’s all one big metaphor for puberty, for crossing the threshold from innocent childhood to adolescent sexuality and identity-seeking. Others say that the wolves represent rape culture, or that the girls are all tragic deaths played out in different scenarios to highlight our adult fears about young women. I think that each encounter with the Wolf is how the girls stake out their identity in the first place. It’s traumatic and awkward, but so is growing up.

The style can be very confusing at first glance. I played this on PC, and so sometimes I couldn’t immediately figure out how to access certain objects, or how to gain a sense of direction between the path and the woods. The graphics are well done, but they also make it easy to lose your way. Again, maybe that’s the point the developers had in mind, but if you’re expecting anything like a tutorial or hints, you won’t get them right away. As art games go, it’s a little more involved than something like Dear Esther or Gone Home, but not quite as linear as, say, Life is Strange.

I don’t think The Path is something everyone will enjoy. It’s dark and mostly involves walking, with little to no dialogue and very cryptic ideas. If you treat it as more of an art installation, though, it’s fascinating. The haunting music and twisted imagery of girls meeting strange people in a terrible forest will stay with you for a long time.

The Path is available for purchase and download from Steam and itch.io.


Bibliography: The Path (video game). Developed by Tale of Tales. Published by Tale of Tales, TransGaming, TopWare, 1C Company, and Zoo Corporation. Microsoft Windows; Mac OS X. Original release date: March 18, 2009.

Flash Fiction: “The Man with the Broken Smile”

I’ve been catching up on episodes of Welcome to Night Vale this summer (and in case you missed it, I wrote a short meditation on the show). Enthralled as I am by its macabre style, I had to jot down this little haunting tale because it carries some of the dread and terror that I think most of us can appreciate.

Enjoy.


The Man with the Broken Smile, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 526

A newcomer enters the town. He’s a well-dressed young man, with wavy black hair and impeccable wingtip shoes. He’s been spotted eating pie at the diner, taking strolls along the town square, and even checking out a book at the public library. Children stop and stare whenever he passes. Grandmothers cross themselves and whisper in quiet horror at his approach. But no one’s learned his name yet. They just call him the Man with the Broken Smile.

His smile is… well, it’s broken. There’s no other way to explain it. But it doesn’t match his eyes. His gentle, loving, rapturous eyes. Looking into them, you feel your guard drop. Everything seems to be okay for once in your life. Nothing scares or confuses or upsets you anymore. It’s all, finally, okay.

But then the stranger speaks with his broken smile. His lips don’t fully open or close. You catch a glimpse of yellowed teeth behind those lips, and occasionally signs of a blood-red tongue marked with terrible spots. The Man with the Broken Smile speaks so softly, so very softly, and you never quite catch every word he says, but the longer he talks, the deeper he gets hold of you. The more you hear, the more your body refuses to obey. Why would you disobey? Why, when your new best friend is right here? Could you even imagine a time before this conversation with your best friend began?

Surely not.

The Man with the Broken Smile tells you things that can’t possibly be true. He talks casually about the weather and the storm of emeralds that will be coming next week. He lists off the names of football players who will meet with terrible accidents the night before the next big game on Sunday, and adds the names of their loved ones who will miss them the most.

He tells you a joke (at least, he says it’s a joke) about a man being dragged from his home in the middle of the night by faceless men in white. They strip him naked in an unmarked van, drive him out to an unlisted warehouse, and force him into a vat of dough and butter. The Man with the Broken Smile is positively giggling when he gets to the punchline about the man being “a little overcooked on the bottom” when he’s yanked out from the furnace, baked and burnt to a screaming crisp before a dreadful feast begins. You ask who this man was, and the Man with the Broken Smile shrugs and says, “It doesn’t matter. No one loved him anyway.”

That night, you return to your home. Your stomach churns at the sight of baked goods in your fridge and your pantry. Even as you dump them all into the garbage can outside, you can still hear the Man with the Broken Smile giggling to himself.

And it’s with a creeping sense of dread that you suddenly remember that you made plans to meet with the Broken Smiling Man. To meet him for dinner.

At his place.

As you look around your quiet, empty house, you wonder if anyone will miss you either.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Acknowledgements

Thanks to my supporters on Patreon for their contributions that make stories like this one possible. This story is dedicated to Links Drop.

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Getting Lost in the Good Old Days: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Copyright © 2011 by Stephen King
Copyright © 2011 by Stephen King

Some would consider Stephen King one of the greatest authors of our time. I don’t buy into hyperbole that much, so I’ll say that he’s certainly a very talented writer. I loved reading through his book On Writing and it was in that spirit of good vibes and curiosity that I decided to try reading one of his novels.

Naturally, I went to the one about time travel.

11/22/63 is a very long story about an English teacher in Maine, Jake Epping, who comes across a wondrous discovery: a portal in his friend Al’s diner that sends people back through time to the year 1958. While he tries to fix the tragic childhood of a janitor at his school, Jake soon sets his sights on a much larger goal: stopping the JFK assassination and forever changing the course of history. Of course, this is a tall order and comes with all sorts of terrible consequences, both for Jake and the world.

For some stories, the use of time travel can make or break the whole narrative. What King does well in this story is show off the research he’s done that brings the past to life. He’s not content with just telling you it’s an older time with no Internet and different race relations. Through the eyes of Jake Epping, we see the world of 1958 in all its glories and warts, with better-tasting food and subtle touches of anti-Semitism, with Cold War paranoia and small town comforts. I really felt like I was back in the Fifties and Sixties myself.

However, this can also lead to a major problem that I had with this book: namely, the pacing. As much as I got lost in each setting because of Mr. King’s details, I also lost track of the overall plot. The main focus is on one man’s quest to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting JFK, but there’s a good chunk of the novel devoted to his early attempt to fix a janitor’s life by stopping his father from going on a murderous rampage. Not to mention Jake’s romance with a woman in the Fifties, and how this complicates his travels. They’re not the worst elements in a story, but it was hard to care so much about the JFK plot with all these digressions.

It’s a funny coincidence (or maybe not) that I happened to start reading this novel around the same time that I started watching an anime called Steins;Gate, which also has to do with time travel. In fact, both stories follow a similar premise about a bold man experimenting with time travel, only to try to reverse the changes he’s made to save the life of someone he loves. But if I had to pick, Steins;Gate did a much better job of making me care about the main characters and revealing the time travel crisis at a much more dramatic pace.

It should go without saying that none of this is a slam against Stephen King. He can write good dialogue, his characters are all passionate, and he’s no slouch when it comes to getting the facts straight and building in the details to his own little worlds—even if some of those worlds keep resembling the same small town somewhere in Maine.

11/22/63 is available for purchase from booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


Bibliography: King, Stephen. 11/22/63. New York, Scribner, 2011.