Tor.com content by

Leah Schnelbach

Why? Seriously, WHY? An Investigation Into A Quiet Place Parts I & II

For various reasons, I’ve missed a lot of pop culture over the last few years. I’m behind on… everything really. Even after months of lockdown, with all my careful quarantining and marathons of TV and deep dives into directors’ entire oeuvres, I have giant holes in my current knowledge. Which is why I spent a few hours this weekend watching the first two films in the saga known as: A Quiet Place.

And my question is a dramatically screamwhispered: WHYYYY? WHY ARE THESE MOVIES?

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Fauns, Fate, and the Future: Matt Bell’s Appleseed

Have you ever dug your hands down into real, rich dirt? Like say you’re gardening or planting a tree, and you push your hands down into layers of loam and crumbly black dirt, and you found roots, and bits of stone, and maybe some confused worms? And if you’re not wearing gloves—maybe you like the feeling of dirt on your hands—you can feel the strata of warm and cool earth as you push your fingers down and down and down? You can feel how far the sunlight reached? And then you have dirt in your cuticles and under your fingernails for hours no matter how much your scrub at them?

Reading Matt Bell’s Appleseed is like that.

[This review’s going to be a little weird.]

Mars or Motherhood: Anneliese Mackintosh’s Bright and Dangerous Objects

I stand in the taxi queue, breathing in the cold air, then breathing out the steam from inside my lungs. I like exhaling steam. It makes me feel like a machine. When I’m in the diving chamber, I’m no longer human. I’m a cog.

So muses Solvig Dean, the protagonist of this month’s TBR Stack book, Bright and Dangerous Objects. Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut novel is a quiet, meditative novel about turning points—the kind of moments in life that change the texture of your reality. Solvig, a thirty-something deep-sea diver, is currently weighing two such moments: have a child? Or join a one-way mission to Mars?

Is it possible to want two vastly different things equally? Can Solvig find a way to have them both?

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Elves, Murder, and Gallons of Tea: Katherine Addison’s The Witness for the Dead

When The Goblin Emperor came out in 2014, a self-contained, standalone fantasy novel felt like a breath of fresh air. I can just read this one book and have the whole story in my head! I don’t have to plan years of my reading life around waiting for the next volume, or processing a cliffhanger ending, or worrying that the next book will be told entirely from the POV of Night Watchman #3 when all I want to know is whether Abused Princess #4 is still alive or not.

And then I actually read The Goblin Emperor, and I cursed its standalone-ness, because I loved all of those characters so much I wanted story after story with them.

As you might imagine, the news of a sequel filled me with joy, and what I was especially happy about was that it wasn’t the continuing story of Maia, Perfect Cinnamon Roll Emperor. Katherine Addison has stayed true to the idea that his story was self-contained. Instead, she’s given us a sequel about Mer Thara Celehar, the Witness for the Dead, who proved so vital to the early days of Maia’s reign. And I’m ecstatic to say that Celehar’s book is just about as good as the young Emperor’s—but this time it’s a fantasy/mystery hybrid!

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8 SFF Books That Reimagine Literary Classics

One of the most fun turns in culture has been watching writers from a variety of backgrounds take established Western classics and treat them like glorious playgrounds. I personally like many of the books that are considered classics, or part of “the canon”—especially when I was still a student, I enjoyed the sense of testing myself against the books my teachers assigned, and I found that in top-down structure rewarding. I think an agreed-upon canon is an absolute, non-negotiable foundation for a healthy culture. But: the most vital phrase there is “agreed-upon.” Since…well, forever, really, the canon was populated by as many dead white men as U.S. currency, ignoring or actively quashing voices that didn’t agree with a specific narrative about Western civilization.

The current wave of books that are deconstructing and rebuilding the classics are a fantastic addition to the move to make the canon actually representative of our culture—a move that needs to be fought for ceaselessly as our culture literally lives and dies by it. Here are eight books that are doing the work of reshaping the canon to reflect humanity a little better.

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Can I Interest You in a Dark Carnival? Bo Burnham, Ray Bradbury, and Our Modern Hall of Mirrors

You might be asking yourself, why are you talking about Inside, Bo Burnham’s latest comedy special, on this site? First of all it’s a remarkable comedy special, filled with repeating imagery and echoing language that makes me think of a linked short story collection—like if A Visit from the Goon Squad or The Martian Chronicles were reworked into a stand-up show. The other reason is that I’m a person prone to earworms, and this thing has blown past earworm and landed in Nam-Shub territory. I watched the special last week and I’ve had “making a literal difference, metaphorically” and “Oh shit—you’re really joking at a time like this?” looping in my head continuously for days. Maybe this will get them out. But I encourage you all to go watch it because I am neither the first, nor shall I be the last, to say that Inside is probably the definitive work of art to come out of the pandemic.

But still you might ask, why am I talking about it here? Because at just about the halfway point, the special veers into fantasy/horror of a very specific nature.

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Meta Meaning: Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown 

Let’s get this out of the way: I like David Foster Wallace’s writing. I find value in his craft writing, and I love his “nonfiction” (which, yes, of course it’s not really nonfiction? Did everyone miss the part where writers are encouraged and sometimes even god-willing paid to lie? It’s not like we’re presidential press secretaries for fucks’ sake) and I love all his wild-eyed theorizing about The State Of American Fiction even though a lot of it is outdated and I wouldn’t have even agreed with it while he was alive. Why I love it is that he takes meta stuff and finds the truth and emotion in it. The very thing people roll their eyes out now, the whole idea of “New Sincerity”—to me the fact that he ties ridiculous imagery and winking and meta jokes about authorship to the idea that fiction is supposed to make you feel something, and specifically to make you less lonely, is why people still read it.

I mention all of this because I think Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown is one of the best examples of metafiction I’ve read since, I don’t know, John Barthes’ Lost in the Funhouse? But, unlike Lost in the Funhouse, Interior Chinatown also intensely moving.

Exploring the Afterlife in Fantasy: Soul and Lil Nas X Break the Rules

Afterlife fantasies—from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Pixar’s Soul—have always been a unique way to look at society. In this short series, I’ll be looking at the film tradition of afterlife fantasies, and discussing the recurring themes and imagery across a century of cinema.

In the final post in the miniseries, I’ll look at the way two very different films are taking afterlife imagery into the future. One is the movie that inspired this whole thing, Pixar’s Soul, and the other is Lil Nas X’s “Montero”. Am I stretching the definition of movie a little? YES. But first, I think it’s an important work, and second, I think it’s fascinating that two recent explorations of afterlife imagery go in radically different directions to come to the same point. I was about halfway through my research when “Montero” hit, and was a fun bit of pop cultural convergence that I couldn’t pass up.

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Exploring the Afterlife in Fantasy: Therapy Sessions for Your Soul

Afterlife fantasies—from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Pixar’s Soul—have always been a unique way to look at society. In this short series, I’ll be looking at the film tradition of afterlife fantasies, and discussing the recurring themes and imagery across a century of cinema.

After focusing mainly on films  that were either set in the 1930s and ’40s, or remakes of films set in the 1930s and ’40s, we are now, for better or worse, in a post-1980s world. In this entry we’re talking about Defending Your Life, What Dreams May Come, and Wristcutters: A Love Story, three modern films that posit unique takes on afterlives, and that mostly reject the clouds and angel stand-ins of the earlier movies. Here the afterworlds borrow heavily from the lands of the living.

[While all the films in this miniseries deal with death, this post discusses suicide at some length, so please tread cautiously if you need to.]

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Exploring the Afterlife in Fantasy: A Compassionate Cosmos

Afterlife fantasies—from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Pixar’s Soul—have always been a unique way to look at society. In this short series, I’ll be looking at the film tradition of afterlife fantasies, and discussing the recurring themes and imagery across a century of cinema. Here at the halfway point of this miniseries, we’ve come through movies that have focused heavily on fate and destiny, but here at last we’ve come to two of the most humanist entries in this subgenre: the effervescent pair of Heaven Can Wait and A Matter of Life and Death.

In both films, life takes up at least as much screentime as afterlife, and is presented as a paradise of Technicolor, noble friendship, and sweeping romances that turn into lasting love affairs. As in many of the movies in the series, the afterlife seems to be an enormous bureaucracy in which we humans are simply moving parts—but the difference here is that the mortals insist they have the right to challenge authority, and win. Another fun connection is that these two films, one made by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch and the other by the equally-legendary Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, stress the idea that while occasionally one simply must pick a fight with The Universe, that’s no excuse for allowing one’s impeccable manner to slip.

Can love conquer all? Or are there certain cosmic laws that everyone must submit to?

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Exploring the Afterlife in Fantasy: Body Swaps and Bureaucracy

Afterlife fantasies—from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Pixar’s Soul—have always been a unique way to look at society. In this short series, I’ll be looking at the film tradition of afterlife fantasies, and discussing the recurring themes and imagery across a century of cinema.

Last time I set sail with Outward Bound and Between Two Worlds, two films that followed a group of souls on a journey between life and death. Today I’m wrestling with four interrelated films, three starring a personification of Death, and one starring…the Devil! Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Angel on My Shoulder, Heaven Can Wait, and Down to Earth all tell the same basic story of a deceased man who gets a second crack at life because of a bureaucratic error in the afterlife—which then requires an afterlife official using dubious body-swapping shenanigans to fix. Two of the films feature a character named “Mr. Jordan” (the aforementioned afterlife official) who makes sure all the dead people get to where they need to be, while the other films feature characters who are clearly riffs on Mr. Jordan. I will admit here that it took me an embarrassingly long time to understand that “Mr. Jordan” was a reference to the Jordan River and the crossing thereof—thus, his name is basically “Mr. Death.” [Read more]

In Your Heads They’re Still Fighting: Army of the Dead

If you’ve read any of my reviews for this site, you’ll know that I love overstuffed movies. I am a maximalist in my art and my life, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than watching an artist reach further than they should, put too many things in a film, run screaming down tangents. What is art’s purpose if not to express all of life?

But having said that… in the case of Army of the Dead, I think Zack Snyder should have pulled back, streamlined, and taken at least one plot thread out of the movie. I’m not a huge fan of his work, but I am always interested in the latest takes on the zombie genre (zombre?), so I went into the movie with high hopes. And I did like parts of it! But overall, I don’t think it works.

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Exploring the Afterlife in Fantasy: Crossing the Threshold

Afterlife fantasies have always been a unique way to look at society. Since death is a fairly impenetrable wall, it gives us an opportunity to imagine all kinds of stuff on the other side. Visions of heavens and hells can be used as carrots and sticks to critique people while they’re still alive, hence Dante’s Divine Comedy, Faust’s terrifying trapdoor, and Jacob Marley’s chains.

When I watched Pixar’s Soul, I was reminded of a couple of afterlife fantasies—most immediately, Defending Your Life and A Matter of Life and Death. This got me thinking: is there a tradition to afterlife fantasies? Are there recurring themes or imagery? (tl;dr: YES, YES, and YES. That third “YES” is the surprising one, as I’ll discuss.) Wouldn’t it be fun to rewatch all these movies, and write about them? (tl;dr: SOMETIMES. I hope it’s fun to read?) And thus this miniseries was born, as I went back about a century and worked my way up through twelve (12) movies and one (1) music video.

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18 of Our Favorite Books on Writing

Are you a writer? Do you like learning about the creative process, either for your own projects, or just cause you think it’s interesting? This post is about to make your day. As I’m sure you know, there is a booming industry of books on the art and craft of writing, from all sort of different authors, who cover all sorts of different angles. A new addition to the genre is soon to hit shelves, Charlie Jane Anders’ Never Say You Can’t Survive, originally a Tor.com column. By way of celebration of Anders’ book, I’ve rounded up 18 of my favorite craft books.

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How to Pay Attention: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

Sometimes you get a book that reminds you how to live. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi can be interpreted in many ways, but  so far, in the trudge through the Dead Marshes that is 2021, I’ve found it most helpful to think of it as an instruction manual.

The main character (who is called Piranesi even though he’s pretty sure his name is not Piranesi) is a perfect metaphor for our time. He lives in near-total isolation, in a House that is, as far as he knows, the entire World. Twice a week he spends a single hour with “The Other”, a man about twenty years his senior. Piranesi’s understanding is that he’s assisting the Other with an ongoing experiment, but his understanding is also that he has always lived in the House, and that he is somehow about 30 years old, but he also only seems to remember about five years of his life.

His understanding might be a little off.

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