Like many people who only watch things when they come on Netflix, I finally saw Finding Dory earlier this month. I haven't been this conflicted about a Pixar movie since I realized how much objectivism lurks beneath the surface of The Incredibles.

There's a lot to like about Finding Dory. It's funny, it has some terrific set pieces, and the animation shows you exactly how far technology has come since Finding Nemo. You could remove Marlin and Nemo from the movie entirely with minimal impact on the plot and themes, and there's a bit of retreading the original (when a human rescue team scooped Dory out of the water and Marlin screamed in horror, I actually groaned aloud), but it's not nearly as sequelly as it could have been. It has one of the best treatments of disability I've ever seen in a children's movie--some critics were grumpy about the fact that Destiny's near-sightedness and Hank's missing limb never played a plot role, but I thought it was the disability equivalent of the women in the background of The Force Awakens. What's more, it made me cry harder than any other Pixar movie, Up and Inside Out included

And that's the problem.

People accuse Pixar of being emotionally manipulative on a pretty regular basis, and it's an accusation that usually falls flat with me. Art manipulates emotion, plain and simple. Some stories do it more skillfully than others, but all stories do it. Horror writers choose their words carefully to manipulate you into feeling fear. Romance writers choose their words carefully to manipulate you into twisting with anxiety when Guy and Girl hit a rough spot and sighing contentedly when they fall into each other's arms again. Pixar chooses its words and imagery carefully to manipulate you into sobbing like a hungry, colicky, wet-diapered baby with five teeth coming in at once. That's what they do.

But this time, the accusation hit home, because Finding Dory didn't fully earn those tears. It took me a while to realize why at first, because taken by itself, the actual scene that made me sob my eyes out did earn copious weeping. I can't say too much without spoiling the climax of the movie, but suffice it to say that Dory and some other characters shared a hard-earned and emotional victory that called back to well-seeded flashbacks from Dory's childhood; it was a part that even the generally dismissive Honest Trailer credited with "Damn you, Pixar, even your B material makes me cry!"

The trouble, though, was that much of the emotional weight from that scene came from those flashbacks, and those were an eye-opening illustration of the difference between a masterful tug at the heartstrings and the kind of "emotional manipulation" that gets described with an eye-roll or a sneer. Baby Dory is pure cuteness, all big eyes and adorable voice. Her parents are living avatars of love, support, and positivity. This clip illustrates the sole emotional beat in their relationship.

Don't get me wrong--as a special needs mom myself, I am absolutely delighted to see a character with special needs whose parents not only give her unconditional love and emotional support, but also equip her with the tools and strategies she needs to live with her disability rather than quoting Hallmark platitudes that somehow miraculously repair her prefrontal cortex. But repeatedly hitting that one emotional beat is overly simplistic and false. There's only one fleeting instant where we get a sense of how frustrating it would be to have to teach Dory these things over and over and over and over and over again, and that moment is more comic than anything else. Dory seems completely devoid of the anger and frustration that children feel about their own disabilities; her one moment of dejection is played more for "aww, widdle baby Dowwy is just da cutest!" than anything else. Baby Dory and her parents barely come across as characters; they're little blue machines designed solely to make us sad when they're separated.

Compare that to any other tear-jerking Pixar character. I get something in my eye at the callback to "Daddy's got you, Nemo" every single time my kids watch Finding Nemo. Riley's arc in Inside Out is pretty much guaranteed to turn viewers into a sobbing mess. And the first ten minutes of Up are, well, the first ten minutes of Up. But none of these hinge on flat, one-note characters for their emotional punch the way that the Finding Dory flashbacks do. Marlin is overprotective and neurotic and Nemo lashes out against him; that makes me cry more at "Daddy's got you," not less. Even before Riley became a moody tween, she felt like a real kid, not a living pair of puppy eyes. Carl and Ellie's relationship hits a dozen different emotional beats in under ten minutes.

Dory and her parents may be a refreshingly positive depiction of a special needs family, but they're a flat one. She's not quite "The Littlest Cancer Patient," but she's close. No matter how hard I cried at the climax of the movie, part of me was angry because I knew I'd been played.

I have yet to intentionally write a tear-jerker, but if I do, I'm going to remember Finding Dory as an example of how to almost, but not quite, do it right. And then I'll do my darnedest to make sure that the tears come from complex and well-realized characters like Nemo, Marlin, and Adult Dory, not cutesy plot devices like Baby Dory.
 
 
In an effort to maintain my New Year's resolution of blogging more often, I'm going to take a page from Leah Libresco and do a roundup of the seven best books that I read for the first time last year. (She does her roundup in December so people can use it for Christmas gift ideas, which would have been a good idea for me if I'd resolved to blog more in Advent rather than New Year's. C'est la vie . . .)

Labyrinth by Jim Henson and A. C. H. Smith. My favorite read this year, hands down. Labyrinth is one of my favorite movies (the question of "do I prefer Labyrinth or Nightmare Before Christmas?" can be answered with "Which have I seen more recently?"), and I'd always heard that the novelization gives you a ton of backstory that didn't make it into the movie, but it was out of print for years and ran hundreds of dollars. The unkindest cut of all was that in third grade, I actually held the novelization in my hands at the school book fair, but I decided to buy some Ann M. Martin book instead. Choose from a book fair in haste, repent at leisure.

BUT! It's back in print, and it was available on Kindle just in time for my fabulous husband to pick it up for Mother's Day. I'd heard that the conflict between Sarah and Jareth takes on a weird Freudian subtext as you learn exactly how similar Jareth is to Sarah's mother's boyfriend (if you look closely at the vanity in Sarah's room, you can see a picture of an older woman with David Bowie taped to her mirror). I hadn't heard thatthe entire story has overtones of Sarah trying not to become her flighty, deadbeat mother by abandoning a child in her care to chase after an extended adolescence at the urging of a hot guy in tight pants. If you're a fan of the movie, I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Slade House by David Mitchell. My mother-in-law always gets me a literary spec fic novel for Christmas, and this was her pick for 2015. I would have devoured it in a single evening if all those pesky "responsibility" things hadn't gotten in the way; as it is, I read it over the course of about 48 hours, and if you have small children you know what high praise that is. I can't say too much about the premise without giving it away, but it's an incredibly creepy, twisty story that gave me just enough information about Mitchell's weird magical world to make me want to read The Bone Clocks right this very minute. Mitchell also does a masterful job of writing five chapters that are very structurally similar without being repetitive; just like you can watch a dozen episodes of Phineas and Ferb and laugh with delight at the new ways Perry foils Dr. Doofenshmirtz while simultaneously frustrating Candace's plans to bust her brothers, you can read this and shudder at the new ways . . . but that would be telling.

Revival by Stephen King. When I saw the title of this book and heard that the "revival" in question was a tent revival, I wrote it off instantly. I love Stephen King, but his Christian characters tend to be a thousand and one variations on Carrie's mom (Father Callahan and Mother Abigail notwithstanding). I wasn't in the mood to read about some stupid evil preacher and his stupid evil congregation being stupid and evil. Then I read Eve Tushnet's review of the novel and decided to give it a try. I'm glad that I trusted Tushnet's taste, because this is King's best novel since Lisey's Story. There's an atmosphere of dread even when nothing terribly frightening is happening, it does a terrific job of riffing on Lovecraft without coming across as a pastiche, and it treats questions of faith and doubt with real maturity and delicacy. I've seen some reviewers argue that the section covering the protagonist's adolescence is self-indulgent, and they're right--but would it be Stephen King without a little self-indulgence?

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers. I. Loved. This. Book. A few summers ago, I read The Stress of Her Regard, which combines three of my favorite things (vampires, Tim Powers, and second-generation Romantic poets); while I loved that one, too, I found it opaque in parts. Tim Powers is much smarter than we mere mortals, and some of the mythological references can get confusing. Hide Me Among the Graves is the sequel, with the Rossettis fighting vampires in place of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, and it the mythopoeic stew is enough to make you feel like you're in a wonderfully weird, magical world without making you feel like you need degrees in classics, literature, anthropology, and history to understand what's going on. Great stuff.

Feed by M. T. Anderson. Oof, this was a depressing one. It's a YA Internet-based dystopia from before the big dystopia boom; because the Hunger Games formula hadn't set yet, it has less of a thriller-like plot and is entirely uninterested in having our plucky heroes overthrow the evil dictator and save the day, making it more Orwell than Collins. The thing that most got under my skin was the environmental stuff. The main focus of the book was on consumerism, not environmentalism (although Pope Francis will happily point out how intertwined the two ideas are), but because the environmental horrors were in the background, no one was commenting on them and they were described in dry, matter-of-fact tones, which made them so much more upsetting. The scene involving one of the last whales could have been maudlin and over-the-top; it wasn't, and it's going to stick with me for a long, long time. Less really is more for your highly emotional moments.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. Martin. I mentioned this in a previous post and I'm mentioning it again here. This is a lovely read for anyone who enjoys Game of Thrones but wishes it weren't so Game of Thrones all the time. There are shades of gray, but there's also black and white, with some truly noble heroes and truly hateful villains; the endings are bittersweet, but not bleak; and George R. R. Martin seems to be having fun while he writes them. As a bonus, there's not a single allusion to sexual violence in the entire thing.

How to Speak Cat by Gary Wiseman and Aline Alexander Newman. A sizable number of the books I read are geared toward the elementary and preschool crowd (hi ho, the happy parenting life!), and this is the best children's book I read this year. We adopted a cat in September, and I checked out a bunch of pet care books for the adults and the littluns. This was the best. I don't mean it was the best cat book for kids; I mean it was the best cat book I checked out, period. I was expecting basic "how to speak cat" information (high tail good! bushy tail bad!), but it also included information on how to feed, groom, and care for your cat, how to tell if your cat is sick, how to clicker-train your cat, and pretty much everything else you need. There were even some bits of "cat language" that I hadn't picked up after twenty-four years of living in a cat-owning house. I knew that narrowed eyes were kitty for "I love you," but I had no idea that when the cat narrows her eyes and turns away, the turned head is also a sign of love, because she trusts you enough to turn her back on you.

Honorable mentions go to Joyland by Stephen King (a perfectly fun thriller), The Martian by Andy Weir (I really, really needed something lighthearted and funny after I finished Feed, and Weir delivered), Hamilton: The Revolution by Jeremy Carter and Lin-Manuel Miranda (so many references in that musical!), and Firefight by Brandon Sanderson (the only Sanderson I'd read was Way of Kings, which I didn't particularly enjoy, but Steelheart showed me why he's such a popular writer and Firefight was even better). I also loved The Imlen Brat by Sarah Avery, but if I start including novellas on this list it's going to balloon fast.

That's my list. What are the best books you read in 2016?

 
 
Warning: this post contains climactic spoilers for the Black Mirror episode "White Bear."

The new season of Black Mirror came to Netflix last week, and I've been working through it in the small, bite-sized chunks that I need in order to keep it from breaking my brain. I didn't start watching Black Mirror until last winter--I heard about the Christmas special's brilliant concept that you could actually block irritating acquaintances from your life the way you block them from your Facebook feed, and I had to watch it--but now I'm hooked on its brilliant, satirical, technophobic brand of horror.

As I was reading over some commentaries on previous episodes to prepare myself for the new season, though, I noticed a theme developing: the question of whether this show, so dark that it regularly crosses the line into misanthropy, is too bleak. This question seems to come out particularly around the episode "White Bear" and, to a lesser extent, "National Anthem." Both episodes involve seemingly the entire human race participating in heinously voyeuristic behavior, with nary a dissenter in sight. It's unrealistic, some viewers complain in review comboxes and the Fridge Logic section of TV Tropes. It's grimdark for grimdarkness' sake. Someone, somewhere, would refuse to put up with this.

I have a pretty rosy view of human nature, and I actually agree that someone would refuse to put up with this--in real life. In a show like Black Mirror, though, including those people would be a disastrous choice.

Before I go any farther, I need to reiterate my spoiler warning. These viewers' complaints revolve specifically around the climax of "White Bear," which involves a gut punch of a plot twist. If you have any interest at all in the show, go watch "White Bear" before you read this. It's an anthology show; it won't matter that you haven't seen any other episodes.

OK, have we lost everyone concerned about spoilers? Great. Let's continue.

"White Bear" starts off straightforwardly enough, with amnesiac Victoria (I'm screening Twilight Zone episodes for my six-year-old, and I don't know where horror anthologies would be without amnesia) awakening in the middle of a post-apocalyptic hellscape. A strange symbol has turned most of the people in the world into zombies incapable of doing anything but standing around and snapping pictures with their cell phones; the tiny contingent remaining are either taking advantage of the chaos to wreak as much havoc as possible or struggling to survive. Victoria, getting occasional flashes of memory about a man who must be her partner and a little girl who must be her daughter, is led through a harrowing ordeal with another survivor to reach a place called "White Bear" where they'll be able to undo the damage the symbol has caused.

It's a bog-standard apocalypse with some heavy-handed commentary about those narcissistic jackasses who take selfies while the world burns, right? Except it isn't. When they finally reach White Bear, Victoria is greeted by a jeering studio audience. Baxter, a man who previously tied her up and threatened to torture her with a drill, informs her that she and her fiancé weren't actually that little girl's parents; they kidnapped the girl, and her fiancé tortured her to death while Victoria filmed the entire thing. The name "White Bear" comes from the little girl's white teddy bear, which the media immediately jumped on as a symbol of her purity and innocence. Victoria's fiancé killed himself before sentencing, but Victoria was sentenced to suffer the same fate they inflicted on the little girl: every night she would have her memory wiped to make her confused and helpless, and every day she would be subjected to horrible torment while people smiled and took pictures. In the most chilling detail of all, while everyone who has an actual speaking role in this spectacle is an employee of the justice system, the milling crowd of cellphone wielders is made up of tourists who have come for a fun day of participating in Victoria's personal hell. After all, the coldblooded murdering bitch deserves it, right?

Over the end credits, we see scenes of Victoria's sentence from the other characters' point of view. After an establishing shot of a sign that says "White Bear Justice Park," we're greeted by Baxter telling a room full of tourists the rules of the park: no talking, keep your distance, and above all, enjoy yourself! Among the tourists are a few families with smiling children, ready for a fun day of cruel and unusual punishment.

It's an absolutely terrifying episode, both because it so masterfully changes from a grab-bag of horror movie clichés to something fresh and awful and because it forces us to examine our own voyeuristic and bloodthirsty tendencies. Whether because we'd secretly love to see criminals given this kind of treatment, or because we get a huge kick out of watching people suffer on reality TV, or because we enjoy getting our licks in on the social media witch hunt du jour, we've all smiled and whipped out our cell phones while some real-life Victoria suffers.

I've run into viewers critiquing it, though, not on the grounds that it's heavy-handed or predictable or what have you (everyone's mileage varies on issues like that), but on the grounds that it isn't realistic. C'mon, this clearly violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture bill. Amnesty International has to be going berserk over this stuff. When we see the external shot of White Bear Justice Park, where are the protesters? There has to be someone protesting something this awful!

The easy answer to this is "just sit back and remember the MST3K mantra," but the problem with this argument actually runs deeper than the idea of refusing to suspend your disbelief. The entire point of dark satires like Black Mirror is to force us to examine how we're reflected by the show's world. Would we be there in the justice park? If we're quick to say "no," why don't we take a long, hard look at some times we've put that answer to the lie? The only characters we have to identify ourselves with are the ones who are participating in the mob. We're forced to look at that mob and see ourselves.

If, on the other hand, we saw a protester at White Bear Justice Park, we'd have an out. We wouldn't have to look at the people smiling into their cell phones and see our own faces there; we could let out a sigh of relief, point, and say, "That's me. That's totally me. Yeah, everybody else would be taking family vacations to White Bear Justice Park, but you know I'm so much purer than the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd, so I'd be protesting. I'm awesome like that." The show would no longer be the titular mirror, reflecting our ugliness back at us, but just another hammer to bash all the people we don't like while we sit back and marinate in our own smug self-righteousness.

No thanks. As I said, I do have a pretty rosy view of human nature. Black Mirror reflects a much bleaker world than the one we actually live in. But it isn't the job of satirical horror to reflect the parts of the world that make us feel good about it--or that make us feel good about how much better we are than other people. Sometimes we all need something that inspires us and builds us up--but other times, we need to wonder which side of the cellphone camera we're on.
 
 
Ah, October, that blessed month where the Kolar front yard temporarily transforms into a combination cemetery/haunted cornfield and our family tries to juggle every fun-sounding Halloween-related event that we can find. There's one thing I look forward to this month that has nothing to do with the 31st, though, and that's Capclave. It's held every Columbus Day weekend in Gaithersburg, and while my writer convention experience is admittedly limited, it's easily my favorite con. Here's why it's my favorite; these reasons may make you decide you will never, ever go to Capclave (it has a narrow focus that won't be everyone's cup of tea) or they may make you block out Columbus Day weekend every year.

It has a strong literary focus. Capclave's motto is "where reading is not extinct," and they own it. If you mainly go to sci-fi conventions for the literary track and tend to find yourself with a lot of free time, or end up going to panels that don't sound terribly great because they're the only writing or literature panels available for that slot, Capclave is the con for you. I've been to much bigger cons with much more robust programming where I had hours of down time because I'd hit a six-hour chunk where all the programming was about shows I didn't watch, or about anime (which I like, but my tastes are hopelessly out of date), or cosplay (REALLY cool but not something I do), or podcasting (Godspeed to all you podcasters, but I'm not one of you).  If you're an anime-loving cosplaying podcaster, Capclave won't have much to offer you.

If you're there for the writing and lit, though . . . yowzers. I'm looking over the schedule for this year and weeping audibly at all of the conflicts. Why, oh why, must the "Language in Fantasy Worldbuilding" panel, the "Submitting Your Work to Agents" workshop, and the "Alternate and Secret History" panel with TIM FREAKING POWERS be at the same time?!

It's small. Feature, not bug. For one thing, the small size means that Capclave can keep that literary focus because it isn't trying to cast a wider net and draw in every kind of spec fic fan around. It's focused on lit as surely as Otakon is focused on anime, and that's OK. 

The small size isn't just a subcategory of "it has a literary focus," though. Capclave has an intimate feel that I like. I've been to some panels with only about half a dozen people in the room, and the audience participated as much as the panelists. It's much easier to get into a workshop that you want, or to run into people that you've met earlier in the con, or to bump into an author that you like (I fangirled all over poor Will McIntosh last year, but he was very gracious about it). At Capclave, I've had panelists come up to me after panels to talk in-depth about a question I asked earlier. I've never had that happen at a larger con.

The workshops are free. Balticon 50 had some spectacular workshops--but I could have gotten good seats to Hamilton for the price of their premier workshop track. Capclave also has spectacular workshops, and you don't have to pay a dime.

The guests of honor are way better than you would expect for a small con. In case you missed it above, this year's guest of honor is TIM FREAKING POWERS. Past guests of honor have included George R. R. Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Kim Stanley Robinson, Gene Wolfe, and even Isaac Asimov (Capclave's been around for awhile). 

It's cheap. World Fantasy has a literary focus, too. World Fantasy is two hundred dollars. Because Capclave is still a fan convention instead of a professional one, it's still affordable.

Capclave definitely has a niche audience. If your favorite part of cons is cosplaying, or people-watching the cosplayers, or attending the multimedia track, you're going to be bored silly at Capclave, and that's OK. If you're actively looking for a professional convention so you can network with agents and editors, Capclave is going to have too small and fannish a focus for you (although you might still want to come just for fun). If you're a writer looking for a very writer-focused con that's priced like a fan convention instead of a professional one, though, you'll probably love Capclave as much as I do. 

Come join me next weekend!

 
 
The Kolar household has joined the rest of the Broadway geek world in getting really, really obsessive about Hamilton. (OK, I'm more of a recovering Broadway geek than a current one, but it doesn't matter what level of geekery you have; this musical is inescapable.) I'm not going to gush about how good it is--much--because if you're in the Cult of Hamilton, you already know, and if you aren't, you probably feel as though smiling theater aficionados in matching suits and ties are going to start knocking on your door with pamphlets at any moment. The one thing I'll say on that subject is that if you're not interested because you don't like hip-hop, give it a listen. I rarely listen to hip-hop and expected Hamilton to be one of those things that I appreciated rather than enjoyed, but six weeks after my first listen I'm still sneaking it into the CD player every time I want background music and the kids are out of the room.

This week, our obsession reached the point where we actually started seeking out cut songs on YouTube. Like most deleted scenes, you can see exactly why the majority of these songs were cut. The John Adams diss track is clever, but Adams is too minor a presence to warrant a whole song; the reprise of "Dear Theodosia" is heartbreaking and gives us some nice parallels between the death of Hamilton's son and that of Burr's wife, but it doesn't add anything to Burr's motivation and stalls the momentum near the end of the story. 

There's one song, though, that I wish could have worked: "Congratulations," which Angelica Schuyler would have sung right after "The Reynolds Pamphlet." For those who aren't familiar with the musical, it has a refreshingly mature love triangle with Hamilton, his wife Eliza, and his sister-in-law Angelica; Angelica has loved Hamilton from the moment she met him and is pretty clearly a better match for him than Eliza personality-wise, but reluctantly steps aside because she wants her sister to be happy. The two write to each other frequently, and the song that features their correspondence is packed with yearning ("And there you are an ocean away/ Do you have to live an ocean away?/ Thoughts of you subside/ Then I get another letter/ I cannot put the notion away . . ."). 

In the musical as written, the Hamilton/Angelica romantic tension gets an OK ending, but it could have been stronger given all the build-up. Hamilton writes a pamphlet detailing his lurid affair with another woman (the Smithsonian has a nice historical summary). Angelica arrives, and Hamilton thinks she's there to comfort him, but she tells him in a single withering verse that she's there to comfort Eliza, not him. We then transition into Eliza's absolutely devastating reaction to the affair, "Burn," where a character who's been passive until this point finally lets out her torrent of grief and rage. It's a tour de force for Eliza, no question, but it left me wishing that Angelica got a bit more closure.

"Congratulations" would have given us that closure in spades. It stretches out Angelica's one venomous verse to an entire song that does everything we could want an Angelica song to do at that moment. It gives us catharsis by having a character Hamilton respects rip him a new one. It has plenty of those clever Lin-Manuel Miranda rhymes we love ("You know why Jefferson can do what he wants?/ He doesn't dignify schoolyard taunts with a response!"). It lets Angelica remind Hamilton that while she's been stuck in a loveless marriage, he had a happy one that he willingly flushed down the toilet. It offers a blistering summary of the entire second act: "So scared of what your enemies will do to you/ You're the only enemy you ever seem to lose to!"

It would have given us everything we could have wanted from an Angelica song . . . and it would have done it by gutting the emotional punch of "Burn," a far more important moment than "Congratulations" would have been. One Schuyler sister venting her heartbreak is haunting. Two Schuyler sisters in a row? As good as "Burn" is, it would have been hard for the audience to avoid checking their watches. You can't have two scenes that cover identical emotional beats back-to-back. I can't imagine how hard it must have been for Lin-Manuel Miranda to cut "Congratulations," but he made the right call

This is one of the best examples of "murder your darlings" I've seen recently. Let's jump back to all those deleted scenes in movies. As mentioned, in most cases, you can watch those scenes and pretty quickly see why they were cut. Not all of them are full-bore terrible (although some are *cough* JabbatheHuttinNewHope *cough*), but most of them drag down the pacing, repeat information we already know, bloat the budget for no apparent reason, etc., etc., etc. If they make all three of those missteps *cough JabbatheHuttinNewHopeagain *cough*, they're a slog. Usually, though, they only make one or two. Those tend to be perfectly fine scenes, but nothing to write home about.

In a small handful of other cases, you watch those deleted scenes and can immediately see that taking them out was the wrong call. Whoever cut those Faramir flashback scenes from The Two Towers needs to be slapped in the face with a fish; they're the only things that lend any motivation at all to his actions. ("Do not trouble me with Faramir. I know his uses, and they are few"? Just call Denethor "Eliza Hamilton,"because that's a burn.) That scene does something. It doesn't just give us the warm fuzzies of seeing Boromir again; it makes the actions of a major character snap into perfect focus. Yes, it bogs down the pacing a bit, but the trade is well worth it.

Scenes like "Congratulations," though, have to be the hardest to cut. At first glance, it looks a lot more like a Boromir flashback than an ugly CGI Jabba the Hutt. It does something--a lot of somethings, in fact--and it's a lot better than "perfectly fine." It's almost essential. Almost. But it comes at the expense of something that is essential, so away it goes. 

As I embark on my last round of revisions, I hope I can burn my darlings that ruthlessly.
 
 
Writers have spilled a lot of ink over how to slog through your rough draft when you're ready to throw your computer or notebook out the window in despair. Anne Lamott famously exhorted writers to embrace their "shitty first drafts;" another writer whose name  unfortunately escapes me suggested that writers think of their first draft  as a simulation of a novel, not a real novel, to take pressure off themselves.  My favorite writing podcast, Writing Excuses, recently had an episode reminding listeners to stop comparing their rough drafts to the polished final drafts that they see in bookstores--or, heck, to their own polished  final drafts, if their current project isn't their first.

I can certainly appreciate the truth behind Lamott and the Writing Excuses crew--I'm sure that even writers I adore wrote some absolutely godawful rough drafts--and I can see how the "simulation of a novel" advice might be helpful to some people, but none of that was terribly helpful to me when I hit a wall. (Well, to be fair to the Writing Excuses crew, my rough draft was done by the time they aired that episode.) For me, the single most helpful line for enduring a rough draft was from Stephen King. It didn't come from On Writing (although that book is a gold mine). It didn't come from one of his writer protagonists gushing about the joys of writing, either. It came from Adrian Mellon, a character in It who got eaten offscreen by Pennywise before the novel even started. Because it's a Stephen King novel, though, we get a good 10 pages about Adrian's back story, including the fact that he's been idly plugging away at a novel for the past twelve years. Shortly before his death, he pulls the novel out of his trunk and starts working on it again, telling his boyfriend that "it might be a terrible novel, but it was no longer  going to be a terrible unfinished novel."

I cannot possibly tell you how many times I repeated that line to myself when in the depths of "oh my goodness I am never going to finish this thing and even if I do it will be total crap" despair. (We've all had that, right? It's not just me?) "Shitty first drafts" and  "don't compare your rough drafts to other people's final drafts" ultimately paint your rough draft as something horrible to be endured before you get on to the fun  part . . . which is certainly true in certain sections of the draft, but not exactly inspiring. When you've been hammering  away at something for a year, it doesn't do much to cheerfully remind yourself that it's shitty.

But "it might be a terrible novel, but [it's] no longer going to be a terrible unfinished  novel"? That made me feel like I was actually accomplishing something. A shitty first draft is better than . . . no shitty first draft, I guess? Again, not terribly inspiring. But being the author of a finished novel, even a terrible one, rather than being that guy who's been idly puttering at the same project for twelve years? That's an objective improvement. Whenever I would hit a wall in my rough draft, I'd close my eyes and repeat,  "This might be a terrible novel, but it isn't going to be a terrible unfinished  novel." And then "Eye of the Tiger" would play in my head, and I could keep going.

Technically, my novel is still unfinished--I finished the first two drafts, but there's still more revision to go. When it's completely done, I don't know whether or not any publishers will nibble or if it has enough first novel problems to truly be a terrible novel. But dangit, the first draft is the hardest, and it's done. I am going to finish this thing. It's not going to be a terrible unfinished novel.

Do you have the first fifty pages of a terrible novel languishing in your desk or on your hard drive? Go finish it. It might be a terrible novel, but it is no longer going to be a terrible unfinished novel. Then revise it and make it terrific.
 
 
The movie Lights Out opened two weekends ago, and my opinions on it have been something of a roller coaster. The trailers and the positive advanced buzz had me champing at the bit for a good horror movie; then the AV Club review came along and completely killed my interest in the movie. If you're OK being spoiled, you can go here for the AV Club's somewhat spoilery review and here for the Spoiler Space, which completely dissects the ableist implications of the ending. If you want to avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that the monster is a metaphor for depression, and the movie inadvertently affirms all the worst things that depressed people think about themselves. 

Or, for those who are OK with spoilers but don't want to read the whole AV Club article (skip to the next paragraph to remain spoiler-free!): . . . the depressed woman whose friends and family are being attacked by the depression monster realizes that the monster will leave them alone if she's gone, so she kills herself. And according to some reviewers, this is played, not as a horrifying The Monster Wins ending, but as a victory.  That's  right, fellow  depressed folks: our loved  ones would be better off if we just killed ourselves. 

In fairness to the people involved with Lights Out, director David Sandberg has made it clear in interviews that this wasn't the message he intended to send. Sandberg himself struggles with depression, and his original ending was far more nuanced. Test audiences hated it, though, so he changed it to the current ending and hoped that no one would read in the horrifically ableist implications.  He's deliberately going to try to amend  those problems in the sequel, and I hope that he succeeds--there have been some terrific horror movies, novels, and short stories dealing with the fact that depression can be as terrifying a monster as any  ghost or vampire. Rather than spend this entire post griping about an unintentionally offensive movie I've never seen, I  want to celebrate the media that have done it right. 

The movie to which I've seen Lights Out compared multiple times, and the hands-down best treatment of depression I've ever seen in horror, is The Babadook. If you like horror even a little bit and haven't seen this movie, go see it; it's on Netflix. If you don't like horror, keep miles away from this one, because it's a nightmare factory. A widowed mother, Amelia, discovers that her emotionally disturbed son, Samuel, is "imagining" himself being stalked by a horrible monster called the Babadook. (Yeah, it's a horror movie, so I'm not even going to pretend that "imagining" doesn't get scare quotes.) He acts out so much because of his fear of the Babadook that he doesn't sleep, and neither does Amelia; what's more, none of the other moms in the neighborhood want weird little Samuel anywhere near their kids, so Amelia is getting increasingly isolated.

And then, the Babadook starts visiting her, too. And things get very interesting.

One huge advantage of The Babadook is that the symbol is fluid. I read the Babadook as a symbol of clinical depression, because that's my personal Babadook. A far more common reading is that it symbolizes Amelia's grief for the loss of her husband and Samuel's grief for that of his father. I've seen it described as a symbol for the stresses of single motherhood, too, which is also a valid read. It means that the scenes of the Babadook terrorizing the family, while still setting up a direct pipeline into a depressed person's fears, are hard to spin out into negative generalizations about people who suffer from mental illness.

And then there's the ending. Skip the next paragraph if you don't want it spoiled. (If you want to go in completely unspoiled, be aware that I'm going to discuss the general tone of the ending, as well as whether or not the monster wins, throughout this post. The next paragraph is the only place where I'll go into specifics, however.)

Near the end of the movie, the Babadook actually possesses Amelia and tries to use her to kill Samuel, then herself. However, Samuel's love for her allows her to shake free of its possession. She drives it away--with an incredibly cathartic "If you ever come near my son again, I'll fucking kill you"--and it locks itself in the basement . . . where it stays. Forever.  When we next see Amelia and Samuel, it's Samuel's birthday, and all seems idyllic, but Amelia has to go to the basement to feed the Babadook. It threatens her, but she calms it down and leaves it a bowl of earthworms to eat. When she goes back to Samuel, she says simply, "It was quiet today." The Babadook will never  leave her, not completely, and it may escape someday again. But she knows it's  there and is taking pains to keep it locked away . . . and if it does escape, she beat it before and may be able to beat it again. 

For such a terrifying movie, the ending is downright empowering. It doesn't put an unrealistically happy face on depression, but depression doesn't win this round, either.

It's possible to do a good story where depression wins, but it has to be handled delicately, and Lisey's Story by Stephen King knocks it out of the park. I wish Lisey's Story were better known; I suspect it's not one of his more popular novels because it's more dark fantasy than horror, but it's one of his best, with dreamy lyrical language, a stunningly well-crafted Russian nesting doll of flashbacks, and an ending that doesn't involve explosions. When the novel opens, Lisey's husband, writer Scott Landon, has been dead for two years. As we travel through the aforementioned nesting doll of flashbacks, we learn that mental  illness ran in Scott's family . . . and in proper Stephen King style, it tended to express itself in supernatural ways. The most relevant of those ways for the "depression monster" theme is the "long boy," a snakelike creature that stalked Scott for his entire life, appearing in reflections out of the corner of his eye, chewing obscenely at its food at the edges of his hearing, and trying to terrorize him to the point where he would finally give in and allow it to devour him.

The long boy, like the Babadook, works in part because it's a flexible metaphor. Lisey is depressed over her husband's death, but isn't stalked by the long boy. When we get flashbacks  to other members of Scott's family, they have some pretty serious issues with mental health, but those issues don't include depression. When it comes to Scott himself, however, depression and the long boy are close to one and the same. He's a cutter. He has bouts of deep and almost unbreakable melancholy, though he tries to put on a smile that only Lisey can see is false.  At one point, he even suggests that Lisey call the long boy to finish him off so she can be rid of him--not as a form of self-pity or emotional manipulation, but because he genuinely thinks it would be best for her. (The parallels to Lights Out all but write themselves.) In a particularly haunting passage, Lisey is brooding over Scott's death and thinks that "if darkness had loved Scott, why then that was true love, wasn't it, for he had loved it as well; had danced with it across the ballroom of years until it had finally danced him away."  The only things that keep the long boy at bay are Scott's writing and his wife. When their marriage is going smoothly and he's writing well, the reflections in the mirror and the horrible chewing sounds are at a minimum.

We do learn that the long boy was directly responsible for Scott's death--in the end, depression won. This is, however, an unambiguous tragedy, and the entire novel is about Lisey working through the emotional wreckage it left behind. The story still manages to end on a bittersweet note by having the long boy's triumph take place in the past,  leaving room for a happier ending in the present, but that triumph makes it a sadder story than The Babadook.

So much  for stories that end on a hopeful note. How about full-bore downer endings? Ray Bradbury's short story "The Small Assassin" shows us a woman killed by the object of her depression and plays it for horror. A new mother, Alice,  survives an incredibly difficult and dangerous labor that ends with a C-section. Her son is healthy . . . but she looks at  him and doesn't feel love.  Her health is fragile after childbirth, but every time she's on the brink of getting the restful, healing sleep she needs, the baby cries loudly and wakes her up, transforming her into more and more of a physical and mental wreck. Her child must be a monster, she decides, who's doing this deliberately because he wants her dead. She begs her husband never, ever to leave her alone with that horrible baby, because who knows what will happen?

If you've ever had issues with postpartum depression, this probably sounds familiar. "The Small Assassin" is far more a pulp story about an evil baby than a psychological exploration of PPD (complete with unintentionally goofy scenes of a newborn crawling around setting up instruments of murder), but it still takes the fears and insecurities of depressed mothers and makes them viciously true. The evil baby does kill Alice, and it's a horrifying The Monster Wins ending done right.

There are other terrific depression monsters--the Dementors are a good example of monsters that are unambiguously defeated, without any of the uncertainty or loss  that we see with the Babadook and the long boy--who are handled deftly enough for depressed readers and viewers to cringe in recognition rather than in disgust. These three are my personal favorites, although in the case of The Babadook, I know that part of it is that I'm a sucker for happy-for-now endings when the issues involved are this messy. Happy-for-now is generally the best ending those of us with depression can hope for, but when the alternative is "The Small Assassin" or Lights Out, that ending is pretty damn good.
 
 
Every family has that point during the summer where its members are so buried in summer camps, conflicting vacation plans, and "oh crap that list of things I planned to do over the summer isn't getting any shorter" that everything else gets shoved to the back burner. For my family, it's this week. Thus, instead of 1200 words about feminism, theology, or writing theory,  I present the Song of Ice and Fire Drinking Game: Dunk and Egg Edition!

If you haven't read the Dunk and Egg novellas (which are now available in one book), I highly recommend them. They're good for the Song of Ice and Fire reader who's trying to decide whether to stick a toe into the Olympic swimming pool of ancillary materials, the Game of Thrones watcher who's thinking about reading  the books but doesn't have time for a thousand-page door stop, or the fantasy fan who has no exposure to either the show or the books, is curious about them, but is daunted by the length of both series. The AV Club listed the first Dunk and Egg novella, "The Hedge Knight," as a gateway to George R. R. Martin's work because it nicely compresses the themes and tone of Westeros into a bite-sized, pleasant piece (the novella collection clocks in at 368 pages for three novellas, and that's with illustrations at least every five pages and  generously sized print.)

The novellas are also a lovely read for anyone who mostly enjoys Game of Thrones, but wishes it weren't so darned Game of Thrones all the time. They have complex situations and shades of grey, but also some genuinely heroic heroes and genuinely villainous villains--and the villains don't have to prove how bad they are by eating people's faces and raping every woman in sight.  (In fact, I don't recall a single incident of, or even allusion to, sexual violence in any of the three novellas. The closest we get is a woman who's almost forced into an arranged marriage to a man she despises, but even that doesn't  happen, and he doesn't spend the whole time leering about how much he's going to rock their wedding night.) Endings are invariably bittersweet, but not to the point where the protagonist is decapitated in  front of a jeering crowd. And perhaps most importantly, for the first time since Storm of Swords, Martin seems to be having fun writing these. The last two Song of Ice and Fire  books felt like something Martin was dutifully crossing off  his list of chores. Dunk and Egg never does.

And  now, without further ado, the drinking game!

Take a drink every time. . .

. . . someone comments on Dunk's height.

. . . you recognize a house name from Song of Ice and Fire.
  • If you actually recognize where you know the name from ("Hey, it's the Freys!") rather than just vaguely knowing they sound familiar from somewhere ("Oh, the Crakehalls. Right. Who are they again?"), drink twice.
  • If you recognize a specific character from their being mentioned in Song of Ice and Fire, drink three times.

. . . Dunk threatens to give Egg a  clout on the ear.
  • If he actually gives him a clout on the ear, finish the bottle.

. . . any of the following phrases appears:
  • "Dunk the lunk." 
  • "Thick as a castle wall." (Thus, if you get "Dunk the lunk, thick as a castle wall," drink twice.)
  • "Tanselle Too-Tall they called her, but she was not too tall for me."
  • "How  many eyes does Bloodraven have? A thousand eyes, and one."

. . . you have to reread the paragraphs in The Hedge Knight  laying out  the current Targaryen family situation to get the brothers straight.

. . . Egg asks to use his boot.
  • If he actually uses it, drink twice.

. . . the sexual politics between Dunk and Rohanne get creepy.  (Or just save yourself time and drink every  time they have a scene together.)

. . . John the Fiddler hits on Dunk.

. . . Egg calls Dunk on  having a terrible idea in The Mystery Knight  and is ignored.

. . . Egg is the one with a terrible idea. 

What else should be on the list?
 
 
In my last post, I talked about how frustratingly difficult it is to find modern wide-release movies for adults that embrace mercy as a critical theme. This week, I want to celebrate the positive,  taking a look at a few relatively recent wide-release movies that get mercy right. I'm also going to expand the net to some favorite books and short stories, because . . . well, I'm a short story writer. It'd be silly not to talk about books on a writing blog.

Something I particularly appreciate is that in most of these stories, the recipient of mercy has genuinely done something horrid. Showing mercy and compassion to a dying, destitute Fantine is absolutely laudable, but it's much, much harder to show mercy to the kid who just blew up your entire planet.

Captain America: Civil War (2016). Since this one just came out, I don't want to say too much for fear of spoilers. Suffice it to say that a character embraces forgiveness over vengeance in a way that feels fully earned, without any of the weird macho "I forgive you and the horse you came in on" posturing of a lot of other movies. What's more, because we love both Cap and Iron Man, we genuinely want to see them reconciled rather than watching them pound each other to a bloody pulp. It's a lovely thing when a movie makes you wholeheartedly root for mercy rather than appealing to that nasty bloodthirsty part of your heart that just wants to see the bad guy die in a thousand horrific ways. Even if we think that either Cap or Iron Man is dangerously wrong, we can't help empathizing with them both.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). On the one hand, I kind of wish this movie  had embraced mercy for its own sake rather than taking the approach of "if we let Mystique assassinate this horrible person, the world will  become a nightmarish dystopia." On the other hand, I get that a multi-million dollar summer blockbuster needs epic stakes, and "prevent the world from becoming a nightmarish dystopia" is easier to sell than  "save Mystique's soul." Even taking the movie on its own terms, it's a far more interesting story to save the word by sparing the life of a truly odious human being than by rescuing a saintly Professor X type (or, heaven forbid, yet another story where they save the world by blowing up a doomsday device). It may not be all the way to loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you, but it's darn close, and that's a rare thing.

Les Miserables (2012). The list of merciful films that kicked off these blog posts had the 1935 version of Les Miz, but the musical is always going to have a special place in my heart, and this is, after all, about recent movies. (The 2012 adaptation is especially welcome in light of the 1998 abomination that ends with Valjean witnessing Javert's suicide and skipping away with a huge smile on his face.) The Bishop of Digne's mercy toward a Valjean who certainly didn't deserve it at that point, Valjean showing compassion and love to Fantine and Cosette rather than looking the other way, Valjean saving a stranger from imprisonment and condemnation at the expense of the life he's made for himself, an antagonist who is essentially the personification of justice without mercy--they all combine to make one of the most stirring testaments to mercy that I've ever seen.

The Phantom of the Opera (2004). At its  heart, Phantom is Gothic horror, and Gothic horror loves heroines whose mercy can  get through to a monster. (See also Mina Harker; her redemption of Renfield is one of my favorite parts of the novel, and it sadly tends to get passed over in adaptation.) The Phantom doesn't let Christine and Raoul go because Raoul beats him in a duel or because Christine screams at him until he realizes that she will never love  him, but because Christine shows him love and compassion for the first time in his life--and that makes him realize how wrong it is to imprison her. 

Of course, one could point out that Gothic stories should have allowed women to kick butt as well as being merciful saints. This is absolutely true--but it's a two-way street, and I'd like to see more men being merciful saints in addition to kicking butt. 

(Side bar: I'm going with the 2004 version because it meets the criterion of "wide-release movie," not because I'm trying to make a statement  about whether it, the  2011 live version, or the original cast  recording is better.)  

...

I'm casting the net on merciful spec fic stories to include classics as well as recent fare, because otherwise this list is going to be embarrassingly short. Either mercy is rare as a major component  in spec fic (which would surprise me, since literature can take more risks than wide-release movies can) or I've been reading the wrong books.

"The Other Foot" by Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury's fiction runs the gamut from joy to whimsy to melancholia to horror, so it's no surprise that mercy works its way in there, too. His final novel, Farewell Summer, had a reconciliation between the town's rambunctious trouble-making boys and the crotchety old man, but I unfortunately can't remember any details. Everything about the end of that story is eclipsed in my memory by the scene where the old man and the lead boy have heartfelt conversations with their penises (no, really). 

But the theme of mercy comes through most starkly in "The Other Foot," one of the few beams of light in the almost oppressively dark anthology The Illustrated Man. An all-black colony on Mars discovers that white settlers are coming, and the colonists are prepared to get revenge by instituting some reverse Jim Crow laws--until they discover that Earth has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust and the lynching trees have burned to ash. There are racially problematic elements in this story, to be sure; as this essay points out, there are issues with the feel-good white wish fulfillment stories of black people "transcending" the wrongs done to them and forgiving white people willy-nilly. But Bradbury has also written lesser-known stories that refuse to let white people off  the hook. If you're interested in reading some of these stories, check out his realistic fiction anthology The Cat's Pajamas. In addition a downright vicious revenge story about a white man who rapes and murders a black woman and draws the wrath of some local carnies, it features a story about a cold-hearted white man with no regard for the black housekeeper who essentially raised him; Bradbury admits in the anthology's introduction that this character represents his own worst fears about how he'd treat his housekeeper if he met her again. Taken in light of Bradbury's other stories, "The Other Foot" is a plea for mercy  that he's not entirely certain any white person, including himself, deserves.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Up until the last chapter, Ender's Game is a bizarre non-example. It's one of the only works I can think of in any medium that starts out by embracing empathy without compassion--Ender completely loves and understands his enemies so he can crush them into the dust. (Yes, he thinks killing the buggers is a game. That doesn't change what he does to Stilson and Bonso.) Like its opposite, the compassion without empathy that we see in "poverty porn," this has little to do with genuine mercy. In the end, however, we get to see Ender using his love and empathy to save lives rather than end them, and the buggers show mercy and forgiveness to him as well.

Although I'm talking about adult media here, I have to give an honorable mention to Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. YA books tend to bring in mercy as a major theme, in part because their target audience is in the process of learning that there are few card-carrying villains in the world. Before I Fall, a cross between Mean Girls and Groundhog Day, is my favorite example of this. Popular, bitchy Sam Kingston enters a repeating time loop that causes her to reevaluate the way she treats her family, her teachers, and her peers. Too often, when we see the "mean kid learns not to be mean" character arc, it ends with the protagonist going from one kind of bully to another; instead of taunting and humiliating nerds, she taunts and humiliates her shallow former friends. Before I Fall doesn't shy away  from how unconscionably cruel Sam and her friends can be, but it also constantly reminds us that they're acting out on very real pain of their own. In fact, the loops that make her feel worst about herself are the ones where she lashes out at her catty best friend or jerk boyfriend in ways that would have been played as stand-up-and-cheer moments in lesser books. Sam's growth isn't complete until she learns to show mercy to all her peers, no matter how undeserving.

Am I forgetting any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments!
 
 
This time last week,  I was all ready to do a business-as-usual post about writing, horror, and writing horror. Given how much horror we're all seeing just by turning on the news, though, I'm not in the mood to talk about Black Mirror and you probably aren't, either. I'm still talking stories, but I'm doing a bit of a gear shift this week.

Partly in recognition of Pope Francis declaring 2016 a Jubilee Year of Mercy, and partly just because they love a good themed film list, Arts & Faith and Image magazine have come up with a list of the Top 25 Films on Mercy. I haven't seen many of them--for every Spirited Away that I've seen and loved, there's an Elephant Man that I know I really should get  around to watching and a Hadewijch that I've never heard of. The list makes me want to hunt down these movies and watch them, though, because any list that features Joyeux Noel and The Island is A-OK in my book. (This particular The Island is a 2006 Russian flick, not the one with Ewan MacGregor and Scarlett Johansson having clone adventures.)

The list is heavy on realistic fiction, older movies, and foreign films, and my husband and I were trying to come up with recent and/or spec-fic fare that explored the theme of mercy as thoroughly as these movies do. As we did, two themes emerged. One was that, by and large, Japanese media seems much more interested in solving problems through mercy, empathy, and compassion than we do--there are two Miyazaki films on A&F's 25-movie list, and we were able to rattle off several anime series with climaxes that hinge on mercy before we could think of a single Western counterpart (Trigun, the series ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Madoka Magica, and my all-time favorite anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, to name a  few). I don't know whether this says something damning about the lack of forgiveness in American culture compared to other countries or simply about the differences between what various cultures will and won't accept as a satisfying climax, but it's interesting.

As we finally stumbled on more recent Western examples, though, we noticed something else: nearly all of the shows and movies whose climaxes hinged on mercy were originally intended for children. Whether they were cartoons with large adult audiences (both Last Airbender series, Batman: The Animated Series), family sci-fi adventures  (Return of the Jedi), or shows that were originally intended for children but deliberately broadened their audiences to include adults (Doctor Who), none of them were exclusively adult stories.

On one level,  that's great news--we want our children to learn mercy, and what better way than watching an avatar who learns that she can't punch her way out of every problem, or a Jedi who wins by throwing away his lightsaber and embracing love and forgiveness even against the advice of his masters? It's terrific that there are high-quality sources of children's entertainment that embrace mercy and compassion. But the trouble is when mercy is seen solely as a province of children's entertainment.  I can think of a handful of mainstream movies for teens and adults that embrace mercy over violence--Spider-Man 3 had its issues, but spitting in the face of forgiveness wasn't one of them--but in general, Hollywood loves its cathartic, climactic violence where our plucky heroes kill, maim, or humiliate "them." Mercy is kids' stuff. Adults know that sometimes we have to make the hard choices. And those hard choices always seem to involve getting a blank check to attack whoever is in the outgroup.

Of course, we generally don't want our heroes to be cold-blooded killers (although the  revenge movie, in which the villains are so loathsome that it's totally OK for the hero to kill them and for us to cheer as he does, is an ugly exception; this sort of movie invites us to view everyone who's wronged us with as much mercy and forgiveness as Django or Bryan Mills, which is to say none at all). Hollywood likes to get around this by having the hero refuse to kill or torture his opponent, only to have the opponent die bloodily from the hero's inaction shortly afterward  (see The Revenant, X2, and Batman Begins). This kind of treatment isn't just a cheat that lets us get our titillation from the villain's comeuppance while keeping the hero's hands clean; it actually changes forgiveness into another weapon. The act of sparing the villain's life is rarely motivated by the hero seeing the villain as a human being like himself. Instead, it's an exercise of power and pride, as the hero makes it clear that he could kill the villain any time he wants but is choosing not to. (Compare any given "No! I'm not like you!" scene with Luke's loving refusal to kill his father, or Batman: the Animated Series' vision of a Caped Crusader who genuinely cares about the welfare of his tragically broken rogues' gallery, to see the difference between genuine mercy and this kind of "I'll  spare you and the horse you came in on" attitude.) This may teach us to avoid actively seeking revenge, but it doesn't teach us much in the way of forgiveness or empathy.

Why? Why do we think that our stories should outgrow mercy? It can't be because you can't tell a good story that will appeal to adults that doesn't end with a death-fest; Return of the Jedi is generally regarded as the weakest of the original trilogy (my total disagreement with this is a whole other post), but not because it doesn't end with Luke striking Vader down with all his hate. Plenty of adults watched Avatar and The Legend of Korra and would have been totally satisfied with them if energy-bending had been introduced before the final episode, and for anyone who was a kid in the early '90s, the definitive incarnation of Batman is one who was empathetic and merciful while still kicking villain butt. 

One contributor is that it's hard to pull off a merciful ending that feels earned--but how much of that is a chicken-and-egg problem? As Steven Greydanus points out in his column on the 25 Films on Mercy list, we're living in a particularly ugly and merciless age. We can't even empathize with and forgive someone who votes differently than we do, never mind a criminal mastermind who's trying to destroy the city. As we harden ourselves to the outgroup in our personal lives, it becomes more difficult to believe that our heroes will do any differently. This causes us to take in stories that are sorely lacking in mercy, which subtly directs our thinking away from mercy, which makes merciful stories even harder for us to accept  as believable . . . and so on, and so on. What's more, it conditions audiences to expect violent endings to their entertainment, and conditions writers to assume that this is the way stories are supposed to end. I'm as guilty of this as anyone--the beautiful, merciful finale of Revolutionary Girl Utena may have felt contrived to me if it had happened in a Western series because I expect different endings from my American shows than from my anime.

Another, deeper issue is the very fact that we associate happy endings, including redemptive ones, with childhood. As we grow older, we realize that not all problems can be solved through communication, empathy, and forgiveness--a theme that's entirely true, and worth exploring in fiction. The trouble is when we convince ourselves that the only kind of mature story is one that ends without any form of reconciliation. Find a movie that resolves peacefully even though death and violence are a possibility, and you'll find a hundred people scoffing at how maudlin and Pollyanna-ish the ending is. Like a guy who reads Watchmen and decides that stories without rape, murder, and nihilism are immature,  we may well have taken away the wrong lessons about what constitutes mature storytelling.

And that matters. Stories teach us how to think--we all have some group or another that we believe is underrepresented or unfairly stereotyped in fiction, and we all know that's damaging because it teaches people not to think well of that group. How damaging is it to have stories that show we can't be reconciled with an outgroup at all--planting the idea, subconsciously, that the people who believe the unfairly stereotyped group is the GLBT community and the people who believe the unfairly stereotyped group is fundamentalist Christians are never going to come to any sort of empathetic accord? If our stories teach us that a Batman for kids can put a hand on sobbing villain to comfort her but a Batman for adults brands bad guys with a mark that'll get them killed in prison because some people aren't worth saving, or that Korra can learn how to solve her problems without violence but the Avengers are just going to keep on punching because, dammit, you just can't reason with some people . . . it's not hard to see how that's going to make our national problem with communicating with those who disagree with us even worse.

So let's take a few hours in one of the most horrible, merciless weeks of a horrible, merciless election season to enjoy some merciful stories, whether it's something from the A&F list or the last season of Avatar. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be Kevin Conroy's Batman than Ben Affleck's any day of the week.