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The Curious Case of Chad Raymond

For a long time, the gay romance genre remained consigned to the closet of literature, in a manner echoing many of its readers’ lives. The field was small, and obscure. While readers could sate their appetites for titillation in the lurid pages of the pulps, or indulge their higher-minded desires amid a neverending glut of gay coming-of-age stories (including the far-too-common tragic underpinnings), it was a long time before wide-release Harlequin-style romance novels told stories of same-sex attraction and love, and gave gay readers their own happily ever after. But as with many such micro-genres, its fans, though few in number, maintained fervent devotion. For those early keepers of the faith, some names stick out: pioneering luminaries such as Burton David, Rick Donovan, Rick David, David Richards, Donovan Burton, and Sexton Goode. But almost any aficionado of M/M romance lit will likely have read, and loved, works published under the indelible name of Chad Raymond.

As part of Commuter Rainbownacle, a series highlighting obscure corners of the LGBTQIA+osphere, which is pronounced luh guh buh tuh cuey ay plus-o-sphere, we delve into the strange story of Chad Raymond, at once the most well-known name in early M/M literature, and yet its least known. And as it turns out, a name with a curious secret.

“Oh, Raymond,” says Dirk Clifton, one-time owner and editor-in-chief of Lakehouse Publishing. “Well, you know, at first it was just me and some friends of mine and we had access to a printing press. We put an ad in Men’s Spendings, a newsletter at the time, saying what we were looking for. Even then, there were a couple specialty shops, places you could get these books if you were in the know. And of course, the mail-order business. Well, we got a few submissions from Chad Raymond and we were just blown away. Chad’s writing spoke to something, you know? Christ, I re-read it now and it’s just as timely.”

Meet You by the Bandstand was Raymond’s first book for Lakehouse. “We couldn’t keep up with orders,” says Clifton. “God, the chapter at the fairground?”

Here, away from the scrabble and the yelling, away from the furious-looking parents and red-faced kids and sweaty sallow carnies and away from all the people who seemed like they never wanted to be here, Henry sat with Tom and calmly, quietly, took the other man’s hand in his own. He half-expected Tom to jump, half-expected the man’s look of placid reverie to turn into a snarl, a growl, a sharpness piercing this soft place. Tom’s eyes flitted up, then back down to the grass, and he let out a contented sigh, and Henry knew this was the only place he ever wanted to be. 

“It just had that vibe,” says Merv Herman, Professor of Media Studies at Ripton College. “It let the reader imagine a world where things could be okay but it didn’t back away from that longing. I mean, you’re a gay man in the fifties, the sixties, that’s a feeling you probably know pretty well.”

Raymond’s prose captured the swelling hearts of a generation of readers, and according to Clifton, the second novel couldn’t come fast enough. And come it did, wrapped in plain brown paper and titled In Old Cape Cod. But Clifton also noticed some peculiarities about the author.

“Well, he wouldn’t meet in person or speak on the phone,” says Clifton. “Everything was done through the mail. I understood, though. A lot of the guys were discreet like that. As long as he kept writing, I didn’t care. But he also seemed, I don’t know. You gotta understand, the writing was good enough that he could get away with not having much actual sex in his stories at first. But we were already starting to get letters from readers who wanted to see more action. So I asked him, you know, in your next book can you please put a love scene.”

“Well, I’ve had a fantastic night,” said Fran. Then he half-frowned. “What’s wrong?”

Jordy cracked up laughing, unable to hold it in. He grinned wide. “You’re going to have some hard-to-explain tan lines, is all.”

Fran blushed, looked down, put his hands in his pockets. Wind jostled his hair, just so, and here was another thing Jordy could hold back no longer. The way the other man’s cheeks flushed made Jordy’s own face feel hot and urgent. He pressed his lips to Fran’s, felt the soft reverberation of a little whisper of a moan passing from one mouth to another. He pulled away, flustered, wide-eyed, a million words crashing in a bottleneck inside him, everything he wanted to say. And Fran leaned forward, chasing his kiss, showing him he didn’t have to say anything at all.

The next morning, Fran lounged under the big pillowy comforter, hair adorably tousled, watching Jordy, who in turn was sneaking glances over at Fran but mostly watching his own self, his own hands buttoning up a shirt, looping a tie around, tying a half windsor. Now and again their eyes met in the mirror and either man looked away, abashed despite their newfound familiarity. 

“You know,” said Jordy, “we had someone drop out, with the cabin. So…are you free next weekend? And do you own any swim trunks?” There was that grin again.

“It was just strange,” says Carlinia Orphidisquerbh, author of Sliterature: A History of North American Dirty Books, “and it’s pronounced ‘Orphidisquerve,’ by the way. Anyway it was strange, because apparently Raymond’s publisher had tried asking him a couple times to put in sex scenes and he just wasn’t getting it.” 

Clifton agrees. “We were getting a lot of letters. Sales started to drop off. I had to put my foot down. We told him they gotta have sex in the next book and it’s gotta happen in the narrative.”

That book was The Artist’s Model and it was Lakehouse’s most successful publication thus far.

“So where are you going after this?” asked Garvey. 

“Well,” said Dennis, “you know, I didn’t have any plans, as it happens. Was going to just sort of be here in this hotel room. And, you know…I sure could use some company.”

“Well, that’s just fine by me,” said Garvey, “because I was feeling like I’d be pretty good company tonight.” He inched closer, and closer again, and now they were side by side together. Garvey felt the warmth of Dennis’s torso and the sturdiness of his arm pressed against Garvey’s own, and Dennis turned his head, and Garvey thought, yes, this is it. This is the moment I’ll look back on later and know this was when I fell in love with this man. The thought thrilled him, it sent delightful shivers all through him, and then the electricity would not be contained. Dennis’s kiss would barely be contained either – he was hungry, but intentional about it, just enough for his kisses to feel pleasingly obscene without feeling amateurish or sloppy. Then they had sex.

Raymond’s perfunctory approach seemed to satisfy Lakehouse’s readership for a while. But soon enough, changing times demanded changing material, and once again Clifton exchanged correspondences with Raymond. 

“We wanted something explicit,” says Clifton. “I mean, I’d read what else the guy came up with, it was great, he clearly understood English. And he wrote these fantastic scenes with kissing and everything, really great stuff, but for some reason just wouldn’t write about men having sex. But again we told him, it’s time to fish or cut bait. I’m not sure I used that correctly. I don’t know a lot about fishing.”

“I don’t know a lot about fishing, either,” says Professor Herman. “Not sure why you’re asking me about that. Anyway, it was after that last book that the other shoe dropped. I guess Raymond had run out of excuses for why he wasn’t writing about men having sex. After I’d Bring You The Stars came out and it was Lakehouse’s biggest seller of all time, Raymond knew his time was up. There’d only be more pressure to show more action in the sex scenes and, as we now know, that wasn’t going to happen. It couldn’t.”

“Chad Raymond was actually a nun. Her name was Sister Rosa and she lived in Brooklyn,” says Orphidisquerbh. “She was already middle-aged when her first book as Chad Raymond came out. I guess she started doing it to help get money to repair the church roof. And I guess she’d figured out a lot of the mechanics of people kissing and stuff but she just had no idea what men having sex consisted of.”

Jay’s other hand played in Martin’s hair, tracing curls delicately. He whispered, “You know, if you’re not careful, you might give a fellow ideas.” 

Martin looked down at his belly, at Jay’s hand on the flatness of it, where his shirt had ridden up. He looked up at Jay. “Well, what are you waiting for?” he teased. “Maybe you should go ahead and get some ideas.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” Jay said, and he swooped down for another kiss, and another, and another, and their hands met, then their hands were upon one another’s bodies. Jay peered down at Martin’s belly as well, at the faint hint of the curve of his hipbones, right where they began. He kissed Martin on the collarbone, and on his sternum right where his heart would be, and just above his bellybutton, and just below his bellybutton, and right above those hipbones. He looked up. His face was a question.

“Yes,” gasped Martin. Jay unbuckled the belt, unbuttoned the soft comfortable old jeans he had to admit looked so much better on Martin than himself, and almost absentmindedly reached down and undid his own belt, slid down the waistband of his own trousers.

“Yeah!” said Martin. 

“YEEEEAAAHHHHHHHH!” said Jay.

“We’re having sex!” hollered Martin. “WE’RE HAVING SEX!”

“YEEEEEEEAAHHHHHHH! ALL RIGHT! YEAH!”

“WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”

“WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”

“Yeah, so she’d just never seen a man naked before. She didn’t have the foggiest idea what a man’s privates looked like. These were different times,” says Clifton. “Nowadays you figure someone maybe has a phone or whatever if they’re really curious, but, again, she was already well into middle age when she started. She was probably born in the 1910s, somewhere like that. Became a nun when she was like seventeen. But yeah, that’s when she quit. Knew the jig was up. She probably knew before she even sent the story over. She hung up the typewriter after that, as far as I know.”

Indeed, if Sister Rosa ever wrote anything for publication again, she did it without using either her more famous pen name, or her own name. To protect the church’s anonymity, we won’t print the name of the place, but Commuter Barnacle can verify there is a church somewhere in Brooklyn where every day, or I guess probably every Sunday because I don’t know if people go to church during the week or what, anyway every Sunday, congregation members unwittingly sit next to a piece of queer lit history: a back row of pews, bearing a plaque indicating the pews were made possible by the very generous gift of Chad Raymond.

Inside Olivia

(Note from JSP: I put out a request for story prompts among people I know, and this story is the result of one of them. The prompt came from my friend Caro, and it was: “You wake up in a stolen car.”)

There are stars, and then there is nothing, and then I wake up.

I snap to consciousness with a sharp pain in my head and a lurching stomach and a whole mess of confusion. Sensory information blares all at once, all of it competing urgently for my attention. My shoulders hurt. My jaw is a little sore. I’m positioned awkwardly on my side, I seem to be having trouble moving, and I can’t see anything. My left hand is all pins and needles. My brain is sluggish, swimming with the chaos of the moment and fighting to remember whatever brought me here. A thumping noise from nearby interrupts my cataloging of discomforts. I can’t tell where it’s coming from. My stomach lurches again and there’s a quiet rattling sound from what seems like beneath me. I can hear rushing wind, maybe, but it sounds muted.

Am I in the trunk of a car?

What the hell? I try to say.

“Whah uh heh?” I grunt. There’s something obstructing my mouth, something jammed between my teeth. It feels like fabric, maybe? Wet fabric. I spend another moment perplexed before it clicks into place: at the moment I am tied up and gagged in the trunk of a car.

Well, I know what my situation is. That’s progress, anyway. 

I squirm a bit, testing the hypothesis. Yep. Hogtied. The lurching in my stomach is the car making turns. The rattling beneath me is probably a spare tire and jack.

“Whah uh huck?” I mutter. 

There’s that wobble in my stomach again, and then there’s that thump again. It’s a few feet away from my head. Clunk.

I breathe. 

Long slow inhalation, pause, long slow exhalation, taking long draws of the stale air in this enclosed space. I feel panic as a bodily sensation, all the places it lives: A buzzing clutch in my chest. A leaden lump in my stomach, which is having a hard enough time as it is. I let these things come, and I greet them, and I breathe. The rising panic wants to tighten every part of me and I breathe, ignoring the pulse hammering in my temple, the whine of my strained wrists. I close my eyes, which feels a little ridiculous inside an unlit trunk, and I let the feeling of ridiculousness come, and I greet it, and I breathe.

I breathe until I can think. The swell of fear subsides, washes away enough for me to collect myself.

First, orientation. A gentle, insistent push of g-force tells me I’m facing the rear bumper of the car. That being true, I’m lying in this trunk with my head towards the driver’s side and my feet towards the passenger side. Right arm’s underneath me, and currently numb. I carefully roll over, lying on my front, and give the lid a firm kick as best I can. It doesn’t budge. Eh, it was worth trying.

The car turns. Clunk. 

Where was I before this? There was a junkyard, and – 

“Hello?”

Startled, I jump as much as is possible.

“Hello?” the voice asks again. It’s muffled. Sounds like there’s a man in the car. “Is there someone in the trunk? I don’t…who are you? Do you know what’s happening?”

I roll onto my left side. “No uh doh – oh guh ‘ammit!” I groan. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, “I can’t understand you.” His voice is strained. He’s scared, it sounds like.

“Righ,” I reply, “hol’ on.” 

“What? I’m really sorry, I can’t understand you.”

Back onto my belly. My right hand, slowly waking up, feels like a big fat prickling sausage and I can barely move it. I run my left index and middle fingers carefully along the cord binding my hands to each other, my feet to each other, and my hands to my feet. It all feels similar. Not especially rough to the touch. Clothesline, maybe? I arch backwards, reaching for my ankles. Stretching like this, with my shoulders pinned back, elicits a pop from my sternum. I try to work fast, before my left arm falls asleep.

Clunk. That just felt like a little swerve, not a full turn.

I trace the tips of my fingers along the cords, feeling for knots. They’re there, and they feel amateurish, like someone tied a double knot and then just kept tying more knots on top of it. Undoing them will be work and I’m not sure I have time. Talking may be my only chance.

With another groan and a few more pops from the cartilage in my chest, I grip the rope and pull, arching back even further. I try to remind myself to breathe steadily, which would probably be easier without a knot of fabric, slick with drool, obstructing my mouth. I pull harder, gripping the rope as best I can with my right hand, trailing the fingers of my left further along to move it a few more agonizing inches closer to my feet, pulling the rope into my excruciatingly tingly left hand, bending me even further backwards. The strain pushes a little whimper out of me. 

“Hey, what happened? Are you still there? Can you answer me? I’m not sure where we’re going. Do you know where we’re going?”

Clunk.

One more heave and I arch further back, and finally land the result I’d been hoping for. These shoes have a decent-sized heel on them. Now I’m bent back far enough I can hook those heels under the gag tied around my head. Ignoring the excruciating wrenching of my shoulders as much as is possible, I flex my ankles, wriggle my head, and the gag slips down around my neck. I unhook the heels, and exhale hard as the tension in my body slackens. 

“Hi,” I call out. “Yeah, I’m in the trunk. What’s your name?”

There’s a pause, as if he didn’t expect actual answers. “My name’s Tico,” he says.

“Hi, I’m Devon,” I say, calmly as I can manage. “Tico, how much of tonight do you remember? Also, can you see any road signs?”

Clunk.

“I was hitchhiking. Tomorrow’s my mom’s birthday and I wanted to make it home to surprise her. A guy picked me up, kind of wild-eyed. Then it’s all a blur.”

“Right,” I say, “so, let me ask you. Have you ever heard of the Gerald H. Carruthers Memorial Society and Trust?” 

“The what?”

“The Carruthers Society. You might call us a nonprofit. We’re dedicated to the study, conservation, and stewardship of unusual fauna.”

“Unusual how?”

“Oh, you know,” clunk, “harpies, manticores, ghosts, cockatrices, giants, statues that come to life because someone stared lovingly at them over a period of a hundred years, just all kinds of things. Saw a bunyip once, even. Tonight I went to a junkyard to meet with a research assistant from the North American Remarkable Motor Association. A guy named Gavin.”

“Remarkable Motor…”

“Yeah,” I say. Clunk. “They cover some areas we typically don’t. And I –”

The engine whines. Queasiness ripples through me. We’re accelerating. Shit.

“Okay, Tico, I need to cut to the chase here. NARAM handles particular kinds of field specimens. It’s not just cars, but mostly it’s cars. And that’s where we are right now. We’re inside Olivia.”

There’s a short silence, then he speaks. “I, uh…I don’t think I’m inside anyone…”

“Olivia is this car,” I say, “and she’s haunted.” By now I have a strong suspicion about what’s up with Tico, and asking him to take a couple deep breaths would be useless. I try something else. “Hey, listen. I think I understand why you’re so confused right now. I might be able to help. You said you were going home, right? To your mom’s?”

“Yeah.”

“Great. Can you just take a couple seconds and think about that? About home? Maybe your…” I swallow hard, not quite ready to go digging in sensitive territory but not seeing a choice. “Your mom’s cooking? Or, you know how everyone’s house has a smell and you don’t notice the scent of your own house unless you’ve been away for a while and then you come back? Do you remember the way your home smells?”

“I do,” he says. His voice quivers.

“Focus on that,” I say. “Let it center you. And let thAUUGH!'” I break midsentence as the car hits a bump of some kind. “Sorry! Sorry. Seriously though! Focus on home. On the sensory experience of being home. Being in the place you want to go.”

“I’m doing that,” he says. “I’m doing that,” he says again, this time almost too quiet to hear.

Another bump, then a series. We seem to be on a dirt road. The clunk gets louder, and I think I know what’s making the sound. 

“Tico, I’m really hhhuuuhhhh,” I try to say as the car judders over uneven road, “sorry, I’m really sorry to have to do this but there’s something you should know. Is there a man in the driver’s seat?”

“What? I don’t…I don’t think I can see…”

“Think of home! Please!”

“I – yes! Yes there’s a man in the driver’s seat.”

“He’s not moving, is he?”

“…no.”

“He’s probably got an arm hanging out of the window, right? It’s thumping against the car door when we turn or swerve? And you’re in the back seat?”

“That’s right, yeah.”

“I don’t suppose you can maybe get in there and step on the brake?”

“No,” comes the reply, “he’s scooched up against the steering wheel and he’s in the way. I wouldn’t be able to reach the pedals.”

Shit. New strategy. “Okay. The reason you were so confused earlier is that there are basically two competing fields of what we call the Carruthers effect, which isn’t easy to explain but it’s a force of some kind, like gravity or radiation. We’re still aaaaargghh” – another bump – “we’re still barely scratching the surface of what we think it is, but we know there are control protocols and we know that if those protocols aren’t carefully observed then you get unpredictable results. You have to be careful about allowing resonant fields to come into contact. One of those fields is Olivia. The other is you.”

He says nothing for what feels like way too long. Olivia picks up more speed.

“Are you saying I’m, what…the ghost of this guy?”

“No,” I say. “The guy in the driver’s seat is Gavin. He ignored some pretty critical safety checks and spent too much time around Olivia. I could spend all day talking about what her deal is, but she makes people covetous. Makes them make bad decisions. She’s cursed. I didn’t know she’d gotten into his head until he started talking about this great idea he had. Said he was going to do something no one else had done. I tried to talk him out of it and he said he needed to show me something in the trunk and then I’m guessing he hit me on the head and here we are. In a haunted stolen car.” Clunk.

“Hey, you asked if I saw any road signs,” he says. “There’s a sign for Glover Canyon. Two miles.”

Two miles. Crap. “Tico, tonight is May nineteenth. Your mom’s birthday is tomorrow. You’ve got a blanket you bought for her. Really nice woven blanket.”

“How do you know my mom’s…”

The engine roars. Can Olivia sense what I’m trying to do? Wouldn’t put it past her.

“Because you died, Tico! May nineteenth is the night you died. You were hitchhiking and a drunk driver hit you and now on this night every year, some driver picks up a hitchhiker with a woven blanket who says he’s trying to get home for his mom’s birthday and I wish I had more time to explain this but Olivia is heading for Glover Canyon so she can drive off a cliff, just like she does eventually every time she breaks containment. Just after incapacitating the driver.” Usually it’s by moving the seat forward until the driver is stuck against the steering wheel, squeezing the air out like an anaconda with a V8 engine. It’s funny, the imagery you come up with at times like these.

There’s silence. I can hear the tires spitting gravel. There’s a loud clattering smash and an impact on the car, knocking me around. We must have broken through a gate. We’re close. There’s a good chance I’m going to die tonight. 

My mind wanders as I contemplate what kind of ghost an event like this would create. It’d be a shame to be dead and not be able to give a talk on the subject at the next conference. I wish I could instead be coming up with some sort of useful plan, but I’m blanking. I snap back, because, again, there’s a good chance I’m going to die tonight. 

“And every year, you get picked up. And every year, you get kind of quiet and the driver looks back into the back seat and you’re gone. Every year, there’s no trace of you but the blanket, by the side of the road where you died. Sometimes it’s got objects from inside the car you vanish from. We’ve tried recovering the blanket a few times. It disappears from storage.”

I’m trying to stay calm but my heart is jackhammering. “Gavin’s whole stupid idea was that if you were inside Olivia you might not be able to leave and then that would be, I don’t know, a breakthrough of some kind. Again, his mind was poisoned by a haunted car. So he put me in the trunk and he went to go pick you up, since you’re always hitchhiking on the same stretch of road every year.” 

Wait. The blanket. It always disappears from the car he’s riding in, and it’s always back in that spot. And sometimes it takes other objects with it.

“Tico, I know you don’t know me and I am so, so, sorry but I need you to try something. I need you to keep thinking of home and I need you to see if there’s a latch on the back seat.”

He’s silent. Terrain growls underneath us. We’re off road. Half a mile away at most.

“Why think of home?” he asks. “How does that work?”

“It ties you to the, uh, the land of the living,” I say, wishing we had a better name for it. “Strengthens your connection to corporeal things. Makes you able to touch things without, you know, passing through them.”

“What about the latch?” he asks. 

“I need you to open it and, uh…pass me the blanket. Then grab Gavin’s head and turn it so he’s looking at the back seat.”

“Pass you – no! Why? This is for my mom!”

“Tico, I promise you, I promise you that if you hand me that blanket then I will do everything I can to make sure your mom gets it. And I’ll tell her that you saved my life. But please -“

An eternity passes. I work at the knots as much as I’m able, for all the good it’ll accomplish, just to give my mind and hands something to do. From the sound of the tires, we’re on grass now. The cliff has got to be within sight now. I breathe. I try to calm the clanging in my heart, my endocrine system, my temples. I can’t help but have a few nagging pangs of wishing I’d told some people – one in particular comes to mind – how I felt about them. I try to think of what I want my last words to be, even if no one’s going to hear them but the ghost of a hitchhiker.

There’s a click. Light, however dim, pours into the trunk as the back seat folds down. 

A woven blanket, the kind you might get at a truck stop, tumbles into the cramped space of the trunk. Just as I grab it with my barely-sensate hands, the rumble under the wheels stops entirely and my stomach jumps. I try to roll over, which would be difficult even if the car, and everything in it, were not in freefall. We’ve driven off the cliff. 

Without the free use of my limbs I’m forced to wrap myself in the blanket by logrolling while gripping it, like an awkward terrified burrito. I’ve actually got no idea whether this will work or not, but some chance is better than none. 

I’m slammed hard against the lid of the trunk, the sides of the trunk, the floor of the trunk as the car tumbles through the air. One of my shoulders makes a nauseating crunching sound as I smash once more into the lid. This time, it falls open, and I fly out of the trunk into the air, gripping the blanket as hard as my ungainly hands will let me. 

There’s a distinct, deafening whoosh. I squeeze my eyes shut tightly. If my hypothesis is right, I may be about to pass through a space I’m not sure humans ever see, and it’s a terrible idea to be the first for stuff like that. And if my hypothesis is not right, well, I guess it won’t matter.

The whooshing gets louder, louder, consuming everything, and then the unbearable loudness is gone, and then – 

I think I can hear…are those bullfrogs? 

Yes. Bullfrogs in a pond nearby. Other than that, and the rushing sound of distant cars, the night is quiet.

I’m on the ground. I wiggle out from the blanket wrapping me, crawling on my belly onto what turns out to be damp grass. I’m under a tree, lying on my front with my feet in the air. Olivia will probably start reforming soon, but that’s a problem that can wait, for the moment. Again I breathe, taking inventory. I seem to have lost a shoe. Shame. I liked that pair. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves and grass around me. The air feels strange, in a pleasant way, against my unshod sole. It occurs to me these stockings are probably wrecked, too.

The fact that I’m alive at all gives me a hint about what I’m likely to see if I look up, but I strain my neck to see it anyway, at the foot of the tree. A cross. Some ribbons. Flowers, some fresh-looking and some long dead and dried. A photo of a young man. He’s got a bright smile, dimpled chin, tousled dark hair. Handwritten on the cross are the words Martin “Tico” Cordova Alvarez, siempre en nuestros corazones and the customary two dates separated by a line.

I peer up at the sky, at all the stars that are out tonight.

Again, it’s funny, the things that come to mind. I think about how if this were a movie I’d want to say something like “Thank you,” or swear that I’d bring this blanket to his mom just as promised. But I’m struck by the absurdity of talking to a photo, because it’s just a photo. Words are words and deeds are deeds. So as I set about the slow, painful business of undoing the labyrinth of knots around my wrists and ankles, I think about how I’ll probably have to do some hitchhiking myself now since my phone is either back at the junkyard or at the bottom of a canyon, and I let the bullfrogs have the last word.

Dear Reader: In Reply to Your Correspondence

Hi! Sorry to keep you waiting.

I keep trying and failing to map out an adequate preamble to any of this, so here goes. If you wrote to me after 665 ended and never heard back, this is a letter to you.

The things I want to tell you are: thank you, and I’m sorry. I’ll start with the sorry.

I’m sorry I never wrote back. Sometimes it was a missive asking me to start making things again, sometimes just a bit of a check-in, sometimes just saying you’re out there and you had occasion to think about me and wondered what I was up to these days. In any event, I can tell you that I read every one. If you didn’t get a bounceback message, I read it, and it made my day. The tangle of reasons why I didn’t write back, even just briefly to say thanks, was a whole mountainous mess of my own horseshit problems and I think explication of them would sound too much like an attempt to excuse it, and I don’t want to do that. What I’ll say is that avoidant behavior loops and shame spirals and procrastination bouts that go on for years at a stretch are killer, and they can be a sign there’s something else going on that maybe needs attention. Little tip from your old pal JSP. Anyway, what matters here is: You took the time out of your day to drop me a line and said something nice – that’s the thing, everyone who said anything at all said something nice – you said something that meant a lot to me, and probably made me cry a little, and you deserved more than silence in return.

That said: Thank you. I’m serious about crying. I was dealing with a lot, including a big sloppy helping of despair. Maybe you can relate: despair is sometimes situational and specific, and sometimes it’s this big thorny existential thing that orbits a few core areas of you but largely it’s nameless and formless and it’s just sort of there. It can be both, even, and then they do a whole tag team thing and, okay you get it. It’s not like I didn’t notice that every so often I’d get just enough oomph to start making declarations that I was going to start making things again soon and then I’d turn around and it was a year later and I had maybe a couple beginnings of something sitting in a sketchbook I promised myself I’d get back to one of these days. Faith in myself was something I rebuilt extremely gradually and in a lot of quiet and not super visible ways. It was a little spark, a tiny cinder, and I am not kidding when I say that every time I noticed another email coming in with a subject like “Is this JSP?” or “sixsixfive” or what have you, I read it, and I felt really bad about not replying, but it stayed with me that you were out there, that you remembered me, and that you liked the work I did. On more than one occasion I got overcome and just broke down crying with gratitude, despite everything. Every time I heard from you, that little cinder either glowed a little more strongly, or it stopped the fading it was in the middle of. So if you wrote and wondered if your message reached me: It did, in so many ways. I’ve carried your correspondence with me in my heart and head and I cannot thank you enough.

A bunch of other stuff happened too, in the intervening years. There’s some catching up that’ll show up in subsequent entries on this site, and I’m trying to lay it out in a way that’s workable and not boring. But when I sat down to start writing, I knew where I needed to start, and it’s with you, and the reply I didn’t send until now. I’m sorry, and from the bottom of my heart: thank you. And thank you for liking the stuff I made, and caring enough to say so. Twenty (!) years after I started dorking around with my little orange website, there are some novelties which have never worn off. To this day it just absolutely floors me to think I could type some words or upload some scribbles into my computer and it could reach someone out there and connect with them – with you – in whatever way. I sincerely think that’s miraculous and I never feel any less of a sense of wonder about it than I did the first time it happened.

Thank you for your patience and thank you for reading and, above all, thank you for being you. I’ll write more soon.

Yrs,
JSP

Some Thoughts on Fallout 4

(WARNING: a lot of spoilers)

Fallout 4 has turned out to be a mix of elements that are sometimes excellent and sometimes frustratingly brush up against the edges of the more interesting game it did not become. It’s full of interesting side quests and then a main questline that always seems kind of confused and hurried.

First, I should say that the game has a lot of fun moments and little bits like building a structure at Oberland Station with a dormitory on the bottom floor and a bar on top. Chairs of all kinds, and bar stools, and a bar. A jukebox and soft lights and knickknacks on the walls. Sitting at a picnic table and seeing everyone mill about and drink and smoke after a long day of farming. Little things that make the world feel alive, for a moment.

This is an off-the-dome estimate but I’d say something like ninety (maybe ninety-five) percent of the quests amount to: talking to a character, going to a location, killing everyone at that location (one of the enemies will either be named or legendary depending on whether the quest is randomly generated or not) and maybe retrieving an item, then returning to the first character and either telling them you killed everyone or giving them the item you received from killing everyone.

I have found one (1) quest that allowed me to perform intelligence checks to find a solution to a problem.

Basically, the game railroads you into murder almost all of the time. This has no perceptible effect on your character, for better or for worse. Raider dialogue suggest they get skittish about the possibility of synths showing up at the doorstep, but they don’t give a shit when it’s you. The nuclear apocalypse seems to have caused an unexpected mutation: Everyone has developed a new gland, somewhere in their neck I assume, that allows them to perceive unerringly when they are near the person to talk to when it’s time to go do a bullshit milk-run mission, and that person is you. Sometimes, when you have performed enough tasks for a character, other characters will indicate they’re aware of the tasks you’ve performed and that they would like you to perform a task for them now. Your actions have no other cumulative effect. Inescapably, you are personally responsible for a mountain of corpses, most of which were just people defending their turf from the blood-sodden murderous maniac who kicked down their door and started blowing people’s heads off.

This paradox colors the entire game. Preston Garvey is that kid you continued to be friends with in middle school but were increasingly embarrassed to be seen with, and he wasn’t doing anything wrong necessarily but you could tell that his values and interests were growing irreconcilably distant from your own. You become the General of the Minutemen, and sometimes if a settlement gets raided and there are Minutemen around while you are there, they will help you defend the settlement. This is the only useful function any of the Minutemen perform except for giving you quests they inexplicably are unwilling or unable to go on themselves (they never even do anything off-camera). This same function, minus the quest-giving, is also fulfilled by any settlers you’ve got kicking around who will immediately open fire on any nearby threat to their settlement, making the Minutemen even more superfluous because the only thing in the game that can actually kill settlers is you. Other than that, you are the only member of the Minutemen doing any work at all, though Preston and Sturges can frequently be seen idly hammering nails into the outer wall of a well-preserved house, having selected the one part of the entire fucking town that doesn’t need a touch-up and proceeding to touch it up. This important labor precludes them from engaging in any of the tasks that compose the Minutemen’s mission statement.

Preston Garvey is that kid who wants to make a zine, and all of his conversations with you are about his zine, and he wants you to help him with his zine and he’s got a lot of homework right now so you wind up doing the whole thing for him. You typeset everything and do all the layouts and sneak into the library to photocopy everything. “Man,” he says when it’s printed, “that looks good. That looks real good. We did it, man.”

Sturges will help you teleport into the Institute, although he is not the only person who can do so. Regardless of how much effort he expends, he will talk about how we saved the day once the credits roll. Someone elsewhere noted that when you first meet Sturges, he is typing away at the keyboard of a terminal. When you look at the terminal yourself, it is locked. Sturges was just kind of hammering away at keys and hoping no one would notice.

The protagonist always, always, always sounds like a voice actor who’s doing his best, and “his best” involves inserting no real personality into anything he says or does.

* * *

A lot of parts of the game feel like they were put together by people who weren’t talking to each other and had no intermediary between them, even parts that should be closely connected. The companions almost always feel like hurdles to clear, without much thought put into making them feel like anything else. Cait is basically amoral and she likes it when you are mean to people. She likes it when you steal things and she likes it when you pick locks in front of her. Piper is fairly morally upstanding, or what passes for it in this game, and she does not like it when you steal but she does like it when you pick locks in front of her. If you pick enough locks in front of Cait, she will eventually confess to you that she has a drug addiction and asks for your help. In this case she told me she has heard of a place called Vault 95 where rumors exist of a solution that might help her. Approximately three days earlier in-game, Cait and I had been to Vault 95 and methodically gone through the place, killing every living thing inside. This appeared to slip her mind and I had no option for reminding her that, say, the blood from the place’s inhabitants was probably still crusting up her hair. Elsewhere in the game, it’s quite possible for me to have killed a named raider by accident, later to run into the person who asks me to kill that raider and to inform them that I already have. Sometimes, after you have been asked a couple dozen times to go kill super mutants and then gone and done so, and talked to Strong the super mutant about super mutants and what super mutants are and what they do, someone will ask you to go kill super mutants and you will have the option of asking, “What’s a…super mutant?”

I got Cait clean, and eventually I had picked enough locks in front of Cait that she wanted to discuss her Feelings. There was a romance option at the end of that conversation, and though my character’s Charisma score was high, the option was highlighted in red meaning I had little chance of succeeding, even if I’d wanted to (I did not). I therefore told her that we were the best of friends and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This made her happy. When I came back to the town I’d sent her to, she said, “I know I’ve said it before, but…” and then repeated word-for-word the confession that led to the romance check. It was still highlighted in red. The game is at once terrified that I will miss the chance to sleep with a digital character, but also wants to provide me with roadblocks to doing so, even after I’ve turned down the opportunity. Cait has now said this entire spiel to me three times. The game really wants you to fuck her. The game really does not want you to fuck her.

Cait does not like it when you flirt with other women in front of her, but if you dismiss her in favor of Piper or vice-versa, she will suggest a threesome.

The companions will tell you their stories if you do enough things they like in front of them. They rarely have any strong stake in the game’s story. They might dislike certain actions, or siding against factions to which they’re sympathetic, but mostly they’ll go along with what you do. There are no dealbreakers. Cait was a slave for five years and has horrific memories of it, but if you attempt to sell a child into slavery in front of her, she won’t like it but she’ll get over it. On the other hand, it’s possible to be kind to people in front of her too many times, at which point she will have had enough, thank you very much, and part company with you.

* * *

Preston Garvey is a load. Preston Garvey is just a goddamn fucking load.

* * *

At one point in the game, you encounter an old woman who’s manic with anger, holding up a shotgun and demanding you go away, because she believes she is a synth. She tells you that she had a grandson, and one night while sitting on watch with her gun in her lap, she must have fallen asleep or something because when she woke up her grandson had been shot to death and no one else was around. She must be responsible, she tells you. She’s a synth, she has to be. There’s no other explanation she can think of, and she is mad with grief. You can talk her into lowering her gun and then offer her sympathetic words, telling her that what happened is not her fault, that she’s not a synth. She will calm down a little and thank you for offering your perspective and say feels better now.

You can then go upstairs and break into her terminal. Due to layout of the building, there’s no way to do so without encountering her and having a conversation with her first. If you do so, you can read about her nightmares and also a diary entry in which she recounts the night she fell asleep with her gun in her lap, and when she woke up her grandson had been shot to death and no one else was around. This experience convinced her she is a synth, says the diary. She can think of no other explanation, and she is mad with grief.

This then enables you to go downstairs and open a new line of dialogue with her where you confront her about her grandson. If you do, she breaks down and says she might as well tell you the whole story: One night, while she was sitting on watch with her gun in her lap, she fell asleep. When she woke up, her grandson had been shot to death, and no one else was around. She is certain that she herself is responsible, and that she is a synth. She can think of no other explanation, and she is mad with grief. You can talk her down, and she will calm down a little and thank you for offering your perspective and say she feels better now.

Should you choose to kill her, you will find out she is not a synth. No explanation for what actually happened is ever given. I checked the wiki.

* * *

Sometimes, Fallout 4 is a child, insisting that you play only within the tightly-defined rules it has come up with and ignoring you if you don’t. You are pretending to be Superman, and it is pretending to be Lex Luthor, and when Superman punches Lex Luthor, it petulantly insists that you did not do that and it is not hurt. “This rock is Kryptonite, actually,” it says, holding up a pebble. “You’re weak now, you have to fall down.” You’re not. You don’t. It might be something if the game would throw a tantrum if you refused to play along, but it never does. It just pretends you didn’t do that.

When I finally made it to the Institute and found out what happened to my infant son from the beginning of the game, I was honestly pretty excited on a storytelling level. It seemed pretty meaty: You’ve finally found your son and he’s older than you and he’s also basically Hitler. This was what I kept coming back to. The Institute is committing slavery, but they’re also able to make new slaves at the touch of a button and wipe the memories of runaway slaves. They create entities that can think and feel and then insist those entities cannot think or feel, and punish them for acting as though they can. They are also making great scientific strides that could finally, after centuries, lift humanity out of the shitpile the world has become. What do you do? What can you do?

I have a longstanding policy in the Fallout games of killing slavers on sight, but this was my son, for God’s sake. Then, while strolling through the Institute, I overheard a conversation between two scientists in which I learned the synths experience REM sleep and are dreaming. At a terminal, I learned the paterfamilias of the Warwick family had been abducted and tortured until they could make a convincing copy of him, then presumably killed, far underground, never seeing his loved ones again, never understanding why. The copy would gather data about the family’s farm and then, once they had enough data, the whole family would be killed, likely by the hand of an entity they believed to be their husband, their father.

A scientist turned to me in a room in the Synth Retention Bureau wing and said, “The synths may seem human, but don’t let that fool you. They’re not.”

The shotgun blast tore her head clean off her shoulders, bouncing twice I think when it hit the ground, a trail of blood marking its path through the air for a quarter-second. Two Institute coursers drew their guns and walked towards me, directly into a garden of hastily-placed plasma mines. Their artificial bodies ripped into pieces, flinging everywhere. I methodically walked around the Institute, killing everyone in sight. Most of the Institute’s denizens drew guns in a futile attempt to stop me, whereas others cowered behind bulky terminals, hoping I’d miss them. I did not.

For their crimes, there were no courts I could appeal to. No police to call. There were no judges, no juries. Just me. In a lawless land, there was no difference between what was moral and what I could not be stopped from doing.

Everyone was complicit. Everyone had to die.

A cloud of white lab coats appeared on the periphery of my vision alongside a few laser blasts. I spun around, unloading exploding bullets into them, not seeing what I was firing at. My son was one of them, and he died, like they all died. I did not stop. I launched a mini nuke into the center of the place, a cash-register sound and experience tally informing me that I had sheared all life from the Earth in a fifty-foot radius or so.

By the time I was done, there were only three sentient beings alive in The Institute: Two children (one synth, one human), and a synth who had not attacked me. He wandered among the corpses serenely, occasionally stopping to say things like, “You must be so proud of what Father has built!” I got on the elevator and left, receiving a warning that I’d better run, that they would get me for this. I don’t know who was supposed to be speaking.

The Institute was now a tomb, a formerly sterile place of clean white hallways now littered with mouldering bodies and smeared with chunks of viscera. Heads and legs and eyeballs lay alongside dropped coffee cups and folders and pens. Two children and one happy idiot ambled aimlessly, alone, uncomprehending, the living buried with the dead.

I returned to Sanctuary, to unload some of what I’d picked up down there – the lab coats of my son and of the Institute head scientists. I got a notification that the Castle needed to be defended. The last remnant of the Institute’s synths descended upon my base in a desperate final assault, only to be torn to pieces by the Castle’s defenses and my personal arsenal. The masters lay dead, and now so did the servants who’d sided with them. As my minigun spun to a stop, its red-hot barrels cooling, the last synth in the Institute’s army clattered to the ground.

And Preston Garvey turned to me and said, “Hey, I know a way we can finally strike back at the Institute.”

8 Lifehacks For People Who Need, Or Just Want, 8 Lifehacks

  1. If a loved one dies, no need to worry! Just get a magic potion that brings dead people back to life.
  2. Use the following mnemonic device: Mary Saw A Nintendo Game
  3. Scratched up DVD? You might have to replace it but you might not! It still might work, but if it doesn’t then yeah you’re going to have to replace it.
  4. Trouble getting out of bed in the morning? Simply make it so your bed goes away for a while so you can’t go back to it. Bring your bed back just before you leave for work.
  5. Press your left thumb and forefinger into your right palm, just under the joint for your right ring finger. Yeah, like that. Good. Gooood.
  6. Hungry, but broke? Not for long! Get a free slice of pizza.
  7. Cut most of your dick off and throw it in the garbage. You won’t believe what happens next!
  8. Hung over after a long crazy night? Try a classic Russian hangover cure!