Monday, November 21, 2011

Is Professor James Gellar real?

With eight episodes down and four to go in Dexter's sixth season, it's time to take the question head on: is Professor James Gellar real, or the imaginary projection of Travis held by most viewers?

I don't think Gellar is imaginary. I think that's what the show writers have gone out of their way to make us believe, perhaps a bit too obviously, in order to set us up for a twist that may not pay off so well.

Unlike The Sixth Sense and Fight Club where the imaginary reveal comes as a surprise, and later more than sooner, Dexter has been sledgehammering us from the get-go with the idea that Gellar is to Travis as Harry is to his son: the shades of dead father-figures who counsel from the great beyond. The problem is that despite the avalanche of clues pointing in this direction, each clue can be rationalized on the assumption that Gellar is real, and there is actually a clue that does indicate that Gellar is real. Let's consider all the evidence.

In favor of Gellar being imaginary:
* In general, no one ever interacts with Gellar except Travis. This is the prime selling point for the idea that Gellar is like Harry: once a mentor, now dead, but still mentoring inside the pupil's head.

* In particular, when Travis and Gellar are at a restaurant (episode 4), the waitress pours a drink for Travis and talks to him but completely fails to acknowledge Gellar in any way. On the other hand, the waitress does know Travis, that's why she's so chummy with him, and Gellar could have already said that he's not ordering anything.

* When Travis and Gellar are out in public (episode 5), no one notices Gellar despite the newspapers broadcasting his photo as the Doomsday Killer. On the other hand, Gellar does acknowledge that he should get out of sight, and who pays attention to tabloids anyway?

* Travis abducts victims by himself (the Horseman of the Apocalypse, the Angel of Retribution, the first potential Whore of Babylon), or with Gellar remaining in the car (the snake victim, the second potential Whore of Babylon), but never with Gellar getting his fingers dirty. On the other hand, this is typical of cult leaders who manipulate their followers to take the biggest risks.

* Gellar is inconsistent on the matter of free will. In episode 4 he assures Travis that people have free will, while in episode 7 he disdains the idea, declaring that people's wills don't matter. This makes sense if Travis is conflicted about predestination and is having internal arguments with himself. On the other hand, Gellar does not exactly say there is no free will in episode 7, only that free will has no power to stop God's overarching plans.

* Gellar evades Dexter by escaping from a second-floor window of the church (episode 8). But there could be another way down which we (and Dexter) haven't seen yet, or Gellar could just be hiding. And we know that Travis is really chained to the floor.
In favor of Gellar being real:
* Gellar spies on Travis through a door crack when Travis is having sex with the angel of death victim (episode 4). Travis is oblivious to this, implying an objective reality on Gellar's part. Certainly Harry never appears without Dexter's awareness -- that's the whole point of being inside someone's head.
I'm nervous about the upcoming reveal that Gellar is real, because we've been yanked too strongly in the opposite direction. The result is that, in retrospect, all the scenes of Gellar not interacting with the world seem forced and rather unfair to the viewer.

But if it turns out that Gellar is indeed imaginary, then that's even worse, for the entire season has been reduced to a banal exercise, when Dexter has always been more reliable about supplying surprising twists. On top of that, the writers haven't played fair ball: the spying Gellar in Travis' sex scene implies an objective reality.

UPDATE: Episode 9 makes plain that Gellar is imaginary, that he's been dead for some time. So we went through all those episodes of the obvious to get to an unsurprising twist, with an unfair scene in episode 4 that implies Gellar is real. I'm nonplussed.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Blogging a "Waste of Time"

In what must have yesterday been a thought-provoking SBL presentation, Mark Goodacre suggests that blogs are self-indulgent time wasters:
"It really is a waste of time to blog, to podcast, even to tweet if you are doing it for its own sake, to gain recognition or something like that. But if it's something you enjoy, it does have its rewards."
I tend to agree, though this makes me wonder why I'm not blogging nearly as much as I used to. I still enjoy it, after all.

It may have to do with something else Mark touches on, when he mentions the way e-lists peaked in the late '90s. Blogging has likewise dropped significantly in the last few years, abandoned especially among the younger generation in favor of micro-blogging media like Twitter and Facebook. Recently I've lost some of the passion for blogging as I once lost it for e-lists like Crosstalk. Either I've been doing it too long, or it's lost its luster, or -- and I think this really has a lot to do with it -- there's a certain contagion effect. Many of the bibliobloggers who inspired me to start this blog aren't blogging a third as much as they used to, and some not at all. That could just be part of the aforementioned trend, though Mark mentions the irony of an increase in biblioblogs which makes them harder to keep up and interact with.

As for enduring value, Mark is surely leaning on hyperbole when he says: "Blogs are ephemeral. Blog posts do not endure. Even if you keep a full archive of everything you have ever posted, the vast majority of your posts, the great bulk of activity, 99% of your output evaporates from consciousness. Here today, gone tomorrow." I certainly retain a lot more than 1% of what bibliobloggers have put forth over the past seven years!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Cursed Chateau

The Cursed Chateau (2009) is a module I could have used back in the '80s when I didn't have the mojo to create something like this myself. In a D&D context, haunted houses can be dreadfully boring, when they should just be dreadful, and the key seems to lie in fleshing out colorful, demented backgrounds to the haunting entities. It is they who should be yawning, and James Maliszewski gets this right: "Though dead, Lord Jourdain is bored. He seeks diversion and (he hopes) release from his earthly bondage by toying with any living beings that enter the ruins of his former home." (p 8) Supernatural bullying owes to contempt and world weariness, when you get down to it, and in Jourdain's case he's been homebound on the prime material plane ever since his suicide. The torment he inflicts on intruders is weird, and in the hands of a good DM can be genuinely frightening.

The module clearly harks back to old-school D&D, which is a treat to those like myself who continue to play by 1st edition rules and lament the loss of gritty, pulp-fantasy adventures that flourished in the late '70s and early '80s. The Cursed Chateau, in fact, reminds strongly of Castle Amber and Ravenloft, not only in the way characters are confined to a morbid setting until a curse is lifted from the place, but more profoundly in the looming personality of Lord Jourdain whose own liberation depends entirely on the actions of the characters. Both of these classics are favorites of mine, so Maliszewski's homage has a lot going for it in advance. Again like these classics, it's geared for mid-level characters (4th-6th), but requiring player as much as character experience, as the house's curse is rather hard to come to grips with.

The chateau is given a ground level, an upstairs level, and a dungeon level, with plenty of tricks that reward and punish in unexpected ways. There are the obligatory undead and demonic forces, and a good deal of creative traps: fountains yielding benison and bane, portraits one hardly dares look at, other nasties. (The influence of Tegel Manor becomes as apparent as Castle Amber.) I particularly like one of the "accomplice" spirits (now a spectre), Jourdain's vengeful wife who was jilted and tried teaching him a lesson, but ended up locked and dying in a guest bedroom. Characters will probably be making saving throws as often as swinging swords as they try to figure their way out of the chateau, which isn't obvious, in fact counter-intuitive: the better the party fares, the less likely they'll ever leave; the more punishment they take, the more they gratify the spirit who terrorizes the house in a game of liberation.

Which brings me to Jourdain's Fun. The random events occurring out of nowhere as characters make their way through the house sell this module as much as the rooms' contents, if not more. I've never been a fan of wandering monsters (though The Cursed Chateau has those too), but "wandering events" are far more interesting and less tedious. Jourdain's spirit entertains himself by scaring people -- inflicting them with formication, speaking out of a random painting, making the walls bleed, causing doors to bang open, animating brooms and shovels which attack, etc. They're the sort of little things that make horror novels and films what they are, though in the context of gaming can be trivial if not handled well. As an aside, I can't help but note the similarity of "Jourdain's Fun" to what I called the playhouse of horrors in my own module, Blinding Claw of Torremor: "Pazuzu's Amusement". Like Maliszewski, I suppose I have a penchant for the macabre rooted in boredom as much as active hate.

The Cursed Chateau is a small 48-page booklet that bears no outside resemblance to old-school D&D modules, which is a shame, because what's on the inside scores on every page. It's a great ready-to-run module that doesn't try to reach above itself, doesn't require an over-arching plot or narrative, doesn't contain any filler, and can be injected into almost any campaign requiring a haunted house.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Blinding Claw of Torremor

Post updated here.