Tales From the Loop

Over the weekend I discovered the TV-treasure that is Tales from the Loop. It’s based on the sci-fic artistry of Simon Stålenhag, which in turn inspired the role-playing game released in 2017, and so I was delighted to learn of a cinematic adaption even as I worried about a Stranger Things rehash. It’s set in a small midwestern town in the ’80s (Ohio instead of Indiana); there’s a lab where dangerous experiments are performed; and kids play a key role. But this is definitely its own thing. It’s not about ’80s nostalgia; the period is incidental. And where Stranger Things is full of anxious and overt horrors, using action sequences to supplement the character drama, Tales from the Loop shines in the small and quiet moments. Put it this way: Stranger Things is ET and Gremlins and Alien; this series is Blade Runner and Twin Peaks, filtered through a Kubrick-like lens where everything is held coldly at arm’s length, even as it magnifies the intimate. Dialogue is restrained and used like a precious commodity; every word counts.

The feeling of expansive emptiness has put off some viewers, but it works for me. I haven’t been so dreamily affected by cinema since my last Kubrick or Lynch film. The set pieces and atmosphere exude a sad beauty, as if science exacts a price in direct proportion to its wonders.

The series opens on the face of Russ Willard, played by High Sparrow (as we know him from Game of Thrones) Jonathan Pryce. He’s the founder of the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics (MCEP) — AKA “the Loop” — and speaks to the camera directly, explaining to us that the Loop’s purpose is to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe: “As a result of the unique research,” he says, “you will see sights that you’d say were impossible.” And with that, the series begins. (Russ Willard will resurface throughout the season’s narratives, especially in episode 4.)

Willard’s tease is largely misdirection. Yes, we end up seeing lot of “impossible sights” —  time travel, body swapping, time freeze, snow that falls upwards, parallel-world travel, and robots with uncannily human traits — but that’s not what the series is about. Tales from the Loop is interested in people: their fears, traumas, and deepest hopes. The sci-fic mechanisms go unexplained; to Mercer’s residents they aren’t even terribly astonishing. These citizens have lived with the Loop for so long (and unlike the Hawkins lab in Stranger Things, the MCEP is no big secret) that its resulting impossibilities are frankly a bit mundane.

The format of the series is sort-of anthology, sort-of serial drama. Each of the eight episodes focuses on a major character who is minor in some of the other episodes. The main family are the Willards — Loretta and George, their sons Jakob and Cole, and of course granddaddy Russ — and this family is anchored throughout episodes 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8. Episodes 3, 5, and 6 are thinly connected storylines standing mostly on their own. Here are the episode themes and synopses.

1. Loop. Time travel. The young Loretta in the ’50s meets her adult self in the ’80s.
2. Transpose. Body swap. Jakob and his friend Danny decide to be each other for a day, but Danny refuses to leave Jakob’s body.
3. Stasis. Time stop. A girl traps herself and her boyfriend in a moment of time.
4. Echo Sphere. Imminent death. Russ is about to die; his grandson Cole is strangely connected to his identity in some way.
5. Control. Loss of control. A grieving father feels unable to protect and provide for his wife and daughter, and so buys a dangerous robot to patrol their property.
6. Parallel. Travel to parallel world. A guy meets his alternate self and has an affair with his doppleganger’s boyfriend.
7. Enemies. Human vs. machine. The young George in the ’50s is left stranded on an island and hunted by a killer robot.
8. Home. Time travel, body-swapping, and the question of humanity vs. machines. All of these come into play in a masterpiece finale.

Here’s how I rank the episodes.

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1. Home (Episode 8). 5 stars. The finale is a masterpiece, but then Jodie Foster directed it. Basically Home resolves — as much as anything is ever “resolved” in this series — the threads from earlier episodes, with Cole realizing his brother Jakob is not Jakob, but Danny inside Jakob’s body. He searches Jakob out in the woods, and finds the lonely mute robot, and the bonding between the two brothers is deeply moving. When another robot arrives on the scene to attack, Jakob-Robot dishes out an ass-pounding that took me by surprise, leaving the other robot in pieces. But Jakob doesn’t last long after this battle, and his robotic self dies as Cole cradles him. Cole ends up crossing a bizarre stream that freezes in warm weather, and that puts him outside the Loop’s time barrier. His escapade with Jakob-Robot felt like only hours, but when he returns to the town, he finds a new Mercer in which his grandmother and father are dead. His mother Loretta is still alive, gray-haired, and polexaed to see him (and to see him still young) after so many years. He also meets Danny in Jakob’s now thoroughly adult body, and Cole tells Danny that Jakob didn’t hate him for what he did, allowing the two a very surprising peace. I don’t know that I could forgive someone who stole a family member’s body and identity. There are countless scenes in Home that soar with transcendent moments, and the ending epiphany — that our lives are over in “the blink of an eye” — hits home indeed.

Tales from the Loop • Episode Script • "Stasis" - 8FLiX
2. Stasis (Episode 3). 5 stars. Riding a theme that Cole will grind in the finale, Stasis is about the desperate need for things to stay the same. The girl May does this in the most audacious way imaginable — by stopping time altogether — so that she and her new boyfriend can make their “moment” of love last. It’s a self-standing episode focusing outside the Willard family, and all the more surprising therefore that it’s so damn good. We aren’t allowed much time to invest in May and Ethan, but I was thoroughly in love with them both by the end, especially for their flaws. Brilliant scenes here, especially those showing the residents of Mercer frozen in whatever they were doing when May flipped the switch, one of whom is her mother in the middle of having adulterous sex, to May’s outrage. When May and Ethan decide to bang each other outside in the middle of the road, that was certainly taking advantage “of the moment”! Their mutual enjoyment doesn’t last however, and in the end May learns a hard lesson — that sometimes things are special precisely because they don’t last. Appreciating that truth takes a lot of maturity and learned experience, usually starting with teenage heartbreak.

Enemies (2020)
3. Enemies (Episode 7). 4 ½ stars. The scariest episode was directed by horror-meister Ti West, and there are indeed scenes on the island that made my heart skip. Its brilliance is that it goes from scary to being just as sad. In the ’50s the young George Willard is left stranded by his cruel friends on the forbidden island, where he is stalked and terrorized by a creature that is a robot. This is how George loses his arm (in the previous episodes, the adult George’s mechanical arm is never explained), and when he returns to the island in the ’80s, he seeks out his childhood terror in order to make peace with it. It many sound corny, but the execution is heartbreaking, and he even gives the robot (who is missing an arm) his own robotic mechanical arm to apologize for hurting it. The union between humans and machines is a common trope in science fiction, exploring what it means to be human.

Transpose | Tales from the Loop Wiki | Fandom
4. Transpose (Episode 2). 4 ½ stars. Two friends who are opposites decide to be each other for a day. It sounds fun. Jakob Willard is a smart introvert with a promising future to work at the Loop. His friend Danny is quite the opposite — popular with girls, lousy with grades, expecting to pound rock at the quarry for the rest of his life. Jakob and Danny come across a spherical object in the woods, and when Jakob climbs inside, they find that they have swapped bodies. They agree to swap for a day and live at each other’s homes. The next day, however, Danny decides that he wants to stay inside of Jakob’s body forever: to live as Jakob Willard and work at the Loop, not pound rock in a dead-end job. Jakob, desperate, goes back to the forest and into the machine, but he is alone, and so when he leaves Danny’s body, there is no soul around to fill Danny’s body, and Danny’s body goes into a coma. That’s not the worst of it. Jakob becomes trapped in a robot (the nearest creature in the forest), and he will stay a robot until he dies in the finale. Danny, meanwhile, has to live with his crime of ultimate identify theft — living as Jakob Willard for the rest of the season, under the roof with a family he has no right to. Freaky Friday plots are usually predictable, but Transpose gives them nice twists and tragedy.

Tales From The Loop's Tech Explained: What Every Gadget Does
5. Echo Sphere (Episode 4). 4 stars. It’s ironic that the episode focusing on the Loop’s creator is the one that makes least use of the sci-fic medium to tell its story. Russ Willard takes his grandson Cole to a huge sphere that echoes when you shout into it; the more echoes you hear of your voice tells you how long your life will be. Cole’s shout returns six echoes; a promising life. When Russ shouts into it, there’s no echo at all, for (as the doctors have told him), he will soon die. That’s what the episode is about — our inevitable death, which not even the scientific miracles of the Loop can negate. It’s a story about a boy’s pain over a grandfather he loves too much to let go, but with a very arresting twist at the end that suggests Cole’s relation to his grandfather is something impossible.

Tales From the Loop' Review | Hollywood Reporter
6. Loop (Episode 1). 3 ½ stars. I admit I wasn’t wowed by the premiere, but it did hook me with its glacial atmosphere and intriguing time loop. Meeting one’s future self (and vice versa) runs the risk of pesky paradoxes, but Loop deftly sidesteps them by, well, sidestepping the young Loretta’s life when the Loop returns her to the ’50s. She will remember meeting her adult self as a dream, not an actual time travel, until she becomes that same adult in the ’80s when the closed loop replays itself. Many viewers aren’t sure what triggers the young Loretta’s time travel to the ’80s; it’s when she first touches the stone from the Eclipse, in the barren snow field where her house used to be. She returns to her present in the ’50s when she replaces the stone in the Eclipse. The story is one about maternal love, which Loretta never felt (being abandoned by her mother), and so was determined to love her kids — Jakob and Cole — no matter how much her career at the Loop consumed her.

Charlie McDowell on Twitter: "Tales From the Loop is here and ...
7. Parallel (Episode 6). 3 stars. The next two aren’t that impressive, partly because of the stand-alone aspect, where the anthology format is really felt. The main characters (the Willard family) aren’t involved. (On the other hand, see Episode 3, Stasis.) A guy finds a broken tractor in a field, and as soon as he fixes it, it sucks him through a portal into a parallel world. He finds an idealistic version of himself there, romantically involved with a man he had obsessed in his own world. One thing leads to another: he is invited to live with his doppleganger and boyfriend; eventually he has an affair with the boyfriend, which leads to disillusionment and his leaving the home to find a new life in the parallel world in which he’s forever stuck. The biggest problem with this story is that it could have been so much more. I’m a sucker for parallel-world dramas, but Parallel doesn’t exploit the alternate setting in any of the numerous ways it could have.

Tales from the Loop • Episode Script • "Control" - 8FLiX
8. Control (Episode 5). 2 ½ stars. The only episode I’d call a dud. Not just because of the stand-alone aspect involving characters we don’t give a shit about (the ineffectual parents and young sister of Danny, whose body is in a coma and dying in a hospital bed, thanks to Danny now inhabiting the body of Jakob Willard whom he pretends to be; see Episode 2, Transpose). And not just because the sci-fic elements are rather uninteresting. No, what burns my piles above all is the political axe-grinding. This is a blatant anti-gun parable, and while I am no fan of gun-rights fanatics, I don’t like being preached to, no matter how much I agree with the message. That’s hollow artistry. Control is about a guy who is paranoid about his home being spied on, and so buys a patrol robot, that one night almost kills his young daughter whom the robot is supposed to protect. Really, it’s that on the nose.

Eleven’s Showdowns (Age 12 to 66)

Here are the confrontations in which Jane Hopper, AKA Eleven, defeats a baddie. They are dramatic encounters involving high emotion and distress on her part, starting with the demogorgon when she was 12, and ending with the apocalyptic third Gate when she was 66. In chronological order they are as follows:

Vaporizing the Demogorgon (12 years old)
Confronting Ray the lab technician (13 years old)
Closing the first Gate on the Mind Flayer (13 years old)
Fighting Billy in the sauna (14 years old)
Leg surgery (14 years old)
Freeing Billy from the Mind Flayer (14 years old)
Killing the Shadow Worm (15 years old)
Destroying the Illithid (19 years old)
Battling the witch Baba Yaga (21 years old)
Capturing the serial killer Black Rose (26 years old)
Annihilating the Llaza (38 years old)
Closing/Destroying the third Gate (66 years old)

Here’s how they rank.

1. Closing the first Gate on the Mind Flayer (13 years old, in 1984). This is the showdown against which all others on this list are measured. It’s the demogorgon times five. It shows a girl taking life’s cold lessons and using that blackness to her advantage. Her friends have done what they can to help: Will has been exorcised, and the demo-dogs have been diverted by an underground attack. The momentum has piled like a juggernaut, and Eleven lets it loose. It’s really too much for her. She’s furious and exhausted and plagued by her own demons, not least the specter of Papa who taunts her once again: “You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound… and it’s festering, and it will grow… spread… and eventually, it will kill you.” And that’s what puts her over the edge, giving her the requisite anger as Kali taught her. Watch the scene here.

2. Annihilating the Llaza (38 years old, in 2009). The Llaza may be the most terrifying Upside Down creature, because it’s omnipresent and too abstract to nail down. In its ether-larva stage it attacks through the internet, corrupting computer files into horrifying images to break peoples’ minds. Jane’s 15-year old son, Mike Hopper, becomes especially vulnerable to the Llaza’s attacks because of his psychic powers. He is subjected to a terrifying perversion of the actress Ellen Page in his screensaver slideshow, and suddenly finds that he can accelerate time through people and age them to death in a matter of seconds (which he does to four high-school bullies). Mike Hopper is just what the Llaza needs: it has a trillion year lifespan and would take centuries to grow out of its ether stage. By provoking Mike to attack it, it is helped not harmed, and reaches adulthood in minutes, whereupon it comes smashing through Mike’s computer screen and assumes corporeal form to terrorize the world. Jane arrives home to find Mike hardly alive, frozen in his bedroom wall and functioning as the Llaza’s battery. She must fight a battle like she’s never fought in her life, and destroy this abstract creature without killing her son in the process. Read the gripping scene here.

3. Freeing Billy from the Mind Flayer (14 years old, in 1985). Eleven’s liberation of Billy is a crowning moment of triumph because she’s powerless, thanks to the Mind Flayer’s infection (see #7, below). What she does, however, is tap into Billy’s most vulnerable source of pain that she witnessed while inside his mind earlier that day. It’s a moving scene and one of Eleven’s most impressive victories. Essentially she frees Billy from the Mind Flayer through the power of love. Normally that kind of thing is cheesy, but it’s certainly not in this case. Oddly, the scene evokes Frodo and Sam’s moment on Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s film. Frodo’s spirit was similarly crushed, he couldn’t stand on his own, and his memories of the Shire were conveyed with the same emotional appeal used by Eleven to reach Billy — with memories of his mother on the California beach. Watch the powerful scene here.

4. Destroying the Illithid (19 years old, in 1990). The Illithid: the Lord of the Upside Down. Mr. Clarke dies protecting the “kids” (who are 19-year olds now) from this horrible entity, and Jane then kills it — but not before it tears out Mike Wheeler’s eyes. As if it hadn’t done enough to Mike by that point. The history goes back to the kids’ sophomore year in high school, when they were fifteen. Jane had chased the Illithid after it murdered Mike, but it escaped, leaving a nasty pet for her to kill instead (see #10 below, the Shadow Worm). They had all thought Mike was dead, but the Illthid had powers of resurrection, and it raised Mike to be a slave in the Upside Down. For three and a half years (between January 25, 1987 – August 3, 1990) Mike Wheeler was tortured and treated like a beast. His escape and return to Hawkins brought the Illithid hot on his heels, and Jane finished what she couldn’t do before. But after years of torture, Mike is dysfunctional, and now on top of that blind and crippled. Read the unpleasant scene here.

5. Vaporizing the Demogorgon (12 years old, in 1983). Her first showdown is the heartbreaking sacrifice. It devastates Mike, who has just promised to take her in as a member of his family. It’s a rare case when a fake death works, because season 2 will keep everyone thinking she’s still dead until the very end. All the traits are in place that will define later showdowns: the nosebleeds; the hysterical exhaustion; the cost of using her powers; and the overwhelming guilt she suffers, knowing the Upside Down’s intrusion is her fault. Five decades of pain and tragedy lie ahead on account of opening the first Gate. But that accident also results in momentous friendships and new families. If Hawkins Indiana and Portland Oregon will suffer from the Upside Down, they will also be brightened by heroes willing to sacrifice themselves. Watch this foundational scene here.

6. Closing/Destroying the third Gate (66 years old, in 2037). In the post-apocalypse Jane is a raving lunatic and you can’t blame her. Life has dealt her one shitty hand after another. The east and west coasts are nuclear wastelands, and the midwest has been swamped by the Upside Down. Eventually all of America will be under the shadow. Her son is 12 years old for the third time, having aged backwards down to infancy, and then forwards again, stuck on the road of childhood. What mother wouldn’t break under fate this cruel? As William Byers takes care of Mike in the primitive Hawkins Colony (and learns that Mike has the ability to time-travel), Jane is cared for at the old Hawkins Lab, nursed by scientists who pray that her mind will heal. She’s the only hope of closing the new Gate and stopping the shadow invasion. This Gate is a monstrous entity — it has reproductive ability, constantly producing smaller gates (called Pockets) which materialize across America and unleash hordes of creatures everywhere. But Jane can’t save the world until she is saved by her son: Mike hatches a wild plan to go back in time (to 2031) and prevent the Pockets from being created in the first place. But through a terrible chain of events, it is he who ends up creating the Pockets and initiating the holocaust. Before dying in the past he is able to do one good thing — heal his mother across time, through the psychic link of the 12-year-old version of his mother he recruited (along with his father Mike Wheeler, and Lucas Sinclair and Dustin Henderson) from the year 1983. In the present, the 66-year old Jane tells the doctors her mind is healed and that she is ready to take on the Gate. Read that mighty scene here.

7. Leg surgery (14 years old, in 1985). Eleven’s ultimate battle with the Mind Flayer is waged within the confines of her flesh, and though she wins, she loses. Shortly after tearing the critter from her leg, she realizes her powers are gone. This leaves others to save the day: her friends bomb the Mind Flayer with fireworks, and Joyce and Hopper close the Gate. She actually saves the day too, without her powers, by liberating Billy (see #3 above), but the flayed infection of her body is the most violating attack she suffers in her whole life (aside from Baba Yaga’s assault in 1992, see #8 below). A creature burrowing inside you takes agony to a new level. When El screams during her self-surgery, it looks like her head will explode (a mall window shatters instead). It was a bold move for the show writers to strip El of her powers at the point she will need them most. Watch the visceral scene here.

8. Battling Baba Yaga (21 years old, in 1992). Jane’s deadliest adversary isn’t an Upside-Down creature, but a Slavic witch: the legendary Baba Yaga who terrorizes countrysides and eats little kids. She travels the world in her Dancing Hut, which on the outside is a tiny log cabin with giant legs; on the inside it’s a thousand times bigger, with rooms filled with horrors worse than demogorgons. Baba Yaga’s appearance is deceptive; she looks like a feeble crone and hobbles around on a stick, but that’s purely for show, as she’s actually quite strong and fast, and practically invincible. Weapons don’t harm her, and she’s immune to psionic powers; only magic can kill her. When Jim Hopper goes after Baba Yaga thinking she’s a harmless old bag, he becomes trapped insider her Hut, accompanied by three kids who die one by one. Jane breaks in to rescue him, but her psychic powers are as useless as her father’s gun. They’re both powerless as the witch murders people in front of them, drives Hopper insane with black magic — and then rips off Jane’s left arm and eats it like a turkey drum. But then, just then, as Jane resigns herself to a dying agony, she gets an idea. Read the scene here.

9. Throwing Billy through a brick wall (14 years old, in 1985). It starts as a group effort with the kids trapping Billy, but he doesn’t stay trapped for long. The face-off between him and El is a ripper. She hurls a weighted-barbell at him; he throws it off, and lifts her up and chokes her; Mike clubs him from behind, and Billy prepares to kill him when El — screaming like a lioness — levitates him and throws him literally through a brick wall. How his bones stay in one piece is anyone’s guess, but then he is possessed by the Mind Flayer. (Apparently the final bit with El collapsing into Mike’s arms and crying wasn’t an act; Millie Bobby Brown was so drained from shooting the scene that she broke down, and Finn Wolfhard improvised accordingly.) Of all the showdowns on this list, this one is the most ass-kicking, and the inverse of the tender salvation Eleven provides Billy in the end (see #3, above). Watch the scene here.

10. Killing the Shadow Worm (15 years old, in 1987). The final ’80s conflict centers on the tragedy of Mike Wheeler and his death at the hands of the Illithid — the most powerful entity of the Upside Down. Eleven chases the creature through the woods, hell-bent on revenge. It’s night and she can’t see a thing; she has to use the Void to navigate. And it’s cold, a punishing -20 degrees, thanks to the Illithid’s ability to affect local temperatures. Thunder and lightning start assailing her, which makes no sense in the arctic cold of January, but it’s again the creature working its shenanigans. She keeps chasing the creature, but it makes its getaway to the Upside Down, and she will have to wait three and a half years for the opportunity to kill it (see #4, above). She runs into its nasty pet, however: a shadow worm over 40 feet long, with breath of nauseating poison. Barely able to function in the freezing night, she lashes out with her powers; the worm roars in fury, breathing its sulfuric poison; the lightning accelerates to a crisis. Eleven finally tears the worm apart, in as much sympathy for the creature as rage for Mike. After this night she’s never the same person again. Accepting her role in Mike’s death, she leaves Indiana for Oregon, to put behind a past that has defined her too brutally. Read the worm showdown here.

11. Confronting Ray (13 years old, in 1984). The next two involve human villains who are no match for Jane at all. The challenge comes on a personal level as she is forced to come to terms with herself as a person of extraordinary power. In the case of Ray, he is supposed to be her trial victim. Having joined a street gang led by her lab sister, she craves vengeance — as only a 13-year old can — for Papa’s crimes against herself and the mother she never knew. On the verge of killing Ray (one of Papa’s old lab technicians), she stops when she sees that he has a family, and that the man is more pathetic than evil. It’s a pivotal moment in Eleven’s character arc, the point at which she makes a conscious decision to not follow a path of revenge and homicide. Ultimately, her sparing Ray (to Kali’s fury) makes her realize that her home is back in Hawkins, with the sheriff who took her in, and with the boy who became her first friend and boyfriend. (I can’t find this scene anywhere on youtube, no doubt because so many people hate the Lost Sister episode. They are wrong: it’s a very good episode that gave Eleven a strong character journey in season 2.)

12. Capturing Black Rose (26 years old, in 1997). By now a single mom with a three-year old son, Jane has been recruited by her father to help him capture a dangerous serial killer known as Black Rose. The killer rapes and butchers attractive women in their 20s, and leaves plastic black roses in their mouths as a calling card. Jane narrows the killer down to one of four police detectives, which Hopper has trouble accepting; he has worked with them all, and they are first-rate cops. When Jane finally figures out which of the four it is, it’s by accident, and only after accusing the wrong detective and getting him arrested. As the innocent one is being interrogated, Jane is attacked by the real killer — who has no idea who he’s messing with, and she easily overpowers him. The intensity of their confrontation owes not to Jane’s endangerment, but because he killed Jane’s best friend Nicki, thanks to Jane’s recklessness. The showdown brings home to Jane how she sees the world: as a woman of power who doesn’t need to worry about threats of sexual violence. To her, serial killers are pests; to the rest of womankind they are as dangerous as demogorgons. Her friend paid the price for this blinkered perspective. Read the face-off here.

The Best Books I Read in the 2010s

Here are my favorite books from the last decade. They are mostly academic scholarly works. I didn’t read as much fiction as I would have liked.

1. The History of Jihad, Robert Spencer, 2018. This book is the first of its kind and easily wins the top slot. Plenty of such comprehensive treatments have been written for the Christian crusades, but none that cover the Islamic jihad. Spencer starts with Muhammad, the warlord exemplar, and proceeds through every century since the seventh, in every theater of the globe, showing that holy war has always been an essential element of Islam. He relies on primary sources and the words of contemporary witnesses, so the reader gets a good impression of how it was to experience Islamic holy war throughout history. He even covers the jihads against in India against the Hindus, which is hard information to come by. Jihadists have always been candid about their religious motives — it is now, and has always been, a Muslim’s holy duty to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islamic law, regardless of how many Muslims actually take up that imperative — but people in the 21st century have denied this and grasped at every wrong explanation. Studies have proven that there is no correlation between Islamic terrorism and poverty, and the history presented in the book speaks for itself. Jihad isn’t “just” terrorism in any case. It is legitimized terrorism backed by core Islamic teachings. It’s to Islam as the Passover is to Judaism, and as the Eucharist is to Christianity, and as meditation is to Buddhism. The History of Jihad is a first-rate guide to a massively misunderstood phenomenon that would be quite easy to understand if the implications weren’t so unpleasant.

2. Constructing Jesus, Dale Allison, 2010. The culmination of Allison’s trilogy (begun in Millenarian Prophet, 1998, and continued in Resurrecting Jesus, 2005) keeps Jesus grounded in delusions of grandeur, millennial dreams, and heavenly alter-egos. Same as before, we see that Jesus’ apocalyptic language, about which he was wrong, was intended literally, and that he was naturally inconsistent about the things he preached. Even the best theologians and most charismatic leaders contradict themselves, and Jesus would have been no different. As egocentric as it seems to us, Jesus had exalted thoughts about himself and he embraced martyrdom. But by far the most intriguing contribution of Constructing Jesus comes in the author’s solution to the Son of Man enigma. Allison argues that Jesus believed the Son of Man to be an angelic figure: his own heavenly twin or Doppelganger, with whom he was one, or would soon become one. Not only is there precedent for celestial doubles and heavenly alter-egos, this would resolve long standing puzzles. For example, if Jesus and the Son of Man were two yet one, it would explain both the earthly human sayings and the heavenly angelic ones; and if Jesus believed he had a heavenly counterpart, then there is no mystery in the fact that he imagined himself coming on the clouds of heaven while having nothing to say about being removed from earth, and raised to heaven, before that could possibly occur; he was already up there; and much more. This book was a good start to the new decade, pounding the final nail in the coffin of Jesus-Seminar minimalism, so that Jesus studies could move forward.

3. Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland, 2014. This book inspired me to write my own presidential series. Most rankings of the U.S. presidents are superficial, praising executives who have effective management styles and strong charisma, regardless of how good or bad their actual policies were. Eland ignores those elements and slaughters sacred cows: FDR was one of the worst presidents, not the best; Warren Harding was one of the best, not the worst. Eland’s criteria are simple. He bases his rankings on the way a president’s policies promoted three things: peace, prosperity and liberty. When you get down to it, those are what most Americans want. Eland is a hard-core libertarian, however, and so I don’t always agree with what he sees as best serving those three causes. He correctly ranks Woodrow Wilson as the worst president of all time, but then astonishingly places Harry Truman as the second worst, as if Truman were a fulfillment of the Wilsonian dream. He rightly elevates John Tyler and Rutherford Hayes to Mount Rushmore, but also includes Martin Van Buren and Grover Cleveland in that honor, where I think those latter two were very poor executives. He skewers George W. Bush and Barack Obama for being basically the same president, and I certainly agree with that. Eland is no respecter of persons or parties. If you want a book that values presidents who were actually good for the American people, then get Recarving Rushmore. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized, or who had mesmerizing charisma and effective management styles, then get any of the mainstream rankings that waste space on the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

marginal4. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier, 2016. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four, only four, with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. As for the most popular and cherished Good Samaritan, Meier shows it to be almost certainly a creation of Luke. The dominant scholarly view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. That’s an ironical conclusion in a work that relies on the classic criteria to get at what Jesus really said and did: this fifth volume of A Marginal Jew is all about uncertainty. Full review here.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final5. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera, 2016. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

6. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler, 2011. More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors probes the disturbing world of the Old Testament while making us feel connected to it whether we’re religious or not. In this sense Esler shatters the myth of the alien Other. For some people these stories will be repulsive, but you’ll certainly feel alive as Esler funnels them through the culture of the Mediterranean. The barrenness of Hannah, whose vicious co-wife shamed her at the shrine of Shiloh. The lies of Judith, which resounded to her honor as she decapitated a general with his own sword. The duality of David, whose insults, on the one hand, were as honorable as Judith’s flatteries, and whose vorpal sword like hers saved Israel against impossible odds; but whose ruthless banditry and mafia-like protection rackets cast an ugly shadow. The madness of Saul, who seems to have suffered panic attacks. His feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and spirit-possessed behaviors all describe an anxiety disorder to a tee, and make perfect sense of his repeated cycles of eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to murderous intent. Yet he ended in the bosom of the Lord. The rape of Tamar by her sadistic half-brother (Amnon), which made her spoiled goods. Forced to beg her rapist to marry her, she is refused and discarded. As part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, these stories force hard questions about our common humanity, and Esler’s analysis cuts like a laser as always.

7. Thomas and the Gospels, Mark Goodacre, 2012. A sort-of sequel to the author’s Case Against Q, putting to bed scholarly mirages, in this case showing that the gospel of Thomas is not independent but reinterprets synoptic sayings. Thomas’s rearrangement of those sayings is no more surprising than Luke’s rearrangment of Matthew which befuddles Q-advocates. Against scholars who demand unreasonable amounts of verbatim agreement to prove dependency, Goodacre invokes the “plagiarist’s charter”, pointing out that this burden of proof would excuse a lot of unethical behavior. In my view, Goodacre establishes Thomas’ dependence beyond a reasonable doubt. That Thomas knew both Matthew and Luke is fairly easy to see, when you see it outlined for you. Goodacre has cheekily called himself the spoilsport of New Testament studies, and of course we need more spoilsports and killjoys to keep us honest. It would be admittedly nice if Q existed and Thomas carried more “original authority” than the canonical gospels, but history is often more boring than that. I think there’s a tendency to expect too much out of historical criticism, that our biblical experts can somehow unlock arsenals that will arm us against the orthodox and open progressive paradigms. Goodacre’s book is a model analysis of the relationship between Thomas and the snyoptics, indeed the best there is on the subject.

Chasing-the-Scream8. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari, 2015. This is a wake-up call to legalize drugs and reconsider what causes drug addiction. For years, opponents of the drug war have been making a case similar to Hari’s: that we ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users (especially nonwhites in poverty) by imprisoning them, and make room for them in prison by paroling dangerous offenders like murderers and rapists; that we make crime worse by empowering gangs and drug monopolies; that the solution to addiction isn’t incarceration but education and rehabilitative support networks. Hari appeals to the example of Portugal, whose population of addicts went down by half after ending its own drug war through legalization. As for the cause of addiction, the right-wing theory says it is caused by moral failure (hedonism and partying too hard), while the left-wing insists that the brain is hijacked by drug chemicals. Research shows that both theories are flawed. It’s neither our morality nor our brain, but our “cage” — a life full of isolation, stress, and/or misery — that makes drugs attractive to addicts. Which is why, for instance, people who take diamorphine (heroin) for long periods of time for medical reasons, like pain relief after a hip replacement, don’t become addicts. And why addicts isolated from society in prisons or rehab facilities usually continue using. I have no illusions this book will result in headway against the American drug war, but I can keep hoping.

9. Free Speech on Campus, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, 2017. There is a certain adage this book seems built around: “Prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” It sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — an embarrassing repudiation of what academia has always stood for. Students are supposed to be stung, disturbed, upset, and thus provoked to reassess their current beliefs — and change the ones they cannot defend. And as the authors of this book make clear, those offensive ideas must include even hate speech. It’s illegal for public universities to ban hate speech, and private colleges should follow suit on this. The problem with “hate speech” is that it’s a catch-all label for shutting down unpopular views that aren’t hateful at all, like the toxic nature of Islam, theories of psychobiology, etc. Academic inquiry doesn’t care about student feelings, nor should it. Free Speech on Campus is the book to help make great thinkers again, indeed to help prepare students for the road, rather than the road for them. I wish it were required reading of every college freshman.

disciples prayer10. The Disciples’ Prayer, Jeffrey Gibson, 2015. Those who like the “Lord’s Prayer” should make this book required reading. The “Disciples’ Prayer”, properly called, had little to do with what Christians today pray on their knees. As Gibson argues, Jesus’ disciples operated out of an austere remnant theology, and the prayer was taught to them to secure them as the faithful elect, and to keep them from apostasy. It doesn’t pray future blessings down into the now, but rather wards against evil by keeping people constrained under hard demands — loving enemies; shunning families; rejecting violence; inviting martyrdom. Gibson refutes apocalyptic readings of the prayer, but if you believe Jesus was an apocalyptic (as I do), his thesis still holds. For if Jesus believed the world was about to end, then he would have insisted on intense commitment and unconditioned loyalty in preparation, just as Gibson argues that the prayer does. For modern Christians, the book perhaps functions as a dare: To consider what Jesus demands, instead of (or as much as) what God will bring — and how the first disciples feared God’s wrath if they couldn’t meet those demands. Jesus demanded a rigorous pacifism, for example, and not all religious martyrs are pacifist; the path of non-violence is a hard one. For Jesus, “to profess God as Father entails taking a stance, and to pledge oneself to demonstrating and proclaiming this certain way of being in the world”. Biblical scholars are at their best when they force relevant questions in view of original intentions, and that’s what Gibson does in The Disciples’ Prayer.

11. Babatha’s Orchard, Philip Esler, 2017. If I could write a book like Babatha’s Orchard, I’d be immensely proud. Rarely can scholars piece together missing and obscured information so compellingly, and in a way that allows us to read it as a story. Esler writes that story in the final chapter — how a Jew living in Nabatea bought a date-palm orchard from a woman after a high-ranking official failed to do so — bringing to life a complex web of events, personal motives, and social relations. It’s a story one could easily get a novel from. The book is also impressive as a study for its own sake and not as a means to an end. “I am not concerned,” says Esler, “to interpret New Testament texts against a social context known from the Nabatean legal papyri. Rather, I am seeking to understand better that context itself.” That’s fresh air, and the kind of thing I’d love to see more from New Testament scholars. It offers a window onto everyday life in antiquity, unencumbered by sensationalism. That window is provided by the Babatha documents dated between 94 and 132 AD, which consist of various contracts for purchase of property, loans, weddings, and the registration of land. It’s feels like a true archaeological adventure to read this book, but without any of the sensationalism of Indiana Jones movies or Herschel Shanks’ yellow journalism in Biblical Archaeology Review.

12. Recovering Communion in a Violent World, Christopher Grundy, 2019. This book is an attempt to reform the eucharist of its violent theology. Christians would be better off, says Grundy, to accept that Jesus’ death was unnecessary, and to focus on the meal practices of the New Testament that don’t rely on his body and blood (however real or symbolic) or reenact his execution. Alternative examples include the manna-and-water traditions (I Cor 10), drawing from the Exodus and Number stories, tied to a theme of abundance and the messianic age; the bread-and-fish miracles (in all four gospels), in which there is food for everyone; the Johannine beach breakfast, focused on sharing and abundance; and the bread-only Emmaus story in Luke, urging hospitality even to strangers. Grundy suggests that Holy Communion can be just as sacramental (and more positively so) in the meeting of strangers across boundaries, sharing one’s food, and feeding hungry bodies. In this sense, the eucharist can become primarily about what Jesus did instead of what was done to him. Grundy sees a disturbing connection between the “objectification” of Jesus’ body in the traditional eucharist, and the way people objectify others, whether sexually, violently, or both. That sounds a bit far-fetched, but Grundy is careful in how he explains this: “It’s not that the eucharist carries an explicit message that objectifying people is okay,” he writes, “but rather that without really noticing, Christian believers create opportunities for our instincts to be structured by objectifying practices that we don’t understand all that clearly.” Likewise, he doesn’t say that the eucharist promotes violence per se, but rather that Christians engage themselves in ritualized acts of collective violence without asking if what was done to Jesus was really necessary. Ritualized violence can shape the believer, whether consciously or not. It’s a fascinating book, and makes for an excellent supplement to Stephen Finlan’s Problems with Atonement (though there is no mention of Finlan in the bibliography). See also my review of Finlan’s analysis of the different and conflicting death metaphors in Paul’s letters.

moh_and_cha_revisited13. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott, 2012. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it wouldn’t have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire, and Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. The lights went out with the arrival of Islam, and from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. Full review here.

14. The Wife of Jesus, Anthony Le Donne, 2013. No, this isn’t crankville. Anthony Le Donne isn’t Simcha Jacobovici or Michael Baigent. The Wife of Jesus doesn’t even really argue that Jesus had a wife, though it allows for the strong possibility that he had one in his 20s, prior to his prophetic ministry. The only thing the book shares in common with sensationalist cousins is its accessibility: it’s written for everyone, not just academics, and well about time on this subject from a reliable scholar. Le Donne’s argument is essentially that many Christians have been right for the wrong reasons. While the gospels don’t say that Jesus had a wife, neither do they say he didn’t, and silence means nothing. Wives were a given in Jesus’s day, and weren’t mentioned unless context warranted it. (Peter’s wife, for instance, is never mentioned, but his mother-in-law is healed.) Jesus could have been married prior to becoming a prophet, and it’s more plausible that he was married, say, in his 20s and that his wife died in childbirth (as was extremely common), than that he would have shamefully dishonored his family by rejecting the Abrahamic blessing of progeny. Only by the time of his itinerant career was Jesus single and celibate and engaged in the flagrant dishonor of severing blood ties and advocating prophetic celibacy. But while The Wife of Jesus is devoid of sensationalism, never fear: sensationalist claims are addressed by Le Donne, which makes the book fun (and amusing at times) to read. He covers the recent hoax of the Jesus’ Wife fragment, noting that whoever forged it had internet access to a source with a typographical error which the forger copied. He even discusses the Secret Mark hoax, which of course depicted a gay Jesus. It’s a concise and enjoyable book that deserves a wide audience.

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15. Waking Up, Sam Harris, 2014. It’s curious that an atheist of Harris’s reputation would co-opt the term “spirituality”, but you quickly see why. I doubt there is a better word for the experiences he covers in this book, which are attained by the meditation techniques of Buddhism (the safest way) though also the more risky highways of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD). These mind experiences are caused by changes in consciousness that are so severe they break the illusion of the self, and this, according to Harris, is the key to spirituality: the cessation of all thought. When we completely stop thinking — believe me, it’s much more difficult than it sounds — we can be happy without needing to become happy in the transitory way of fulfilling our various desires. Successful meditation dissolves the illusion of the “I” self and causes thoughts to appear as discrete objects while emotions are accentuated, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control. This isn’t new-age quackery, but secular spiritualism grounded in neuroscience. If meditation can produce egoless communion, good will, and improved mental health, that’s a skill worth honing. I’m still lousy at it, but I can say that I’ve benefited at least some from trying.

16. Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, David Watson, 2010. The secret is out now: there never was a messianic secret, whether from Jesus’ life or pre-Markan traditions. “Secrecy is nothing more than our own bewilderment projected into the Markan text,” once wrote a scholar, and Watson finally puts the idea to rest. David Watson shows that the “secrecy” passages in Mark wouldn’t have been understood as such by the ancients. In silencing those he healed, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep his identity or healing ability secret (as if that would be possible in a world of rampant gossip networks), but rather to resist achieved honor. In patron-client cultures, recipients of benefaction are expected to repay their benefactor through public praise, and it’s this kind of honor which Jesus resists. In silencing demons, likewise, Jesus is resisting ascribed honor, since a demon calling him “the Holy One of God” would be issuing a positive challenge and staking a claim on him; Jesus refuses to become indebted to demons and drawn into the laws of reciprocation. While the Markan Jesus doesn’t do away with the honor-shame system altogether (no one in antiquity could do that an survive), he does offer a new vision in its place, by claiming that the persecuted and suffering will be honored, and the great and powerful will be shamed. Basically, Mark portrays Jesus as authoritative and deserving of honor even as he reshapes the way that honor was conventionally assigned. This is a terrific book filled with insights that seem too obvious once pointed out.

17. The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Spencer, 2019. Many will find this book dispiriting, but reality is often just that, especially in the Middle-East. Spencer chronicles the failure of every peace attempt that has been made for the last 40 years, showing quite clearly that the attempts failed for one reason only: the Muslims of Palestine and surrounding Arab countries were never going to accept a Jewish state in any form. The Islamic imperative, “Drive out those who drove you out” allows for no mitigation — not even when the land of Palestine wasn’t theirs to claim. He starts with Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Accords, and the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was never interested in genuine peace. He then proceeds to the time of Bill Clinton, explaining how Yasser Arafat went from denouncing terrorism and promising to recognize the State of Israel (in ’93), to the same Arafat who said that he recognized only holy war, and that the PLO would sacrifice every last boy to see the Palestinian flag fly over the walls of Jerusalem (in ’96). Arafat simply followed the example of Muhammad, for whom deception was honorable. And so on. Spencer shows that the solution to the Middle-East lies not in peace processes which are guaranteed to fail, but containment or management of the problem, and for western countries to openly admit that a Palestinian state will by necessity be an inveterate enemy of Israel no matter what. This book is a serious wake-up call to pull western policy makers out of dreamland.

night-comes18. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison, 2016. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. (Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far.) The second chapter deals with the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Pauline discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. The next chapter is about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

19. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers, Philip Esler, 2017. Esler is always a great read, and his most recent effort feels downright epic, especially if you love the Enoch myths as I do. The focus is on the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-36), for which the dominant stream interprets heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, and for which Esler finds no basis at all. When Israelite authors around this time wished to present heaven as a temple, they did exactly that. In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Testament of Levi, heaven is the temple, God is in the holy of holies, and the angels are priests who sing God’s praises and offer fragrant sacrifices. One looks in vain to find any of these elements in I Enoch 1-36 — even if everyone sees them anyway. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers is, then, a shot across the bow of a considerable body of scholarship. Its thesis is that heaven is understood in terms of a royal court, in which the king (God) is surrounded by his courtiers (the angels). While some scholars make occasional references to the Enochic heaven as a court, the idea is never taken that seriously, and it’s way eclipsed by the supposed idea that heaven is a temple in which the angels are understood to be priests instead of courtiers. Esler refutes that by first examining the angels (their duties, access rights, and mediation techniques), then the Watchers (their “defilement”, “great sin”, and their justice), and then finally the architecture of God’s abode. What becomes clear is that the temple metaphor is non-existent, and the court metaphor so obvious that how did it take this long for us to see? Full review here.

Short_Stories_Jesus_Levine20. Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, 2014. This book will be welcomed by liberal religious thinkers who think the sun shines on everyone with minimal judgment. Amy-Jill Levine claims that Jesus’ parables show people torn apart and then reconciled, benefiting from each other for all their differences; a divided world made whole through responsible human effort. If you embrace that kind of wisdom as I do, then this book just might be the next-best thing to the bible itself. The question is whether or not this wisdom can really be derived from the historical Jesus. The reversal of values theme which permeates the gospels receives no support in Levine’s readings. She claims that “the last coming first and the first last” is always an editorial intrusion. And despite what scholars tell us about the fierce boundaries drawn by fictive kinship networks like the Jesus movement, she won’t abide any “Us-vs.Them” mentality that reinforces judgments and divisions. The problem is that she has an axe to grind against those see everything Jesus said as being aimed against an oppressive Jewish context. If Jesus critiqued purity laws, then Judaism was legalistic; if Jesus was open to Gentiles, then Judaism was racist; if Jesus stood up for widows and women, then Judaism was misogynistic; if Jesus went to bat for the sick and poor, then Judaism was heartless. It’s true that Judaism has become a punching bag — for pastors and scholars alike — and Levine wants to rectify this problem by showing that Jesus’ hostilities are all mirages. Unfortunately, this means Jesus isn’t left with much to criticize at all, because Levine sees anti-Jewish foils under every rock. I think she makes Jesus out to be too ideal; indeed she aligns him with modern Unitarian Universalism. But then (from my UU perspective) that’s precisely why these parable readings are such good theology, even if they’re bad history. Maybe that’s a backhanded compliment, but if used the right way, Short Stories by Jesus is an important contribution.

* Stranger Things: The College Years and Beyond, Loren Rosson, 2018. As a bonus, I’m shamelessly promoting my own work, and fiction to boot, which I had said wasn’t included. But I’m happy with what I did here, and gratified by the positive reception to it. This is a trilogy of generational stories that follow the kids we love from the TV series — Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin, and Will — into their adult lives. There’s pain and heartache, perhaps more than some readers will find bearable, but hopefully inspiring in the ways tragedy should be. The first novella is The College Years, set in 1990, with an estranged Mike Wheeler able only to harm those he loves. The second is The New Generation, set in 2009, involving an Upside-Down creature nesting in the internet, and attacking a kid through his computer screensaver. Finally it all comes together in World’s End, in the future of 2037, after Donald Trump has gotten America nuked, and salvation (if that’s what it can be called) lies in a particular twelve-year old who can time travel. That’s the best spoiler-free synopsis I can offer, and if you really like the trilogy, I wrote three prequel novellas as well.

Tabletop RPGs of the 70s and Early 80s

As an old-school gamer, I seldom bother with any of the modern RPGs flooding the market. But last week, for the first time, I found myself making an exception when someone called my attention to a game called Tales from the Loop. It may not come from the ’80s, but it’s set in the ’80s, and made me an instant fan. Here’s a look-back on all the classic RPGs that I either played, or owned, or now wish that I had. Tales from the Loop ranks here as well. It may as well be a classic RPG.

1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977). 5 stars. Obviously, everything on my list is overshadowed by this one. 95% of my gaming career has been devoted to old-school D&D. The Golden Age, that is, which lasted between ’74-’83. I began playing at the end of the age, in ’81, and up through ’87, by which time the game had become hopelessly commercialized. The influences of the golden period were the pulp fantasies and morally shifty heroes: Conan, Elric, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, characters from the Dying Earth, etc. Despite D&D’s repeated comebacks (especially with the 3rd and 5th editions), it’s never been what it was, and today’s players don’t necessarily esteem it as the ultimate RPG. A google search will turn up lists of “RPGs way better than D&D”, and the reason isn’t hard to see. Pulp fantasy is long out of vogue, and today’s teens don’t have the touchstones that made D&D so great and accessible. And not just pulp fantasy, even Lord of the Rings, which despite Gary Gygax’s protests, had at least some significant influence on his early design. It’s been almost a decade now since Peter Jackson’s films, and Tolkien doesn’t inspire the same levels of awe that it did in previous years. The pulps themselves are a distant memory, and are even deemed offensive in the politically correct era of woke culture. It’s a shame. The best gaming adventures are the old-school D&D modules, and my coming of age years would have been much less inspiring and imaginative without them.

2. Call of Cthulhu (1981). 5 stars. Of all the RPGs I regret never playing, this one looms large. If I could go back and redo my coming-of-age years in only one way, I would be sure to play Call of Cthulhu. And it says something that I feel comfortable ranking it with highest honors outside the top slot, when I’ve never seen it played, let alone play it myself. Back in the day I learned about it through Dragon articles more than anything, and only in the recent decade have I delved thoroughly into the rules and adventure modules. It’s well known that Cthulhu is a horror game that turned D&D’s heroic fantasy on its head, prioritizing investigation over combat, with PCs who are inherently weak: librarians, doctors, professors, amateur detectives, etc. You don’t play Cthulhu to become a powerful knight or wizard, but rather with the dismal expectation that your character will likely go insane, as your character learns about the horrors of the world and the complete irrelevance of humanity. Using the tools that are needed to defeat the horrors (knowledge and magic) will most likely plunge PCs into mental illness. The infamous sanity score has become the game’s hallmark. Horror reduces your sanity points like weapons reduce hit points. PCs acquire phobias, fetishes, obsessions, hallucinations, amnesia, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, and psychosomatic reactions that make them dysfunctional. They can learn magic, but this hardly amounts to a benefit, as magic just immerses them more in the horrors, and makes them panic more, drop things, go catatonic, or experience any number of mental problems. It’s a thoroughly nihilistic game, and the nice thing is that, unlike D&D and Gamma World, it has remained stable and consistent through all the seven editions. While I would surely use the 1st edition if I ever started playing, I have it on good authority that it really doesn’t matter which edition you play.

3. Gamma World (1982). 5 stars. Basically the Dark Ages of Our Future. Growing up in the Reagan era meant ongoing fears of an apocalypse that would turn our globe into a radioactive wasteland. But what raises Gamma World far above other post-apocalyptic fantasies is that its apocalypse takes place in the very far future — the 24th century (2322 AD) — which means that the pre-apocalyptic world is just as futuristic and alien. There are high-tech artifacts like blaster pistols and robots, and cars that fly. The world of the ancients is filled with mystery and wonder, which makes the game a lot like D&D. Most of the pulp fantasies that shaped first-edition D&D were post-apocalyptic (Conan’s Hyperboria, Dying Earth, etc). The worlds of D&D were “fallen” in some way, and Gamma World aligns with this, the only difference being that there are techno-gadgets instead of magic items, and mutant powers instead of spells. But the earth is a global sandbox — just like Greyhawk and Mystara — in which PCs move from one pocket of civilization to another, plundering lost wealth and artifacts. The default start date in this world is 2450 AD, about a century and a half after the nuclear wipe-out. The game is in its 7th edition now, but I won’t touch anything beyond 2nd. The 2nd edition (1982) is the best, perfecting on the first that came out in the ’70s. After these two classics, Gamma World became increasingly commercialized.

4. Tales from the Loop (2017). 4 ½ stars. The only entry on my list which post-dates the ’80s is set in an alternate ’80s world, and it deserves to stand proud in the surrounding company. Tales from the Loop followed the overnight success of Stranger Things and takes direct inspiration from it. In the game you play kids between ages 10 and 15, and solve science-fiction mysteries that involve the Loop, a massive particle accelerator that is nearby the town you live in. The Loop causes aberrations like corruption of the earth’s magnetic field, warping wildlife (even dinosaurs emerge around the Loop), and animating robots in dangerous ways. The rules come with two default locations: the Malaren islands of Sweden, and Boulder City Nevada. But the rules also emphasize that you can set the Loop anywhere you want. I’d use my old hometown of Lyndeborough NH, where I grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s. A crucial aspect of this game is that adults are absolutely useless when it comes to helping out, so the kid PCs have to do all the leg-work and solve mysteries on their own. Around the mystery solving, there are the normal trials that kids suffer: bullies, school tests, crushes, and heartbreak. It’s such a terrific idea for an RPG, it’s a wonder it took so long for a TV-series inspiration. Best of all, the rules are easy to follow, and flexible enough to cover virtually any situation that comes up in the game. There are eight archetypes (“character classes”): Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Popular Kid, Rocker, Troublemaker, and Weirdo. Seriously, who among us who came of age in the ’80s doesn’t want to play this? Tales from the Loop recreates an age I miss sorely as I turn 51 at the end of this month. It takes me back to my reckless attitudes and thinking as a kid, and, incredibly, it provides the mechanics for tapping into that heart and drive.

5. Traveller (1977). 4 stars. Even dinosaurs my age tend to forget Traveller. It wasn’t very user-friendly and assumed a significant amount of player knowledge of physics and astronomy. I remember trying to understand the ramifications of zero-g combat, and those weren’t defined anywhere; then also wanting to know what the hell a mass driver was. Without internet forums and google capabilities back then, you were pretty much left to make sense of the rules as you could. Oddly, there was much I loved about that open-ended aspect of the game and ended up playing it a lot with a cousin who preferred space travel to D&D’s wizards and warriors. One thing that struck me was the fact that PCs start out with loads of experience. In most RPGs the characters start at beginner levels, but in Traveller you come out of the military with years of skills under your belt. In most other ways, though, it shares plenty in common with D&D. Both games assume the characters are roguish adventurers “on the make”. The adventures involve shady activities in order to acquire money, and the characters are outsiders (“travellers”) without commitments to local planetary societies. (The Raza crew in the TV series Dark Matter remind me very much of Traveller.) The space world is a lawless frontier where authorities are distant and corrupt. That’s really the same basic framework of old-school D&D. My greatest Traveller memory is the point at which my cousin was finally able to design and purchase his own ship — and then all the mileage he got from it.

6. Middle-Earth Role-Playing (1984). 3 ½ stars. I never played the actual system, but I played the modules all the time by adapting them for D&D. So this one was hard for me to rank. Frankly I don’t like MERP as a gaming system (nor Rolemaster from which it derives), but the campaign modules and adventure modules are top-notch, and I wrote retrospectives of them all (starting with Rangers of the North). When I learned in the ’90s that Tolkien Enterprises finally revoked ICE’s license to produce gaming material for Middle-Earth, I went ape shit. The MERP modules were nothing less than scholarly, as fun to read as to play. They came to dominate my role-playing years in the late ’80s, and I even kept buying them in the ’90s when I wasn’t playing much anymore. I would check in at the local comic store religiously to grab every new release, and I’m glad I did: thanks to the Tolkien-Enterprise fascists, the modules are now collector’s items. It’s a shame, because they’re probably the most academic accessories ever written for any RPG. It’s as if Tolkien himself had taken up D&D and poured his linguistic and cultural scholarship into the hobby. The irony, of course, being that the high fantasy setting of Middle-Earth is on the face of it so at odds with D&D’s pulp fantasy roots. But I never saw a contradiction. Anyway, the MERP rules and gaming system would fall at the bottom of this list, while the adventure modules themselves would place very high; so a ranking of 6 feels about right.

7. Stormbringer (1981). 3 ½ stars. This one’s like Call of Cthulhu. I never played it, and like Cthulhu it’s a Chaosium publication. There are strong literary vibes in the Chaosium RPGs, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve been so turned on to them in recent years. Stormbringer is, as you might expect, set in the world of the Young Kingdoms, the realm from the Elric novels. It deals with a failing empire in conflict with the powers of chaos. The world is plunging into an apocalypse that has been foreseen, but which the PCs are utterly powerless to prevent. It’s a nihilistic game, again like Cthulhu, though in a more overarching abstract way. It does have its problems, and I can understand why it never became as popular as other RPGs, despite the fact that Moorcock’s novels were widely loved. The sorcery rules are very detailed, but it’s all a virtual waste, as PCs will rarely if ever have the chance to use sorcery. Magic in this world is brokered by demons, because humans can’t wield magic on their own. They have to bind and command demons to use power; so for example, to cast a fireball would require summoning a fire elemental and using its powers, or throwing its energy, at a target. And the ability to bind demons and other creatures is extremely rare, if not suicidal. On top of that, and in accordance with the predestination of Elric’s world, players have very little say in what their characters will be like. When they generate the characters, the dice determine their class and race as much as they determine their attributes. But there is a lot to admire in this game, and I wish I’d played it at least once.

8. Top Secret (1981). 3 stars. This is the most realistic RPG I ever played, though that’s perhaps not saying much. The early ’80s was the age of the Roger Moore James Bond films, and Top Secret plays on some of those extravagant plot lines. The PCs are field agents for a governmental agency, and they are assigned missions falling into one of three general categories: assassination (killing), confiscation (stealing), or investigation (spying). One might say loosely that it’s D&D in the modern world, for assassins, thieves, and rangers. The problem is that these character professions aren’t fleshed out too well; the professions mainly determine if the PC receives bonus experience points for succeeding in a mission that pertains to their profession. In other words, a field agent specializing in assassination would get bonus points for carrying out a kill, but that’s not to say that confiscators and investigators can’t assassinate. The game is purely percentile based: 2d10 for everything — attributes, skill checks, and combat. I have fond memories of skyjacking a 747 (I was a confiscation agent), though I botched the job by killing more innocent passengers than was necessary; it didn’t go well for me in the end. Alas, that was the only time I played Top Secret.

9. Star Frontiers (1982). 2 stars. This is the Star Wars of early RPGs, so it’s no surprise I never got around to playing it, given my constant dislike of George Lucas. I owned Star Frontiers, to be sure, and read through the Alpha Dawn rules many times. I even went through phases when I was inspired to play, but ultimately never did. Bubblegum space opera was never my thing. If I wanted outer space and star travel, I had the more solid and gritty approach of Traveller. (A reviewer in Dragon back in the day said that comparing Star Frontiers and Traveller is a bit like comparing Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey; and yes, that comparison is bang-on.) Probably the most compelling thing about Star Frontiers is the Sathar, the worm-like race trying to conquer the galaxy. The Sathar are elusive and seldom appear. They aren’t good at military combat and rely on hypnotic powers to recruit from and corrupt the four player character races: humans (of course), dralasites (giant amoebas with a prankish sense of humor), vrusks (huge insectoids that are team-driven, though not quite hive mind), and yazirians (flying wookies, who are easily enraged and go berserk). They live in an area of the galaxy as part of a multicultural federation that works against the Sathar. There are plenty of old-school gamers who rhapsodize about Star Frontiers. I’m not one of them.

Hopper’s Cabin: The Season 3 Annex

There’s something different about Jim Hopper’s cabin in Stranger Things 3. He uses a curtain to close off the area of his bed, and I had a hard time making sense of this, since his bed is in the large living room area. Here’s a diagram (from Reddit) of the cabin in Stranger Things 2:

Here are some screenshots from season 2 that confirm the above layout.

Eleven sweeping up the mess of her psychic tantrum, and you can see Hopper’s bed adjacent to the bathroom.

The view of the opposite side of the living room area, where we see the back door to the outside and (to the right) the door to El’s bedroom.

A wide shot of the whole living room — bed on the left, outside door on the right.

So when in season 3 Hopper is suddenly using a curtain to give himself privacy, I thought it must be a pretty long curtain that sectioned off at least half of the living room, which I couldn’t visualize for the life of me. Going back and freeze-framing shows that not to be the case. Hopper’s bed has moved in Stranger Things 3 — to an annex that he apparently built between the time of seasons 2 and 3.

You can still see the outside through the window above the TV, but what used to be the back door is no longer a back door, but an opening into a new part of the cabin: an actual bedroom for Hopper that gives him more privacy. On the left we see that what used to be his bed is now just another couch.

So the adjusted map for Stranger Things 3 looks like this:

 

Endless Night (Chapter 9)

This nine-chapter Stranger Things novel is the long-awaited prequel that takes place before five other stories, which should be read in the following order: The College Years, The New Generation, World’s End, The Witch of Yamhill County and The Black Rose of Newberg. These are all works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series, from which I do not profit. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.

This prequel serves as an alternate season 4. It assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-3, except that it was Joyce Byers who died in the Battle of Starcourt, while Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven. William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also: Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove before his possession, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer, though she did not become one of the flayed.

                             Endless Night — Chapter Nine

                         Endless Night

He woke in the dawn that wasn’t a dawn, the endless night that never changed. His stomach growled, almost its own animal. Food was never a problem; he could eat whenever and wherever. Breakfast, lunch, and supper — all of it was right under him, always.

A screech tore the air. It was a shrieker, close by. He was used to them now, but not entirely. They had blades for teeth, acid for saliva, and more destructive potential than the meanest demo-dogs. If you gave them wide berth, they usually left you alone; if not, you got chewed and dissolved, and were probably better off for it.

He pushed himself up on his hands and knees. It was how he walked now, most of the time; on all fours. The way the Master liked it. He felt the scars of yesterday and days before. Ten, twenty, thirty days… he had lost track of how long he’d been here. One moment was much as the next; one shadow like most.

Salivating, he tore up the ground with fists of iron. The earth was hard, cold and unyielding, but his body was equipped for the task. He grabbed a wad of earth, mangled it like clay, and shoved it into his mouth. His teeth took it hard, but they were made for this work too. His mark was deeper this time; subterranean, and darkly spiritual.

In every practical way, Mike was now a being of the Upside Down: a human frame that had been extended far beyond its limitations, at grievous cost. Mentally he had been pruned; transmuted into something primitive. Resurrection was like nothing preached in churches on the other side.

I shred you for the joy of it.

With that refrain, the Master had brought him back from the dead and claimed him forever. He had held Mike like a pediatric nurse and raked his talons deep. Mike had screamed into the boundless night. For his parents, sister, and friends. He begged his savior to stop, and when the creature obliged, he begged for more punishment. Being marked a second time, in the resurrected state, was a privilege in hell’s palace. It debased Mike entirely, robbed him of speech, and reversed his perception of friends and enemies. The ground made him salivate. He was nourished by pain; required long periods of sleep every other day. His nightmares eroded him. He started to forget his life on the other side, where night wasn’t endless and life too alluring. That old life seemed a dream — a dangerously seductive one. Nightmares were safe. They showed Mike his foundations; what he could rely on. His friends and family (and the girl he wouldn’t think about) had flushed him away. The Master, his savior, was eternally at hand.

I am your mother-father. Bound to you by ties unbreakable. I shred you for the joy of it.

The next fistful of earth had a bonus: a demo-slug. Mike took satisfaction in eating the dog in its infancy. He killed demo-dogs all the time for the Master’s enjoyment, thrown against beasts that were ferocious enough to dismember him, but trained to lose against him at the last minute.

Sustained by earth and gravel, he ate until he was full, and then went back to rest. As always, his stomach hurt for a while after he ate. He remembered when food was different: delicious, cooked, and healthy. But that brought back memories of the people he had eaten it with, and those memories hurt more than his tummy. He pushed the shades away.

Another shrieker let loose. Mike pitied anything wandering close to it. Someday he’d probably be set against a shrieker. The Master needed his entertainment, and was easily bored.

He closed his eyes, curled up on the ground growling, and tried calling Gorn.

 

The worm often came to him, when it wasn’t being used or abused. It liked Mike and comforted him when his nightmares got bad. Gorn’s touch, physical and mental, neutralized Mike’s addiction to pain; pacified him; enabled him to live for short periods without raging in his mind. Mike didn’t think he could survive in the night without Gorn. The worm was his only friend.

But Gorn was sick. He needed comfort too. Mike helped, stroking the worm with telepathic whispers. Gorn purred, wrapping Mike in a massaging tentacle. They cared for each other, and the Master allowed it. Their relationship somehow amused him.

It amused him, perhaps, because Gorn wasn’t long for life. A worm needed its twin to survive and be healthy, and Gorn’s sister had died — slain on the other side of reality by a she-demon. (Mike refused to think of her: to open that door was to fracture the last holdout of his sanity.)

Mike felt himself being gently prodded. He raised his head to see the worm sniffing him over, and embracing him. He let himself be furled in the prodding tentacle, and then he and Gorn rested together in silent communion.

Please don’t die.

The worm moaned softly, stroking him. Mike wondered how he could have ever thought that Gorn smelled bad. His fragrance was redolent of the best aromas he recalled from his previous life: smells he couldn’t recall the precise sensation of, only that they were good. Though maybe that was because his perceptions had been reversed.

He snuggled against the worm’s stomach. I need you.

Gorn cried in pain that was getting worse. He stayed with Mike for a while.

 

Sometime later (a day or two or six or twenty), Mike woke to the sound of hissing around him. Demo-dogs; at least three. He whimpered, wanting to sleep more. The hisses became growls. Mike lashed out with louder growls, and the nearest dog retreated a step. Mike curled up and tried to shut them out. A dog from behind seized his ankle and bit into it savagely. Mike snapped his head around and barked furiously. Then he was being yanked and pulled backwards by a mouthful of teeth. The other two dogs chased after him, snapping at his head.

Mike yapped and snarled. He was dragged fifty feet more, and then his rage exploded. He flipped around on his back, reached up, and seized the demo-dog’s snout that was hauling him. The dog stopped to snap at him. Mike lunged, and then he was up wrapping the dog’s head in a choke hold. The dog yelped and twisted in his grasp. Mike plunged his teeth into the dog’s neck and wrenched the head violently from left to right. He heard bones splinter. Then he finished the job with his hands, crushing the head to a pulp.

The other two dogs paused, wary, and then they pounced. It was no contest. These were demo-dogs, not gorgons, and his mark made Mike a punishing brute. One of them he tore apart right away. The other one got a chunk out of his arm, but that was much to its misfortune. Mike took long minutes to kill it, making sure that it suffered.

He ate the legs of all three dogs, then curled up and slept by the carcasses. A warning to other predators.

 

The day came when Gorn died. On Mike’s seventieth, eightieth, (surely no more than) ninetieth day in the Upside Down. He despaired and sought his own grave, but his mark overruled him. It cared nothing for Mike’s desires, suicidal or otherwise.

Mike tried to cry; it came out as a high anguished howl. And then he ran. Not on all fours, as he usually did, as he was commanded to do, but as he used to, in his previous life on the other side. He ran upright, his legs pumping against the earth, his heart pounding. He ran nowhere especially, for there was nowhere to run in this land where the Master couldn’t find him. Mike didn’t care. He was running away, as far as his powerhouse legs could take him.

He howled as he ran, lamenting Gorn. You were my friend. I needed you.

There was a reply of ugly laughter, and then suddenly Mike was slapped to the ground, his two-legged race aborted. He coughed and caught his breath, not knowing what hit him —

— and then looked up. It was Him, of course. The Master, his eyes blazing in the endless night. Always there, to relish Mike’s fears and supply new ones. The creature’s robe swayed in the mote-filled atmosphere; the skulls around his neck gleamed. He laughed again, and then his unbridled mockery poured through Mike:

Oh, there are new and better friends, coming for you. New toys, new dolls, new rot to chew. They will hate you, ruin you, and do it over again, as true friends do. Look, child, here…

The Illithid stepped aside.

Mike saw his new “friends” and screamed.

And as they leaped on him with slavering jaws, he cried out for his family and friends, his real friends, wanting them back, promising them anything if they would come and take him back home again… home… to Hawkins…

Agony rolled over the land, and cries shook the skies. The Master kept laughing. The night took no notice.

 

THE END

(Previous Chapter: Westering)