January 4, 2020: “A Theory of Game, A Theory of Horror” by Josh Woods

Happy weekend, Story366! Glad to be chugging along here, more or less having readapted myself to the daily Story366 regimen just four days in. I’m pretty excited about the stack of books I’ve already collected for this year and I haven’t even explored many of the newish books that I’ll need to compile for this project. There’s a huge stack of books on my dining room table and they’re staring me down. I think I can’t possibly get through all of those books, but then I remember that if I do this every day, those will be burned through by the middle of February. So, if you have a suggestion or a collection that you’d like to recommend or send me, keep ’em coming. A year is a long time.

Today I picked up Josh Woods‘ collection O Monstrous World!, a book put out by Press 53 in 2018. I wasn’t really familiar with Woods’ work before today, something I was looking for after covering Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich’s yesterday, authors with whom I’m quite familiar. I dove into Woods’ book, starting with the first story, the story I’m writing about today, “A Theory of Game, A Theory of Horror.”

“A Theory of Game, A Theory of Horror” is about this nameless guy who’s out to design an RPG, or role-playing game for those of you who don’t know RPGs from EKGs. I’m not what you would call a gamer, but I have two young sons, which means a lot of that gamer vocab gets slipped in my everyday life enough that I can fool my way through a conversation, at least order dinner and ask where the bathroom is. The character in Woods’ story, we find out, wants to design games, and for a while, worked with a team of guys to make games into reality. The problem is, a fight broke out at HQ, our hero pulled out a letter opener—which he could have sworn was a stapler—and he was jettisoned from the squad. This is the only real backstory we get for the guy, other the boatloads we will soon infer from the rest of the narrative.

Our hero is more of the story-building-type game designer, it should be mentioned, the kind who comes up with the scenarios, the scripts, the details, etc. I’ve had a handful of students who were creative writing majors, taking fiction workshops, to do just this: They really didn’t have any interest in writing books, publishing stories, or in the printed word in general—they wanted to script video games, from the general plot to the minutia, such as what the characters wear in the game and even what their backstories are. I hadn’t realized that this was an actual job, but when I thought about it, these games exist and someone has to come up with this stuff: Why not aspire to this type of writing if that’s what you aspire to?

The guy in Woods’ story starts off with a setting—I know book-type writers who do that!—the type of town where husbands goes to neighborhood hardware stores, their wives shop at the local grocery store, and their daughters have names like Helen and Betty and make money by babysitting neighborhood kids. From there, our protagonist starts to build his hero, the game’s POV, and as the title of this story might indicate, it’s a horror game; he’s building his killer. Again, if you’re not familiar with the modern gaming scene, heroic figures like Pac-Man, Mario, and Sonic are often replaced by those personas who are up to no good. Or, losing the game means a grizzly, graphic end. My youngest son, this past year, got into a game called Five Nights at Freddy’s, based somewhat on those Chuck E. Cheese animatronic animals that sing songs and serve as the mascots for the chain (but were recently retired). In FNAF, the robot animals are possessed by the souls of murdered children—yes, the ghosts of dead little kids—gruesomely killed by the pizzeria’s old security guard. The robot kid-ghosts are out to seek revenge by murdering the new security guard, you, thinking you’re their killer because you’re wearing the same uniform. Your job is to stave them off before they rip you apart, carving into your flesh with sharp, mechanical teeth, tearing off body parts as you wail in agony. Our six-year-old son was pretty invested in this game before our older son tipped us off as to what it was about, how gruesome it really is—we had no idea, as this is a game for which they market T-shirts and toys, items we sent him to school with. Makes Combat from my 1977 Atari 2600 seem like a game of hoop and stick.

Anyway, Woods’ protagonist builds his killer from the ground up, starting with his serial killer mask, in the spirit of Jason, Michael Meyers, and other dastardlies. This is around when I started to get a feel for Woods’ voice, that this would-be game designer isn’t just murder-fantasying—well, he is—but he’s also educated, or at least well read. Not only does he cite the horror stalwarts, but seems to know quite a bit about mask iconography as well, referring to Guy Fawkes and Greek tragedies and kaonashis and Bataks and a lot of other things I’ve never heard of that sound really scary, deep cuts from your Sociology and Folklore gen-ed seminars. It’s not just masks this guy has knowledge of, either: He name-drops religious figures, philosophers, psychologists, poets, and other intellectuals. His murderer is a well informed construction, to say the least.

Eventually, we get to the part where this hero-killer is going to have to murder someone in this game, and that’s when we’re taken back to that serene 1950s small town. There, one of those sweetly named neighborhood babysitters, Connie, is about to meet this killer. The rest of the story, more or less, has our protagonist describing game play, just how it will work, a supercharged murder machine vs. an unsuspecting teenager, set in a house and era where the doors are unlocked and nobody has a cell phone.

What I had to remember as I read this story is most of the text isn’t the plot: It’s a scenario that’s being relayed by this game-designing character via a monologue. The plot isn’t any murder or escape via chaste Connie. It’s this recently fired designer and quadruple-major liberal arts grad playing out revenge fantasties in his head: It’s just a guy thinking about an idea, relaying it to an audience. Maybe he’s working through his disappointment. Maybe he’s creating the next smash hit. Or maybe this is the first step in his evolution as an active shooter. It should be noted, somewhere early in the story, when detailing his character ideas, our narrator switches from third person to first person, fully committing to I’ll-chase-her-down-with-a-knife-from-the-kitchen-block! mode early on. Harder to separate artist and subject when you do that.

All the stories in Woods’ collection seem to be about monsters, as a title like O Monstrous World! might indicate. The next story in the book, “He Who Fights With Monsters,” is about a washed-up UFC fighter who fights actual monsters for money. It’s a classic palooka tale, the kind Barton Fink was supposed to script, only in Woods’ version, he’s fighting goblins and chupacabras instead of younger, hungrier fighters. The next story I read is called “In Which Pinckney Benedict, Kermit Moore, and I Go A-Hunting for the Big Muddy Monster,” a reimagining of history, I guess, Woods using his Southern Illinois professors as characters in a well armed local monster hunt (fun fact: John Gardner used to teach there in Carbondale and the Big Muddy legend is what made him write Grendel).

Josh Woods’ O Monstrous World! was a real joy of a discovery. Woods’ tales are unconventionally told and the author certainly has a voice. He just might be that quadruple-major liberal arts guy—his website and podcast confirm his love of myth, folklore, and the like—but he’s also a monster-hunter, legend afficianado, and weapons expert. I picture him hanging out with the Squatch hunters, citing Campbell and Nietzsche as they trek through the dark forest. As soon as the team happens upon an unsuspecting bigfoot, he’d push his way to the front, pull out his ion-powered crossbow, and stare it down with all kinds of enchanted arrows and moral quandaries. That’s kind of like what it feels like to read his book. What fun.