Amazing Journeys Online Episode 2: Fear…less

The arrow sliced the air. The rabbit turned its head, eyes widening. Socrates sensed he aimed true—until the head of another wolf appeared, jaws reaching for the rabbit. Only the arrow, intended for the rabbit, sheared the wolf’s ear and landed point buried at the feet of the hare. The wolf yelped with pain.

Socrates cursed, as he reached for another arrow, fumbled it, and watched it land in the high grass.

Father rabbit disappeared into the trees.

The wolf snarled at Socrates. Glaring, she crouched as if gauging the distance to her new prey. 

Drawing another arrow, Socrates’ hands shook. He suddenly felt a shortness of breath. The sun felt hotter. “Come on, breathe, breathe, breathe.” Repeating the word, he struggled to steady his limbs. The wolf’s calmness, as she stared balefully, sent a chill through his body. “You can do this. Take a breath. Hold, and…”

He released the arrow. The wolf leaped. The arrow missed badly. The wolf zigged and zagged, closing the distance. Socrates ran.

Placing the bow in an equipment slot, Socrates pumped his arms for greater speed. The grove was too spread out. The trees grew closer with each stride. His breath felt sharper as he pumped his arms. The fatigue bar was close to red lining, dropping below fifteen percent. When it did, he’d collapse and be wolf food.

His instincts screamed, ‘Dive!’ He tumbled right. The hair on the back of his neck tickled as he sensed then saw the wolf’s shadow rise over him. Its rear claws found purchase on his back, pushing off powerfully and leaving a searing line of pain. His roll became a sprawl, grass whipped sharply against his face and arms. Sweat slicked his back, enflaming from the wolf’s claws. 

A message box appeared before his face, translucent so that he could see his surroundings through the text: “You’ve been clawed by a matron wolf avenging its mate. 8pts damage plus one bleed point per minute unless bound.” Socrates was suddenly reminded that he was inside a virtual world.

Dismissing the message, Socrates breathing slowed, readied to sprint, and froze. The heavy growl in the wolf’s throat left the man drained of energy. His arms hung at his sides as his breathing slowly settled.

This was it, Socrates thought. First death in the game. Too soon to earn the “undying” bonus for lasting three game weeks, as he’d only been fully immersed in this three-dimensional world for three hours.

A couple strides away, Socrates spotted trees with climbable branches. But they might as well be a hundred meters with the angry animal in his way. Socrates racked his brain for a solution, any option that could save him. 

Suddenly, an idea came to him.

The wolf crouched, growling low in her throat.

The man reached into his inventory.

The wolf leaped.

Jaws closed toward Socrates’ head. He grunted with effort, shoving the bow into the wolf’s mouth, and used the animal’s momentum to push himself away. 

Reaching the first tree, he gripped the rough bark and scrambled up the trunk to the first branches, the second, and finally the third. Sitting exhausted, he looked down at the wolf. It bounded from broken bow to the tree.

Socrates smiled in relief that he was safe for the moment. He’d wait until the wolf got tired and left. His smile froze with horror as the wolf leapt and scrambled onto the first branch. She stared at him, and then the next branch.

Socrates muttered, “No, no, no…”

The wolf leaped, scrabbled with its claws, and…

The wolf climbed to the second branch. She watched as the man raised his legs and stood. She seemed to grin with triumph and expectation.

Socrates’ heart sank.

The Top Score

Lists, rankings and ratings eliminate some of the guesswork in life. For example, instead of chancing a bad experience, I check rating websites for a restaurant, a movie or even a church. Goodreads and other online forums allow readers to post comments and ratings about novels or collections of stories. How would the general population rank Chekhov’s short stories?  The half-dozen books on my desk about Chekhov or Chekhov’s anthologies are the old way of researching. I need guidance on where to begin, what is considered the best of Chekhov and how to do all of this in the quickest amount of time.

An Editor’s Choice

Books like The Essential Tales of Chekhov edited by Richard Ford offer a method for reading the best of Checkhov. Ford, a temporary Michigan transplant from the South, attended Michigan State University and writes in his  introduction to the Chekhov anthology that Chekhov is a writer for adults. Chekhov’s most frequent themes of adultery, poverty and illness are not exactly the hero’s journey that Hollywood pumps into most movies. Chekhov’s plots pale and blur while his characters are noteworthy. My Russian dentist who inspired this literary trek says Chekhov descriptions, such as in “A Man with a Case,” have become Russian cultural references for describing personality types. After reading every Chekhov story, Richard Ford chose his favorites. He admits to adding a few stories that were not as polished and complete as Chekhov’s later works. In Ford’s opinion, “The Lady and the Dog” is one of Chekhov’s finest short stories.

Ranker.com

Since I read Ford’s number one pick, I wanted to compare other lists. ListVerse.com which compiles top ten lists of the bizarre to scientific failed in the literary realm with only three lists:

Top Ten Books of All Time (#9 The Stories of Anton Chekhov)

Top Ten Greatest Writers (#3 Pushkin with Russian runner ups of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky)

Ten More Strange Moments In the History of the Novel Awards (no Russians until 1933)

My prize discovery is Ranker.com. This website allows viewers to vote for their favorites on people, entertainment, sports, culture and videos. Curious if the general public could be trusted to rank a literary giant like Chekhov, I find the ratings are generous for a guy who died in 1904. Here are the lists containing Anton Chekhov:

Best Anton Chekhov Short Stories

The Best Writers of All Time (#25 Chekhov)

Best Novelist of All time (#50 Chekhov)

Best Short Story Writers of All time (#3 Chekhov)

Dying Words Last Spoken by Famous People (#69 Chekhov)

The Greatest Playwrights in History (#2 Chekhov)

The Best Russian Authors (#3 Chekhov)

The Hottest Dead Writer (#3 Chekhov)

Every Person Who Has Been immortalized in a Google Doodle

I confess to spending more time on Ranker.com than in Chekhov’s actual writings. In regards to the primary mission of finding Chekhov’s best short stories, the survey says . . . the following stories received the most votes:

The Lady and the Dog (18 pages written 1889)

The Bet (9 pages written 1888)

Ward No. 6 (48 pages written 1892)

The Death of a Clerk (4 pages written 1883)

Misery (6 pages written 1886)

Fast Pass to Chekhov

If narrowing the reading to a handful of stories is still too much, then do what theme parks call the “fast pass.” Similar to a theme park’s shorter line, this method makes the classics very easy, fast and fun. I can listen to more stories than I have time to read.

The Duel (an independent film made in 2010 with an 81% on the Tomatometer)

“The Bet” (produced by ITV’s “The Short Story”)

The Seagull (a live performance by the Michigan Shakespeare Festival)

The Seagull  (a 1975 production with a Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score of 50%)

Both professional and school productions of Chekhov’s stories are found on YouTube.  Fans of silent movies will want to watch the short 2012 adaptation of Death of a Government Clerk by Ethan Unklesbay. Audio recordings are also on YouTube including the free online digital libraries of Librivox.org, read by volunteers. “Misery” is a good recording.

NPR produces Selected Shorts. The July 2017 program, hosted by Krista Tippett, begins with a Sherwood Anderson short story, continues to two poems by Tracy K. Smith and stories by David Whyte and Elizabeth Crane and finally ends with “An Enigmatic Nature” by Anton Chekhov. I veer off track to listen to Stephen King’s “Batman and Robin Have An Altercation.” This story is on Selected Shorts Too Hot For Radio. (I’m not counting this as a complete diversion because Stephen King’s Misery came to mind when I first saw the short story title of “Misery” by Chekhov.)

In conclusion, Chekhov’s short stories are for the reader to experience many times and in many ways. Ranker.com and Richard Ford helped begin my journey, but there are many stories remaining for me to enjoy. Each different story makes me fall a little bit more for the #3 Hottest Dead Writer.

The Tolstoy Zone

The name, Leo Tolstoy, carries a bit of an intimidation factor. Tolstoy lived in the 1800s, and the world has changed since then. Many writers have come and gone, yet Tolstoy continues to be relevant.

At the library, I find several nondescript volumes lacking flashy colors, fonts and modern graphics. Recognizable titles include War and Peace (1400 pages), Anna Karenina (750 pages), The Cossacks (160 pages) and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (53 pages). I weigh my decision because quite literally my book bag is an unhealthy amount of heavy, and the winner is The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I load the three audio disks for my next commute to work and prepare for an easy week of listening to some old guy’s story about a different time and place. Instead, I discover “a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity . . . [that] lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” It is an area called the Tolstoy Zone.1

Within minutes of beginning this novella, I want nothing more than to continue. Often, I stop and marvel at Tolstoy’s timeless words and characters. I bubble the aspects of theme that intrigued me as shown in the photo.

 

The “D” Word

In this novel [spoiler alert] Ivan Ilyich dies. Death is part one of Tolstoy’s two-part story. The author approaches theme like a shark circling its prey. On each pass, the shark takes a closer look at what it will consume. The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins with the outside view of death. How do the living view the dead? By reading the Gazette, Pyotr Ivanovich sees the obituary placed by the widow, Praskovya Fyodorovna Golovin. The shocking news becomes an opportunity for career advance for some and a relief for others. Ivan has died and not me. The friend, Pyotr, is one of only two guests for the funeral.  Uncomfortable realities exist in this time period when the dead remain in the home slowly decomposing for days; when an untimely and early death jeopardizes a family’s finances; and when illness causes long periods of declining health to a miserable end. Tolstoy leads the reader with Pyotr to the next revelation–fear. Next time, it might be me who dies.

Fear and death are universal themes much older than the 1880s. Biblical passages, such as John 11:38-44, have cultural ramifications of Lazarus’ death for Martha and Mary. Also, Ezekiel 37:1-14 symbolizes Israel’s hopelessness with a valley of dry bones. Death is both literal and figurative and represents aloneness, separation, desperation, destruction, loss of relationships and loss of possibilities. Tolstoy’s study of emotion is intimate, realistic and all encompassing. He writes of what modern readers recognize as the stages of grief published roughly a hundred years later by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her famous book On Death and Dying.

Life after Death

Ivan is dead, and Pyotr scuttles off to resume his card game and find a permanent replacement for his friend’s vacant seat. The circling shark has swallowed the prey. So what does Tolstoy do? He analyzes how the subject tastes from beginning to end and resets the clock to show how this terrible situation occurred.

The story changes narrators and pivots to be about life instead of death. If this sounds religious, it is no coincidence. According to Richard Pevear’s introduction for Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories, Tolstoy began a personal religious conversion to moral teachings known as “Tolstoyism,” and eventually published What is Art? to receive worldwide recognition.

If I am to read like a writer, I know “what” happens in this story and “why” this novella wrestles with finding meaning in life. The beauty in the story is “how” this message unfolds through Ivan’s thoughts about his life. It feels like a geometric proof written as poetry. Each statement builds upon the next. The narrator wants to live, but, then again, no; he only now considers the lack of meaning and suffering in his life. Although he has tried to be proper and correct, he lived his life wrong and failed to help the people who needed him the most. The transformation of Ivan’s character with only internal monologue is the key to Tolstoy’s mastery. Very clearly, Tolstoy uses Ivan Ilyich as an example of what not to do. Of course, it is an alert to change, but the final message is comforting. If Ivan Ilyich can find peace, so too can everyone else.

Tolstoy is approachable in this timeless novel. All of my earlier fears were wrong. I may never tackle War and Peace, but I appreciate Tolstoy’s writing.

  1. Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone Series 1963.

 

 

Four Types of Playful Writers

Writers are, in general, playful people. As explained in a study by Dr. Rene Proyer “Playful people are able to reinterpret situations in their lives so that they experience them as entertaining or are able to reduce stress levels.” In my writing, I often rework real life situations with a better (or worse) ending and a more empowered character – a SuperMe – capable of witty remarks and amazing feats of skill, knowledge or cunning. Although it seems hard to find anything entertaining about pain or loss, the expression of an unpleasant experience in a creative way can be cathartic. For an example, recall Life of Pi by Yann Martel; young Pi survives on a boat with what seems to be a tiger, baboon and hyena.

The study categorizes playful people in four ways. I imagine writers can check one or all these categories. I will test each categories with myself and with the four Russian writers on my reading list for the year – Tolstoy, Chekov, Bulgakov and Nabokov.

1) “Other-directed playful” includes socializing with friends and other writers.   For me – a member of several writing groups, an “E” for extrovert on Myers-Briggs tests and working in a profession that involves people – this category is a hit. For the Russians writers, socializing with each other is well documented. Tolstoy reportedly took partying (1800’s style) at college to the extreme and never graduated. Lucky for him, it did not deter his writing career and success.

2) The “light-heartedly playful” consider life a game. And in games, it’s how the game is played. During the years I cared for my parents, we continued to play games. I had a performance baseline for each of them and measured each day against the previous. During play, the filters and pretensions dropped. Strategy choices revealed character, health and mental faculty. Humor was also part of the game. Chekhov began his writing career by publishing humorous anecdotes and stories to pay for his medical school studies. After that, his writing took a turn for the dark and serious.

3) The “intellectually playful” like to play with thoughts and ideas. Occasionally, the less tired and more clever me does re-orchestrate events to tell a playful story. I once threw away a microwave because my son said smoke came out of it. When I learned this might not have been true, I wrote a short story, “Trial of the Microwave.” On a more serious topic, Bulgakov wrote a satire about Stalinist Russia, Master and Margarita, which casts a wall-eyed loon and a talking cat as the devil’s attendants. I needed the talking cat in the microwave situation.

4) The “whimsically playful” enjoy “strange and unusual things and are amused by small day-to-day observations.” Details – accents, tone of voice, body language – convey information to the observant. The crystallized conflict photographed above caught my attention the other day. I took several photographs to determine if the ice was melting or the water was freezing. Before I could decide, my fingers numbed, and I almost dropped my phone in the water. Nabokov’s narrator in Lolita can dial up the description to create a complete image and feeling. Read through this jewel by Nabokov. He writes “. . . on the trim turf of the lawn-slope, an old gentleman with a white mustache, well-dressed – double-breasted gray suit, polka dotted bow-tie – lay supine, his long legs together, like a death-size wax figure.”

One last point about playfulness, Dr. Proyer notes that play enhances the ability to solve complex problems. A playful person can shift perspectives. In writer-speak, this shift is changing point of view. A writer imagines the thoughts and motivations of each character and determines the best narrator for a story. Solving (complex) plotting problems may mean jumping into another character’s thoughts and point of view. Or the story might need the intimacy of first person. Sometimes, I get it wrong. I’m quite proficient at switching from third person to first or vice versa. And being playful, I find it fun to edit and try it again in a different way.

Resident Evil illogical moments

Until the first live-action Resident Evil movie starring Milla Jovovich came out in 2002, I had never actually played any of the games. My general experience with the series was limited to watching gameplay videos online or reading the novel adaptations written by S.D. Perry.  I don’t favor the films since they are anything but faithful adaptations and have all the established characters from the Resident Evil, or RE for short, universe play second fiddle to an all-original character portrayed by Jovovich.  But the games aren’t without their share of problems.

While most of the games in the series have stellar stories, epic action sequences, interesting heroes and villains, and truly iconic monsters, there are also moments that don’t make any sense whatsoever if you think about it. Which I have.  What follows is my list of the ten most illogical things in the Resident Evil video game series.  I thought about including a moment from the latest main entry in the series, but there is so much wrong with RE6 that it deserves its own list.

10) Are the bad guys really this bored or stupid?

The opening for RE4 has government agent Leon Kennedy journeying to a remote area in Spain in search of the President’s missing daughter, Ashley.  Story-wise, I believe only two hours transpire from when Leon first encounters a hostile cult-like terrorist group behind the abduction to when he finds a random note written by one of the cultists.  This note not only acknowledges Leon’s presence in their village, but it also flat out states where Ashley is being held.  Given that the cultists have been hell-bent on eliminating Leon as a threat up to this point, it begs the question on why one of them would take the time to write this.  And, the note’s writer may as well have added an additional sentence: I’ll just leave this lying on a table where the intruder can easily spot it.

9) Fear of getting wet?

The water puzzle in the prequel game, Resident Evil Zero, where you have to move three crates to form a pathway over this rather small tank – simply to retrieve a valve needed to access a locked room, I might add – couldn’t be more ridiculous if it tried.  One thought that crossed my mind, as I was pushing the boxes into place, was ‘Why can’t Rebecca or Billy just swim across to get what they need?’  What makes it even more absurd is that this puzzle is encountered just after Billy pulled himself out of a waterway and hadn’t had time to dry off.

8) Shoddy containment measures.

One of the most curious aspects of RE5 is how many monsters are roaming about unchecked in Wesker’s secret facility.  While one could argue that the game’s antagonists unleashed the majority of them to deal with Chris and Sheva, the cages for the Lickers tell a different story.  The beasts are seen confined within a glass enclosure that they can, and do, easily break out of when the heroes are passing by.  There is evidence that at least three people have been killed by these creatures before Chris and Sheva even stumble upon them.  Given that the Lickers are one of the deadliest creatures present in the series, it’s questionable why even Wesker doesn’t take better care to protect his own staff from them.

2016-8August-JeannetteBlogPhoto

Clockwise from top left: Wesker distracted by Alexia; Resident Evil Zero’s crate puzzle; Glass cage for the Lickers in RE5; Chris preparing to punch a boulder; Rachel Foley running from a monster; and Ben’s prison cell in RE2. (photo credits at end)

7) Did the dogs really stay by the doors the entire time?

The first game in the series kicks off with members of the paramilitary organization, S.T.A.R.S., taking refuge in a seemingly deserted mansion after being chased through the woods by a group of zombified Dobermans.  The majority of the game centers around trying to find an alternate way out, as any attempt to exit through the front doors results in one of the dogs gaining entry to the house and attacking whichever character tried to leave.  It doesn’t matter what point of the game it is; the dogs are always there.  Why they stick around that area even when the S.T.A.R.S. members aren’t anywhere near the main hall is anyone’s guess, especially when there has to be something more accessible to hunt somewhere in the forest.

6) Wesker is far too easily distracted.

In RE: Code Veronica, the mainstay villain of the series, normally known for having remarkable focus and awareness, can’t seem to decide who to give his undivided attention to at various points.  During one scene where he has his mortal enemy, Chris, in a chokehold and is threatening to end his life, Wesker hears the game’s primary villainess, Alexia, laughing on a nearby computer monitor before the screen goes dark.  For whatever reason, Wesker throws Chris aside and immediately takes off to chase her down.  Yet later, when Wesker is actually fighting Alexia, he seemingly forgets about her and lunges toward Chris when he realizes the latter is present in the room.  As a result, Alexia nearly succeeds in setting Wesker on fire.

5) Turn off for the relentless killing machine?

RE3 sees Jill Valentine attempting to escape the doomed Raccoon City while also trying to survive against a genetically-engineered humanoid creature called Nemesis that’s been programmed to kill her and the other S.T.A.R.S. survivors from the first game.  Jill is relentlessly pursued by Nemesis throughout RE3 until a period where she is infected with a virus and requires a cure to keep breathing.  A man named Carlos, who isn’t even a S.T.A.R.S. member, comes to her aid by manufacturing the antidote she needs.  Even though Jill has been left unprotected and virtually helpless, Nemesis comes after Carlos while he’s on his way back to her.  Given that Nemesis otherwise dogs her every step of the way, this sudden deviation is very curious.

4) Must have found a plot hole to walk through.

During an exploration of the derelict, creature-infested police station in RE2, rookie cop Leon and corporate spy Ada come across a man named Ben who’s locked himself in a jail cell.  Ben states that he wishes to stay in there because he feels it’s safer than roaming the halls.  Later in the game, Leon is literally at the other end of the hall from the holding cells when he hears Ben screaming.  When the scene cuts to Ben, he’s seen being attacked by a particularly large monster that’s somehow gotten into the cell with him though the door is still shut and there is no other viable entry point in sight.  Even odder is that when Leon makes it over there less than a minute later, the creature is nowhere to be found.

3) How many members does this terrorist group have?

Much of the plot of RE: Revelations revolves around a bio-terrorist group known as Veltro and an investigation on whether or not they’re still active.  Several pairs of military teams are sent to investigate the cruise ships that Veltro had been using as their base of operations, only to find that each ship is overrun with mutated members of the terrorist group.  Ridiculously overrun, as there never seems to be any shortage of creatures around during the exploration of the primary ship, the Queen Zenobia.  During one battle, there’s even an endless supply of humanoid monsters coming out of the vents to replace the ones killed by the player.

2) How did she make it into the military if she’s this spineless?

The government organization known as the FBC, or Federal Bioterrorism Commission, featured in Resident Evil: Revelations seemed to have many promising agents to its name.  Three of the four who were featured most prominently – Raymond, Jessica, and Parker – seemed more than capable of keeping their wits in dangerous situations.  Not the case with Rachel Foley.  While it’s unclear how long she’d been an agent prior to being sent to investigate the Queen Zenobia, she immediately turns into a proverbial damsel in distress when faced with just one of the mutated creatures roaming the ship.  She even throws her gun at the creature when she runs out of bullets.

1) Chris suddenly becomes Hercules.

Even though I’ve seen the most outlandish moment in RE5 as the butt of many jokes on the internet, I still have to include it on this list.  During the game’s final battle, Chris Redfield’s idea of creating a safe pathway for his partner, Sheva, is to repeatedly punch a boulder three times his size to get it to move.  You would think that, after Chris stated in an earlier point in the same game that he’s no superhero and even exhibited signs of pain just from punching his arch-enemy, Wesker, in the face, there would be some hesitation before carrying out this daunting task.  Nope.  Not only does Chris rush in and start whaling on this giant rock, but he also gets it rolling aside in under 30 seconds.

Regardless of this list of criticisms, I am a huge fan of the video game series. What I like most is how the games have evolved with the times.  I love the puzzle-driven adventures released from 1996 to 2002 just as much the high definition third-person shooter style from 2004 on.  Each game, excluding the spinoffs of Operation Raccoon City and the Chronicles series, brings something unique to the table that sets it apart from the rest.  Whether you prefer the tense, fast-paced scenario in RE3 that forces the player to keep moving, the twist-around-every-corner story present in Code Veronica, the impressive cinematic fights involving Wesker in RE5, or even discovering the secret cause of the first outbreak in Resident Evil Zero, there is something to satisfy just about everyone.

And the soon-to-be-released RE7, coming next year, promises a new spin on the series. According to reports, it will be a first-person shooter and will return the series to its “horror roots.”  It is unknown yet what the story will be or if any of the previous characters of the series will even be present in this newest installment, but it is something to which I am very much looking forward.
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Photo credits:
1–Wesker distracted by Alexia
2–Resident Evil Zero’s crate puzzle
3–Glass cage for the Lickers in Resident Evil 5
4–Chris prepares to punch a boulder
5–Rachel Foley runs from a monster
6–Ben’s prison cell in Resident Evil 2