Her Story: Splintered Selves and Shattered Narratives

Stories about doubles and dopplegängers abound. My first encounter with them was probably Stephen King’s The Dark Half, which follows in a long line of stories about cisgender men struggling against their own divided psyche. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde set the mold for Anglophone literature that focused on the supposed duality of man, featuring protagonists struggling to overcome his darker natures. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Wizard of Earthsea takes a slightly more Jungian approach, with a man who unites facets of his splintered self.

Originating in the German Schauerroman and the British Gothic novel, the doppelgänger, like the vampire, was a product of early nineteenth-century fascination with folklore; derived from the superstitious belief that seeing one’s double is an omen of death, the doppelgänger motif fuses supernatural horror with a philosophical enquiry concerning personal identity and a psychological investigation into the hidden depths of the human psyche. (Gry Faurholt)

The majority of dopplegänger stories had male protagonists. When focused on women, they’ve generally leaned into the split between patriarchal conceptions of femininity: virgin/whore, good girl/femme fatale. Simone Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, wrote, “There is no figurative image of woman which does not call up at once its opposite: she is Life and Death, Nature and Artifice, Daylight and Night. Under whatever aspect we consider her, we always find the same shifting back and forth.”

In Her Story, a 2015 game developed by Sam Barlow and performed by Viva Seifert, the tropes of duality are imploded. Moreover, the narrative itself is shattered, and players are responsible for piecing it imperfectly back together. It’s an intricate story that makes full use of its non-linear structure.

In Her Story, you, the player, are given access to an old (think Windows 95) database of video clips. All of the clips feature a woman being interviewed at a police station about the disappearance of her husband. Her name is Hannah, she says. “It’s a palindrome. It reads the same backwards as forwards? It doesn’t work if you mirror it, though. It’s not quite symmetrical.”

There are five interviews that have been chopped up into hundreds of clips, some a few seconds long, others a couple minutes. You search by inputting keywords or phrases, but can only watch the first five clips the search turns up.

The story that is revealed is strange: Hannah’s hidden twin sister, Eve, was separated from her at birth by their mother’s midwife. Eve grew up watching her from across the street, eventually moving into Hannah’s attic when the midwife died. The two girls then shared a life with nobody the wiser: shared parents (before they died under mysterious circumstances), adventures, and lovers. Until, that is, Hannah got married.

Ambiguity, omission, and elision are narrative forces in Her Story. “It’s hard to know if this is all true,” Eve, or maybe Hannah, says at one point. Barlow’s story sets this ambiguity against repetition, context, and the small physical clues offered by Seiffert’s performance. It creates a uniquely dynamic story, one that revels in disorder.

In an article for PC Gamer, writer Tim Clark explained:

“Information in Her Story… has a cascading effect. A word in one clip will lead to another, which will prompt another line of inquiry, and so on… The most important words act as gates, preventing players from finding critical clips too early in the investigation (unless they get very lucky), which means no two people experience Her Story in quite the same way. But there isn’t a single ‘silver bullet’ clip which nails the whole mystery. Some are more important than others, clearly, but there’s no equivalent of a Poirot-style drawing room scene.

The most popular mainstream games, as a very broad trend, have focused on immersive stories: building massive worlds that players can get lost in. Sam Barlow took the opposite approach with Her Story, and gives players only a single mechanic that returns a limited view of the story the woman is trying to tell. This is intentional on Barlow’s part, who criticized contemporary games as being “so in love with contiguous, continuous time and space” that they eliminated the imaginative powers of storytelling, and the collaboration between a storyteller and a listener. Open worlds, Barlow seems to argue, are illusory. Restraint opens up so many more possibilities than they shut down.

“All art requires the combination of intense emotional involvement, empathy, and a level of remove that allows you to process the ideas and themes as things happen. The holodeck doesn’t make sense to me as a storytelling idea because it removes the frame, it stops being a story and becomes a theme park.”

While Barlow cites police procedurals and murder mysteries as his main influences, Her Story differs from both in that there’s no clear narrative as to what happened. Those genres rely on the basic premise that a rational, unified truth can be uncovered, if one is clever enough. I find Her Story’s labyrinthine narrative to be much closer to a Gothic romance.

The Gothic refers to a period of Anglophone literature and arts, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some scholars consider the Gothic as a sort of common generic ancestor, a link between horror, mysteries and crime fiction, science fiction, historical fiction, and realism. It’s characterized by a haunting historicity, often exemplified by crumbling old architecture, burdensome secrets, and pasts that refuse to stay buried. Earlier Gothic detective stories, unlike later stories, often examine the limits of modern rationality when it buts up against the ancient, strange, and unknowable.

Her Story contains a lot of Gothic motifs: secrets, girls locked up in attics, bodies in cellars, miscarriages and surprise pregnancies. Besides the dopplegängers, there are recurring mentions of fairy tales and folklore: Eve talks about being locked up by her adopted mother as similar to Rapunzel’s imprisonment by a witch. At one point, one of them sings part of an old murder ballad called “The Dreadful Wind and Rain,” in which one sister drowns the other in a fit of jealousy.

The dualistic split between the sisters—another mainstay of Gothic literature—is present in Her Story, though complicated. Hannah is shown, at least at first, to be the good girl, shy with boys, more than a little prudish. She relies on Eve to flirt and seduce the boys they date. But Hannah is violent, and confesses that she nearly drowned Eve on a beach when they were in their teens. There’s also lingering questions about how the girls’ parents died, from ingesting poisonous mushrooms.

Instead of a bifurcated view of femininity, Barlow presents the two women (if there are two women) as shattered mirrors of each other. This idea is itself reflected by the game’s structure, which offers a tangle of images and impressions that muddy not just the truth, but the very nature of Truth; the idea that there’s a single, objective narrative, untainted by ambiguity.

Sam Barlow’s followup project, Telling Lies, has been billed as Her Story’s spiritual successor. It was released in August, and I’ve played about half of it.

My opinion: it’s not as good. Barlow’s a genius when it comes to pairing mechanics with narrative, but Telling Lies’ ambitions—to make a meaningful commentary about privacy, double consciousness, and the environment—are mismatched with its own cleverness. (And some really frustrating user design as well.) Overall, it feels more journalistic, less intimate, and loses that Gothic tone in favor of a procedural. Instead of an invitation to get lost in a maze, the game feels like a task to gather evidence. Interesting for sure (and cheap as hell, if you get it on mobile) but not nearly as compelling.

One final note: In researching for this, I found a lot of articles on the gendered nature of dopplegänger stories. Which made me wonder: where the eff are the dopplegänger stories by and about transgender people? Like, you wanna talk bifurcated selves? Try trotting through the patriarchal wastelands with dysphoria dragging you down and everyone calling you by the wrong name.

I got a few answers, and will probably send out a little bonus newsletter with links and a reading list. If you know of any stories that fit, please send them my way!

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Form and Function in Horror

Let's get SPOOKY!

It’s September, which means it’s basically October, which means I have license to dive face-first into my first and foremost love: high-key creepy narratives.

In my (utterly biased) opinion, the narrative structures of horror stories are intertwined with the genre’s function, far more so than in other genres (except maybe comedy). The purpose of horror is to evoke feelings of terror, horror, revulsion, and empathy. Postmodern and contemporary horror, especially experimental narratives, bends and breaks narrative structures and audience expectation to add an extra level of oh god WHAT NO.

Really excellent horror doesn’t stay on the screen or the page, after all. It doesn’t allow the audience the safety of the fourth wall, of feeling removed from what’s happening. Horror in any media shakes the audience’s faith in their reality. It makes us aware of everything the shadows might conceal, and forces us to confront them head on. Authors, developers, artists, and filmmakers have created a multitude of different tactics to discomfit their audiences in new and unexpected ways. I barely need an excuse to nerd out about them for a while.

For the next while, I will be using this space to examine a bunch of different narratives in the horror and horror-adjacent genres. We’re also going to get into the gothic, uncanny, Weird, and camp. A little preview of some essays I’ve got in the works:

  • The infectious horror of Doki Doki Literature Club

  • Emily Carroll, Sleep No More, and navigating haunted spaces

  • The Autopsy of Jane Doe and whose trauma gets “centered”

  • Remakes, reboots, and sequels (oh my): who needs narrative closure, anyway?

  • Her Story, found footage narratives, and Gothic detectives

  • Stephen Gammell, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and why we censor the grotesque

As usual, I’m going to be looking at all of these as both a reader and a writer. These essays will usually be a mix of enthusiastic gushing, critical analysis, and attempts to reverse-engineer what makes these stories work.

If there’s a horror/ish story, film, game, or topic that you want to hear my take on, please hit me up on Twitter (@ninocipri) or send me an email through my website.

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"And death killed him."

Thoughts on puppets, parables, and the beauty of artifice

I wrote last week about the Bread and Puppet Theater, a radical puppet theater based out of Glover, Vermont. This week, I want to examine one of their stories a little closer.

I first saw “King Story” (also called “The Great Warrior”) performed in 2009 when I was part of Bread and Puppet’s apprentice program, and it has stuck with me ever since. This short, ~15 minute play is one of Bread and Puppet’s oldest and most enduring works. I found an article on JSTOR from 1968 that includes a script and pictures of the Great Warrior; the picture below is from 2013, as is the video.

The Great Warrior from Bread and Puppet Theater's revival of its 1962 anti-war show "King Story" at Boston College. (Greg Cook)

The story is a fairly simple parable. There is a good king of a good land, with a small coterie of advisors, and who is beloved by his people. A great warrior comes to the land and offers his service, but the king turns him down. Why would he want a warrior when the kingdom is prosperous and his people are happy? But a dragon comes and rampages through the land, and the king calls the warrior back against his advisors’ wishes. The warrior kills the dragon. And then he kills the king, the advisors, and the people. Death comes, and the warrior tries to kill death. Death avoids his mighty blows easily, catching his sword hands and breaking them. The warrior makes one last attempt, bending backwards to try and drive the spikes on his helmet into death’s heart. But death catches him and breaks his neck. The warrior falls, dead. Death leaves.

The end.

I love parables for the same reasons that I love puppets: the artifice is part of the point. You don’t worry that someone can see the strings being pulled, because the audience is in on the trick. For a parable or a puppet play to work, the audience has to be a willing participant.

We’ve come to think of parables, allegories, and fables as overly earnest and moralistic. Fit for children, maybe? But too simple for the complex modern world. However, as teaching tools, as an underhanded way to make a point, or as thought experiments to demonstrate a complex and intangible concept, they’re invaluable. All kinds of philosophers and scientists used them: narratives stick in people’s brains more than facts ever will. Lots of people will recognize what Schrödinger’s cat is; fewer will know what you’re talking about when you mention quantum superpositions.

You can argue with a parable—what asshole sticks a cat in a box with poison and radioactive material?—but usually not without looking like a pedantic asshole. You can willfully miss the point, but you can generally only answer one parable with a counter-narrative, one that illustrates the first story’s flaws. This is how you get works like The Symposium; a bunch of dudes drinking wine and telling stories and counter-stories about the nature of love. (It’s honestly tragic that most academic symposia involves very little wine-drinking while reclining on cushions.)

Parables are also used subversively, as ways to undermine or question traditional or dominant ways of thinking. This can be done through the creation of new parables—look at Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”—or retellings of familiar stories in ways that challenge the assumptions of the originals. Folk tales and urban legends pepper Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” as a way of illustrating the way female characters are gaslit, their cautionary stories dismissed as “old wives’ tales.” Machado’s story is also a metanarrative; it comments on the nature of stories themselves, their place in the world, and how they have shaped the character — who is herself a re-imagining of the woman in “The Green Ribbon.”

Image result for the green ribbon book

(I have SO MANY thoughts about derivative narratives, retellings, and fanfiction, but I’m saving them for future newsletters.)

Like I said in my last post, Bread and Puppet believes deeply in cheap, accessible art. While I’ve come to love elaborate and ornamented narratives, this kind of extremely pared-down form always catches me off-guard in its beauty and simplicity. Parables aren’t immersive narratives, the way that other forms of prose are. There’s usually a limit as to how complex they can become before they lose the plot, similar to the way that a joke is set up. And like a joke, the ending is everything. My favorite puppet stories and parables toe the line between mysterious and obvious, and I love when a conclusion seems inevitable and somehow shocking.

Where else would this story end? But I still find myself moved by the death of the king, the priest, the red man, and the blue man and his son. I still hold my breath when Death appears.

I keep coming back to the moment at the end when Death—small and unintimidating compared to the seven-foot-tall warrior—breaks the warrior’s hands. Not just the swords and not just the hands, but also the illusion of wholeness that the puppet creates. Puppets are fascinating because we know they’re inert and controlled by a human handler, but we can’t help but interact with them as singular, living objects. We see the strings, the rods, the puppeteer’s body until, after a while, we just stop seeing them. When that illusion breaks, it shocks us.

A good parable will do something similar. We realize the story is not just entertainment; the story is about how war consumes everything, even itself.

Check out the kids in this audience, and then look at the adults. We assume puppets and parables are meant for kids, but these kids aren’t quite getting it. That sucker punch at the end is meant for us; the adults in the room.

It reminds us that there is an entire generation has come of age since 9/11, who don’t remember the United States not being in armed conflict or military occupations; who don’t believe that you used to be able to walk onto a plane without having your shoes X-rayed first; whose ides of peacetime involves indefinite imprisonment, militarized police forces, and school shooting drills.

Stories like this are subversive because they’re easy to dismiss. Puppets and parables are meant for children; it’s all fun and weird and artificial, so you can relax. Then the illusion breaks, and we see the rods and strings; not just in front of us, but hopefully in the narratives around us too.

Parables demonstrate the artifice at work in the most basic, bewitching story. They teach us how to see how other stories are constructed. We learn to see who gets painted as the people in need of protection and who are the dragons that endanger them. And maybe we become a little more cautious when leaders stress the need for a great warrior to save us all.

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Bread & Puppet Theater

Cheap Art, Good Bread, Huzzah!

Back in 2009--although it makes me die a little to remember that was ten whole-ass years ago--I spent a summer working as an apprentice puppeteer to the Bread and Puppet Theater. Bread and Puppet was a familiar presence throughout my youth in Vermont; my mom took me to one of their massive circuses in the nineties, and I attended their shows semi-regularly in my teens. Besides their performances--which went from a three-day festival to smaller weekly ones--they were also a presence at summer parades around the state. They were easy to spot, with massive, papier-mâché puppets and stilt-dancers in tattered finery. They had a profound impact on the way I think about stories, art, political theater, and creativity.

Bread & Puppet was founded by Peter Schumann in the sixties in New York, putting a new spin on traditions of political art and theater. Their massive, graceful puppets were used in anti-war protests on the streets of the Lower East Side before they migrated north to New England. Bread & Puppet’s politics have remained uncompromisingly radical throughout the decades—which is both comforting, in a world of radical art becoming commodified, and also… not. It says something about the world and this country that they’re still protesting the same things: war, corporate greed, political hegemony, environmental destruction, wanton disregard for life.

Bread and puppet 2009 circus.jpg

Bread & Puppet incorporates a variety of performance styles: besides on-the-nose political skits, they also create cantastoria, a traditional Italian performance style that uses sequential paintings, with a performer using them to tell a story. Schumann sometimes performs “fiddle sermons,” spoken word pieces punctuated by wild swipes at a violin. The boisterous circuses are followed by a more somber pageant, which often feels ritualistic: a plea for peace and harmony in a chaotic, violent world. This is followed by the giving of bread, a crusty, homemade rye that is baked onsite and served with garlic aioli. (It’s dang good bread, too. I still crave it.) Schumann also paints, sculpts, and makes prints and letterpress posters, all of which are available through the troupe’s museum and store.

The puppet shows are strange, hilarious, moving, surreal, occasionally creepy. The puppets themselves are rough-hewn, and some of them have been in use for longer than I’ve been alive. They’re molded from river clay dug from a nearby bed, and painted to suggest features more often than detail them. Black paint on cardboard creates a faceless crowd, a burlap sack is repurposed into a turkey. My experience of being a puppeteer with the troupe was often similarly slapdash: grab a mask and figure how to move with it. Fetch a costume from the top floor of the barn. Play around until something clicks, or until you come up with a better idea, or someone else does. If it gets too complicated, ditch it. Schumann’s choreography and direction seemed haphazard until you took a step back to observe: he’s a master at getting groups of people to act as a single, collective organism. 

Bread and Puppet Circus.jpg

Puppetry at that scale is a curious mix of exaggeration and simplicity, even more so because Bread & Puppet performs in an outdoor amphitheater. The face is immobile, and all the emotion comes through the body, which might be nothing more than a single, massive hand with which to gesture. And yet, you have to work with others to portray anger, or forgiveness, or grief, or love. (And you usually have to do it while wearing an uncomfortable, claustrophobic rig, and being able to see maybe only a couple feet in front of you, in the rain or in the burning heat.)

Puppet theater is the theater of all means. Puppets and masks...are louder than the traffic. They don't teach problems, but they scream and dance and display life in its clearest terms. Puppet theater is of action rather than dialogue. The action is reduced to the simplest dance-like and specialized gestures. A puppet may be a hand only, or it may be a complicated body of many heads, hands, rods and fabric. We have two types of puppet shows: good ones and bad ones, but all of them are for good and against evil. (Peter Schumann)

I had a print of Schumann’s “Why Cheap Art Manifesto” in my room for ages. It takes its name from a run-down school bus gallery, filled with art that’s on sale for anywhere from $1 to $20. It’s an artifact of its time, but it also speaks a lot to the anxiety a lot of creative people I know: that something that should be sacred has become a commodity. That to create requires you to hustle, lest your art become background noise, valueless, forgettable.

So what, asks the Cheap Art Manifesto. Let art be without value, then: if it feeds someone for a moment, it has done its job. Let it be bread, disappeared by dinner. “Art has to be cheap and available to everybody. It needs to be everywhere because it is inside the world.” It’s defiant and playful, which are two descriptors that can be applied to basically everything Bread and Puppet does. Their puppetry is ego-deflating, anti-serious, anti-commodification. Art is useless, and that is why we need it.

Their puppets are made from the cheapest materials, easily repurposed, and beautiful but not sacred. They’re made for a mission; the complete abolishment of all evil, or resurrecting a dying planet, or something else that’s stupidly impossible and impossibly earnest. Stupid is fine; sifting through stupid ideas is the only way the good ones, the ones that last, will come through. 

Bread & Puppet taught me to value longevity in creative practice by detaching from the product. There might be good puppet shows, and there might be bad ones, but they’re all for good and against evil. In terms of politically motivated art, I’m not sure if there can be a better motto than that. Puppets and masks also force a clarity onto stories; to speak louder than traffic, you must tell your story in simple, brash terms. Street theater demands attention, disrupts patterns of complacency. But once it has your attention, it can offer you anything: a silly joke, a chance to think, a moment of clarity, a ritual for harmony. A piece of bread to fill your mouth. 

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What makes a story work?

So I write fiction, mostly. But I started out writing (awful) poetry and (less awful) screenplays. I’ve written comics, essays, plays, rabble-rousing emails, op-eds, reviews, fanfic, and I’m a big nerd about stories in all kinds of media and genres, so much that I spent most of the scant free time in my MFA reading analyses and theory about narratives and how they’re structured across genres and media.

We live in a world of stories. What can a short story writer learn from analyzing the structures of, for example, a long-running shonen anime? Or a mixed media art installation? How do we understand the narrative beats of a fight scene? What makes a narrative “experimental”? Can you literally read a room, or a building, or a street? I don’t know! But I want to find out.

I am emphatically not an expert

This newsletter is an excuse to assign myself monthly homework. I keep finding stories in strange places, and want to figure out what makes them tick. If you’re up for learning with me, come and join the study group. It’ll be fun.

Why subscribe?

Because it’s fun. Because I like to think I can pick good stories to examine. I’m good at translating lit theory jargon into sensible words. Maybe I can convince some experts to talk to me about what they do. Sometimes I’m even funny.

In the mean time, tell your friends!

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