When We Mess With a Good Thing: Adaptations Haunting Hill House

Just recently, it was announced that Netflix ordered a series based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. 

My first reaction: Yay!

Second reaction: Why, god, why?

Third reaction: Is it here yet?

The Haunting of Hill House is my favorite novel of all time and if you ask me about it, I will tell you all about Shirley Jackson’s spare, impactful prose, kaleidoscopic characters and overall brilliance.

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There have been two film adaptations of the book. Now there will be a Netflix TV series helmed by the director of the sequel to Ouija (your classic horror film based on board game fare), the fun-bad Oculus, and a couple of better-received films, Absentia and Hush. 

I am of two minds about this project. Since I can’t decided if I am happier than I am sad, I made a pros and cons list to assist me in my decision making process.

PRO: Jan De Bont is not directing. 

In 1999, a  wholly superfluous remake of The Haunting was directed by Jan De Bont. His previous films included two “hits,” Speed and Twister before he devoted the remainder of his directorial career, so far, to a superfluous remake and two superfluous sequels: Speed 2 and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Can I emphasize the word “superfluous?”

De Bont’s foray into horror included dumbing down all the nuances that characterized the original, adding a metric crap-ton of special effects, and basically shitting over everything that was good about the original. The result was a mediocre film with a surprisingly better than average cast (Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta Jones, Owen Wilson…well, mostly better than average.)

I’m not gonna lie. The film scared me when I first watched it. I was also 14 years old and watching it by myself, so. The greatest gift that film gave me was an interest in the source material. I would eventually read the book and come to love it, despising the travesty that the remake inflicted on Jackson’s masterpiece.

CON: Robert Wise is NOT directing it. 

The first adaptation of Haunting was released in 1963 and directed by Robert Wise, whose ouvre consists of some strange bedfellows, including The Sound of Music and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Besides introducing some revolutionary sound editing in The Haunting, he managed to distill the subtleties of Jackson’s story and characterizations, in particular the complicated Eleanor and her fragile state of mind, and create a film that was scarier for not knowing what was on the other side of the door.

Sadly, Wise is no longer with us, and his vision of Jackson’s great novel draws an even starker contrast between the original material and De Bont’s abomination. Wise’s The Haunting represents for me, that elusive book-nerd unicorn, the perfect book-to-movie adaptation.

PRO: TV today is so freaking good!

Forget your Walking Deads. Forget your American Horror Stories. A newer, better brand of TV horror is reinventing old standards, from Hannibal and Bates Motel to the upcoming Twin Peaks and The Mist, there’s a revolution taking place in television. Netflix and Amazon have thrown their hats in the ring, and it’s made for better TV. Sure, there’s some mediocre horror shows floating around out there (did we really need MTV’s Scream ?) but it’s a promising trend.

CON: The temptation of the cheap scare

The most jarring difference between the two film adaptations of Haunting is the use of special effects and cheap scares. Whereas the original used effects sparingly, to enhance the story, in the remake, the philosophy is basically “throw all the shit at the wall and see what sticks.” In 1963, the SFX was limited to camera angles and sound effects. Shadows and reaction shots, implication and POV was used, often to great effect, because there was no CGI. Now CGI is cheap, a shortcut to easy scares. My fear is the director might resort to these cheap shots because “that’s what the audience wants.” Maybe that assumption is right, but I hope for better.

PRO: The slow burn

The Haunting of Hill House is a slim novel that packs a rich story with fully realized characters and a deliberately paced plot. This GQ article describes the novel as a “tense, almost unbearable book at times.” The format of TV allows the full slow burn to bring shades and nuance to Haunting that can’t necessarily be accomplished in a two-hour film.

CONCLUSION?

A peculiar aspect of rabid bookish fandom is that we as readers tend to freak out when our beloved books are adapted in a film/TV format, even though the majority of the time we know our expectations are just setting us up for bitter disappointment. We sit there with our “The Book was Better” flashcards even when the movie/show turns out to be pretty good.

In a way, we are preemptively ruined by the book. Primed to critique. Because at the bottom of our fanaticism is hope, hope for a perfect distillation of perfection. Will this time be “the one?” If not, there’s always next time.

Unless you’re a Dune superfan. In that case, you’re screwed.

 

 

 

 

Turtles All the Way Downs: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

The Americans have no idea what’s going on in the library. It’s not your normal library, and Carolyn, David, Michael, Margaret, and their adopted siblings are not normal librarians. They always seem to bring chaos and carnage as sidekicks. Their thrift-shop fashion is too weird even for Macklemore.

Turns out this oddball group are orphans raised under tutelage of Father in a badass library. Each studies a specific “catalog,” such as war, healing, language, nature, and death. None are allowed to know the secrets of the others’ catalogs under the threat of brutal punishment.

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I’ve been trying to write about this book for months now. It’s a beautiful novel that traffics in equal parts brutality and hope. I enjoyed it in a way that’s difficult to qualify. That doesn’t happen often.

There’s a concept in the novel called “Regression Completeness,” explained as “the idea that however deeply you understand the universe, however many mysteries you solve, there will always be another, deeper mystery behind it.”

“Regression Completeness” is a phrase of the author’s invention, but it’s related to the concept of Infinite Regress, in which a proposition must be explained by another proposition, which in turn must be explained by another…ad nauseam. Like the optical effect of two mirrors creating an infinite image, the explanations never cease except to end in a tautology.

I think, therefore I am. I am, therefore I think. (Descartes was a jerk.)

There’s a charming anecdote, most likely apocryphal, but the best illustration of the Infinite Regress conundrum:

There are many versions of the “turtle” story. Here is one of the best known:

“William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. “But, my dear lady”, Professor James asked, as politely as possible, “what holds up the turtle?” “Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.” “Oh, I see”, said Professor James, still being polite. “But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?” “It’s no use, Professor”, said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. “It’s turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way!”

— from Wilson, R.A. (1983, 1997) Prometheus Rising. Phoenix, AZ: New Falcon Publishers, 1983. (source)

I’m not going to pretend I’m smart enough to have parsed all the implications of “Regression Completeness” in The Library at Mount Char. It’ll just lead me to a mixed metaphor rabbit hole full of turtles.

As readers,  we have to be content with accepting a mystery that we can’t explain: the mystery of a book that insinuates without a clear reason. We have to be content with it, and maybe even enjoy it a little.

There’s a moment at the end of Mount Char, where the title of the book is finally elucidated, and it packed such an emotional gutpunch for me that I had to set the book down for a while.

Now I must lay to rest the idea that I need to explain something to enjoy it. Instead, I put it in the box with Anna Karenina’s final moments and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” as beautiful, devastating moments in art living outside my critical mind.

I hope everyone has a book or song or film or painting like this. Something that causes us to surrender to Infinite Regress and accept the mystery. To borrow from Milan Kundera, these mysteries are what fills out our lives with a “dimension of beauty.”

 

*forbidden catalogs

  • It’s pronounced “Char” as in “Charbroil” not “Char” as in “Charlotte” which is how I pronounced it until I figured out the context.
  • There’s a wonderful psychological concept coined by sociologist Erving Goffman that offers a kind of mental version of Infinite Regress. As explained in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: “[Erving] disputed the romantic notion that behind the masks we show other people is the one true self. No, said Goffman; it’s masks all the way down.”
  • Another fun, related concept is the Munchausen Trilemma, the episode in which the Baron pulls himself out of the mire by his own hair. Hijinks!

On Being “Team Human” – The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

You can’t save people from the world. There’s nowhere else to take them.
– The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The sympathetic zombie is a rare, yet well-established pop culture trope. From the forlorn “domesticated” Bub in George Romero’s Day of the Dead to the tongue-in-cheek living dead modern comedies like iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet, the sentient zombie is an exercise in contradictions. Intelligent people don’t desire human flesh; zombies are meant to represent the dead-minded mob, the consumerist masses, the brainwashed masses. They’re humans without humanity. Our reptile brains run amok.

The metaphor of the zombie asks the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The answers vary, from our ability to control our desires, show empathy, “love,” and probably NOT want to eat human flesh.

The existence of the sentient zombie asks a similar question, but the answer is fraught with dissonance. What happens when you have the intelligence of a human packaged in with the ultimate taboo of cannibalism?

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Most of the zombies in The Girl with all the Gifts are your prototypical, braindead, flesh-hungry monsters. They’re called “hungries,” based on their dominant drive, which should be obvious. Their dish of choice, of course, is human flesh. But there’s a select group of hungries, all children, who are also capable of all those human qualities like learning and language. They are more terrifying than the regular hungries, because they can think and plan and work as a community. They look like children, not monsters.

The star of this select group of smart hungries is Melanie, a little girl who is precocious and imaginative and full of questions. She is the star of the novel, the protagonist who guides us through this post-apocalyptic nightmare of abandoned cities and roaming herds of flesh-hungry monsters.

I was lucky to discuss this book in book club, and the best question came up: Are you Team Hungry or Team Human? A lively debate followed, and I reflected on the question long after the meeting ended.

Team Hungry or Team Human?

A more precise question might be this: Are you Team Human or Team Melanie? As the reader, we are invited to view the disaster from her perspective. We’re set up to sympathize with Melanie, a human monster feared and despised by almost everyone around her.

Her nemesis is Dr. Caldwell, a scientist whose ambition to save the world doesn’t exactly inspire the warm and fuzzies. Her willingness to slice open Melanie’s skull in service of humanity ironically renders her inhumane. The novel draws battle lines with the reader firmly situated on Melanie’s side, the characters trapped in their assigned roles: Heartless scientist, empathetic teacher, realistic soldier, and the tragic monster. Melanie’s responsibility is great, and her loneliness, like Frankenstein’s monster, is unbearable.

In the end, Melanie is faced with a decision that will either doom her and those like her, or the entirety of the human race. The reader is stuck in the uncomfortable position of cheering on a monster or accepting Dr. Caldwell’s policy of prioritizing the human race above all others (which, TBH, we’re pretty damn good at doing.)

So what do you do? Choose Melanie, as Ms. Justineau, the kind-hearted teacher does, and the human race as we know it faces extinction. Although Ms. Justineau might not have predicted such a bleak end, in essence she takes Melanie’s place as the lonely, if less hungry, Other.

Choose humans and choose Caldwell’s brand of impersonal experimentation. Condone the sacrifice of the few to save the many. It sounds easy but there’s an aspect of human psychology that prevents us from seeing the big picture, to stomach the means to a noble end when those means are unsavory. It’s both a weakness and a strength that allows us to inflict both kindness and cruelty.

There’s a difference between fighting for your family and friends and ruminating on the worth of the human species in the abstract. Hypothetically, it’s easy to say “screw it, we had our chance” but the world and our choices are so much more complicated than the novel implies.

The survival of humanity is not an either/or proposition. It’s not about choosing one over the other, but figuring out how we’re going to live together without destroying our planet. If we keep leaving it up to the next generation, maybe we deserve to turn into fungus. Ashes to ashes, dust to mushroom.

*spores

  • If the Sentient Hungries indeed took over the world, what would they eat? I suggested at book club that they could probably learn agriculture and farm animals for their sustenance. It didn’t occur to me until later that one of those animals they might start farming might be humans.
  • Evolution and progress are not always synonymous. What’s best for our genes might not be the most “humanitarian” option. They’re just trying to build a better machine.

Eileen and All Grown Up: The Unlikable Heroine

One of my bookish pet peeves is when someone says they didn’t like a book because all the characters were unlikable.

Well guess what, it’s not the character’s job to make you like him or her. It’s the author’s job to make you care anyway. You might care because the character is a tragic villain (see: Aaron Burr in Hamilton) or because you can’t wait to see them get their comeuppance (see: any Game of Thrones villain; Voldemort.) But you don’t have to like them.

A character can be unlikable and still be a good character, just as a character can be totally likeable, an angelic snowflake of goodness, and still make for an awful character. Characters should be judged by depth, not whether we’d meet them for drinks at Applebee’s.

I happened to read two books in a row starring some pretty unlikable characters, both of them women.

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Bookcano 2017: March – Science and Religion Sittin’ in a Tree – Foundation by Isaac Asimov

The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity—a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop.

Someday I will write a blog post after I finish all 7 novels for Asimov’s Foundation series. When I visited the Tacoma Book Center to find the original Foundation, I found instead every other book except the first one, and thus had to resort to Amazon, where I accidentally ordered an extra copy.

The only other books I’ve read by Asimov is I, Robot. Foundation is similar in structure, each part of the book is episodic, almost like short stories unto themselves.

The Empire has been running the galaxy for 12,000 years, until a psychohistorian (basically a mathematician who predicts the future via statistics) named Hari Seldon dumps on the party with the news that the Empire will be toast within 300 years. What will follow will either be 30,000 years of barbarism, or, if the Empire allows the psychohistorian to build his special project, the Encyclopedia Galactica, to preserve scientific knowledge, only 1,000 years of crap times.

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February Wrap Up: Please let us be in The Matrix

Last month was a slow reading month for me, as I racked up only 8 books, 2 of them non-fiction, 2 of them audiobooks.

Well, enough about me! Let’s talk about books.

My current thing seems to be Sci-Fi. I was recommend The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu and immediately following read A Call to Arms by Alan Dean Foster. I wrote a post about the contrasting portrayal of earth in each novel. Either earth sucks, or it doesn’t; either humans are scary, or we’re puny and stampable.

There was very little reality going on in February (possibly a desire to escape the very real reality of the current state of our country?) A dog solved mysteries, pseudo-gods played the long game, a ghost haunted the desolate peaks of the Himalayas, and a woman on the verge of death hallucinated the nightmare of the century.

Hands down, my favorite book of the month was The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins.

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How to even describe this book? A modern fantasy where the blissful ignorance of our current reality is on a precipice, and the only thing that keeps us from plunging back into a fearful age darker than anything in the past is a group of orphans educated by “Father.” Each of the “librarians” has been educated in a certain catalog from childhood, such as language, animals, death, healing, and warfare. The education is unbelievably brutal, especially when death is meaningless. It is truly difficult to describe the wild, violent, heartrending ride of mythological proportions. It might be compared to American Gods by Neil Gaiman, but I found The Library at Mount Char much more propulsive and meaningful.

Less great was Dog on It by Spencer Quinn. The conceit is kind of adorable. Told from the perspective of Chet, a Police Dog Academy dropout and his kind of dumb human, private eye Bernie. Truly, the only evidence we have of Bernie’s intellect is that fact that Chet thinks he’s great, but Chet’s a dog, and dogs aren’t necessarily renowned for their deductive thinking. Bernie is your standard middle-aged divorcee who listens to jazz and plays ukelele and also happens to be a private eye. The central mystery of the story is so paint-by-numbers that even a cat could figure it out.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari was my book club’s pick of the month, and I listened to the audiobook, which was fun. Instead of a memoir, Ansari (or Tom from Parks and Rec) examines the ways in which technology has changed the dating scene. His investigations are surprisingly thorough. He uses studies, focus groups, and travels to different countries to examine cultural differences. While none of the information was anything new, it was consolidated and made entertaining by Ansari’s narration. Yeah, so people meet on the internet these days, and freak out when their text messages aren’t returned within 15 seconds, and the ideal profile picture of a woman is the high angle cleavage shot, so I guess I’m out of luck.

Finally, there’s Thin Air, by Michelle Paver. Set in the 1930’s, a British expedition sets off to conquer the 3rd highest peak in the world, Kangchenjunga. It’s a short novel, with little depth in the way of character or story, that places the team high up in one of the world’s most desolate places with only a ghost for company. I love a mountain story and while this one didn’t have the breadth of The Abominable by Dan Simmons or Summit by Harry Farthing, it was an enjoyable one sitting reading.

Here’s the full list:

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
The Undoing Problem by Michael Lewis
A Call to Arms by Alan Dean Foster
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
Dog on it by Spencer Quinn
Thin Air by Michelle Paver
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

THINGS THAT WERE NOT BOOKS

  • The Oscars – What? I almost didn’t watch the Oscars because I haven’t seen any of the movies (except the songs from Moana over and over and over and over again.) But so worth it!
  • Orphan Black, Season 4. They just announced that season 5 will be it for OB, which is probably for the best, and season 4 was far better than season 3, so let’s hope it’s on the up and up again. I still can’t convince myself that the clones are all the same actress. It’s creating some serious cognitive dissonance.
  • Apparently the only movie I watched one movie last month, which was Train to Busan, a Korean movie like 28 Days Later on a train. This movie is no joke. Great addition to a genre stuffed to the gills with mediocre zombie flicks.
  • Also I re-watched some episodes of Parks and Recreation.
  • Listened to the Hamilton soundtrack 893 times.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

I’d wondered a moment before how she could take that child’s hand, now I wonder how it’s possible to let go of it…

Fever Dream is a slight little novel, a conversation that takes place between a woman in a hospital and the little boy, who is not her son, sitting at her bedside. Hallucinatory and poetic, there is talk of worm and poison, horses and “the exact moment.”

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The woman recounts the moments that led to her lying in the hospital and together with the boy, they search for the “exact moment” when everything changed. The woman has a young daughter of her own, and speaks of the “rescue distance.” The rescue distance is the thread between the mother and her daughter, how long it would take to reach her should something happen. Sometimes the string is pulled tight and the mother needs her daughter close, sometimes it’s OK to let it unspool.

But the dark heart of the book seems to indicate that the rescue distance doesn’t matter, that no matter how close you keep your children, terrible things can happen anyway.

Why do mothers do that?
What?

Try to get out in front of anything that could happen–the rescue distance.
It’s because sooner or later something terrible will happen. 

There’s a mounting sense of dread as we travel further into the reality of this poisoned little town, although “reality” is not a word I’d apply to this book; we spiral towards the the terrible truth, all of our own anxieties and fears surfacing in the wake of the woman’s mounting terror.

Samanta Schweblin is an Argentine author, and the work is excellently translated by Megan McDowell. The prose takes on a lyrical repetition, a call-and-response between the boy and the woman.

Although there’s nothing mysterious or terribly original regarding the thematic materials, it is a well-told story that will haunt. It’s best to let it percolate instead of trying to figure it all out. Just like our strangest dreams, webs of our worst fears and anxieties, it is quite unexplainable, and yet powerful.

 

How Bad You Want that ETI: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu and A Call to Arms by Alan Dean Foster

How wonderful it will be if the universe really contains other intelligences and other societies! Bystanders have the clearest view. Someone truly neutral will then be able to comment on whether we’re the heroes or villains of history.

 

Any Sci-Fi novel that traffics in alien intelligence inevitably uses the conceit of a “neutral observer” to comment on the only sapient species we have yet discovered: humans.

What’s a human? What are they all about? What does it mean to be human? In real life, we don’t have anything to compare ourselves to besides each other. It’s telling that in literature we create mythological beings and extra-terrestrial intelligences to offer commentary on our status as a species. If there is intelligent life beyond our planet, what the hell would they think of us?

I had the fortune to read back-to-back novels that addressed this question in radically different ways. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu frames our first interstellar contact in against the backdrop of the Chinese revolution with a good dose of technology and physics. A Call to Arms by Alan Dean Foster has a whole host of alien species dropping in on earth to recruit humans in an intergalactic war. The way the alien species conceptualize earth and humans is revealing of just how conceited us humans can be about our own kind.

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January Wrap-Up: The TBR that wasn’t

So here’s the TBR I planned at the beginning of January:

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I ended up reading 3 of the 6

 

And here’s what I actually read:

Hex by Thomas Old Heuvelt – A 21st century twist on witches, hauntings, and our propensity to punish scapegoats for collective sins.

The Elementals by Michael McDowell – A little Southern Gothic gem with a memorable cast of characters and a house full of bad intentions.

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge – Putting faces on statistics makes it a little more uncomfortable to rationalize our right to buy guns at will.

Ten by Gretchen McNeil – A terrible “adaptation” of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Not even fun from a “dumb teens dying in a slasher flick” sort of way.

Summit by Harry Farthing – Nazis and mountains, a surprisingly engagin story, even if the audiobook is read by the author.

Columbine by Dave Cullen – The specter of the Columbine shooting hovers with every new mass shooting reported. America has a problem with guns.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty – This book about the political battlefield of the playground contains some heavy themes about abuse and rape.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson – Things in your life may not always be your fault, but they are certainly your responsibility.

The Delusion of Gender by Cordelia Fine – Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and there’s nothing that can be done about, because it’s genetics, right? Hold on. There has been a general attitude of confidence in the results of neuroscience, which on the surface appears to support a fundamental difference between male and female brains that make men good at engineering and women good at empathy (if that’s true, why does every woman’s magazine promote articles titled “What He’s Really Thinking” They should just name the magazine “Your Man’s Brain” and get it over with.) But the author delves below this superficial surface to parse out the actual science, which is flimsier than presented.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport – Instead of asking what value the world has to offer you, ask what value you have to offer the world. A fascinating premise: “follow your passion” is bad advice.

Fungi from Yuggoth by H.P. Lovecraft – Lovecraft tries to be Poe and writes a lot of soppy poems in his early years, including “Old Christmas” which is several pages long and unreadable. “Psychopompos” and “Fungi From Yuggoth” are much more Lovecraftian in style, and probably he should just stick to prose.

By the Numbers:

Number of books: 11 (surpassed my goal of 10)
Audiobooks: 4
Non-Fiction: 5
Fiction: 6
Favorite NF: Columbine by Dave Cullen
Favorite Fiction: Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Next Up: February TBR

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Columbine by Dave Cullen: A Review

Unintentionally, or perhaps subconsciously, the first two non-fiction books of 2017 that I read have centered around gun-related tragedies.

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I was thirteen when news of the Columbine school shooting interrupted afternoon soap operas to bring live coverage of the ongoing tragedy. At that stage, the media reported many inaccuracies, some of which persist despite solid debunking (such as the mythic story of Cassie Bernall, the Columbine “martyr” whose last words affirming her belief in God turned out to be uttered by someone else).

Dave Cullen does an excellent job in this well-researched book of debunking myths and providing perhaps the most accurate picture of the tragedy to exist, all the while admitting that there are mysteries that remain.

Cullen accomplishes a portrait of killers, victims, bystanders, and families while retaining an impassive eye. He almost never inserts an opinion or conjecture throughout the entire book, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Just the facts, please. There’s no right or wrong, no pleas for forgiveness or condemnation. Only the portrait of a town and people devastated by an intensely, wholly unanticipated tragedy.

If Cullen does offer a criticism, it’s towards the conduct of a police department that failed to respond to numerous warning signs and attempting a cover-up in the aftermath. He doesn’t need to say it out loud; the conduct of certain officials are damning enough in itself.

Many of the details are shocking. I didn’t know the extent to which the killers’ plan failed; the bombs they planted didn’t detonate. If they had, the death toll would have been in the hundreds.

I ask myself what made Columbine such a standout that its place in history is cemented. It wasn’t the first mass shooting on a school campus (see the 1966 University of Texas Tower Shooting.) Perhaps it was the media, the ongoing you-are-here feeling of capturing a tragedy in progress. Even though the killers were dead three hours before discovery, the tension of seeing the school building from the outside and only imagining what could be taking place inside lent a personal aspect to the event. Much the way a video game allows the player to slip into other worlds and perspectives, immediate access to crises via the media enforces a visceral experience upon the viewer in a way that reading a story in the paper cannot.