Interview: Leigh Alexander on Mona

Hi, yes, still alive, still writing. I won't bother you with the particulars of my absence, only tell you that I'm back and I have something y'all might find interesting. So let's hop to it.

Leigh Alexander is one of the best game critics in the industry right now. When I say "critic," I don't mean the usual games press shorthand for "someone who tells you if a game is good or bad," but someone who actually examines and analyzes our experiences with games: how they make us feel, how successful the mechanics are at relaying its goals and themes, what these tell us about ourselves, and so forth. In the last half year, she's become one of my go-to sources for nuanced games criticism alongside Cara Ellison and Patrick Klepek. Leigh is originally from Massachusetts, currently living in New York City, and often pops in and out of London for conferences and the like. She also, I must impress, has an incredible voice, as evidenced by the "Lo-Fi Let's Plays" she occasionally posts on YouTube. 

Leigh recently took time out from her critical work to write and self-publish Mona, a short story with illustrations by Emily Carroll, whose horror comics like "His Face All Red" often leave me feeling more than a little disquieted. It is part homage to the landmark horror game Silent Hill 2 and part fan fiction of it. I know I've written at length about the awfulness of fan fiction, but Mona is a fine exception to that rule, a character piece that emulates the dread of its source material rather than aping its characters and setpieces. Rather than following in SH2's supernatural footsteps, it's a work of what I call "moral horror," where fear or terror is derived from the characters' actions, as with YellowBrickRoad. It's at once a commentary on that game and a part of it. And Leigh was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about it.

Daniel Link: You're a critic by profession, so what prompted you to venture into non-fiction, specifically something scary or at least unnerving?

Leigh Alexander: I assume you mean into fiction? Yeah, I'm not sure, I think most people who are interested in writing try to do all kinds of things. I also think that fiction can be criticism, and Mona at least tries to be—for me it's about understanding difficult people (and maybe criticising them) through the lens of a game that is about difficult people.

DL: Mona isn't a conventional work of horror: nothing paranormal, no super- or subhuman monsters, no knife-wielding slashers stealing through a house in the night. What's scary about it to you? What fears or anxieties does the character of Mona touch on?

LA: For me the whole reason Silent Hill 2 is scary isn't just about the fog, the monsters, the radio staticit's the low and constant dread of being in this sort of purgatory, being a person with unknown secrets, unknown destructive tendencies. Silent Hill 2 is about a guy who is sorting through some ugly and selfish feelings around his wife's death. He is not a particularly good person, and I think the world around him becomes grotesque because of that.

I think there is a lot that's scary about a person like Mona—just anxious to climb or consume others, to get as close as she can to people who represent things she wants in life without considering them. She has problems with her appetite—she rarely seems to eat or drink in a "normal" fashion, but other appetites as well: conflating her desire for sex, professional opportunity and romantic partnership all into this one sort of creepy, tunnel-visioned quest. I think that the person she pursues, Brandon Varnish, could have been anyone. She doesn't listen to him; they never really listen to one another.

I think that erasure she performs of him is unsettling, and I think her complete lack of awareness about what she's doing and how destructive it is makes her frightening. When I started thinking about those types of people, I thought about Silent Hill 2, and how that was also the story of someone with a conflicted inner life, and how the imagery and things in the game became allegorical to that.

                                                                                                     Emily Carroll

DL: You've said that the character of Mona isn't some stand-in for yourself, though several readers assumed there had to be some connection given that both you and her are video game critics. What has bothered you most about this assumption?

LA: I borrowed some of the settings from my own life, and to some degree the characters are composites of people I know or have had experiences with, but other than that there is very little in Mona that is "about me." In fact I was trying to exorcise a lot of my disgust with things or people around me that I felt opposed to. It's really irritating that women can't write about women without some kind of autobiographical element being assumed; men can write stories that borrow liberally from their own lives and experiences and no one accuses them of standing in, but women need disclaimers. 

DL: Would you say you and Mona have a similar relationship with Silent Hill 2, or was that choice more appropriate for the story and character?

LA: Both, I guess. I had always liked the idea of telling a fiction story through the lens of a game, or with similar themes to a game. Not only is Silent Hill 2 one of my favorite games, but it suited the kind of specific dread that I feel about these kinds of characters. I'd love there to be a Silent Hill game with a protagonist like Mona, this unwitting, unwell person with a yawning void in her belly and her heart. The women in Silent Hill series are usually being hunted or taken care of by men.

DL: How did you come to collaborate with Emily Carroll, and what about her work and style made you think she'd be good for this particular story?

LA: Emily does incredibly atmospheric horror work. I've been a big fan of hers for a long time, and many of her comics are these beautifully-paced, subtly-creepy classic stories. She can make something deeply creepy just in the way she draws hands or eyes in a panel. When I sent her the story and asked her to draw it she said she was surprised I'd asked her, as she felt Mona's modern setting and sexual themes were outside her usual purview.

But it's subtle visual stuff that makes Silent Hill 2 scary, for example—it's the rust and the mannequins and all of the other allegorical elements. A story that's just about a guy who might have smothered his wife is not that scary without the visual language around it, and I knew that I needed Emily's subtle, attentive illustrations to show why Mona is scary. She and I talked a lot about the characters and what made it a horror piece, and literally everything she made was so brilliant and spot on and even beyond what I could have imagined.


DL: Has writing and publishing Mona led you to tap into similar story ideas, be they fiction or non?

LA: Well, I know I'd like to keep doing stories. That's probably the only way to get good at them.

DL: Do you enjoy much horror? Whose work do you find kinship with?

LA: Not really for reading, but I watch a lot of horror movies, yeah, and I always loved traditional survival horror games of the past. I'm not really a cinephile—I'm actually often more interested in studying flawed but popular stuff than I am in great works of film. Maybe because I grew up playing so many video games, but I've always preferred Eastern ideas about horror than what's in, like, American films. If you watch for example a Japanese or Korean film, the fear comes from what is unexplained or unknown—buried under the mansion or secreted within the family tree. There aren't usually very tidy explanations or conclusions. Then if you watch the American remake of the same film, they'll have made everything much more literal, or, like, added a scene of physical conflict where there might not have been one previously, added a triumphant ending maybe.

I'm not scared of monsters or violence or slashers or in-your-face stuff; I tend to be drawn to stuff about those buried secrets, or those unknown elements.

                                            Emily Carroll

Mona is available to purchase on Gumroad, with the deluxe edition featuring an audiobook version recorded by Leigh herself. Her blog, with links to some of her best work, can be found here. I highly recommend you check out her piece on Metal Gear Solid 3.

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