Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Novella review: 8:59:29 by Polly Schattel

Academia is hell—literally!

When I finished my last undergraduate final, I walked out of the room wanting to never take another test again, and so far I have kept to that vow. I have many friends, however, who went on to graduate school, and I try to understand the ordeal they have gone through; Bret Devereaux’s blog paints a bleak picture that makes me feel like I dodged a bullet. The widespread adjunctification of higher learning, combined with the slow transformation of secondary and increasingly primary education into college-oriented pressure cookers, must have been contributing factors to the rise of dark academia stories, where fantastic horrors are added to the real horrors of the academy. Here, Polly Schattel has made an odd but engrossing addition to this subgenre, 8:59:29.

The numbers that comprise the rather odd title are terms from filmmaking; this is quite appropriate, given that our protagonist is an adjunct professor of film at a university in the Appalachians that is clearly having funding woes and has seen better days. Her life is miserable; she lives in poverty with a department head who hates her, and her students don’t care about the material at all. Only one does: a local dropout who audits the class until he is forced out by the aforementioned department head. Out of anger, the two conspire to send him to hell.

Yes, that’s right. They find a demonic ritual on the dark web and start to plot not only his demise but his damnation. In this regard, this slim volume is a modern reimagining of the archetypical deal with the devil, adapted with great skill to modern conditions. It’s clear that Schattel has lived these conditions; this college is in what is clearly a dying town, ravaged by neoliberalism and outsourcing, and with no real sense that it has any sort of future worth sticking around for.

Stories of deals with the devil all revolve around, on some level, fervent hope that one’s circumstances could improve, a hope that rapidly spirals into desperation (K. J. Parker’s novella The Devil You Know is another take on it I liked). They’re about the desperation that leads people to fall for Nigerian prince scams, or get roped into multi-level marketing, or swear that essential oils will cure all their ills. It’s the rage of feeling that your future has been snapped out from under you, like being expelled from the course you’re auditing against the professor’s will. The professor once saw herself being successful, but has long since given up on it; the student sees glory in his grasp. When the future is stolen, they will go through hell to get it back.

There’s a grottiness here, not of the swampy fantasy inn, but of the all-too-real rust belt that soaks through every scene. The apartments are grungy and the souls of their inhabitants feel like they’ve rusted along with the factories. These feel like people who would make a literal deal with a demon just to feel something.

Befitting a horror story, it’s properly scary. The demons and the other accoutrements of hell are properly grotesque or otherwise eerie, with enough disturbing images to haunt your dreams for at least the next few days (being so short, it’s quite dense, and most of these are near the end!). But it is modernized in just the right way, to feel plausible for this century.

This book is also, in its own strange way, a love letter to film as a medium. It’s what I’d imagine could be the plot if Martin Scorsese directed a horror movie and was in a nasty mood about the modern economy. The two main characters both love their art, and their nemesis at least claims to (but perhaps loves his own ability to sneer at those with ‘lesser’ tastes more). These two are artists, aesthetes, aspiring bon-vivants who had the misfortune of not living in interwar Paris, two who want glory and fulfillment but are run through the wash by capitalism. By the end, you realize, this story could have only ended one way, and what a fitting ending it is.

8:59:29 is short, sweet, and to the point, and never overstays its welcome. It is a triumph of brevity, a paean to film, and a lament of the fate of Appalachia. I recommend that horror junkies and movie buffs read it post-haste.


Highlights: Grotty depiction of late-stage capitalism, also demons

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.