Monday, February 27, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 40: Creeping Darkness

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

And now, back to your regularly scheduled reviews.  Pen Stroke's Creeping Darkness, after the break.

Impressions before reading:  A video game crossover by Pen Stroke?  Where have I seen this before...

Given that I thought Better Living Through Science and Ponies did such a poor job making itself accessible, I have some trepidation diving into a story based on a game I've never even heard of (yes, I know, I must live under a rock).  But the description does contain this note: "Story assumes no preceding knowledge of the game Alan Wake. Written for any MLP:FiM fan to enjoy."  Well, that would be me.  I hope it turns out to be an accurate assessment.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Alan Wake is a writer trapped in a mysterious shadow-world where the words he writes become the unalterable truth... and the shadow-world conspires to fill his stories with darkness and evil.  Now, as he sets out to write about the land of Equestria, he must battle the Dark Presence and try to give his story a happy ending despite the pressures of the Darkness.

Thoughts after reading:  Since it was my biggest concern going in, let me say before I address anything else that this story does a fantastic job of making itself accessible to people who haven't played the game in question.  The prologue neatly explains who Alan is and what has happened to and around him, and the rest of the story generally doesn't contain any unwarranted assumptions about what the reader should know.

As with the other Pen Stroke story I've read for these reviews, word errors are a consistent problem.  Lines like, "He succeed, though in only bringing back Barbara’s body" from the prologue, crop up once or twice a page.  Since the grammar and other technical issues are uniformly excellent, these kinds of mistakes really stand out (and in a few places which I noticed, they reverse the meaning of their sentences.  Sometimes it's immediately obvious that there was a mistake, but on a couple of occasions I was tripped up because, for example, I was told something had happened when the author meant to say it hadn't).

For the most part, I thought the various ponies were written quite well.  One glaring exception was the lack of concern Twilight showed when certain of the ponies she cared about were taken by the Darkness.  Since they had apparently died, I expected a bigger reaction than I got; in this story she's obviously upset, but quickly (and apparently quite easily) sets her feelings aside to deal with the issues at hand.  However, other cases of emotional crisis were very well done.  In particular, I felt Dash's discovery that Alan was writing their story (and thus, that things were "his fault") was excellent.

The journal entries which are used to introduce the early chapters are possibly the most interesting part of the entire story.  Not only do they allow Pen Stroke a chance to explain why the Equestria we see is so much different than the one in the show (an absolutely crucial feature to dark or violent stories, and one which sadly gets glossed over by many authors), but they offer insight into the thematic construction of the story itself.  These were a welcome addition, nicely framing the story proper.

I feel I should mention that the last few chapters of this story indirectly inspired the author's most famous work, Past Sins.  I have not read that story, so I can't really comment on how prior familiarity with that story might impact one's enjoyment of Creeping Darkness.  What I will say is that, leaving any parallels aside, I thought the story's ending was thematically appropriate, but too abrupt.  The resolutions all came together a little too neatly and tidily for me to accept them as the conclusion to a horror story--and the prices paid at the end were glossed over too much for me to fully accept.

Speaking of the horror element, I should point out that although this story rightly carries the Dark tag, it is never explicitly violent or gory.  And as I mentioned above, the darker elements of the story are given more than adequate justification.

As far as complaints go, two significant but unrelated things stuck out at me as I read.  The first was the role which the Old Gods played in the story.  Since they knew exactly what to do and how to do it, they came across as a poorly-executed deus ex machina.  Alan himself comes across the same way, but this is acknowledged and explained in-story.  For the Old Gods, I still have no idea how their songs managed to get into the story, nor why the Darkness would allow them--that would seem to be precisely the kind of hackneyed writing which it doesn't permit Alan.  Also, music links in stories--not something I usually like to see.  In a later chapter, the author simply types out the lyrics rather than including a youtube link, which was better but still not the handling I'd have preferred.  Typing out every single line (and even including mention of guitar solos and such) rather than just quoting the relevant bits is overkill, in my opinion.

Second, a character in a diving suit from the later chapters has every sentence he speaks followed by "koooh....kssssh."  Since he has a fair amount of dialogue, this gets annoying very fast.  Once it was established that he was breathing through a scuba mask, I wish Pen Stroke would have omitted the constant textual reminders--it really did become a distraction after a while.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

This story had an interesting framing device and good (for the most part) characterization.  Not only that, but it was one of the relatively few grim or dark stories I've read in this fandom which never had me questioning the reason for its tone.  However, a mix of editing errors, convenient and unlikely assistance where such was explicitly "against the rules," and an adequate but unsatisfying ending prevent me from going any higher in my rating.

Recommendation:  For fans of dark stories, this is one of the better ones I've read.  But even those who usually avoid such stories may find something to enjoy here.  Anyone who feels they can overlook the questionable decisions I mentioned above would be well advised to give this story a try--just make sure you budget enough time to read it.  Fourteen chapters plus a prologue and epilogue does not make for a quick read.

Next time:  Changing Octaves, by Pen Stroke


  1. Yay!

    Those were pretty much my impressions when reading this story as well, and I really have nothing else of substance to say here.

  2. *"I feel I should mention that the last few chapters of this story indirectly inspired the author's most famous work, Past Sins. I have not read that story, so I can't really comment on how prior familiarity with that story might impact one's enjoyment of Creeping Darkness."*

    The Possible reactions:
    Liked Past Sins = :)
    Neutral towards Past Sins = :I
    Disliked Past Sins = :(
    My Reaction (not knowing beforehand this was origin of the "little black filly") = ...........ugh

    There are really only two other things I feel worth mentioning about my experience:
    1) Although this was easier to read than "Better Living through Science and Ponies" (in the sense that I finished "Creeping Darkness" while I dropped "Better Living" after three chapters), all subsequent attempts at re-reading this have been frustrated by this, that, and the other thing.

    2) I really hate the how the sacrifice at the end was handled. It's the equivalent of Pen Stroke putting a pistol to a dog's head and then pulling back later to reveal that he was carrying a squirt gun all along. It's cheap drama and it annoys me to no end.

  3. If I'm not mistaken, the Old Gods were from the original Alan Wake game, with the seeming Deus ex Machina being what they did there too.

  4. I'm really glad I found this blog. It's nice to see someone take a finer look at all of the higher rated stories. Also, I like that you mention the next story on your list so it gives us a chance to read along with you and compare our reactions to yours and the other readers in the comments. Keep being awesome!

  5. What kept me from finishing this story was the atrocious way everything was described. All of the scenes were written in a very objective and boring manner, so much in fact that it pained me to continue.