Writing in Slate, Michael Thomsen questions whether videogames are worth the scores of hours they often require. With tomorrow’s arrival of Mass Effect 3 in stores, I find myself pondering something similar. I sank more than 80 hours into parts one and two of this epic space opera series. The action and exploration were perfect for a gamer like me, one who doesn’t like the battles too hectic or the presentation weighted too heavily with cut scenes. The Mass Effect series has been action role playing done right.

FemShep, I think I loved you.

What’s more, I came to love the hero I had created over those games: Commander Shepard. My Jane Shepard. Bringing her from part one into part two, ushering her through two meaty adventures, was a unique pleasure in my gaming experience. I named Jane after Jane Tennison from the Prime Suspect TV series, one of my favorite fictional characters. My Jane always tried to make the decisions to keep her on the shining path of good. I gave her raven hair, emerald eyes, and skin so pale it seemed like a reflection of the cold starlight she traveled through. She was a commander with deep empathy for her squad, a whiz with weapons, and a she fell in love maybe a little too easily with the beautiful alien females she met in those far-flung worlds.

Yet I am saying goodbye to Jane. I will not be taking her into the final part of the trilogy.

I won’t do this because Jane was stolen from me on January 28. That was when burglars broke in through a side door of my house and removed, among other things, the computers, game consoles, and associated hard drives that stored my digital existence. Jane lived on one of those hard drives, and now she’s gone.

True, homeowners’ insurance will help me replace the electronics that were taken. I can play Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 again, rebuild Jane to some semblance of her former self and take her right into part three, but I just don’t feel up to it. (I can’t go through all that tedious planet mining again!) The thought of the incredible time investment–more than two weeks of full-time work–that it would take to bring Jane back leaves me feeling sad and questioning whether it was ever worth spending that much time on the games in the first place.

So I find myself with Thomsen, interrogating myself about what all this gaming got me, apart from an entertaining way to pass the time. My free time is severely limited in these child-raising years. In the wake of the burglary, trying to understand what the loss of Jane means to me, I can’t help but wonder if spending time building these digital sandcastles has been a waste.

Some people in my neighborhood still have their Christmas lights up, so I think I can write about my top entertainments of 2011 and call it timely. I won’t even pretend to possess any kind of breadth of perspective; I just don’t consume as much I used to. In each category I missed many if not all high-profile releases. (I’m not going to bother putting down any movies. I only saw one, Drive, at the theater last year.) Partly this is due to having parenting responsibilities and much less free time than I used to, but just as much it is because I feel more free to follow my pleasure than I ever have in my life so I feel disconnected from up-to-date scenes. With that said, here are my favorite media experiences of 2011, with a couple “honorable mentions” from 2010 that were new to me this year.

Music

Scurrilous – Protest the Hero
“Sing a song of living before everybody dies!”

I’ve listened to this record more than any other this year. I’ve listened to it so much that it is hard for me to connect emotionally with my initial impression, which was that this music somehow combines elements of things I shouldn’t like (emo, technical noodling) with things I enjoy but that shouldn’t work well together (power metal, breakdowns) to create a mad neurological experiment that threads electrodes right to my brain’s pleasure centers. Now I see it as a truly accomplished artistic statement, one that harnesses a seize-the-day love of life and a geek’s obsession with detail to make an earnest, proggy album that feels modern and synthetic in the best way.

Dead Roots Stirring – Elder
“Let the waves consume my bones”

This is the most satisfying, epic stoner metal I’ve heard since Kyuss. I don’t think they make speakers loud enough to do justice to the monster riffs in these songs. The influence of Sleep is clear, but Elder brings a psychedellic touch and true talent for hooks that elevate these songs above the countless slow-and-low soundalikes out there. The rhythm section is absolutely killer, establishing a rumbling, pounding foundation for the lead guitar and vocal lines to twist and slice over. If it’s true that the roots are dead–this is a mode that goes all the way back to Sabbath, after all–these masterfully heavy tunes are the best hope I’ve heard to get them stirring. At the very least, they are sure to get you to bang your head, slowly.

Honorable mention
Remain Sedate/Protestant – Rorschach
“Asphalt head rush”

This remastered compilation was released in 2010; the originals are from 1990 (Remain Sedate) and 1993 (Protestant). Since I got this I’ve been kicking myself wondering how I could have spent my high school years obsessed with REM and Phish when I should have been seeing these New Jersey hardcore punks tearing shit up at some basement show. Rorschach is the kind of band I wish I could be in. Their mix of hardcore and metal make them pioneers of metalcore, but their thrashing onslaught feels far more urgent than that label might imply. I can’t think of many current bands that sound this vital, and these albums are 20 years old. Amazing.

Games

Dark Souls
“Prepare to die.”

Vs. the Gaping Dragon

Dark Souls was not only my favorite game of 2011 but a strong contender for my favorite of the current console generation. Though notably difficult, the action is fairly standard for a 3rd person dungeon-crawling RPG. What distinguishes Dark Souls is the atmosphere. Each area is a twisted construction that feels like an organic, mouldering environment. The monsters are fearsome and disturbing beasts designed with a degree of imagination lacking in most fantasy fare. When combined with gameplay in which chasing rewards entails serious risks and a false step or unwise combat decision often leads to a quick end, the result is an oppressive journey fraught with foreboding. It’s the most gothic game I have ever played.

The Binding of Isaac
“End his life as an offering to me, to prove that you love me above all else”

Belching flies

I guess 2011 was my year of pitiless dungeon crawling, because my other favorite game asks players to die over and over as they slay uncountable beasts in haunted chambers. Yes, it is thematically dark, but instead of adhering to a mysterious and dismal aesthetic like Dark Souls, The Binding of Isaac is cartoony, playful, and scatological. The central dynamic of rogue-like randomness (different level layout, power-ups, etc. for each play-through) creates a compulsive replayability, and is just one of many retro sensibilities at work here. Maybe the gameplay, presentation, and subject matter combine to say something about obsessions and the influence of things in our past, but probably not. The Binding of Isaac seems mostly to be about shooting, monsters, blood, shit, guts, Satan, and castrating mothers. What more do you need?

Books

Although I read more than I listen to music or play games, this is the hardest category for me to fill out. I just don’t feel pressure to stay really timely with my reading. I also read much more short fiction than I do novels or non-fiction, so I tend to dip in and out of collections. This year I read some very good new books (Monsters in America, by Scott Poole; Beyond the Door, by Jeffrey Thomas) and I added some to the to-be-read pile that seem like they will be awesome when I get around to them (Mrs. Midnight, by Reggie Oliver), but the only book I read this year that I feel is really worth talking about in a space like this wasn’t released in 2011.

Honorable Mention
Remember You’re a One-Ball!
by Quentin S. Crisp, 2010
“We’re all fucking happy, aren’t we?”
Quentin Crisp’s tale of the lingering effects of childhood cruelty begins bleakly and descends from there, but ends as a passionate protest against the inhumanity that lurks in all levels of society. The elegant, controlled prose only partly prevents the experience from becoming too horrible. What really makes the experience more transcendent than terrible is Crisp’s fantastic story, which takes the form of a manuscript written by Ramsey Blake, a rather alienated individual who undertakes a study of the culture of schoolyard bullying after beginning a teaching job at his childhood school. The plot holds a conspiracy almost too bizarre to believe, but as the book progresses it moves past bizarre to a kind of supernatural wonderment that is a shining example of what makes weird fiction so powerful. I stopped caring about the realism of the story as the emotional truth of the matter sunk in. This is still a very dark work that often mixes fascination and disgust about matters of pain, sex, and the body, and it will make readers question their own complicity and participation in cruel acts. Yet I feel like reading this book has enriched my experience of my daily life. It is one of the maybe dozen books to take a special place in my library reserved for works I return to again and again, to reread in part or in total, to savor that sense that only literature can give: that I am experiencing a thing that is simultaneously part of me and something other.

It’s just about Christmas time, which in my house means it’s time to read some ghost stories.* I love the English tradition of reading or telling spooky supernatural stories at a time when many people feel comfortable in the warmth of family love and nostalgia for childhood. This year, it is particularly fitting to mention the work of Robert Aickman, a modern master of the English ghost story who seems to be on the cusp of a rediscovery.

Those who have never heard of Aickman would do well to check out this half-hour appreciation from writer Jeremy Dyson that aired on BBC Radio today. Dyson calls Aickman “the best writer you’ve never heard of.”

Aickman’s books have mainly been out of print for years, so it is true that he is not widely read. Is he a great writer? I suppose it depends on taste. For me he is. And he has influenced popular writers like Neil Gaiman and Ramsey Campbell, as well as a small army of scribes writing for independent presses.

Aickman’s tales tend to eschew spectres in flowing garments in favor of unsettling nightmare situations that seem streamed directly from the unconscious. His best stories give the impression that the world is haunted in a way that feels emotionally real and yet always slightly out of grasp. As an interviewee in the radio show says, “I’m not sure I that I quite get it; I just know that I love the atmosphere.”

The good news this Christmas ghost story season is that Aickman’s entire eight-book catalog of what he called “strange stories” is coming back into print from Tartarus Press, albeit in limited editions. Mentions of his work have also been popping up in popular media, including the Huffington Post and the Independent. He is even tweeting (@RobertAickman); quite a feat considering he died in 1981.

* For me any time of the year is the perfect time to read ghost stories. The Christmas ghost story tradition just gives me one more excuse to push them on my family.

When it comes to exploring my curiosity on a given topic, I have always been attracted to learned tomes and intellectualizing–I took a class on Frank Zappa in college, after all–which is why W. Scott Poole’s new book, Monsters in America, is the most exciting treat I encountered this Halloween season. Subtitled Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting, Monsters in America provides a wide-ranging overview of cultural and historical trends both explicit and hidden that have fueled monster mania in the United States.

Poole’s examples begin in colonial tales of blood-thirsty dog-headed men in the wilderness and stretch to current seasons of popular TV like Dexter and True Blood. Along the way, he convincingly makes the case that thinking of monsters in terms of individual psychological factors misses something essential. It “ignores how closely they have reflected actual historical events and actual historical victims,” Poole writes.

To illustrate with one of the most engrossing examples, Poole identifies a period from 1870 until the second world war as “the era of Dr. Frankenstein.” The story of that mad scientist and his monstrous creation spread rapidly through America after Mary Shelley’s book was published in 1818. By the 1830s, “the story of an inhuman creature that turns on its master provided slaveholders with a ready metaphor for the possibility of a slave rebellion.” But after the Civil War, in the midst of tremendous racial conflict and anxieties, the tale took on particularly horrible significance. Against a backdrop of Jim Crow and lynchings, “whole communities believed they burned monsters at the stake,” Poole argues, illuminating the cultural currents that shaped the Hollywood telling of Frankenstein (1931) and the audiences that viewed it. “Inhuman creatures, even if they elicited some sympathy, had to be destroyed.” Furthermore, “if bodies of African American people could be imagined as monsters and brutally murdered like monsters, they could also become lab experiments.” At the end of the mad doctor’s era, the U.S. Public Health Service was infecting poor sharecroppers in Alabama with syphilis to study the disease.

With scores of similar cases involving witches, were-beasts, slashers, satanists and others, Monsters in America is much more than a catalog of creatures that have captured the public imagination over the years. In Poole’s analysis, monsters become powerful tools to understand a part of our national character, “giving the lie to notions of American innocence and exceptionalism.” As such, Monsters in Americais a book that should be read by those outside the realm of horror buffs and monster kids.

For an academic book from a university press Monsters in America is remarkably accessible. Poole maintains an engaging style despite often discussing serious fears and drawing on some pretty dense literature. He also has a knack for using examples to bolster novel views of monsters that, as citizens of our popular culture, suffer from over-exposure akin to the sort that surrounds reality TV stars. Personally, the widespread embrace of zombies (why does my town have a zombie walk every year?) and the sensitivo/emo vampire (why is my brain polluted with the knowledge of what “Team Edward” means?) are two modern horror trends that I often wish I could drive a stake through. Yet Poole’s analysis of “these voracious living corpses” got me over my aversion by revealing depth and meaning in something I naively dismissed. At a time in which politicians embrace without shame the notion that the business of America is business and leaders encourage us to shop following national calamities, it seems fitting to think about vampires and zombies, the undead powered by insatiable hunger. “Perhaps more than any other monster,” Poole writes, “they are ‘made in America’ as commodities for sale and distribution.”

The times when the book falters, in contrast, come when the arguments feel a little pat and shallow. Having grown up in the 1980s, I distinctly remember fears of nuclear war during the Reagan administration. “Universal monsters perfectly suited the kids who lived in a world of vast nuclear stockpiles,” Poole argues about children of that era. So far so good. I was one of those monster-obsessed kids. But then Poole breezily wraps up this example, writing “in an America where political leaders toyed with the possibility of a global apocalypse, the black-and-white horrors of an earlier era offered minor frissons and an escape from real world horrors.” This makes sense, but it leaves a lot unexplored. Why Universal monsters and not others? What about obsessing over fears instead of escaping into safe versions? In passages like this, I wished Poole took more space to build a case with explicit evidence to deepen the analysis.

This is a minor and perhaps personal quibble, though. In sum, Monsters in America is a Frankenstein’s monster of a book, which I mean as a compliment. It’s an amalgamation of choice parts joined into a powerful whole, an amazing amount of scholarship stitched together into an absolutely compelling read. As I made my way through, I put a star next to every footnote that referred to a book or other piece of scholarship that looked like it would be worth tracking down in order to learn more. I finished with 31 stars. Monsters in America is like the best history course I never took in college.

Learn more about Monsters in America at the book’s website from Baylor University Press.