The New Thief of Always: Endless Scrolling, Wasted Time, and Hyperactive Boredom Through the Lens of
“However this miraculous place worked, it seemed real enough. The sun was hot, the soda was cold, the sky was blue, the grass was green. What more did he need to know?”
– Clive Barker, The Thief of Always
Like many of my fellow Millennials, I have a bit of an internet problem. I run two Tumblr blogs already, curlyhairedguys—what?—and a space dedicated to my photography business, each with modest followings in the thousands. I have a Facebook account, four emails addresses, a Snapchat, and two Instagrams. For a while, I contemplated starting a third blog but abandoned the idea (a submission-based repository for the victims of pushy online sexual advances) because I don’t want to shame people and don’t really have the time anyway.
Tumblr, for the uninitiated, is most influential to photobloggers, activists, porn connoisseurs (can’t forget them!), meme-generators, and of course teenagers. Community is key to Tumblr as well—as the interface encourages users not only to “Like” the posts they see and “Follow” other bloggers but to “Reblog” other posted content with the click of a button. LIke many internet communities, Tumblr not only invites but thrives on collaboration. A whole lot could be said about Tumblr’s (or others’) subjects—its audience and demographics, or how meaning and content are affected by constant elision—but that’s for another time and place.
Today, what primarily interests me are its means. What Tumblr, and other web-communities like it, might represent—by their means—for how we deal with time and boredom; and in turn how that might relate to a little-known children’s novel, The Thief of Always, by horror author, Clive Barker.
The Thief of Always is a fable, so Barker calls it, and thus is well-suited for social commentary (as fables often end with a moral). The story follows ten year-old Harvey Swick (I was eleven when my mother first read me the story) into a drearily boring February, Christmas memories already fading and summer too far off, as Harvey watches raindrops chase each other down the window sill. You’ve been in your share of February's: they’re the worst. And Harvey’s wish for something to assuade his boredom, for something to happen so he can avoid his mother’s constant nagging, “Don’t sit wishing the days away, honey,” lands him in a fairy tale-turned-nightmare that soon becomes a reality. I think, despite the novel being published in 1992, that Harvey is not unlike many of the common characterizations of the Post-Modern Self: curious, dim to consequence, definitely good, desiring, and ultimately unfulfilled.
[Image from Hyouka, a 2012 anime]
Tumblr, founded in 2007, purports to address these post-modern worries with distraction and community. Nowadays, it gets its power from a four-ish year-old redesign called endless scrolling, or infinite scrolling. This is what I mean by “means.” Endless scrolling allows a user to scroll down a single webpage endlessly for new content instead of continually clicking open a new page. Think daisy-chain of articles and pictures, instead of book. Many sites now use this feature. Doug Lauretano, writing for OpenX Blog in January 2014, characterized the redesign of the New York Times website, introducing endless scrolling, in the following way: “Readers have a far greater chance of finishing an article (and seeing all of the ads) if they’re relieved from the burden of clicking to the next page. Page loads, after all, slow us down.” His comments, and the NY Times redesign, came on the heels of noted blogger, Jack Marshall’s, own comment in Digiday on the endless scroll: “The standalone webpage as we know it might soon be a thing of the past.” If the internet is a rabbit hole, endless scrolling sends us further and further down it.
If you believe the user experience—Facebook, Twitter, all sorts of sites have redesigned to incorporate endless scrolling—then we’re very concerned about clicking less to get our information (less effort), getting more from the “feed” experience, and of course staying more connected with advertisers in the process. Endless scrolling seems to repeat the claim of the 2nd-wave tech boom: the world is better because of each new technological innovation (where “better” translates to more apparent convenience or time-saving for us, and better delivery of the business to the consumer for the corporation). Yet social science also indicates that we’re no better at using the time we’ve been given: we work more and longer in the United States than most other developed country, vacation less, all while our kids spend far more screen-time than they ever have before. Endless scrolling keeps us absorbed, but also constantly refreshing for the newest thing.
Online dating is as bad or worse. I run into too many profiles that read “be interesting” or “i hate to be bored, so…” or the ever-present imperative, “keep me interested,” usually alongside an otherwise blank bio. (The most recent trend seems to be profiles entirely absent of text, with a photo and maybe a height listing its only other elements.) Even in the most novel and potentially vibrant of socio-sexual and interpersonal exchanges—we both demand to be entertained and simultaneously can’t be bothered.
It is my suspicion that things like these—endless scrolling, increasingly lopsided demands on our interpersonal interactions, exponential screentime, our need to be entertained—are endemic of a consumptive laziness so profound as to usher in and characterize a new kind of boredom altogether. Forget feeling lonely in a crowd, this is a kind of active bereftness in the midst of more stimuli than humankind has ever had at its fingertips...ever.
And so we come again to Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always. Whether simply children’s novel or indeed fable, it is primarily about time and boredom, using magic and the trope of the wish to explore how stimuli affects the novel’s characters. The novel begins with probably one of the strangest (and coolest) metaphors of the time and seasons, “The great grey beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive,” and ends (in classic fable fashion) with this moral rumination on theme:
“Time would be precious from now on. It would tick by, of course, as it always had, but Harvey was determined he wouldn't waste it with sighs and complaints. He'd fill every moment with the seasons he’d found in his heart: hopes like birds on a spring branch; happiness like a warm summer sun; magic like the rising mists of autumn. And best of all, love; love enough for a thousand Christmases.”
At first, everything in Mr Hood’s Holiday House looks like something out of a dream. Every day passes like a whirlwind of seasons—a spring, summer, autumn, and winter each day—filled with food and play, frightening Halloweens and magnificent Christmases where Harvey gets whatever he likes. Harvey spends 30 days there. Yet it isn’t long before the house shows a darker side. In the end, ten year-old Harvey Swick escapes the Holiday House to find that one year has passed for every day he’s spent in Mr Hood’s magical clutches.
This is horror, really at its best: a deep psychological price both natural extension and moral consequence of the world Barker has set up. Of Mr Hood, Barker said in an interview with Fangoria and The Washington Post: “Hood is a vampire lord, but he is so different from the blood-sucking form… He is essentially a soul-stealer.”
The situation of the story—that Harvey’s wish for something to assuage his boredom is granted to the extreme—reminds me why I read or watch horror at all: horror can reveal something true or illuminating about us, not merely scare us. Its most effective storytelling means are not hyperactive stimulation—at least according to critics. This is not a terror measured “by how many times a loud noise or sound effect [makes you] jump in [your] seat,” as film critic Chris Stuckmann puts in his November 2014 video, “The Problem with Horror Movies Today.” Rather, Barker’s story is illustrative of how the wish for mere entertainment—Harvey’s might be this veritable literary ‘jump scare’—may twist and devolve into a grosser fate still. We might interrogate our own means for a sign of soul-sucking, of some incremental loss to autonomy or how we make our time. Another of Barker’s themes in The Thief of Always is the use of a question--which we might extend to mean either seeking information or employing your imagination. Our protagonist, Harvey, asks endless questions; despite many of Hood’s lackies insisting that “questions rot the mind,” Harvey keeps asking anyway. In fact, the meat of Mr Hood’s defeat looks like a kind of game of “twenty questions,” where Harvey asks Hood to make him more and more outlandish examples of magic. This is not mere begging out of boredom, but a manifestation of Harvey’s understanding of his enemy: he understands that Hood is a master seducer and feigns boredom to invite the vampire to manufacture his own undoing.
It’s striking to me now that Harvey’s final wish--and Hood’s undoing--is for all the seasons at once. In a society increasingly directionless in the face of lazy demands for entertainment, asking for everything at once seems like the ultimate expression of appetite and the ultimate goal of this new kind of hyperactive boredom.
Likewise telling are Clive Barker’s bookends in The Thief of Always: the great grey beast, Time, eating, devouring, as boredom literally acts itself out on Harvey; and then, at story’s end, Harvey himself as an agent of critical thinking and imagination. This is Object versus Agent, even down to the grammar. Perhaps clicking “Next,” like the page of a book, wasn’t so bad after all. I’m not saying we should do away with online dating or the endless scroll—certainly not with Tumblr—but perhaps taking the time to sit with what we demand is equally important.
Clive Barker may be right: “Look at this. Just look at this! Look at what the year does to us. Look at all these wonderful things...At the heart of the book there is a very simple idea; Live in the moment and understand that the moment is miraculous. Don't live for the next moment, or the moment after that, because while you're waiting for the next thing to come along your life is slipping away."
Matthew D. Kulisch
Editor's Note: All art, unless otherwise indicated, belongs to author and illustrator, Clive Barker, and has been excerpted from the 1992 publication of The Thief of Always.