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Literature / The Northern Caves

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The Northern Caves is a 2015 Web Original Fiction novel written by nostalgebraist, previously the author of Floornight. Set in the early 2000s, it follows a group of fans on an online forum dedicated to the fictional Chesscourt fantasy book series by Leonard Salby.

The plot kicks off when one forum regular decides to attempt to understand Salby's unpublished final work The Northern Caves, three thousand pages of incomprehensible Mind Screw. The attempt spawns numerous theories and interpretations, and increasingly acrimonious debate as the fans struggle to fit The Northern Caves into the orderly Chesscourt series they know.

When one fan involved in the debate gets access to a cache of Salby's old papers, everyone is excited for what they might reveal, and a small group of the most dedicated participants meet up in person to look through them. However, things soon take a dark turn as they learn more about Salby than they bargained for....

The novel is written in a Scrapbook Story style, with most of the text being participant Paul/GlassWave's notes for a "report" he has been asked to write explaining these events. This is interspersed with snippets from forum threads and occasionally other documents. It's been praised for its accurate depiction of early-00s fandom and forum culture.

The Northern Caves ​provides examples of:

  • Alien Geometries: Experiencing "the separation" causes you to perceive your normal surroundings as this.
  • Ambiguously Absent Parent: Marsh's mother is never seen or mentioned. Paul wonders about this, but opts not to ask about what could be a sensitive topic.
  • Arc Words: "Don't go into the caves."
  • Bookends: Both the first and last chapters feature a document or excerpt where someone disparages Chesscourt and its fans.
  • Broken Pedestal: Learning that Leonard Salby was credibly accused of murder is this for Aaron.
    Aaron: Leonard Salby killed someone, for real, Paul. My Leonard Salby. I wore out those old Chesscourt paperbacks in my room, alone. Hiding from the folks. Reading the words of a murderer. Isn't that just how it goes?
  • Chemically-Induced Insanity: Paul starts experiencing the separation after taking two Adderalls, and slips the other Spelunkers Adderall in the hopes that the same will happen to them.
  • Complexity Addiction: Salby suffered from this in his writing. Over the course of the Chesscourt series, the worldbuilding became more and more convoluted, to the point where he ended up self-publishing the last two books after his editor demanded he tone it down. It turns out this was a feature and not a bug, since his purpose in writing the books was to spread his philosophy of Mundum.
  • Converted Fanboy: Paul got into Chesscourt after his college girlfriend recommended it to him. He notes that this sets him apart from most of the other characters, who grew up with the series.
  • Cosmic Horror Reveal: The revelation that the diner employees to whom Aaron "spoke in the voice of the sky" committed suicide, proving that the effects of The Northern Caves aren't just in the Spelunkers' heads... unless you buy the explanation that it was just a coincidence.
  • Epileptic Trees: In-universe, Aaron is known for this on the Cafe.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Paul's forum signature mentions he's one of the only people whose favorite Chesscourt book is Sea of Glass, a invoked later installment that took Salby's Complexity Addiction so far he was forced to self-publish it. Paul ends up being the only Spelunker to adopt Salby's philosophy of life.
    • In Lugnut's first appearance, he brings up details from Salby's life as possibly relevant to the "Seeking Continuity in TNC" thread, and complains that biographical criticism isn't welcome on the Cafe. Salby's personal papers, and what they reveal about his life and worldview, turn out to be the key to understanding TNC, although the Spelunkers may wish they weren't.
  • Freud Was Right: One passage in The Northern Caves by Leonard Salby contains phrases that lead Aaron to wonder if it's describing a sexual seduction.
    Sally went for Ws full exoteric crystal matrix as hard as graphene megavolts into his LIGHTNING FAST SPHEX transmission lost oh very good 100% on the full heavy
  • Mad Artist: Leonard Salby.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Aaron's reaction after learning that the restaurant staff to whom he "spoke in the voice of the sky" were Driven to Suicide.
  • No Sense of Humor: Salby is accused of this by critics. Although there are humorous moments in his books, he specifically portrays his heroes as too burdened with responsibility to have time for a sense of humor. We later learn he saw his own life in the same way.
    "You must not imagine that for beings like you and us there can be laughter. The low men laugh, and we envy them. But for us, the higher ones, there is no laughter, only an unending vigil, purely serious, stretching on into the night."
  • Saw "Star Wars" Twenty-Seven Times: Unsurprisingly, many of the Cafe users allude to having reread the Chesscourt books many times.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Paul has a tendency to slip into this (along with Purple Prose) in his notes, usually when he's nervous or uncomfortable about what he's writing. He lampshades this tendency a few times.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Aaron paraphrases Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground:
      Aaron: "Don't even try because two times two makes four, gentlemen, is not life but the beginning of death."
    • On two occasions, Paul makes reference to the "place where there is no darkness": first in the brightly-lit bathroom where Aaron's emotional state first starts to crumble, and second when stepping outside on the sunny morning when he first begins to embrace Salby's philosophy.
    • The Cafe admin torgo shares a name with a character from Manos: The Hands of Fate. His forum signature is a quote from the MST3K of the movie:
      "You are the driver. What would you do if this happened to you?"
  • Turn of the Millennium: The book's setting, complete with early-fandom-style forum threads.