Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Northern Caves

Go To
art by the author's wife

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 Cult Classic Chesscourt fantasy book series by Leonard Salby.

There's fan theorist Aaron aka Errant KnightsMove, "it's not that deep dude" Marsh aka metamarsh, popular fic writer Jenny aka jenni_fur, and observer/narrator Paul aka GlassWave.

The plot kicks off when one forum regular decides to attempt to understand Salby's unpublished final work: The Northern Caves, 3,642 pages of incomprehensible Mind Screw.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'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.

    open/close all folders 

In-Universe, the Chesscourt books are said to provide examples of:


Published Chesscourt

  • invokedAnvilicious: Chesscourt is not subtle, and reviews make a point to note that it's the product of a man obsessed with fiendishly detail-oriented, duty-driven plots, and largely disinterested in his characters and worldbuilding. It's easy to see where his interests laid, or what the themes were. But Salby's anvil — obeying Mundum — is off the wall enough that it can be hard to identify that it is an anvil without exterior knowledge of his philosophy. Once you know, though, it becomes very apparent why the series is the way it is.
  • Benevolent Mage Ruler: Implied. The protagonists are "heirs of the Manor" — according to the podcasters, "aristocrats with a magical lineage." Marsh at one point mentions the series contains people "finding out their parents were ancient gods." There seems to be some combination of social power and magical power going on, from which the characters' crushing sense of duty springs.
  • Black-and-White Morality: In Chesscourt, the sides of good and evil are very clearly defined. The "correct" actions the protagonists must take are directly laid out for them, and the difficulty is more often in carrying out said actions than in having to make difficult or morally ambiguous decisions. Considering the prominent Chess Motifs, it's likely a case of literal black-and-white morality. This kind of thinking is a prominent aspect of Salby's personal philosophy, to the extent that he is professionally diagnosed with "an obsessive fixation on moral concerns."
  • Brother–Sister Team: The main characters of Chesscourt are siblings Sally and Tom, and their older cousin Charles.
  • Chess Motifs: The podcasters say "the whole thing is based around an overwrought chess metaphor." Paul tells us there are "chessboards all over the walls and ceilings of Chesscourt Manor," and the chessboard "mirrors inside the Manor events taking place outside."
  • Complexity Addiction: Salby suffered from this in his writing. Over the course of the Chesscourt series the plots 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.
    Charles Adair: Salby's plotting builds hierarchically, inexorably, unforgivingly. Every new development serves as scaffolding for the next, and any idea or event, however minor, however many pages or books ago it was introduced, can serve as fodder for new narrative contortions. The result is a reading experience that recreates with eerie accuracy the atmosphere of the schoolroom. Salby demands academic devotion; everything will be on the test.
  • invokedCult Classic: The Chesscourt fandom really cherishes the series, but the mainstream opinion seems to be that the series lost its footing after the first installment. The most discussed aspect of Chesscourt is its complexity — praised by fans, disparaged by critics. However, both groups basically seem to agree that the books have little to offer beyond that. Critics say there's a fundamental immaturity that pervades the series. Fans admit the characters and worldbuilding leave something to be desired. Fanfic overwhelmingly changes the tone, suggesting the original ponderously weighty tone isn't exactly loved.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Paul describes Charles as "a master of delicious, grotesque invective," delivering some of the books' occasional moments of humor. Deadpan Snarkers are wont to be fan favorites and Charles is JimWind's favorite, the only time any character is mentioned to be a favorite.
  • Doorstopper: As the Chesscourt series goes on, the books get weirder and longer. The nine books' lengths are: 166 pages, 255 pages, 242 pages, 271 pages, 345 pages, 435 pages, 676 pages, 775 pages, 844 pages. It caps off with The Northern Caves, which is 3,642 pages — it's unclear if it was intended to be published in its present state, but the upon seeing the manuscript, the Spelunkers "gawk at the thick stack of typed pages."
  • invokedFirst Installment Wins: While the latter Chesscourt series isn't regarded as good by anyone but the fandom, multiple critics seem to maintain that A Thornbush Tale was a great children's book — perhaps even a Phrase Catcher for the word "charming."
    1988 interviewer: …the sort of young readers who, every year, discover the charms of A Thornbush Tale?
    Podcaster: So this fantasy series started out with a book called A Thornbush Tale — which was a really very charming children's book, kind of a classic in its own right.
  • Flat Character: Salby isn't known for being that good at character development, and his characters are generally thought to be a bit flat and stilted, as well as static. Justified Trope — as they dig deeper into Salby's personal writings, they find him saying point-blank that the characters are just vessels to demonstrate his worldview.
  • invokedFranchise Original Sin: Paul describes the latter books as still having the same bones as the first book, just taken to their Logical Extreme. It could also be considered nine books' worth of Serial Escalation. At some point "the matrix is beginning to strain under its own weight."
    Paul's narration: In some ways, it is just the logic of A Thornbush Tale scaled up — but the quantitative can reach the qualitative if dialed up far enough.
  • Funny Animal: The Lorrums are essentially rabbits with human-like intellect and complex society. Salby explicitly mentions in his notes that he included "funny talking animals" as part of his ploy to appeal to children.
  • Growing with the Audience: Zigzagging. The first book is unambiguously Children's Literature. The later books are not... but it's not exactly clear if they're for adults, either.
    Paul's narration: Salby starts from the comfort zone of a prepubescent fantasy reader and builds from there. In that he's akin to Tolkien or Lewis or any one of their progeny. But what Salby builds into is not maturity, per se. He does not "grow up" with the reader. […] The characters do not mature, except in the sense of casting off some of the cloying vocabulary that marred A Thornbush Tale (their "golly"s and "gosh"es and "darn"s). Aging is implied to occur, but sex and romance are absent. Nor do the characters "come of age," either in the sense of being initiated into the adult culture of some surrounding society or in the sense of striking out boldly on some self-determined path. Instead, the trajectory is one of increasing moral weight.
  • Later-Installment Weirdness: Exaggerated. The Chesscourt books begin as fairly standard Children's Literature, that got weirder as it went. Eventually the editor started complaining and invokedrequesting Salby tone it down. Salby refused. Book #7 got published only grudgingly, #8 and #9 were self-published. The series is a philosophical treaties masquerading as literature.
  • Machine Worship: The Lorrums are rabbit-like creatures described as having a "quasi-religious fetishism or idolatry for machines and technological progress." Ombudsman suggests it stands in for "the whole of human enterprise"; Jenny's interpretation in her fic is that it stems from a fear of "disharmony". It acts as a microcosm of the greater themes of Chesscourt — a mechanical, black-and-white simplicity — which ties back into the philosophy of Mundum.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: Chesscourt is relentlessly logical, and also a fantasy series, so together that creates a world where magic always has a predictable result.
    Podcaster: [T]here's a very intricate, but still very rule-bound, "magic system" in play, where actions have predictable consequences, like moving a game piece.
  • Manchild: One reoccurring criticism of the books is that, while they get more complicated, they never conceptually mature. Charles Adair's review says "its sensibility never progresses beyond that of a precocious adolescent." The podcasters call the series "psychologically very unambitious, even infantile." Chesscourt is complicated, yes, but it's still a world where everything has predictable consequences and Black-and-White Morality. Chesscourt lacks ambiguity. The podcasters characterize this as "a yearning for the clarity of pre-adolescent childhood." A big part of growing up is coming to terms with the fact that the world is messy. Things don't always make sense; duty is not always clear. This is the crux of Salby's own philosophy of Mundum, a worldview where right and wrong are unambiguously predetermined.
  • Man of Wealth and Taste: Paul describes Charles in the first book as "an ominous figure of sinister aristocratic grace."
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: Chesscourt is staunchly devoid of any romance. This is part of the tremendous weightiness of the series. Fandom invokedshipping, then, is a sort of defiance against the themes of canon.
    Paul's narration: It isn't just that no romance occurs, which would not be too unusual in a series of this kind. It's that it feels like it never could have occurred. The characters, by virtue of being the heirs of the Manor, are afflicted with a kind of terrible noblesse oblige whose full weight emerges steadily across the course of nine whole books. There is no time to stop and enjoy what are, for the rest of us, the ordinary pleasures of life — everywhere, Weightier Things beckon, and they only beckon louder and louder with time.
  • 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.
    The cherub: [to Sally] 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.
  • invokedProtection from Editors: As Later-Installment Weirdness set in, Salby's editor began to object. Salby elected to self-published the final 2 books (The Sea of Glass and Chesscourt Regained) without an editor. In Paul's signature, he calls himself "the only person in existence whose favorite CC book is Sea of Glass," implying these self-published books have a questionable reputation even within the fandom who loves the series.
    Paul's narration: Salby, who did not appear to depend on writing for basic living expenses, was adamant: he had a way, and it would be followed. [...] Salby refused to change its basic structure, the editor refused to publish it unless the structure was changed, and at last The Sea of Glass was self-published, 775 pages of unedited glory headed by the logo of a shady-looking imprint I'd never heard of. As a college student, I was riveted. This was a man sticking to his guns; this was a principle taken to its logical conclusion; this was art. (I was, let me remind you again, a college student.)
  • The Reveal:
    Paul's narration: In A Thornbush Tale the siblings Tom and Sally are aghast to discover that their seemingly harmless frolics among the thornbushes are, by occult linkages, wreaking havoc back at home, at the Manor. This is revealed to them in a singular, quite stunningly vicious monologue by their older cousin, Charles, at this point an ominous figure of sinister aristocratic grace. Tom and Sally are chastened and vow to make things right.
  • invokedUncertain Audience: Chesscourt could be charitably framed as Growing with the Audience, except it's done so weirdly that the latter books aren't well suited to any age range. It's too complicated for a child to be able to follow, yet not conceptually mature enough to appeal to most adults.
    Charles Adair: As Other Mirrors demands from its reader a certain drab, bureaucratic cast of mind, no child who is fully a child will enjoy it; as its sensibility never progresses beyond that of a precocious adolescent, no adult who is fully an adult will tolerate it. Salby has written what is perhaps a definitive test of abnormal development, but he has written a dreadful novel.
This adult/kid thing resulted in two main demographics who end up liking the books:
  • Now-adults who started reading them as kids, giving them both a Nostalgia Filter and an adult's capacity for remembering detail.
  • The podcasters mention that in their experience, Chesscourt is mostly read as Middle Grade Literature by nerdy middle-schoolers. It seems like most of these fans lost interest as they got older, and only a small number went on to be the Cafe sort.
Salby actually did have a Target Audience: people who shared — or were at least amenable to — the philosophy of Mundum. The mild version of this would be fans like Paul who came to like the books in adulthood liked them seemingly because they were already a little like Salby. The extreme version would be William Chan.
Salby: I sought then to strain out those in my audience who did not understand. I made my heroes rise to duties which no one ignorant of Mundum would find palatable. I veered and darted in ways I thought would shake off those in search of a good story.
  • Worldbuilding: Salby's worldbuilding — like his characters — were created only to serve his invokedanvilicious focus. He didn't care about his world in its own right. He called it "reams of lore invented only to make moral action difficult and thus in keeping with reality." From how readers describe it, it sounds like Salby's world was rigorously logical and this made it feel flat, because the real world is sometimes messy, illogical, and contradictory.
    Paul's narration: Salby's worldbuilding is entirely consistent on the level of logic, but has an uneasy relationship with plausibility. When he stipulates something, it remains true forever — but he feels free to stipulate absolutely anything he wishes. Especially in the later Chesscourt novels, one feels one is only allowed to use rules of inference made legitimate by Salbian fiat, rather than those imported from everyday life.
    Podcaster: It had the feel of a large number of interlocking game pieces, but none of the game pieces really came alive as plausible things that might exist, you know? I mean cultures, or institutions, that sort of thing.

The Northern Caves (by Leonard Salby)

  • Imagined Innuendo: One passage seems to be describing a sexual seduction, but Aaron qualifies this by saying, "it's not clear to me whether I'm merely reading sexual connotations into strange phrases."
    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
  • In Name Only: What Aaron dubs the "Tales" section are segments with decernable stories in them — weird confusing jumbled stories, but stories after some fashion. They involve the names of Chesscourt characters and concepts, but they don't act like their Chesscourt counterparts. They're not just Out of Character, but Out of Genre as well, and really seem to have no relation to Chesscourt.
    Errant KnightsMove: It stars Tom and Sally in a setting completely unrelated to Chesscourt. They seem to be husband and wife, rather than siblings, and have an extended (~80 page) conversation about something called "the Lorrum" (!), which they blame for ruining their marriage.
  • Mind Screw: It begins like a Chesscourt novel then dissolves into nonsense. Most infamously there's 3 pages of just the letter A. In that sea of nonsense, occasionally sections that appear to have a story emerge, but they're weird.
  • No Punctuation Period: Even the semi-intelligible parts of The Northern Caves largely lack punctuation, which makes them harder to parse.
  • Rouge Angles of Satin: As the manuscript progresses, typos and grammatical errors become increasingly common — it's noted that at one point Tom's name is misspelled as Tomm for upwards of thirty pages, and even debated that "Tomm" may be a separate character altogether.
  • Take That!: In what Aaron terms "the Space Episode":
    Sally: [to W] Those god awful chess books have turned your head.
  • Word-Salad Horror: The excerpts from Northern Caves dip into barely comprehensible sentences where the exact meaning is left up to the reader to decipher; the forum posts note that they can't really decide if it's sexual or violent because it's difficult to parse at all.
    W: i will be remade before the birth of my angel
  • invokedWrite What You Know: What Aaron calls "the Space Episode" is clearly based on William Chen's suicide. It involves a character obliquely called W stepping out of a ship's airlock, against the protestations of Sally. In space, W has a strange string of conversations with supernatural-seeming beings about "immolation", "unbraiding", and an "angel". He decides to take part of that, and is destroyed, ending with the line, "W gone". The story is presented to us sandwiched between the Salby journal entry that says, "I have not seen many pleasing things in World but I remember the look of joy on WCs dying face and that is one of the few good one," and Ken's story about what happened to William.

The Northern Caves (by nostalgebraist) provides examples of:

    The Northern Caves 
  • Alien Geometries: Experiencing "the separation" causes you to perceive your normal surroundings as completely foreign — a hyperawareness of the location of surrounding objects, an awareness of whether they are objectively correct or not, and an awareness of a higher plane of reality where things are always correct.
  • all lowercase letters: Jenny follows a common convention used by people in fandom, where her forum posts are all lowercase (except for all caps for emphasis) and her fanfic is capitalized conventionally.
  • 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.
  • Ambiguously Gay: There is some implication that Leonard Salby and William Chen may have had a Lover and Beloved thing going on. They lived together for a time. Ken says of their relationship, "Len… had a friend, later on. Or… whatever he was." Paul reports rumors that "Salby killed his lover in a fit of passion." On the flipside, Salby seemed to see romance as antithetical to obeying Mundum, so maybe not.
  • Archetypal Character: Lugnut is a troll who uses an outrageous combination of Funetik Aksent and a parody of Totally Radical speak, and constantly sounds like he's trying to bait you into a political Flame War. The style of his writing is all designed to make people skip over it, to not even read it much less engage in conversation with him. Yet he's got some interesting things to say underneath all that. Archetypically, Lugnut is a Shakespearean fool: speaking truth under the guise of nonsense. Diegetically it's not clear why he does this — it isn't a Mirth to Power situation and it seems like communicating clearly might serve him better. Non-diegetically, though, this allows him to bring up important points without the other characters paying heed to what he's saying.
  • Arc Words: "Don't go into the caves," a mantra used by the Cafe users meant to communicate the idea that it's a waste of time to try to decipher whatever The Northern Caves is supposed to be. It slowly becomes an ominous warning as the ethos behind The Northern Caves is made more apparent.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Mundum places a massive emphasis on performing actions and arranging things "correctly" in accordance with the sky. It isn't clear what constitutes "correct" in the eyes of the sky; its followers just "get it".
    Paul's narration: That producing the correct arrangements would not necessarily ensure worldly gain. In fact, there was an immediate sense (similar in its vividness and persistence to the "perceptions" previously described) that the "correctly arranged" world might be much more unpleasant than the world I was accustomed to. This, however, did not seem especially important, relative to the abject, transcendental horror I felt regarding the possibility of "displeasing the sky."
  • Bookends: Both the first and last chapters feature an excerpt where an outsider disparages Chesscourt and its fans. They're also a Distant Prologue (an interview from 1988 and a book review from 1983) and Distant Finale (a podcast from 2015) in contrast with the main story set in 2003 and 2004.
  • Bold Inflation: Different characters have different writing styles in their forum posts. Aaron marks his emphasis with bold text (as Marsh lampshades). Jenny and Marsh use CAPS. Paul uses italics. Kelsey uses ~tildes~.
    Marsh: Watch out, [Aaron]'s going to get you next. And then explain how he did it. With bold fonts.
  • Broken Pedestal: Learning that Leonard Salby was credibly accused of murder drives Aaron to the brink of despair.
    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.
  • 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' headsunless you buy the explanation that it was just a coincidence.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Aaron and Paul kissing is met with mild discomfort from everyone except Kelsey (a Yaoi Fangirl who has to explain what "yaoi" means), with Marsh eventually taking a "do what you want, but not in front of me" stance, reflecting a generally lower tolerance and understanding of gay relationships in the early 2000s.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Aaron and Paul kiss at Spelunk 04! but the last word on their relationship is from the story's final forum post is:
    Errant KnightsMove: I feel no compulsion to join him in his "Salbian" endeavors, and given what I appear to be capable of, I think I should dissociate myself from him entirely for the near future.
  • Dumbass Has a Point: Ombudsman is pretentious, tedious, and into Purple Prose. But...
    • chapter 19, he's very right to point out that Paul doesn't seem okay and that someone should do something about that.
    • chapter 26, he's right to point out that it's fucked up everyone's more focused on Paul than the people who died.
  • invokedEpileptic Trees: Aaron is known on the Cafe as a fan theorist. His signature contains links to 7 different theory threads.
  • Fandom: Chesscourt fans gather on Cafe Chesscourt, an early 2000s PHP bulletin board forum.
  • Fix Fic: Not in the usual plot-based "fix the story" way, but in a more thematic sense. Paul describes Chesscourt fanfic as overwhelmingly — even defiantly — anti-Salbian in tone.
    • Jenny is said to be much better at characters and worldbuilding than Salby. Her fic Life Among The Lorrums injects the setting with a lot of much-needed humanity. Her work is highly regarded in the fandom.
    • Paul has a fic, exquisite stasis, which is effectively about Sally escaping the Salbian trajectory of canon.
      Paul's narration: I involved myself in the possibility of Sally cut off from the world of Chesscourt, living out an un-Salbian life. I imagined Charles and Sally recognizing the deep kinship which was all too obvious in their every interaction, but which the iron law of the vigil proscribed.
  • 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 fully adopt Salby's philosophy of life.
    • Lugnut's whole role, basically, is to bring up relevant things so the audience knows them, while being so annoying that no one in-universe engages with what he's saying.
      • 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.
      • Apparently there was once a thread titled "Salby And CIA" which Aaron closed in the name of Ban on Politics. Salby was reportedly at Harvard for a curiously brief visiting lectureship in 1961, which somehow tied in with Project MKUltra — Project MKUltra as in drug induced brainwashing.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble:
    • Sanguine: Jenny aka jenni_fur, a friendly, emotionally intelligent fanfic writer.
    • Choleric: Aaron aka Errant KnightsMove, a passionate, somewhat obsessive, emotionally fragile fan theorist.
    • Phlegmatic: Marsh aka metamarsh, an easygoing stoner telling people "it's not that deep dude".
    • Melancholic: Paul aka GlassWave, a quiet brooding guy who goes off the deep end.
  • Funny Background Event: One Cafe user, Avery Lodestone, has a signature which reads:
    Maintainer of the Anti-Pokémon Haiku Archive (contributions welcome)
  • Gayngst: It's clear that Aaron is emotionally a mess, and he uses his quest of conquering TNC as a coping mechanism. It's Implied his homosexuality contributes to his emotional baggage. When Aaron and Paul are in the upstairs bathroom together and Aaron is having an emotional breakdown, he's talking about TNC, death, and fatalism — but in the mix there's also a random comment which makes it sounds like he has homophobic, Evangelical parents.
    Aaron: I am never gonna defeat Tee Enn See and that means the end of the line curtains down goodbye for Errant KnightsMove good run buddy but no more, goodbye, no more.  If it wins then they win and that's game over, period.
    Paul: Then who wins, Aaron?
    Aaron: Two plus two beginning of death.
    Paul: I'm not sure I'm reading you, Aaron.
    Aaron: The folks said I'd burn in hell, is what they said.
    Paul: By "the folks" do you mean your parents?
  • Infallible Narrator: Played with. Some chapters are labeled "Materials" (mostly forum threads) while others are "Notes" (Paul's narration).
    • The forum threads are an exact, verbatim copy of precisely what was said at the time. As Paul is re-reading these old conversations, in his narration he sometimes remarks how they aren't quite how he remembers them.
      Paul's narration: How long has it been since I last looked at that page? I couldn't help but cringe seeing my own post there [...] It's funny seeing Marsh's post there, too. I had actually forgotten that he was so skeptical so early, indeed right here at the very beginning. [...] I should probably just force myself re-read all these threads before I do anything else. I'm clearly mis-remembering things.
    • Then there's his narration. Paul is heavily biased, questionably sane at times, but he is trying to be truthful as far as he can be. When someone on the forum asks if he's an Unreliable Narrator, Jenny says he's not.
      jenni_fur: well, i'm someone who was there and isn't paul, and i can pretty much countersign most of what he wrote. of course it's from his own perspective. there's no getting around perspectives. but it's more or less what happened. there's nothing in there that i would say was misrepresented, at least not to the point that i'd want to argue about it in the super-suspicious atmosphere of this thread.
  • It's All About Me: Within the "mundane" interpretation of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane, the protagonists' belief that the suicides of strangers are really all about them comes off as very self-involved.
  • Kissing Cousins: Paul ships cousins Sally and Charles.
  • Mad Artist: Leonard Salby was a crazy old kook. He was aware enough of it he even went to psychiatrists, but they didn't diagnose him with anything specific and that was about as far as it went.
    Salby: As a matter of fact, I have, of my own volition, sought the advice of so-called psychiatric experts […] I have been given a bill of good health. I appear to have no delusional or neurotic illness. I have what, and I quote, has been called "an obsessive fixation on moral concerns" (what an age in which this is worthy of note!) which nonetheless "does not seem to obstruct Mr Salby in the course of independent living, or hinder his ability to perform as children's author of note." Observations were however made upon my "inconsistencies of performance" on certain "tests of cognitive function," but as these (whatever they may be) do not obstruct my performance as a children's author of note &c they were deemed of no clinical import.
  • Most Fanfic Writers Are Girls: There's a gendered aspect to how the characters engage with fandom, broadly adhering to the pattern "men are more interested in things; women are more interested in people." The fan theories side of the Cafe is led by Aaron, while the fanfic side is led by Jenny. Her fic, Life Among The Lorrums, is specifically stated to have a focus on character and sociology, injecting humanity back into the Chesscourt verse which is canonically lacking in that department. These tendencies are certainly not hard and fast rules — Jenny engages in the boys' theory talk; the boys read Jenny's fic; Paul's signature contains a link to a fic of his own — but there is a general pattern to it.
  • 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.
  • Nerds Are Virgins: Downplayed. Chesscourt fans do date. Paul was originally introduced to Chesscourt by his girlfriend-at-the-time. But it is fair to say that none of them are spending lots of time in this online forum because they have thriving social lives.
    Paul's narration: [W]e are not freaks, that we're people just like you, with 9-5 jobs (in… some cases), significant others (on occasion)
  • Posthumous Character: Salby died in 1995, and the story takes place in 2003 to 2004.
  • Psychological Projection: Salby's journals make it very clear that the only thing he meant by his books was obey Mundum. Everything else was merely tools to facilitate that. Nonetheless, people do look for other things in his books, and sometimes find it there.
    • Aaron — a fan theorist — sees in TNC a grand puzzle to decode if he's clever and methodical enough.
    • Jenny — who's very interested in character — sees in TNC a statement on the flexibility of personality, a subversion or inversion of Static Character.
      Jenny: Like, the characters behave very differently in different sections, to the point that you might be tempted like Aaron to think that they're not actually the same people. But can't it just be a literary device intended to show that people are more varied than we usually imagine?
    • The podcasters — who see themselves as woke — see in Chesscourt troubling themes of elitism and White Man's Burden.
      Podcaster: [T]he whole series centers around a set of aristocrats with a magical lineage. And these aristocrats have a set of duties. And the whole thing is sort of obsessed with duty, in this kind of white-man's-burden way — I mean, the aristocrats venture out into foreign lands, there's a new foreign land in each book if I remember correctly, and in each case of course it turns out that this land has some problem which only they can solve.
  • Purple Prose: One of the peripheral forum users, Ombudsman, writes this way. It's exhausting and other users mostly try not to engage.
  • Only Sane Man:
    Marsh: Look, I know you guys think I'm kinda dumb. Because I don't come up with "Hypotheses," or write fics, or anything. I'm just some stoner dickwad who thought he was good enough for your fancy little coterie. And yeah, maybe I know words like "coterie," but I'm still some stoner dickwad in the end, right? But you know what? There are things I can see that you guys can't. I can see that this [waves TNC in his hand] is crap. You have your theories, and your Hypotheses, and all of this bullshit, and I've been so fucking patient with it, but deep down I think you know that this is just not a good book.
  • Saw "Star Wars" Twenty-Seven Times: The Cafe is the fandom of a invokedCult Classic, so unsurprisingly many of the Cafe users allude to having reread the Chesscourt books many times.
  • Scatterbrained Senior: Played with. The Northern Caves is Salby's final unpublished manuscript that invokedhe was working on at the time of his death at the age of about 76. Just how clear-headed he was at this point is a matter of debate amongst the fans. Sentiments include:
    JimWind: I think Salby was not well when he wrote that stuff, and I'd just rather not look at it.
    jenni_fur: i just re-read that first "tale" where tom and sally are married and . . . wow. i'm not sure i liked it, i'm not sure i'd say it was well-written. but there is SOMETHING there, i think? if i'd read that without the chesscourt names, i'd have thought, "gee, that was a weird, chilling, intriguing story." […] LS could definitely WRITE, even when he wrote this stuff. not write like he used to. maybe not write as WELL as he used to. but there is something there.
  • 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.
    • Being affected by "the separation" also seems to alter one's vocabulary to the point of becoming nearly mechanical: Paul's forum post made under the influence has him explain very wordily why making the action of making the post is "correct".
      It is correct for me now to instruct you on certain points concerning the proper arrangement of material. It is correct for me to generate sentences which, as abstracta, are embodied in ASCII encoded in capacitor charges and then conveyed via electric current to other capacitor charges which encode the selfsame ASCII embodying the selfsame abstracta. It is permitted, if not necessarily correct, for me to sequentially arrange my musculature so as to produce depressions in an approximately flat plastic surface, and without arranging my musculature in this fashion it would not be feasible to set in place the required capacitances and currents, so it is thus correct that I perform this series of muscular arrangements.
  • Shout-Out:
    • As a fictional series, comparisons to real-life books are repeatedly used to give a sense of what Chesscourt is supposed to be like. Paul and Salby himself both compare the broadest strokes of genre to J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. As for level of popularity, the podcasters liken him to Terry Brooks or Piers Anthony. While giving credit where it's due and saying that Salby's at least original, they bring up Roger Zelazny and Philip Pullman. When Jenny's talking about TNC as experimental literature she mentions Ulysses and Hopscotch. The podcasters call it "bargain-bin Finnegans Wake."
    • 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 location is "Satellite of Love", and 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?"
    • The podcasters claim Michael Moorcock or China Miéville wrote something about Chesscourt.
      Podcaster: Well, going on my memories of the books — and I read the whole damn series, remember — they're very focused on morality, but it's a very odd, cramped sort of morality. I think Michael Moorcock wrote a piece on this? It was either him or China Miéville.
  • Sleep Deprivation: The Spelunkers stay up for 60 hours reading Mind Screw text, and while not exactly fasting, they don't eat much. For the mundane interpretation of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane, that is plenty enough to put someone into a distorted mental state.
  • Suicide, Not Murder: Zigzagging. Salby claimed William's death was an accident. His niece Elena accused him of murder. William actually committed suicide, with Salby's endorsement, inspired in part by concepts he learned from Salby. So while Salby didn't exactly murder him, he absolutely had a hand in his death.
  • Talking Down the Suicidal: In chapter 15, Aaron — who is a bit emotionally unstable, and really clings to TNC as an anchor, and who's really shaken by the story of William Chen — goes upstairs into the bathroom and is holding onto a bottle of pills like he might take the whole thing. Paul goes up to talk to him, and tells him the only thing that will comfort him right then: that they're going to "defeat" TNC together. Aaron proceeds to really latch onto this idea. As so, as a testament of love for their fragile friend, they do it.
    Paul: [to the other Spelunkers] I think it's really important to Aaron that we keep reading, at least for now. He's having a hard time, and this is important to him. And we're his friends. So I think we can do that?
  • Turn of the Millennium: The story begins in November of 2003 and ends in August of 2004. It's been praised for its accurate depiction of early-00s fandom and forum culture.
  • Yaoi Fangirl: Kelsey is delighted when Aaron and Paul kiss.
    Kelsey: This is the most yaoi thing I've ever seen. Squeeee!