MGWCC #491

crossword 3:56 
meta 2 days 


hello and welcome to episode #491 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “A Letter from Beyond”. for this spooky week 4 puzzle, matt challenges us to find a word describing this crossword puzzle. there are no obvious theme answers, but there is an unusual situation right off the bat, where instead of “by Matt Gaffney”, the byline says “by 1-Across/6-Across”. and then the lengthy notepad reads:

CLUE TO 1-A/6-A: “Hi, I’m — well I’m not just going to come right out and tell you my name, right? That’d give away two answers! But here’s a hint: I died two years ago today, and have so far received ZE-RO, count ’em ZERO e-mails from any of you. Gee, thanks — way to make a guy feel missed! You think we don’t have computers here in HE…? Of course we do. And I’m not gonna say which of those two HE- places I’m in, but — somebody, please, SEND SUNSCREEN! It’s scorching hot every day here! And why wouldn’t it be? Those haloes give off a lot of heat! Actually I’m in neither of those two places — I’m in limbo. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except they keep making me try to dance under that broomstick with calypso music playing. Not fun! Anyway, so even though you haven’t sent me any e-mails I’m still sending you this letter from beyond. Good luck — and hey, someone pay my rent! I’m 24 months behind and I think my landlady is starting to worry. Bye for now!”

well. that is quite a clue. anyway, the answer to 1a/6a is HENRY HOOK, who did indeed pass away two years ago. the rest of the paragraph is, i think, just flavor—henry was known for his wicked sense of humor.

so, okay, the puzzle. there are a few notable things about the puzzle beyond the unusual 1a/6a byline. first, there’s a big capital H made of black squares in the middle of the grid. of course, both henry and hook start with H, and the title does refer to “a letter”. so that’s one thing to take special note of.

second, the fill. the fill is very, very bad in some places. inexplicably so, even. {Approximately, in Austria} ETWA at 35d is the worst offender, but then you’ve also got weird stuff like why do 20a A TOE and 4d RITE meet at that E instead of just making it A TO Z and RITZ, which is both cleaner and scrabblier? why GATE/GARN/THEA at 10a/10d instead of something like BASE/BARN/SHEA? why TEAT/TADA/PAESE/FOP in the lower right instead of MEAT/MADE/REESE/FOR?

my first thought, based on these observations, was that we should be looking for ways to add letters (perhaps H’s) outside the borders of the grid. but this didn’t really go anywhere. after setting aside puzzle for a couple days, i talked it over with andy. it took us a long time to crack the puzzle. here are some things we tried:

  • adding H’s inside the grid, or changing letters to H’s, or putting letters in the black squares
  • looking for limbo references—NBA REFEREE has a hidden BAR, and there are some other things in the grid that are synonyms of “stick”
  • looking for things involving HE and/or heaven/hell
  • the long across answers, PITTSBURGH and WELLS FARGO, start with PIT and WELL, which are synonyms and might be related to hell

none of this panned out, but looking at H’s and HE’s at least got us to notice the letter distribution. there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary except for an abundance of T’s… but that turned out to be important.

{Common letter} ETA at 63 is a strange clue. i mean, sure, i guess it’s a common letter in greek. but it’s not all that common over here. however, a capital ETA does resemble a capital H, and ETA is indeed a letter. maybe it’s the key letter of this puzzle?

and indeed, it is. there are lots of E’s, T’s, and A’s in the grid. there’s nothing unusual about a whole bunch of E’s or A’s, but the fact that there are 22 T’s is surprising. it turns out that there are a whole lot of four-letter answers in the grid that are E, T, A, and one more letter. i’ve circled the extra letter in each of those answers in the screenshot above. (in a few cases, there’s no real way to distinguish which T or which E is the extra one, but it doesn’t matter.) here they are:

  • {Door in a fence} GATE.
  • {Brandy Norwood sitcom of the 1990s} THEA.
  • {Dip ___ in the water (test things out)} A TOE.
  • {Fill beyond sufficiency} SATE.
  • {“At Last” singer James} ETTA.
  • the previously mentioned ETWA.
  • {Give a score from 1 to 10 to, say} RATE.
  • {“… ___ the whole thing!”} I ATE.
  • {Suckling source} TEAT.
  • {“Little Man ___” (Jodie Foster movie)} TATE.
  • {Suit to ___} A TEE.
  • {Silver of FiveThirtyEight} NATE.

taken from top to bottom, they spell out GHOSTWRITTEN, which is a very apt answer for this puzzle!

this is an outstanding meta, and a fitting tribute to a cruciverbalist icon. i definitely had my doubts about the iffy fill, but it all turned out to be in the service of a good theme. and it’s an extremely apt halloween puzzle! i wonder how many solvers will guess the right answer based on just the weird byline and the halloween vibe, but that’s no reason to ding a really neat mechanism. five stars.

i thought this puzzle was really tough—more of a week 5 than a week 4. what’d you all think?

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40 Responses to MGWCC #491

  1. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 188 right answers this week.

    I nudged Henry to improve the fill but he got ornery with me so I left it alone.

  2. Paul Coulter says:

    This one was scary good. I struggled all weekend, thinking the numbers in the long preamble were the key, reminiscent of the infamous shaman puzzle. After abandoning this path at last, I had a hard time letting go of the implied G in H _ Wells (of Wells Fargo.) But as Joon notes, it was obvious the bad areas of fill were important, particularly the glaringly terrible ETWA, and that’s what broke it for me. For instance, there’s no reason to use SHATT/SATE over SHAFT/SAFE, so that T had to be thematic. Then it finally dawned on me that I’ve clued ETA several times as “Greek H.” I wonder how many people gave up and submitted HARD as their guess, as in the H on a pencil. As for me, I thought it was Heavenly, not Hellish.

  3. David Glasser says:

    I’ll admit to having gotten this one just based on theme.

    • Tyler Hinman says:

      Yup, I guessed. The award for my luckiest guess ever definitely still goes to #252, though.

    • pgw says:

      “Ghostwritten” popped into my head based on theme alone also. Weirdly, though, once I figured out the mechanism I was so fixated on the fact that the extra letters in the across theme answers spelled out “gotten” (a word that happens to appear in your comment!) that it took me a while longer to get all the way there. Shwirt-gotten? Huh? (I was traveling and solving on my phone, so I didn’t have a grid to circle letters on which would have made it a little easier to see.)

      • Kaille says:

        That is exactly what I was looking at last night before I decided to start over! Nice to know I was in good company. :)

  4. Amanda says:

    Wah. I saw the ETAs, but I also saw IOTA, AJAX, ODEON, etc. It was Greek to me.

  5. Matthew G. says:

    Contra joon, I thought this was not too hard, and if not for the need to use it on the anniversary of Henry’s death (and to coincide with Halloween), it would have been more of a Week 3 (but of course I’d say that, having missed Week 3 this month). The awkward fill made the ETAs jump out pretty quickly. And it looks like it did get more right answers than Week 3.

    • Lance says:

      I think I’m there too–having also missed Week 3 but gotten this one in a matter of minutes. The “Common letter” clue immediately struck me as weird, and the symmetric ETTA / ETWA was a break-in point.

      • Margaret says:

        Count me in on thinking this one was easier than usual, a week three or even two! “Common letter” jumped out at me immediately as well and I also found that the various ETAs jumped out. My only [brief] hangup was needing to print out the puzzle so I could circle the extraneous letters, I just couldn’t see it on my laptop.

  6. Joe says:

    This is one where I’m kicking myself because I was so close. I noticed the prevalence of ETA clues but abandoned it, convinced I needed to be looking at what I thought were the “theme” answers (Pittsburgh, Wells Fargo, Not one iota, its a scam).
    Also went down the rabbit hole of trying to find letters (Pi, ell, iota, etc)

  7. LuckyGuest says:

    I loved it… and now that both deadlines have passed, I can comment on the H-based themes in both this meta and Matt’s WSJ meta on Thursday. I wondered if that WSJ theme grew out of an idea that he might have begun with for this meta honoring the great HH.

    • Rachel says:

      I had the same thought. Also wondered how many people got this one because they got the WSJ meta (or vice versa). I loved both. Thanks Matt.

  8. dbardolph says:

    Liked this one a lot. Given Matt’s constructing skills, it pretty much always follows that if there’s something awkward or inelegant about a clue or the fill, it’s meta-related. ETA and ETWA were my entry point.

    Now that I’ve said that, I look forward to Matt throwing in some clunky stuff just to screw up my rule.

  9. jefe says:

    GATE, SATE, RATE, IATE, TATE, NATE… how did I not notice these when solving! Three of them are in the same corner too!

    • Katie M. says:

      That was my entry. It gave me STRING, so I kept looking and the other ETAs (not _ATE) added THE TWO. I anagrammed before I checked and found that ghostwritten is in numerical order.

      Like Matthew G., I thought it was easier than last week’s, which blew a nice streak for me.

      • Richard K says:

        I also chased down _ATEs and came up with STRING, but there were a lot of other entries with E, T, and A, and I never thought to focus on the four-letter ones. Given this answer, I think we can forgive Matt a crucial ETWA.

  10. sharkicicles says:

    From the title of the puzzle and some of what I considered to be unusual capitalization in the clue to 1A I went down a rabbit hole I never escaped.

  11. Amy L says:

    This is the first time I’ve gotten all four metas in one month in ages. I’m especially proud of doing it without consulting Andy! I’m no longer going to beg for his number.

    When I saw the H, I immediately thought of all the times eta is clued as a Greek H, so I found the answer right away. I’ve been trying to memorize the Greek alphabet because it would be very handy in solving crosswords.

    • John says:

      Me too, Amy. I don’t know if it was the first or second one of Matt’s Metas i started with, but i’ve been in a long time. I used to complete months regularly – no more.

  12. Alex B. says:

    Jeremy Horwitz and I (and a few others) made a thing called MechaPuzzle. Once you solve a .puz file you can process it there and it will give you lots of information about the grid. For this puzzle, it does flag the large number of E’s, T’s, and A’s.

  13. Dan Seidman says:

    At first I noticed a lot of adjoining entries that had the same letters except one. As I looked for more, I saw that the same letters were all the same (there’s got to be a clearer way to say that), and then I saw “Common letter” and realized that the big letter in the middle of the grid wasn’t an H after all.

  14. Nowhere close on this. I noticed the larger than expected number of A’s in the grid but not so much the E’s or T’s.

    I thought maybe that the fill was so bad because there was a stepquote hidden somewhere in the puzzle. If you google around for Henry Hook, a story often pops up where Maleska published a puzzle containing the stepquote “YOU HAVE JUST FINISHED THE WORLD’S MOST REMARKABLE CROSSWORD”, to which Hook replied with a puzzle of his own containing the stepquote “WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOUR PUZZLE IS MORE REMARKABLE THAN MINE?” But nope, I couldn’t find anything resembling words in a stepquote no matter where I looked.

  15. John says:

    Wasn’t anyone besides joon SURE that the long and rather forced “letter” from Henry *had* to do something with the meta? I spent the huge majority of the time i was scuffling on trying to derive meaning from that, including the mystical all-caps words, I mean, what was that about? Nothing apparently. Once i was able to give that up i soon focused on the strange clue/answer for ETA. 1. It didn’t make real sense, 2. alluded to the H in the middle of the puzzle and 3. old HH himself. It thus made me go looking for ETAs in the puzzle. the answer fell rather quickly after that.

    • Dan Seidman says:

      Yes, I spent a fair amount of time looking for clues there, including looking for a row in the grid with a Z (“ZE-RO”).

    • BarbaraK says:

      Yes, I also spent some time digging around in that 1A clue. When that didn’t go anywhere though, “Letter” in the title and “Common letter” for 63D pretty quickly had me going in the right direction. Count me with those who found this easier than last week and easier than this week’s WSJ.

  16. Garrett says:

    Here are my notes about letter distribution:

    Letters occurring one time: j k v x y
    Letters occurring two times: b f m u
    Letters occurring three times: c p w
    Letters occurring four times: d g
    Letters occurring five times: h
    (no 6 count)
    Letters occurring seven times: l (L)
    Letters occurring eight times: i (I)
    (no 9 count)
    Letters occurring ten times: r
    (no 11 count)
    Letters occurring twelve times: n
    (no 13, 14, or 15 counts)
    Letters “” sixteen times: o s
    (no 17, 18, 19, 20 or 21 counts)
    Letters “” twenty-two times: t
    (no 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28)
    Letters “” twenty-nine times: a e

    With no Q or Z.

    That’s a horrible grid with a fabulous meta.

  17. Early on I took a long hard look at LATE as a possible answer. The first unusual thing I’d noticed were the six ?ATE words, and because the late Henry Hook ostensibly wrote the puzzle — plus Matt released the puzzle maybe 10 minutes later than he normally does — it kinda made sense.

    Still, this was one of the funniest MGWCC puzzles I can remember doing. Before getting the answer I wondered if Henry actually *did* write the puzzle, and sent it specifically to Matt years ago so that he could release it some day after he died (where Matt just filled in the blanks for dates and stuff).

  18. bwouns says:

    ” and hey, someone pay my rent! I’m 24 months behind and I think my landlady is starting to worry”

    Is this a deliberate pun on the title? He wants to maintain his lease so that he can be a “letter from beyond”.

  19. Stephen McFly says:

    I submitted CRYPTIC since he was a pioneer for the cryptic puzzle and the …nature of the puzzle. Perhaps in hindsight it was too simplistic for the week.

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