Solution to Evan Birnholz’s Nov. 22 Post Magazine crossword, “Dark Secrets”


Now, for today’s puzzle: I mentioned in that chat section that it was inspired by playing the incredibly difficult video game “Dark Souls.” I joked on Twitter last year that if I made a “Dark Souls”-themed crossword, I would hide the names of enemies from the game in the black squares, making it just as hard as the game itself (probably harder). I didn’t exactly do that in this puzzle, but like I said, the game gave me some ideas.

This unusual theme features a hidden-word trick with a couple of extra twists. The note at the top of the puzzle says, “The first letters of certain grid entries in this puzzle will spell out an apt seven-letter word.” We’ll come back to that a bit later, but the first thing to notice is that several Down clues don’t seem to fit. 3D: [Glove worn near home] should be MITT, but there are seemingly only three squares. Another weird thing is that the puzzle gives you clues for answers that apparently don’t exist in the grid. The clue for 25A is [Ominous sighting, it’s said], but there is no white square with the number 25. So what’s going on?

It turns out that the answer to 25A is hidden in those three black squares in the top-left corner, in between 24A and 26A in Across clue order. The clues for the crossing Down answers above and below those black squares treat them as though the hidden letters are there. The hidden answers must be preceded by the word BLACK for their clues to make sense:

  • 25A: [Ominous sighting, it’s said] is BLACK CAT. The crossing answers above those black squares are MAR(C) and ARI(A) and MIT(T), and below them are (C)AMPS and (A)LIEN and (T)INGE.
  • 31A: [Dark-coated retriever] is BLACK LAB. Crossing it are ANA(L) and MET(A) and PRO(B) above, (L)Eastern time ON and (A)VERY and (B)ARES below.
  • 37A: [Covert missions] is BLACK OPS. Crossing it are MACH(O) and ON TO(P) and SPOT(S) above, (O)MEG(A) and (P)AGE(R) and (S)HAL(T) below. The bottom letters of those last three words are hidden in the next theme answer.
  • 62A: [Witchcraft] is BLACK ART. Crossing it are (O)MEG(A) and (P)AGE(R) and (S)HAL(T) above, (A)TOLL and (R)ACES and (T)REND below.
  • 97A: [One of 36 on a piano] is BLACK KEY. Crossing it are CREE(K) and BROOK(E) and ROONE(Y) above, (K)ILLS and (E)MAILS and (Y)AWNING below.
  • 108A: [Boxing memento, maybe] is BLACK EYE. Crossing it are ENTRE(E) and SCANT(Y) and ERAS(E), (E)STATES and (Y)EARLY and (E)RODE below.
  • 127A: [Theoretical celestial body] is BLACK DWARF, the only five-letter hidden answer of the bunch. Crossing it are FOR(D) and FLO(W) and BIG (A) and AVE(R) and SER(F) above, (D)ONE and (W)ENT and (A)NEW and (R)ARE and (F)IVE below.

Now, going back to the note, we’re supposed to take the first letters of certain grid entries. It should hopefully be clear which ones those are: The first letters of CAT, LAB, OPS, ART, KEY, EYE, and DWARF spell CLOAKED, which is an apt description of those hidden words.

This puzzle is similar in style to my “Musical Covers” puzzle from last year, where I hid one-named singers in black squares. The difference is that in the “Musical Covers,” I connected the hidden words to the adjacent Across answers to make wacky phrases, whereas this one hides normal clues in the black squares alone. Also, today’s puzzle had the extra constraint of spelling out CLOAKED. In both cases, I did my best to make all of the crossing Down answers real words with and without the hidden trick letters. The iffiest one was probably SER(F), although SER shows up often enough in puzzles — as an abbreviation for SERMON or, nowadays, as a title for a knight on “Game of Thrones” — that I felt it was justified. That whole section above and below the hidden BLACK DWARF gave me fits. Honestly, the whole grid did, since it’s essentially more than nine-and-a-half columns’ worth of theme squares, which is a ton to work with.

I’m also wondering if the difficulty in figuring out this puzzle’s trick varied a lot depending on the format in which you solved it. If you solved on The Post’s website, you had the advantage of being able to place your cursor in the trick black squares, seeing the clue above the grid, and entering your letters as though they were white squares. You’d still have to figure out the answers all followed the BLACK for the clues to work, but you could at least enter the letters as normal. In that sense, you could probably stumble across the trick fairly early just by moving around the online grid. On the other hand, print solvers would only spot the hidden clues in the clue list, but would first have to figure out why their corresponding numbers don’t appear in the grid. Plus, in print you would not have an easy way of writing in letters in the black squares, except maybe with a white pencil or glue? I guess the clue for GLUE at 143A hints at that ([White binder, often]).

However you solved it, I hope you enjoyed it. What did you think?

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