Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In Delirium's Circle

In Delirium's CircleIn Delirium's Circle by Stephen J. Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the surface of it, this is merely a very creepy tale, extremely well told. But, like the plot itself, this is a multilayered artifact. The cover itself has a beautiful burgundy floral design embossed with a sinuous abstraction of theatrical masks that swirls in a . . . well, a delirious circle. In fact, the novel is illustrated throughout with sinister, ghostly drawings by the author himself, making the artifact a lavish affair worth the high asking-price. The cover is indicative of the story itself - a whirlwind of shadows that leaves the reader wondering who is good and who is evil, or even what is "good" and what is "evil", in the philosophical sense of the words. The effect on me has had one benefit: I've been studying existentialism lately, and this book makes it *really* easy to slip right into existential mode.

But this is so much more than just another straight-faced Ligotti-esque foray into darkness. Stephen J. Clark has crafted some dark playfulness into the text. Take this sentence, for instance:

"In short, the author playfully alluded to the identifiable characteristics of the lives of bookish people as though in essence all are monsters, pariah and exiles."

Clark here gives a sharp elbow to the reader, breaking the fourth wall, while maintaining the character of the book. This sort of metafictional playfulness is not something you'll find in most horror literature, at least not done with this kind of subtlety.

As the borders between dream and reality fray, it's easy to go into a kind of opiate slumber as one is reading. Then, all of a sudden, Clark pulls out a chase scene worthy of Alfred Hitchcock that grabs the reader by the shirt collars and shakes one into wakefulness. It's a sharp slap in the face, but rather than throwing the reader out of their suspension of disbelief, it draws the reader further in, enveloping one just as Mr. Fetch, the main character (or is he, really?) is folded into layers of uncertainty and psychic vertigo.

As Fetch is thrust under the dark, roiling waters of doubt and deceit, he, along with the reader, becomes aware that he is being used by The House of Sleep, a mysterious cabal of . . . well, that is a mystery.

"I was entering another circle, where the world seemed suddenly caught in amber, where the inhabitants of nightmares lingered just out of sight in the wings."

And later . . .

"I had acted as if hypnotized, finding the paint and brush, following the instructions to the letter, all the while with a sense that I was completing an inevitable action. The game played me."

One of the tropes that is hinted at throughout, but never made explicit (nothing is made explicit In Delirium's Circle, which is part of the awful wonder of it all), is the idea that doppelgangers may or may not have replaced one's friends, one's enemies, or one's self, at any time.

"Sooner or later your own shadow will rise up and join you as a guest at your table."

In context, this is one of the most horrifying lines of the book. But I can't, unfortunately, contextualize it without relating the book in its entirety. The haunting effect of this novel is far more than the sum of its parts. Clark and Egaeus Press has created one for the ages, the dark, unsure ages when even solipsism itself must be questioned. Is there really a "self" at all? Mr. Fetch, for one, has his doubts . . . and these doubts are about all that he can claim as his own. All else is distorted by the gyrations of delirium's circle.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

The Undercroft #6

It's heeeere!!! The Undercroft #6, including my entry about an untrustworthy book, "Ludolf's Folly"! But don't let that dissuade you, there are four more devious delicacies to feast on, as well. In fact, I could see an entire campaign structured around this issue alone. Granted, it would be one of the strangest campaigns on record, but isn't that what you want anyway? Check it out! Here is where you can buy your copy of this or any other issue of The Undercroft!



Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Heraclix and Pomp Trade Paperback

As an FYI my 18th-Century fantasy about a flesh golem and fairy who fight an evil necromancer, Heraclix and Pomp, will be released as a trade paperback by Resurrection House/Underland Press on August 11th, 2015. The hardcover is, however, still available and at a ridiculously low price at Amazon. Of course, I'd prefer that you support your local bookstore and buy it through them, but who am I to tell you how to spend your money? I have a few copies myself that I am willing to sign and sell direct at a discounted price, as well. Just email me at forrestjaguirre at gmail dot com, if you're interested (you will need to cover postage, though). Here's the blurb, which I've modified slightly for table-top RPG-speak, since so many of my G+ friends are gamers:

Heraclix was dead and Pomp was an immortal fairy. That was before Heraclix’s reanimation as a flesh golem (along with the sewn-together pieces and parts of many other dead people) and Pomp’s near murder at the hands of an evil necromancer. As they travel from Vienna to Prague to Istanbul and back again (with a side-trip to Hell), they struggle to understand who and what they are: Heraclix seeks to know the life he had before his death and rebirth, and Pomp wrestles with the language and meaning of mortality. As they journey across a land rife with revolution and unrest, they discover the evil necromancer they thought dead might not be so dead after all. In fact, he might be making a pact to ensure his own immortality . . . 

Heraclix and Pomp is a richly textured and decadent read, filled with Baroque ideology and Byzantine political intrigue. Fans of fantasy and historical fiction alike will revel in Aguirre's layered prose and vivid characterizations. Heraclix and Pomp brings the surreal and the macabre to one of history's most violent eras.

For those that prefer Amazon, you can buy the book here.

Or, for those who prefer to buy local, look up your nearest independent bookseller here.


And if you're interested at all in the creative process behind the writing of this novel, I give a little peek into that right here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Arkham Horror Play Report 7.3.15

Finally, I have time to outline the session of Arkham Horror I played with a couple of coworker friends of mine. We decided that gaming in an almost empty warehouse would provide a nice creepy atmosphere for the night, so we, having lockdown privileges, sequestered a grim conference room complete with indoor windows to the rest of the warehouse, giving our session a real True Detective feel. I decided that some angular modern classical music would be in order so I took the opportunity to play Kronos Quartet's Black Angels album in full, which added to the feel rather nicely. Someday Kronos should do a series of pieces based on the Cthulhu mythos. Any would-be composers out there?

Now, for those who haven't played Arkham Horror, it's complicated. Very, very complicated. The setup takes a good fifteen minutes straight for a trio of newbies. May I present: the board?


Yes, it's as complicated as it looks to set up. Actually, even more so. And the rules . . . the word "Parliamentarian" comes to mind. I'm not even . . . sorry, there are plenty of great tutorials on how to play on Youtube. You should watch them. Also, be sure to look for cheat sheets that show how turns work. These saved us. Seriously, you need them.

One of the first orders of business is determining who our ultimate bad guy is. This was done by random draw, though we left Azathoth out of the draw pile. No one can beat Azathoth, and if they tell you they have, they're either lying or have no other life outside of this game. Liar, liar . . .

Anyway, we pulled . . .


Yog-Sothoth, The Key and The Gate.

Joy.

I played, appropriate for being in Wisconsin, Monterey Jack, adventurer. My job was to run around and open and, if possible, close gates. I started off drawing an Elder Sign as one of my equipped items, which makes it easy to close a gate . . . A gate. We needed to close 6, I think, to keep ole Yog-Sothoth from putting in appearance. And we had a limited amount of time to do it. But doesn't my heroic visage here inspire confidence?

My friends +Daniel Nicholson and Tony Vandersheuren played Amanda Sharpe, a student, and Joe Diamond, a private detective, respectively.

Luckily, as I said, I was able to shut down a gate early on, this one to Yuggoth. Shutting down a gate isn't usually this easy.

And why do you want to shut down gates? Because lots of little critters like to come through them. Okay, not so little, in some cases. Take the Gug, for example, that Joe Diamond ran into, a twenty foot tall abomination with a mouth like a fanged . . . well, remember those nightmares back before puberty started for you boys. Yeah. That.

Thankfully, Joe Diamond is as much a thug as a private eye. And he had happened upon a rifle, so bully for him. He waxed the Gug quickly (and another later that night, and even more impressively, a Star Spawn of Cthulhu).


Not to be outdone, Amanda Sharpe also had a run-in with a baddie. But this was a lowly Warlock, and she had dynamite, so, no problem,, right?



Never say "no problem" around Arkham Horror. Amanda did, and totally failed in combat. It's like she freaked out and dropped the dynamite while in another dimension, which means it doesn't blow up bad guys. She ended up in the infirmary. She spent a good chunk of the game there, unfortunately. She was book smart, not street smart.

Joe Diamond, on the other hand, was kicking butt, closing a gate through brute force, followed by the use of several clues that allowed him to seal it. If I remember correctly, he closed a couple this way.



However, it just wasn't fast enough. Market District got particularly flooded with bad guys, effectively cutting off the upper left quadrant of the board as they spread through town or hovered overhead, waiting for one of us hapless investigators to come cavorting down the street.


And, as bad luck would have it, Monterey Jack found himself coming through a gate and being ejected right into the middle of all the action. If there's one thing I've learned from this game, it is: do NOT mess with ghosts. Oh, you can go around flaunting your Ghostbusters cred, sing the song: "I ain't 'fraid of no ghosts." Well, YOU WILL BE, SUCKER!


And that is exactly how Monterey Jack ended up in the infirmary for the remainder of the game, completely weaponless and with no money to spend on a good gun (his bank loan had come due and, well, Monterey Jack isn't too good with finances):


So how did it end? Well, it didn't. Our lives interfered and we had to head out, having had a blast and knowing that, even if Monterey Jack had recovered, Amanda Sharpe was perpetually in and out of the hospital, and it was only a matter of time before Joe Diamond lost his mind (he got some seriously lucky rolls). Besides, ole Yog-Sothoth was two turns away from coming out of the closet, we had two more gates to shut, and nothing to do it with.

Imagine 28 Days Later, but it's Cthulhu baddies, including Yog-Sothoth, instead of zombies. *shudder*. Monterey Jack was probably happy to be in a bed pumped full of morphine just before hell was about to be unleashed on humanity.

And that's my kind of fun . . . I guess . . .

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The One Who Watches From Below

The One Who Watches From BelowThe One Who Watches From Below by Jobe Bittman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you haven't guessed that I'm an Old Skool Role Playing Game geek yet, you either haven't known me long or you haven't read many of my book reviews. Rest assured, I wear the derisive "Geek" label quite proudly, at least in terms of . . . well, almost everything.

Notice the "Old Skool" referenced above, however. I started gaming as a kid back in 1979-ish (I did some of the old Microgames before then, but they aren't RPGs, really, they are more very complicated board games - and a lot of fun!), gamed for many years, had a little hiatus in the early '90s (the '90s were an odd time in my life, as in other's, I'm sure), then returned to the fold in the late '90s.

So what am I doing reviewing a new (relatively speaking) module, (c)2014?

Take a look at that cover. How can you resist that? Seriously? Doug Kovacs' artwork is amazing. You know you want that tattooed across your back. Don't deny it. It's just soooo cool! Besides, I heard that it had won the 2012 Mystery Map Adventure Design Competition, and I am wont to enter such competitions once in a while, so I had to know - what makes this so impressive?

You see, over the years, I've become pretty jaded when it comes to RPG modules. There are the classics, your Tomb of Horrors, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, etc. And then . . . well, most modules just aren't very original. Yes, settings change, and the baddies are lizard men instead of orcs instead of kobolds instead of drow elves instead of . . . you get the idea. But really, they're all about the same, which makes them predictable (save for a few wayward catastrophic dice rolls) and, frankly, really boring.

But this . . . this beast is different. I think it has to do with creator Jobe Bittman's philosophy of monster design, to begin with, as he and Lamentations of the Flame Princess creator James Raggi recently outlined on the excellent Drink Spin Run podcast, where monsters should be unique, terrifying, and not easily defeated. And the monsters throughout are amazing, from mutant halflings (which are way more horrifying than they sound), a cthulhoid "Titan", and even a Giant Mouth that roams around a room lashing out with a 30' long tongue if it isn't properly fed. These monsters are different and unexpected, not something that your players will be familiar with. "Kill it with fire," might work on your standard troll, oh Monster Manual reader, but good luck killing the Wall of Eyes with fire. *chortle* *chortle* *guffaw* Mwahahahahahahahahaaaaa!!!!

OK, get a hold of yourself, Forrest . . .

*sips Ginger Ale*.

There, that's better.

Of course cool monsters are one thing, but this module . . . this module . . . takes things into an entirely different dimension of roleplaying. I won't spoil it for you, but I will let you know that the main conceit of this module will involve at least one of your players (more, if you're lucky and they are not) having to utterly change her or his form of communication with the outside world. Oh, I wish I could tell you, but I can't spoil it. It's so wickedly cool that the most macho of Dungeon Masters will *squee!* in delight when they read about it. I'll give you another hint: it has to do with eyes. Just think about that for a while.

This will test not only the cursed lucky player(s) but all of his or her companions, as well; at least any of them with which the lucky player wishes to . . . well, I almost gave it away.

And the beauty of this is that it's a 1st level adventure. So no high-level magely tricks here, folks, no gods interceding for your pious cleric, and your little thief isn't going to just weasel her way out. Oh, and combat? Yeah, there is some, but your fighter is going to have to be much more resourceful than swinging a battle axe to make it out of this in one piece. Oh, it's a dastardly dungeon for low-level characters. It will test their mettle and push their roleplaying skills like they've never been pushed before. I guarantee that this little gem will take the most seasoned of gamers out of their comfort zone and into something completely new, fascinating, and terrifying . . .

. . . it'll be like 1979 all over again!

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Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910

Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 by Nienke Bakker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I gather, from publication histories and the like, that Rodolphe Rapetti is a well-respected authority on the Symbolist movement of the late 19th-Century. Unfortunately, his essays in Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 are the weakest of the volume. Thankfully, his essays are only two of the seven presented therein. The others range from good to excellent, with Anna Maria von Bonsdorff's essay on "Dream Landscapes" and Frances Fowle's on "Silent Cities" being the standout contributions to the volume. And while I enjoyed Richard Thomson's "Into the Mystic," I don't really buy his implied argument that there is a direct line of succession from the Symbolists to early abstractionists. There's a little too much looseness in the connections he hints at.

This is my biggest problem with the volume as a whole. While Thomson's "Arcadia Contested" is rigorous and convincing in showing how certain landscapes clearly fell within Symbolist philosophical bounds, Rapetti, in "Symbolism and Naturalism" claims that some art created in the Symbolist era "remains unclassifiable according to the style labels in use today" then uses this unclassifiability to shoehorn anyone whose work appeared during that time period into the Symbolist bucket. It's unconvincing and feels contrived to anyone who has studied history, let alone art history. Just because a work was created during a certain time period does not mean that it was influenced by or that it influenced the dominate movement of the time. Else how do historians account for transitions from one movement to another?

Of course, the artwork is beautiful and well-presented in full color plates throughout. I was particularly taken by Josef Vachal's Invokers of the Devil , William Degouve de Nuncques' The Pool of Blood (my favorite of the entire volume), and Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis's Sonata of the Stars: Allegro . If you're in it for the art and want to completely ignore the essays, you'll find that the paintings are beautiful throughout.

But don't ignore the essays. Especially "Dream Landscapes". It's absolutely brilliant and does not disappoint!

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Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Library at Night

The Library at NightThe Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I once dreamt an entire novel. It was brilliant - a mystery replete with private eyes, conniving crooks, and a plot line convoluted by betrayals and double-agentry galore. It was vivid. I woke up wondering where I was, which almost never happens, groggy and disoriented. It was difficult to gauge my place in reality. This dream had really enveloped my mind. I got out of bed and looked for a notebook so that I could take notes, but as I did so, the memory of the dream collapsed in on itself like a black hole. I tried to write some notes down, but it was gone. Gone. It was absolutely brilliant, and I'll never see it again.

This book is like that. A dream for book lovers, lovers of libraries. Upon finishing, you will remember that it was brilliant, that it was all-engrossing, that you lived in it, you will have faint wisps of memories of pure genius and some of the most beautiful, languorous writing you have ever read, the sparks generated by the book will linger in your mind like latent spots phosphorescing on your eyes after seeing fireworks in the dark.

Thankfully, this dreamscape is subject to recall, since it is all written down. It is, in this way, like a library itself. Re-opening it is a resurrection of ideas - an intellectual miracle. I, for one, will worship at that altar. And this, from Manguel, will be my credo:

It is likely that libraries will carry on and survive, as long as we persist in lending words to the world that surrounds us, and storing them for future readers. So much has been named, so much will continue to be named, that in spite of our foolishness we will not give up this small miracle that allows the ghost of an understanding. Books may not change our suffering, books may not protect us from evil, books may not tell us what is good or what is beautiful, and they will certainly not shield us from the common fate of the grave. But books grant us myriad possibilities: the possibility of change, the possibility of illumination. It may be that there is no book, however well written, that can remove an ounce of pain from the tragedy of Iraq or Rwanda, but it may also be that there is no book, however foully written, that does not allow an epiphany for its destined reader. Robinson Crusoe explains, "It may not be amiss for all people who shall meet my story to make this just observation from it, viz., how frequently in the course of our lives, the evil which in itself we seek most to shun, and which, when we are fallen into it, is the most dreadful to us, is oftentimes the very same means or door of our deliverance, by which alone we can be raised again." This, of course, is not Crusoe speaking, but Defoe - the reader of so many books.

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