Monday, November 11, 2019

Starve Acre

Starve AcreStarve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Note: This is a review of the The Eden Book Society edition, released under the pseudonymn Jonathan Buckley.

"Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."

As I made my way through Starve Acre, I could not help but notice the strong similarities between the initial conceit and that of the movie Wake Wood, a movie I greatly enjoyed. But the copyright on this edition read 1972, claiming that the book was originally published in that year and re-released by a reincarnated Eden Book Society. I thought, "Wow, the makers of Wake Wood must have ripped off this obscure book"! Silly me. Only when I saw "the 1972 Subscribers" and recognized friend's names and twitter handles in the list did I realize that I had been duped. No, it appears, the author of this book ripped off Wake Wood, at least in a couple of key elements: 1) The death of a couple's child is the central driving factor of the narrative and, 2) the locals know something that the new move-ins do not, and they are all acting rather strangely.

After that, the plot, thankfully, becomes more original. I won't spoil it for you, as there are plenty of spoilers that could give it away, but the real power in the book shows in the denouement, not in the body of the story, really. The beginning of the end of the book quite took me by surprise, but while making my way through the ending I thought "no, this couldn't have ended any other way". It was then that I really saw the brilliant confluence of the writing, seemingly disparate narrative threads coming together seamlessly, like an atonal symphony (albeit a simple one) that comes together in an inevitable crescendo. But after the action of what one would consider the end (on many different levels), the after-action sequence is what shocked me. Downright shocked me, sending those proverbial chills up my spine. It was a tight, sudden knife twist, after I had already been stabbed, unexpected, and elevating the horror to another level.

Knowing now that the book was written by Andrew Michael Hurley, and having heard from a lot of people that I "ought" to read Hurley (that "ought" being something that, frankly, makes me bristle a bit), I can see why people like his writing style. It flows very well (this was a very quick read) and the characters are strong. The wicked ending after the ending almost makes up for what I take to be the blatant theft of ideas from Wake Wood. I will likely read Hurley (I hear The Loney is not to be missed), but I won't be reading the Hurley version of the book, newly released. So, feel free to send spoilers my way. But, keep it on the down-low. We don't want to dig more creepy things out of the ground, do we?

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Friday, November 8, 2019

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories

The Great God Pan and Other Horror StoriesThe Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had previously read two stories (novellas, really) in this volume: "The Great God Pan" and "The White People". I liked those stores and was excited to re-read them. And Machen's reputation among horror aficionados whose opinions I appreciate and respect, especially those who favor a more literary style (as I do), gave me confidence that I might enjoy the remaining stories. I seem to recall that Lovecraft lauded Machen's work, as did Stephen King. Those were good indicators from two pretty good writers, as well.

But as I read The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, an unanticipated question kept percolating up in my thoughts: When you say "Machen is a great writer," who do you mean? Yes, "Arthur Machen" is the obvious answer. But which one? Which Machen are you referring to? The Arthur Conan Doyle-like page turner of “The Red Hand” (which I wanted to keep calling "The Red Right Hand" - thank you very much, Nick Cave), the writer of “The Monstrance” with powerful echos of M.R. James, the Charles Dickensanian “The Tree of Life,” or the Dunsanian visions of “N”?

Machen is all of these, but with something more, something unique – a subtlety of hand and a careful movement of plot, sweetly lead by his studied use and manipulation of Word and Phrase. I capitalize these, because in Machen’s hands, these elements, these tools, are elevated beyond the banal usage of the terms. They become something special and “new” under his pen (though when one reads his strange mutation of certain terms, one is compelled to say “of course, why did I ever think of this word/phrase in any other way? In any case, I shall never think of it in the same way again!”

For instance, there is this from "The Three Imposters":

". . . I too burned with the lust of the chase, not pausing to consider that I knew not what we were to unshadow."

This is the sort of turn-of-phrase that I love in Machen. And that word: "unshadow," so evocative and full of implication. Given the context of a Russian-doll series of narratives within narratives, the term is especially apropos and lends a certain gravity to the meta-narrative from within the narrative - the meta-narrative "in the shadows" beyond the reader and the explicit words on the page. With one word, Machen pushes us out into the unknown; a sort of literary practical joke aimed at the careful reader.

And these stories do deserve a careful reading. They are not shocking in that Lovecraftian "the entire universe wants to eat us all, oh no, my poor sanity!" way. They are most definitely not the antinatalist murky depths of Thomas Ligotti (though there is a good deal of existentialism throughout these works). They are much more subtle. More careful and deliberate.

But that does not mean they are "straightforward". Far from it! I believe that "The Great God Pan" benefits from what seems like disorganization of thought. Vagaries and jagged connection points lead the reader on a frenetic, dreadful path, allowing each individual to come to their own conclusions, their own "end plot". "The Three Imposters" is mind-blowingly complex. Wheels within wheels, all shot through with decadence and hauntings and rotting bodies and tentacles. It works not because Machen ties off all the ends in a neat little bundle (he does not), but because the readers mind takes the disparate directions and waypoints and makes its own blurred map of what might have happened in the tale. I loved "The White People," but to tell you what it was "about"? Um. No. It's essentially plotless, a labyrinthine meandering through the eyes of a young girl discovering . . . well, she can't tell you all that she's discovered. It's simply not possible. Machen does a wonderful job of using inference and redaction to tease the reader with an intentionally occulted (I use the word exactly) vision of what lies beyond, accessible, but hidden.

You will exit many of these stories in a state of utter confusion, wondering what just hit your brain. But you will feel the impact of something sinister hiding in the veins of the earth or just beyond that hill ahead or in the complex motivations of the seemingly innocent. These stories are insidious!

Even in stories where there is a "traditional" twist ending, there is something in the subtle way that Machen lays his tales out that allows for a "twist" ending that isn't a cheap-shot, like I find in many short stories (especially those written by less-experienced authors). "Ritual," for example, is no exception. It's microfiction, or close to it, so it relies on a twist at the end, but by the time you get there, you're like a frog that's been slowly brought to boil in horror. Your realization comes too late! And even after the twist is revealed, your brain will continue tumbling forward, making suppositions and venturing guesses as to what really happened.

This is what Machen provides, then: a labyrinthine path to uncertainty and, hence, insecurity, where the only thing you are sure of is that you can't trust anything to be what it seems. There is darkness, horror, wonder, and awe, all combined, in this realization; a case study in Schopenhauer's philosophy of Aesthetics and The Sublime. It is a journey worth your while, all the way to the bitter, beautiful end.

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Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Purple Cloud

The Purple CloudThe Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Those who know me know that I self-identify as a loner. But a loner with a social side. So a novel about what it is to be utterly alone (as in everyone else in the human race has died off) could seem like the perfect segue to delightful flights of fancy. But I did mention I have a social side. Shiel may have had a social side, but if his protagonist, Adam Jeffson, is any mirror of him, Shiel must have been quite aloof; borderline sociopathic.

Shiel is an interesting, if scandalous, person. His biography - some of it his own fault, some of it just the circumstances he was born into - reads like a bad decadent soap opera. Arthur Machen said that he wasn't sure that Shiel knew that there was such a thing as "right" and "wrong". Again, judging from The Purple Cloud, I'd have to agree with Machen's assessment.

Shiel is (or was) a fully capable writer. His description of Turkey after the worldwide apocalypse are exquisite. The (pre-apocalyptic) narrative about the medium, Mary Wilson, is incredibly well-written. The description of her exercising of her gifts is fascinating. The characterization is strong and the writing downright mystical itself.

As we read on to the portion regarding the Arctic expedition (which was all the style, back then), we learn that the narrator is, in fact, a homicidal . . . well, maniac isn't the best word. Let's say he has homicidal inclinations (which he carries out). Maybe we should have guessed this earlier when we discovered that Jeffson's fiancee had an unhealthy fixation with poisoning people. Or maybe that little tidbit is there to make us feel better about Jeffson himself, in comparison. Yes, he shot someone in cold blood, but he didn't poison them! Or maybe, just maybe, Machen's assessment of the book's author was spot on.

In the long run, it doesn't matter, since everyone but Jeffson dies and he spends the next several years and the majority of the novel visiting exotic places, burning them all to the ground, and possibly (though it's never 100% clear, just 95%) having sex with corpses. Did I mention Machen's words about Shiel?

There follows a long struggle between absolute and utter decadence and a God complex. The book becomes very thin, at spots, in the middle. Then Shiel picks up on some strange and compelling idea that I had not considered. For example, Jeffson finds (surprise!) lots of corpses. Thousands of corpses. He is squeamish about stepping on them (but as noted, not about making sweet love to his dead fiancee's partially rotting, partially mummified body), but they become a routine sight. Then, just when you think you are about to be bored out of your skull (no pun intended), you find that you are reading about the evidences of the manner in which these people, faced with a known extinction, react not to the threat, but to one another. It's a varied set of reactions, and Shiel illustrates these variances in the positioning of the dead vis-a-vis one another (and their potential refuges from the purple cloud). The novel, at these points, becomes a primer on human psychology, and a compelling one at that. Shiel's portrayal of the remnants of civilization (i.e., piles and piles of dead bodies) who died due to debauchery and violence, when threatened with oncoming mass extinction, presages later zombie-apocalypse scenarios where most of humanity had more to fear from each other than from the real threat. He paints a horrifying scene, without showing the actual horror as it happens. My reactions to these sorts of "pivots" in the meta-narrative of the plot were sometimes emotionally deep and complex, as I thought of how I might react to such a threat. Impressive bit of writing, that.

The central theme of the book, the inner struggle that Jeffson comes to, is this:

Must I not, in time, cease to be a man, and become a small earth, precisely her copy, extravagantly weird and fierce, half-demoniac, half-ferine, wholly mystic - morose and turbulent - fitful, and deranged, and sad - like her?

Nevertheless, a sort of redemption might be available to him, if he will only allow it. You will have to discover this yourself. Suffice it to say that Jeffson is not what I would term "normal". It's quite a bumpy journey to the end.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Gameholecon 2019 Schedule

In case you're looking for me at Gameholecon this week, here's where I'll be:

I won't be there Sunday, but I will be there Wednesday night, probably running something off-books.

See you all there!!!



Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"Gemini" in XVIII

I am proud to announce the inclusion of my story "Gemini" in the upcoming anthology XVIII, a part of the sure-to-be-outstanding Underland Tarot series, based on the Major Arcana, published by Underland Press. The TOC list follows:

  • Forrest Aguirre - "Gemini"
  • Darin Bradley - "Sweet Water"
  • Scott Edelman - "A World Without You in It"
  • Christopher East - "Introduction to Immersive Memory-Crafting"
  • Nicole Feldringer - "Diamondskin"
  • Benjamin Gamblin - "A Reckoning"
  • Ingrid Garcia - "The Taste of Things to Come"
  • A. P. Howell - "Like Gold Upon Her Tongue"
  • Emma Johnson-Rivard - "The Spread"
  • Elizabeth Eve King - "Summer's End"
  • Jessie Kwak - "Once More with Soul"
  • Shannon Lawrence - "Following the Rules"
  • Gerri Leen - "She"
  • Mark Mills - "Snake Eyes"
  • Jonathan Mosman - "Old Gar"
  • Christi Nogle - "Unschooled"
  • Tammie Painter - "A Case of Mamma's Love"
  • Josh Rountree - "Rewind"
  • Erica Sage - "The Collective"
  • Lorraine Schein - "SP World"
  • Richard Thomas - "How Not to Come Undone"
  • Wendy Wagner - "When Only Bears Carry Arms, Only Weapons Will Be Born"
  • John Waterfall - "What Remains of the Great Alchemist"
  • Todd Zack - "It's Good to Be Here in Alaska"


Especially grateful to be TOC mates with Darin Bradley and Josh Rountree, both of whom have inhabited a nearby segment of the literary astral plane as myself. If you haven't checked out their writing before, repent and go forth and read! Congratulations to everyone!

Saturday, October 5, 2019

E(xtinction)/E

E(xtinction)/E(xtinção)E(xtinction)/E by Alcebiades Diniz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am reminded of the more psychedelic instances of Decadence Comics, but less psychedelic and much, much more mystical. This is an introspective graphic novel. Now, you don't have to have read Lanterns of the Old Night to fully enjoy this wordless wonder, but one's insight is accentuated, having read it.

(Limited edition, 40 of 45)

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Thursday, October 3, 2019

Mothership: Dead Planet

Mothership: Dead PlanetMothership: Dead Planet by Donn Stroud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A few years back, I raved about the ingenious and innovative design of the role-playing supplement Vorheim. With Dead Planet , Fiona Maeve Geist, Donn Stroud, and Sean McCoy have taken those innovations and built (with cybernetic implants and a dash of sorcery, no doubt) what might be the best RPG supplement I have seen in ages, surely the best Science Fiction RPG supplement I've seen in many, many years. The judges of the 2019 ENnie Awards agree with me (or, perhaps, I agree with them?), awarding the supplement the Silver award for Best Adventure, right behind Chaosium's amazing Masks of Nyarlathotep (let's face it, no one was going to beat Masks this year).

How do I characterize Dead Planet? Take part Pandorum, part Alien and part Event Horizon and map the tropes not only on a ship, but on an entire planet (the Dead Planet) which is surrounded by orbiting derelict ships.

The first section gives an example ship, The Alexis, and a mini-adventure/exploration that would make a great one-shot (at least I hope so - I'm running a Traveller hack of this for my weekly gaming group next week!) or introduction to a Dark Planet campaign. Following this is a derelict ship generator that allows the Game Master (or "Warden" if you are playing the Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG - also an ENnie winner - for which Dead Planet was written) to create as small or as large as of a ship as desired by throwing dice and consulting easy-to-use tables (yes, this includes generating a map on the fly, randomly, as well). Then, find the Moon Colony Bloodbath section - a mini-campaign packed into a zine, essentially. But without the usual "quirkiness" of zines (I know, I know, I've made my own, I know . . .) - no, this supplement is eminently usable at the table. Everything you need is here or can be generated on the fly quickly and efficiently by the Warden: facilities, planetary maps, NPCs, competing factions, monsters (some human), and more random charts than you will know what to do with, but which will all become useful in a mini-campaign. Dead Planet has it all! So put on your vacsuit, charge up that vibrachete, and get ready for action. Just remember, as the old saying goes: "In space, no one can hear you scream!"



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