Friday, October 6, 2017

Africa

Well, James Raggi made it official in an announcement sent out to those subscribed to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess E-mail list: I have been working for a good two years on a supplement for a developing line of historical books usable with the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG. I won't give the title out until James does, but suffice it to say that I'm finally using my Master's Degree for something directly related to my grad school studies back in the day.

As evidence, I present a few of the piles of books I have researched as I've worked on the project:




Now, this is barely the tip of the iceberg. I pored over literally dozens of volumes researching this. I spent days - DAYS, full 8 hour days, and many of them, in the University of Wisconsin's awesome Memorial Library doing the research for a supplement on West Africa in the 1630's. This is a fairly exhaustive survey of the lands, peoples, and customs of the region ranging east-to-west from the Atlantic coast to present-day Cameroon and north to south from the edge of the Sahara Desert down to the Ivory Coast/Gold Coast/Slave Coast.

My studies in grad school focused mostly on precolonial and early colonial East Africa (though my Master's Thesis was on later colonialism in East Africa), but we were trained to be broadly conversant in African history all the way around the region and for all historical time periods. So I had several courses and wrote several papers on West African history back in the late '90s. Nevertheless, I hit the books hard for this project and poured a great deal of effort into the research, construction, and writing of this survey. I wanted to do something that could go well beyond role-playing games, while retaining RPG use as the primary thrust of the writing.

The initial draft is done, edited, and submitted. I am awaiting another, related project, which I need to leverage, in order to complete my work. This will require a thorough rewrite of one particular section of the book, which I'm actually very excited about. Then, it's on to working with the cartographer for maps, working on the book design, etc. I can't give away the secrets yet, but this projected line of books that James has just announced will be an awesome addition to your LotFP library, your RPG library, or just your plain old library (for those who are history buffs).

I've written the book I wish I had in grad school, at least the one with a focus on early 17th-century West Africa. A huge amount of effort has gone into this - about the same amount of effort that went into writing my Master's Thesis itself, which was an incredible undertaking. I haven't poured this much effort into a book since my novel. And writing this might actually have been more difficult. Actually, yes, it definitely was more difficult. Writing non-fiction is a lot like real work!

More news as it happens and I'm allowed to share it!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Road

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I co-host the Glowburn podcast; a podcast about post-apocalyptic roleplaying. I've been a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre since I was very young, being raised as the son of a military man during the cold war. It seemed fated that one day the bombs would drop and we would all wake carrying guns openly in the streets fighting four-armed, two-headed mutants with glowing eyes.

Or at least, that's what we wanted to believe.

But that's fantasy.

The Road hits closer to potential reality. And it isn't glitz and guns and heroic escapes. It's about survival and scraping by in a gray, boring landscape where most of the other inhabitants - when you can find them - want to rape you, kill you, then eat you. Every step is tedious and terrifying.

And yet, somehow, McCarthy has carved out a thing of dark beauty here.

Part of the beauty is due to the sheer economy of words the author uses. Much of the dread is unspoken, implied between the words.

He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him.
Shh, he said. Shh. It's okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know.
Should I tell you what it was?
If you want to.
I had this penguin that you wound up and it would waddle and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used to live in and it came around the corner but nobody had wound it up and it was really scary.
Okay.
It was a lot scarier in the dream.
I know. Dreams can be really scary.
Why did I have that scary dream?
I don't know. But its okay now. I'm going to put some wood on the fire. You go to sleep.
The boy didn't answer. Then he said: The winder wasnt turning.


Simple, and easy to gloss over, but on reflection, this little vignette is terrifying in that it opens a window on a little boys fear of the unexplained, the inexplicable. And much of the world he inhabits, with his guardian father, goes unexplained. There are many answers to many questions, few of which provide any hope.

So hope has to be made on the fly. Faith has to be lit and stoked from within.

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked in the sand for the boy's hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.

And this, after the man had washed the boy's hair of the brains of a dead man who had tried to kidnap the boy from his father. Tried . . .

Still, hope is hard to come by.

They scrabbled through the charred ruins of houses they would not have entered before. A corpse floating in the black water of a basement among the trash and rusting duct-work. He stood in a livingroom partly burned and open to the sky. The waterbuckled boards sloping away into the yard. Soggy volumes in a bookcase. He took one down and opened it and then put it back. Everything damp. Rotting. In a drawer he found a candle. No way to light it. He put it in his pocket. He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

There is no triumph in such a world. Only pyrrhic victory and a dim candleflame of hope against the gale winds of decay.

But there is, in the end, love and memory, which keep that dim flame lit until the last inch of wick is finally, quietly, consumed.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Stealing Cthulhu

Stealing CthulhuStealing Cthulhu by Graham Walmsley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Years ago, I learned a number of surrealist games meant to spur creativity and put one’s mind into a frame where those playing the games could see the world in new and surprising ways. For example, “n+7” is a game in which one takes a text, say a paragraph from a novel, and identifies all the nouns. After this, the player grabs the nearest dictionary and looks up the first noun. Then, in the dictionary, the reader counts the next seven nouns and inserts the seventh noun for the one in the original text. This is an excellent way to spur the brain into an entirely different mode of thinking, having a form of logic, but with illogical, even jarring, signposts along the read.

Now imagine taking the already strange works of H.P Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, and Colin Wilson, pulling elements out, decontextualizing, then re-contextualizing them. Vary the levels of granularity (from such elements as a mythos monster, to a specific trait of a mythos monster, from a thematic element to a specific setting, for example), and you instantly have a multifaceted mythos mixing board from which you can subtract, to which you can add, wherein you can focus or blur – you get the picture.

This, along with the "Playing the Game" section of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook should give enough tools to any would-be horror writer (whether of games or fiction) to create a fantastic breadth of work that still retains its core “Lovecraftiness”.

This is all well and good, but my introduction to the work here seems far too mechanical. As I review books, I always like to take notes to inform my later review of the book. In this case, though, I want to give my updates to you in their raw, unadulterated form. Not because I’m lazy (though I am), but because I cannot effectively convey the utter delight I felt in reading this book, not from the post-reading perspective. This book made a strong impression on me, and I think it best to show that via the notes I made in real-time. So, here they are:

“This is one of the best arguments for plagiarism . . . er, adaption of another's material that I've ever read.”

“Well, this is definitely whisking away my reading time. Easy read, great advice.”

“The color out of space is quickly becoming my favorite "bad" guy.”

“Ah, I see, this is where we take the wisdom gleaned from earlier chapters and apply it to specific creatures of the mythos. Good stuff. I like that structure - helps the lessons to really sink in.”

“Leveraging Flying Polyps as representations of elemental creatures. Interesting. Hadn't thought of that. And substituting other elemental creatures (fire, earth, water, ???) in the seminal story "The Shadow Out of Time" to turn it into an adventure - simple, yet brilliant. Walmsley is giving a textbook lesson in adventure writing here. So glad I hunted down a hard copy of this book.”

In essence, I loved it. I can't recommend it strongly enough. And I am really glad I bought the hard copy (good luck - they're out there, but they're not cheap, and you can have mine when you pry it from my cold, dead hands). I will be returning to this book again and again. It is definitely making it near the top of my list of books about writing (which I normally despise), whether for games or for fiction. Apply these techniques to any genre you can imagine, heck, it's probably best to intentionally cross genre lines while using them. The possibilities are . . . expansive.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead (Ender's Saga, #2)Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been just under five years since I first read Ender’s Game at my kid’s bequest. As I pointed out in my review, the last chapter of that book, which occurred after all the action, was the part of the book that I found most compelling (and which pushed my assessment from a mere 3 stars up to 4). I mentioned this to my kids and they, having read almost all the books in the “Ender” series, told me that I should read Speaker for the Dead, that I would enjoy it much more than I did Ender’s Game.

They were right!

While far from perfect, I found Speaker for the Dead far more interesting and complex than the punch-‘em-in-the-face shoot-‘em-up that was the prequel. I had expected Card to take a condescending tone and to push his religious views on the reader, but found that Ender’s philosophy and the tackling of religious, moral, and political themes that predominate throughout, was much more subtle and nuanced than I expected. I also found the complexity of relationships and the navigation thereof to be, if not altogether believable, given the timelines involved, interesting and surprising.

To give a plot outline would involve me accidentally spoilering things that I ought not, and others have addressed the plot adequately already. Like many good works of literature, the plot doesn’t really matter all that much – it’s a platform from which Card explores, more than anything, the notion of forgiveness and compassion. There were moments that I found emotionally affecting, and was brought near tears more than once. It is not a comfortable read, and anyone who is paying attention to their own reaction as they read it will find that one’s emotions run strong. Some will feel manipulated. Others will feel guilty. Others will try to blow off their feelings and accuse the writer of being shallow and even callous. Still others will become angry. Just take a look at all the Goodread’s reviews! In any case, this book has a way of getting “under the skin” and provoking a reaction.

I know a lot of authors who would love to get that kind of reaction from their readers, this one included.


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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Collapse of Horses

A Collapse of HorsesA Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've made no secret of the fact that I love Brian's work; both his non-fiction and his fiction. I've published his work myself not once, but twice. I've only had the chance to meet him in person once, many years ago, but have had correspondence with him off and on for a long time now. He even let me have the honor of accepting the International Horror Guild Award on his behalf when he couldn't make it to a convention I was attending. So I might be a little biased. But only a little; even if he appears in my personal appendix N. I try to be objective when I read Brian's work, which means that, at times, I am a harsher critic than I ought to be. Then, along comes a story that entirely blows my mind and, well, there goes any semblance of objectivity or decorum, for that matter.

And what did I think of this collection? Brian's The Wavering Knife is one of my favorite single-author collections of all time, so A Collapse of Horses is up against its own stiff competition. Here are my thoughts on each story:

The structure (though not the subject matter) of "Black Bark" is reminiscent of the opening and closing sequence of the Twilight Zone movie, but much, much more scary. Wanna see something really scary? Four stars.

"A Report" is Kafka . . . *cough* *cough* Evenson at his most Kafka-esque. It's the absence of punishment that makes the torture portrayed here so excruciating. Four stars for "A Report".

"The Punish" is a story of bullying. And a story of revenge, sort of. But it doesn't play out quite how you'd expect. There is little of vengeful anger, little emotion at all, involved. At the center of it all is the sense of what's fair, what tit-for-tat comprises and how it plays out over the long term. Like much of Evenson's work, it is brutal in its lack of emotion. Five stars.

A tragedy that is not a tragedy is all the more tragic because it is not, in "A Collapse of Horses". Five stars.

"Three Indignities". Yes. Yes they are. Four cringe worthy stars that made me flinch and tremble, especially after having experienced one of them immediately after my back surgery, a few years ago. I did not care to relive that.

Using "Cult" as the title of this story may be the most clever use of a title I've seen in a while. Not the best Evenson story, but it still creeps into four star territory.

"Seaside Town" is an eerie, dissociative story that may or may not involve time travel. It reminds me of the work of Roland Topor, particularly The Tenant. A four star stay at the seaside town.

"The Dust" has a sense of paranoia that is almost palpable. It's a claustrophobic psychological horror story in a science-fictional setting. Fairly straightforward, by Evenson's standards, and yet flawlessly written to unfold a psychotic narrative that reminded me, simultaneously, of Pandorum and Carpenter's The Thing, but exactly not either of those. Four stars.

Don't judge a story by it's title! "BearHeartTM" was way less stupid and way more scary than I thought it would be from the title. Four stars, and a nod to Talky Tina.

"Scour" will . . . er, scour your soul. Evenson's ability to put the reader in the protagonist's head and cause the reader to, with her, willingly make the emotional phase shift from fear to sheer absence of will, is a draining spectacle to behold and be a part of. Four stars.

"Torpor" was a bit of grotesquery that I just didn't much care for. But you always have to admire Evenson's technically-perfect execution. Three stars.

"Past Reno" is clearly a riff on Lovecraft's idea of man's inability to correlate all the contents of the mind, along with the notion that what is off-screen is often more terrifying than what is right before you. But I've seen this done even more effectively elsewhere (though I can't for the life of me remember the title of the story that appeared in Ellen Datlow's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror that used redactions to horrifying effect - I'd be indebted if someone could help me remember what that story was and who wrote it. It was brilliant.). Still, a solid four star story.

"Any Corpse" will make you laugh, if you have as sick a sense of humor as me. I'm reminded of Evenson's Dark Property, but with a wry grin that quickly fades into a grimace. Five stars.

Many writers try to relay the feelings and sensations one encounters in a hallucinogenic experience. Evenson is one of the very, very few that actually catch the sensation of displacement that one feels during those experiences. Then he takes it two steps further, causing the reader to question reality itself in "The Moans". This is the PERFECT Evenson story, something transcendent. Five stars.

"The Window" appeared in the Fearful Symmetries anthology. Evenson hits the theme right in the middle in this ghost(?) story. Four stars.

"Click" is my new favorite Brian Evenson story. It may become one of my favorite short stories of all time. The sense of disassociative insanity is a fugue of unreliable narration, a drowning flood of swirling irrealities. I want someone to turn this into a black and white noir movie. No, not "someone". Definitely David Lynch working with the Brothers Quay. No one else could do it justice. Five gray supergiant stars!

I think I just read a Brian Evenson vampire story in "The Blood Drip". I think so, but I'm not sure. It ties in well with the opening story of the book and provides a thematic thread tying the beginning to the middle to the end, but it just didn't have the "pop" and "smarts" that I expect of Evenson's work. Three stars.

All told, that's a 4.1 average. And while I absolutely love "Click" (which should go in the end-of-the-world master textbook on how to write a short story) and "The Moans", I can't justify bumping it up to five stars. Though "The Blood Drip" and "Black Bark" bookend the collection and "A Collapse of Horses" provides a third equine leg to stand on, the various voices of the collection, the incongruous tones created by the overly-eclectic manuscripts, just didn't "bring it all together" for me. I think what we have here is two collections mashed into one: 1) stories that are more "clever" and sometimes downright funny and, 2) the more somber and grim (yet more linguistically playful) tones. My brain couldn't reconcile the two in such close proximity to each other. I appreciate both for what they are, but the two tended to repel each other, rather than pull the collection tighter together.

Still, four stars. And you're a fool if you don't rush out right now and find "Click" and "The Moans", whether in this collection or in their original incarnations. As usual, even with intervening weaknesses, Evenson proves that he is one of the greatest artists of the short story form alive today.


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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Head of Vitus Bering

The Head of Vitus Bering (The Printed Head Volume III, #7)The Head of Vitus Bering by Konrad Bayer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is no good place to begin a review of such a book. Because it "begins" all at once and "ends" all at once. Konrad Bayer's The Head of Vitus Bering is a phantasmagoric staccato nightmare of cannibalism and torture swirling in a tornado of anachronism and confused stories, none of which make an impact individually, but when combined into a stew of mixed syntax, somehow makes sense.

I would like to have a key or to have the patience to unlock any of the apparent formulae that Bayer used to write this work. There is a certain sing-song rhythm that betrays a pattern underneath, but like any work of complexity, the pattern can only be traced for a short while before one loses the path. This might be as much a function of intellectual laziness as inscrutability. How am I to know? Despite my shortcomings, however, there is evidence of rhyme and reason somewhere behind what would otherwise appear to be a random mess of words and broken phrases. I don't know whether to feel like Bayer is just messing around with his readers or if there was, indeed, a real plan, again, a formula, behind his experimentation.

Regardless of the real existence of possible patterns beneath the words, the evocative nature of the words themselves are sufficient to immerse any reader in the overpowering now that pulses out from the background of randomly-ordered events. By overwhelming the reader with chronological jumps to and fro, Bayer strips the reader of their sense of causation. In the whirlwind of suffering, all that matters is what is happening now. The sterilized academic tone of much of the book adds to this genericizing of time. Life, it seems, is just a machine through which one, including Vitus Bering himself, must pass, being ground down by the gears of experience. The universe is uncaring, the text seems to say, so why should the narrator of the work care? He is simply an observer, a canvas to be painted on, a manuscript to be typed with the impressions he receives.

What is the reader of this work other than a receiver of these impressions? Dare you try to interpret that which cannot be understood? Or will you just absorb the many lies and scant truths of The Head of Vitus Bering? If so, what are you, other than a palimpsest? In which case, time, chronology, causation really have no reward for you.

Now I find myself stuck in Bayer's most cunning trap: fatalism.

Still, it's sometimes intriguing to look up from the bottom of the pit and try to figure out the mechanism operating the trapdoor from far below, in the darkness. At other times, I'd rather just close my eyes and dream. But I can't stay down here forever, so, I climb.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants

The Inhabitant of The Lake & Other Unwelcome TenantsThe Inhabitant of The Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants by Ramsey Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From Campbell's Afterword, it is clear that he is a bit embarrassed at having written these early tales. I can see why. No, these stories are not terrible, not by any means. But if you've read any of Campbell's later work, you can clearly see an emergent, if struggling, genius trying to claw its way out of the pit of pastiche with this collection. August Derleth, who initially edited these stories, was generous to the young Campbell. The letters back and forth between the two during their initial exchanges before this book was first published paint the picture of a kindly mentor who, though unafraid to call out the young (and I mean very young) Campbell in strong editorial terms, shows a soft spot that this editor (namely: me) would have cut out of his own heart. Call me mean.

But if Derleth had let his editorial judgement cut too deep, Campbell might not have ever emerged as the writer he has. And that would be a shame. So, good for Derleth having a heart.

Enough of sentiment. On to the stories.

We begin with "The Room in the Castle," which was good, but not great. Clearly a pastiche of Lovecraft, this relied a little too heavily on the old "shell game" of teasing a reveal, then pulling it back, then teasing and pulling it back again, then revealing the thing that was previously teased about at the very end. Not very startling, honestly. Well written, as you'd expect, but the mechanics of the piece felt amateur and really distracted this reader. Three stars

"The Horror from the Bridge" is more like it. Though I think that Campbell tips his hand way too much by "giving it away" without the reader having to work for it, I still liked this story quite a bit. Campbell himself admits in the afterword that he is sometimes guilty of "telling too much too soon". I'd say that's accurate. This tale is not outright scary, but "the mythos" don't necessarily have to be. It exhibits well Mark Fisher's notion of "the weird" as something intruding in our world that should not be there. Features both undead and mythos! Four stars.

"The Insects from Shaggai" is full of great things. The semi-material nature of the insects and the notion of possessing the victim and leading them to bring catastrophe upon . . . well, I can't give away too much. Ramsey's one weakness, and I've seen it in each of these stories so far, is that he telegraphs way too much. Foreshadowing is not fore-10000 -candle-watt-shining, Ramsey. Tone it down a touch! Four stars.

I enjoyed "The Render of the Veils," but it is a story that definitely needs more breathing room (another early habit of Campbell's that he admits to in his afterword). One of the two main characters just seemed to willing to go along with just about anything with little or not questioning. A longer lead-in might have made it more believable. Naivete might have been developed, rather than curtly assumed. A longer story would have helped to develop more dread, as well. This might make an interesting setup for a Delta Green one-shot scenario, but it doesn't make for great fiction. Good fiction, but not great. Three stars.

The story "The Inhabitant of the Lake" fires on all cylinders, save one: The info-dump by the realtor is unlikely and un-necessary. The story would have been stronger without it. Still, that doesn't keep this one from five star territory. There is good reason for its reputation for frisson. It is a solid piece of cosmic horror that earns its laurels. I see why this was chosen as the title story. Five stars!

"The Plain of Sound" hits the sweet spot of giving the reader just enough to think they have an idea of what the horror really is, while keeping it "tucked away" enough that the reader's imagination reaches and claws for it, but never quite sees it full-front. And it's this yearning that creates the terror in the reader: the realization that you *want* to stare the horror in the face, but can't. A strange twist on possible invasions from another dimension that reminds me (though "remind" is anachronistic here, except that my reading order didn't match the publishing order) of Jeffrey Thomas's story "Bad Reception" from his collection The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions. Five stars!

"The Return of the Witch". Meh. Too much meh-tafiction in the form of a Doctor providing information he couldn't possibly know. Meh-chanically clunky grammatical structures. A meh-andering plot. Meh-phistopholes would have loved this story. Just meh. Two stars.

"The Mine on Yuggoth" was what I hoped for when picking up this book! Eerie, unspoiled by infodumps and credibility-straining coincidence. A protagonist who just can't help but want to know more, until he knows too much. Subtle until the end, then BAM! This is how cosmic horror is done! Five inscrutably sentient stars!

Ah, those crazy folk-magic practicing villagers. I hate it when I stumble into their village and am sacrificed to Shub-Niggurath only to find that there are fates worse than death. Next time that happens, though, Campbell will have provided me with a great example of how to document these strange happenings with "The Moon Lens". Four stars.

Besides the strength of the stories (and I do think that most of them were strong), this volume includes an awkward tell-all afterword by the author, several pieces of correspondence between Campbell and August Derleth, and the first drafts of all the stories (and one that didn't - thankfully - make it into the collection). It's an interesting piece of Lovecraftiana that only owes its inspiration to Lovecraft. The ancillary materials add to the collection overall, I think, even if it predisposes one to judge the stories themselves a little more harshly. Actually, maybe they would excuse the stories' juvenalian aspects if one were to read the afterword first. But that would be putting the Lovecraftian cart before the horse and might spoil the eerie enjoyment that does infuse many of the pieces.

All-in-all, the book is not a good introduction to cosmic horror (though a couple of the stories are), but a definite must-read for those who love their Lovecraft or who want to read the seminal stories of one of the modern masters of horror.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Quay Brothers' Universum

The Quay Brothers' UniversumThe Quay Brothers' Universum by Marente Bloemheuvel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This entire book is a Wunderkammer. It's a memory of a relationship I've never had with the Quay's, incomplete snippets of our shared experience, though we've never met. I remember as I read, but there are memories hidden in the gaps between pictures and words, interstitial recollections that may or may not be fully material. This has steeped my brain in ether. I don't know if I will wake up. What is waking, what are dreams?!?

Suzanne Buchan's introductory essay "Short Circuits and Footnote Traces" is sheer brilliance, and by "brilliance," I mean a murky shadow of darkness. Buchan has articulated what I love about the Brothers Quay works in a way that I cannot. And I will not go into depth on her essay here. It deserves to be explored by you directly, without my interference. If you love Quay or are merely curious, let her essay be your Baedeker.

Beyond the introduction are dozens of stills from the Quay Brothers' films interspersed with prose selections by Robert Walser and Bruno Schulz. A short selection from The Diaries of Franz Kafka is also provided, like Walser's and Schulz's fictional pieces, without context. Those familiar with the Quay's films will feel the spontaneous firing of synaptic connections as they read, more from the feel of the prose than from direct situational or plot parallels (though they are present, as well). This method of loose association probably won't do much for those who are unfamiliar with the Brothers Quay cinematic art. But for those of us who already love their work, this book allows for a subconscious association with the film art while away from the film. The inclusion of fragments of Karlheinz Stockhausen's score for Helikopter Streichkwartet, Werk nr. 69 is another example of this dynamic. One cannot actually hear the music and one is not actually watching a Quay film in real-time, but one familiar with both will find their brain stretching to reach back into the darkness and pull forward "sounds" and "images" from memory.

And this is one of the qualities of Quay films that I love: The sense, while watching, that there is something hidden, some memory that holds the key to understanding, just outside of our conscious perception. I strive to find that (collective unconscious?) memory, but never quite find it. Yet, in that striving, I find something, some meaning, partially, at least, but never fully-formed, which keeps me striving even harder, which keeps me engaged, immersed.

I gladly submit to being thus lost, again and again. How can I resist the pull of the simultaneously eerie, yet numinous shadows that the Brothers Quay lead me into? I am driven by wanderlust into the dark, seeking enlightenment, doubtful that I will ever find it, though it is possible that, in seeking, I already have.


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Monday, July 10, 2017

The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions

The Endless Fall and Other Weird FictionsThe Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions by Jeffrey Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've known Jeffrey's work (and Jeffrey) for a very long time now, nearly twenty years. I must admit that I am one of those horrible acquaintances that pops up every few years (or more) and remembers "Oh yeah, Jeffrey. I wonder what he's up to?"

Well, my timing was good, at least, this time around. I had been poking around the Lovecraft eZine website and noticed that Jeffrey had a new book out at about the same time I had wondered what he (and his brother, Scott, also an excellent writer, though of a very different tone) was doing. When I saw the cover, I was absolutely smitten. I have a penchant for bizarre art, and the cover by Nick Gucker fit squarely into that crevasse of my brain that loves to dwell on pulp surrealism. It was not long after that the Lovecraft eZine podcast featured Jeffrey's new book on an episode. When I learned that the title story in this collection was based on the art of the cover, I dove for my wallet.

Like any short story collection, some stories appealed more than others. But none of them are bad, not even borderline bad. Not a one. But I expect a lot from Jeffrey. So let's see how he did!

"Jar of Mist" proves that weird, horrific fiction need not be unsympathetic or lacking positive emotions. This story tugs at your heart (but leaves it in your chest, even if it's broken). This was five star material. I love strangeness in my horror, but when you can tug at my soft spot while dosing out the strange, that's a winner!

"The Dogs" is a nice atmospheric piece. Weird, very weird, of course, but with less emotional impact than the first story. And the assumptions that go into the suspension of disbeliefaere a tiny bit difficult to absorb, but not so jarring that it throws the reader out of the story. Four stars go to the dogs.

"Ghosts in Amber" is a very strange story in which Thomas creates a palpable frisson with not only his creepy descriptions of bizarre things, but also through his evocation of the inner sense of fear, the raw feel of terror in your body. A sad story. Four stars.

"The Prosthesis" is good, but not great. Well-crafted, but I didn't feel that the twist "caught" me, though the setup was perfect. Could have been much better, like really over-the-moon cool, but it sort of fizzled for me. Three stars.

"The Dark Cell" is a near perfect example of effective auctorial sleight-of-hand. Oftentimes, I can tell when a writer is trying to deceive the reader, but the twist in this story caught me totally off-guard.

Pun intended.

You'll know what I mean when you read it. Five stars.

"Snake Wine" reads like a modern update of an old pulp horror story from Weird Tales. Well told, if a little "already done". Three stars.

"The Spectators" is a heartbreaker. Man, I ached for the narrator. An emotionally-effecting story with an incredible sense of loss, along with catharsis, to say the least! Five teary-eyed stars.

"Bad Reception" is the most Twilight Zone-esque story in this collection so far. And seeing that Twilight Zone is my favorite TV show ever (the original TZ, that is) and that this story is very strange and very well-written and set in the atomic age, I'm giving it five stars. Speaking of TV, you might not see yours the same way after you've read this story! I really loved this story. A collection of stories that gave me the same sense of dissociation, the eerie, and a twinge of nostalgia for an apocalypse that never happened; well, such a collection would truly knock my socks off.

"Sunset in Megalopolis" is a quaint, simple story about a superhero with no one left to protect. Cute enough for three stars.

"Portents of Past Futures" is exceptional. A freaky-weird noir detective story with surreal overtones centering around the subject of street art. Yet another story where a static-riven TV screen serves as a key plot device (the first was "Bad Reception"), giving the whole an un-nerving sense of evil just beyond our perception, but wanting to come in front and center. Thomas at his best. Five stars!

"Those Above" is as nihilistic piece as any I've read. It was great, however, I am not a big fan of steampunk. And here, the steampunk elements featured so prominently seemed over-emphasized, even shoehorned in. Perhaps this is why it was first published in Steampunk Cthulhu. I felt that the gears and brass and leather elements were so exaggerated, so forced that they were calling attention to themselves and away from the narrative. Four stars.

"The Individual in Question" is a marvelous 2-page story of cosmic horror in the idiom of detective noir. I really loved this little story. So much packed into such a little space! Combine this with "Portents of Past Futures" and add a few more similar stories, and you'd have one of the best weird-detective collections available. Five stars.

"The Red Machine" is an excruciating tale about a tough life and revenge. But it's not the revenge story you've come to expect. Thomas plumbs the depths of desperation in this excellent story. Five stars.

The titular piece "The Endless Fall" is a beautifully-strange piece of science fiction based on the book's cover art (by artist Nick Gucker). It is an atmospheric piece about survival and its consequences in a situation where time and causality have all gone wrong. A wonderful, wonderful way to end this collection! Five stars!

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganizingThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My mother is a hoarder. There's no two ways about it. She never saw a thing she didn't want to keep. I don't want to go too deep into the psychology of it all, but mental illness plays a part in this.

Thankfully, I didn't inherit the hoarding genes. I'm not a neat freak, either, not by any means. I, like most people, fall in the middle somewhere. I do recall, however, a time in my life when everything I owned fit into a military duffel bag (no, I was not in the military at the time). This lasted for about a year and, you know what? It felt good. Really good. But you fall in love, you get married, you have kids, and next thing you know, you've got stuff. Again, I'm not a hoarder, so it's not like I'm overburdened with my stuff. But we have a small home (I wouldn't have it any other way) and from time to time you just need to get rid of stuff.

Most years, I will do spring cleaning of my wardrobe. This means I will toss a t-shirt or two that has become full of holes or a sweater that's become unraveled. If I'm feeling really ambitious, I will use the "three year rule" - if I haven't used it for three years, I get rid of it, unless I have a really good reason to keep it.

This past year, I didn't do my normal spring cleaning. Also, my income is a lot more steady and I've earned a little extra from various writing projects, so I've had the luxury of buying a few more things, mostly books, as you might imagine.

So when I stumbled across this title, I thought what the heck, I'll give this book a shot.

I admit that, at first, my eyes rolled completely around in my head (I saw the inside of my skull) when I read the cutesie manner in which the book was written. But Kondo had some solid ideas, and if I set aside the "twee," the book was actually pretty captivating and read very quickly.

I'm not going to go into all the details of Kondo's methods, but they seemed to work for me. So far, I've only gone through my wardrobe, but I took two large bags of clothing to the Goodwill down the road from us and felt really good about it. The main gist of Kondo's method is "if it brings you joy, keep it, if it doesn't, don't". Now, I added the practical caveat that if it's something I use regularly or that serves a specific task that nothing else can serve, keep it. But by and large, she's got it right. Why saddle yourself with stuff that doesn't bring you joy?

But what about those sentimental/nostalgic items? This is where I found her advice really useful. She notes that the joy of receiving gifts is mostly in the receiving. How many times have you kept something you didn't really want because someone gave it to you? They're happy about having given you something, your relationship was probably solidified by the giving of the gift, and you're better for having participated in that interaction. But do you really need to hold on to this thing that you don't really like and that serves no practical purpose in your life? Nope. Get rid of it. And do it all at once - don't try to nip and tuck, just suck it up and DO IT! That's how I cleaned my clothes out. One day. No time to get overly sentimental. Just do it.

One thing that makes getting rid of these (and other) items more palatable seemed really cutesie to me, at first, but in looking back on the experience, this one "trick" helped me a great deal: Thank your item for the purpose it served. Yes, seriously, hold the item up and thank it. "Thank you for serving as a great pair of shoes for so long," or "thank you for bringing my friend joy by her giving of you to me". It sounds ridiculous, but there is something psychologically freeing about saying the words aloud.

Now, I need to go through my books. I love books. Some of them I love dearly. And some of them I have paid a good amount of money for. But when I look back, I have to ask myself: "Which of these can I get from the library or online, if I really need them?" and "Which of these have I re-read, really?" There are a few volumes that I've re-read multiple times and some that I know I must read again. Some are reference books that I use for my own writing (see my caveat above). But, in all honesty, I can sell off or give away a good portion of them and not miss them, if I'm honest with myself. So that's the next step. I don't have a certain number of books I want or need to get rid of, but I can quickly identify several that won't make the cut, that I will either give away or sell. Probably sell, so that I can buy others. And the circle continues. As some of you know, I've been trying to cut my TBR list down to about 50 titles. Some of those titles are rather expensive. So if I sell off a portion of the books I don't read, I might be able to afford some of those more expensive titles. And hopefully I'll love them enough to want to keep them. Or maybe I'll sell them off, in time, as well (hopefully at a return on investment - I'm sentimental, but I'm not stupid).

After having gone through my clothes and given a couple large bags full away, I'm feeling like a lean, mean, fighting machine. Not spartan, mind you. But not a hoarder, either. I have what I need and if I need more, I'll get it. No sense in being burdened by un-necessary stuff.

Books: you're next. I love you guys. But some of you will be even better loved at another home.

Then, after the books, it's all the miscellaneous stuff. Actually, I can't wait to get to that. I'm guessing that this whole process will probably take me until the end of the summer or so? I did my clothes in one day. Books will take one full day. The other stuff? I dunno. That might take a while. But I'm going to do it. I feel too good after leaning down my clothes to the ones that give me joy to not do this with my other things. Cutesie or not, Kondo is on to something.

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Field Guide to Imaginary Trees

A Field Guide to Imaginary TreesA Field Guide to Imaginary Trees by Joseph Bulgatz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"I'll bet you can't see the Forrest for the trees!"

har-dee-har-har.

Now that we've got that bit of stupid out of the way, let's move on.

"Run, Forrest, run!"

Oh, bahaha! It is to laugh! I've never heard that one before. *disgusted look of doom*

Yeah, with a name like mine (which I'm very proud of, it was my good Grandfather's name, by the way), you get used to being razzed. Once in a while, a friend or acquaintance will come up with something involving my name that is actually quite punny. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, though, I have to suppress a deep well of bitter sarcasm that comes vomiting up through my gullet when I hear the jokes. It's not because of the joke itself, I laugh at myself and laugh with others at myself all the time. And it's not because I'm offended - I've gotten over that feeling a long, long time ago. And I understand that people are just trying to open some fun-loving dialogue through a shared experience of seeing a movie years ago about an imaginary character that has no bearing on civilization - sorry, did I say that out loud? Seriously, though, I get that people throw little jibes at that, usually because they like you, not in an effort to be cruel. But it still makes the sarcastic monster within me scream to get out into the open. Why? It's because, well, sometimes people are just so unimaginative. I mean, come on, if you think you're the first person to pull the "Run, Forrest, run" gag, guess what? You're not. I'm glad you think it's funny and it makes you feel connected to me, but you'll have to forgive me - the grimace on my face is not meant personally, it's just me trying not to vomit.

So you can probably tell that I place a high value on imagination. A very high value. Otherwise, I never would have written a novel and I would not spend inordinate amounts of time and money on roleplaying games. Heck, I pay good money to go to conventions where imagination games are played and writers get together to talk about . . . imagination, ultimately.

With a title like A Field Guide to Imaginary Trees, wasn't it inevitable that I should read and review this book? It's a n0-brainer, N'est-ce pas?

So what is A Field Guide to Imaginary Trees? Well, it's probably better to start by stating what this book is not. It is not non-fiction. But it reads like non-fiction for a good portion of the book. It is not a coming of age novel carefully disguised under a title whose meaning only becomes obvious two thirds of the way through the book, by which time you don't even care that the phrase (the only phrase of any weight or meaning in the entire book) has reared its head through pages of dross. It is not a book of poetry. It is not a natural history of trees. It is not a natural history of human's interactions with trees.

But now we're getting a bit closer. Let's try this:

It is mostly a book of fiction, a collection of short pieces ("stories" isn't the right word, though it is, sort of) that highlight the human experience with trees and how humans project themselves onto the trees by anthropomorphising them and building myth around the relationship of humans to trees. Furthermore, it illuminates the way in which our stewardship of them or destruction of them reflects on our humanity or lack thereof. It is a humorous, then melancholy book about what we get from trees and what we give or take away from them, all couched in the a mythic garb, whether the myths are those of our ancestors, or future myths that may need to be told to account for our collective responsibility and, possibly, collective guilt about how we treated the trees as a whole.

The one piece of clear non-fiction is Bulgatz's excellent essay that opens the collection. In it, the author argues that, in the past, a classical education involved the learning of the art of memorization. Our memories in this day and age are sadly incomparable to those of the past, before vast amounts of data could be stored in a separate, yet easily-accessible place, as we have today. Back then, information was collected, largely, in one's head. Over the years, we have lost much of that ability to collect data in our head not because our brains are any smaller (quite the contrary), but because we have not needed to exercise our minds to practice the techniques of memory.

Bulgatz points out that, while the loss or diminishing of these memory-skills is saddening, an even more important loss is on our horizon - the loss the knowledge of how to exercise our imagination, which cannot be compensated for by computers.

Our dependence on external imagery may well have made us mentally flabby, an unsatisfactory condition for which the Art is the appropriate remedy. For the rest, we need only ponder Anatole France's observation that "To know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything".

Bulgatz structures the rest of the book by subject matter, though his method of addressing each subject (and oftentimes, his writerly voice) varies from chapter to chapter. For instance, "Mythical Trees of the Middle Ages," the first chapter, is a pretty straightforward recounting of exactly what the title says. In "Four Versions of the Tree of Knowledge," however, we have the fictional recitation of the old Biblical tale from the point of view of The Serpent, Eve, Adam, and a theologian speculating on The Lord's view of these events. Later, we move on to "The Tree that Brought Fire to Man," the account of an early hominid who accidentally discovers the connection between trees and fire, much to the bafflement of those of his tribe who had earlier cast him out, because he was an idiot. "Daphne/Laurel" tells the classic myth from the point of view of Daphne herself, including her later life in New York City, including a little peek into her therapy sessions. Because, yes, you might need therapy if you had been turned into a tree, as well, if only temporarily. "The Battle of the Trees" is a recounting of a war between conifers and deciduous trees that mirrors Rush's song "The Trees," though I am told that both this story and Rush's song hark back to an ancient Welsh Poem titled "Cad Gaddou" (thank you, [Name Redacted] for pointing this out to me). There is then a piece of legal history entitled "The Prosecution and Punishment of Trees," which provides some fascinating cases of trees being tried and punished for various offenses.

My favorite piece in the collection (outside of the opening essay) is "Tlon Revisited," an homage to Borges done in the most Borgesian of voices:

In Martin's Ferry, for example, a tree established by Michaux, in appearance only an ordinary copper beech, became a favorite site for picnics because of the shelter and shade afforded by its great branches. Those who spread a blanket within its leafy embrace, however, found themselves experiencing the thoughts and feelings of their companions exactly as they appeared in their heads and hearts, before they had been smoothed and prepared, if not sometimes reversed, by the censoring forces of society. There were some startling consequences: sudden insults and violence were not uncommon, bringing to a bloody end what had begun festively; the slow pas de deux of courtship became an amorous sprint; there were unexpected declarations of love, hurried engagements, and spontaneous copulations, but also the sudden end of what had seemed to the world successful marriages and even the repudiation of close family ties.

Further along, we find Dendranthropy, the psychological history of a man who was convinced that he was turning into a tree. I have no good way of confirming whether this was an actual case, or if the account springs straight from Bulgatz's imagination. Frankly, I don't care, the story is brilliant, either way. Then we encounter "The Orange Trees of Chelm," which is the sort of story that Italo Calvino would have written, had he been a native Russian, rather than Italian. "The Shmoo Pear" reads like a very convincing piece of non-fiction until one realizes that Bulgatz is conflating that strange marshmallow-like character that appeared in a 1970's kids cartoon (yes, I watched it as a child) that was a blatant rip-off of Scooby Doo. I probably should have caught that with the subtitle "Pyrus Caapii", after the cartoonist who created Shmoo, Al Capp. You got me, Bulgatz. Well-played.

The final piece in the book, "The Last Tree: Abies silversteinensis," is a piece of science fiction that will leave a hole in your heart, a yearning for the preservation of the wonderful trees around us. It is in this sad conclusion that the real pathos of the book hits one right in the heart. The possibilities of loss are profound and very real.

This last one really got to me. We live on a fairly heavily-wooded 1/4 acre lot. 4 shagbark hickories, a large honey locust, a cherry tree that is so big and old that it won't produce fruit anymore, and several tall maples dot my property. Growing grass is not the easiest thing to do here, to say the least. We've had to take a few of these trees down - a box elder that grew into power lines (before we bought the house) and a pine tree that really just had to go, went. But a couple of months ago, we had to take down a maple behind our house that had become diseased and was dying from the top down. I recall watching my kids (who have all grown now) climb into that tree and create a treehouse out of boards and ropes, swinging from branch to branch like their tree-living ancestors, laughing while dangling, panicking when they lost a grip (thankfully no one ever fell and broke anything), and growing together as siblings. I was sure to take a picture of that tree before it was cut down and it nearly broke my heart, knowing that the nest of those memories was now gone. Still, like Silverstein's famous tree, it keeps on giving. I have spent hours splitting the logs that came from that majestic tree, and have many more hours of hot, sweaty labor ahead of me, swinging my splitting maul. My greatest consolation is that this wood will, from time to time, warm my daughter's expected child beginning this winter. And as this child grows, more trees will grow, giving he or she shade and a place to climb and explore. No doubt, some tree, probably many trees, will spur this child's imagination, just as trees have inspired her parents and grandparents, and on back through the generations.




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Monday, May 29, 2017

Weird Detective

Weird DetectiveWeird Detective by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I sincerely hope that this is not the first and last of this excellent comic. The premise is intriguing: Detective Sebastian Greene is not Detective Sebastian Greene, though he . . . it . . . is housed in Detective Sebastian Greene's mortal coil, so to speak. As the blurb says "It takes a monster to catch a monster". Greene's not-being-Greene is portrayed quite well here, as he . . . it . . . whatever . . . learns how to move in human society and, in particular, through the maze of NYPD corruption headed by mastermind J. Randall Carter. The story just touches the possibilities of complexity available, given the setting and characters. There is much more here that is available to explore. Still, Van Lente does an outstanding job of plumbing his characters' depth, tapping into their emotions, fears, domestic issues, and hopes with a likable sense of humor throughout. The running joke about Canadians is, well, funny if you're not a Canadian. Or maybe even if you are. I wouldn't know.

So just how "Lovecraftian" is it? Very much so! The mythos elements are critical to the heart of the story, not just because of Greene's actual identity, but also because a couple of key Lovecraftian mythos entities are critical to the engine of the story. They are not mere cameos or pastiches. They are keys (and locks and doors) to the plot. That said, this is, primarily, a detective story, and should be enjoyable even to those who know nothing of the mythos, though Lovecraft fans will find much to enjoy here that might be hidden from those unfamiliar with the eldritch master's work.

I've read some fantastic comic interpretations of Lovecraft's work, some very good original work loosely based on his work, and some not so great (but not horrid) homages, as well. This is definitely among the best!

That's not to say it's perfect. I'm finding, in my dotage, that a great story, competently drawn and colored, still leaves me a little flat. Don't get me wrong - this is a five star book, but it could have been much more. Each section, for instance, is led by a monochrome plate in a strange green tone showing one of the frames from the story after it. I understand that this is meant to provide some contrast with the work following, but why stop there? Why not do an entire graphic novel in this beautiful monochrome? Do it in this strange green and let the artist's lines be the center of the visual narrative! Dump the full color, and you put the viewer in an unfamiliar visual milieu, snapping the reader's mind out of their preconceived notions of what a graphic novel "should" be. This visual "alienation" could be leveraged to add a strangeness to the whole that would greatly enhance the overall presentation. Besides, Guiu Vilanova's artwork is adequate in and of itself, in fact, I think it is enhanced by the monochrome, allowing it to breathe, rather than to be drowned out by traditional coloring techniques. Or, take the amazing pinup artwork by Rafer Roberts in the back of the book and use that pulpy, aged style instead of your standard line work. My brain is on fire with the possibilities of what this could have been. Still, this doesn't take anything away from the work as it is, which is a must-own for fans of Lovecraftian fiction with an eye for graphic novels.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

X's For Eyes

X's For EyesX's For Eyes by Laird Barron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you, like me, graduated from children's books to Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Archie Comics, then "grew up" into more adult fare, including the work of, say, Laird Barron; if you've given up hooded hawks and double jinx's and replaced them with existential darkness and horrors that await us all, then maybe it's time for you to take a trip into the void between the stars and rethink your notions of causality.

Because it's all going to come back to you. Everything at once, in an extra-dimensional loop of a plot that draws in all your memories of the boy detectives, the debauchery of your college years, the super science of venture brothers, and your favorite eldritch deities. But you'll have to abandon any notions of "then" and "now". Most of all, you're going to have to let go of your notions regarding what is a Laird Barron story. All the right elements are there: desperation, brooding threats, and sharp humor, all wrapped up in exquisite prose. The ingredients are all the same. But the proportions are different, contrasting with most of Barron's other work. Here, you'll find that the dark philosophical elements you are used to being in the forefront are used to accentuate, rather than saturate the taste of this novella. And humor - you've seen it peek out from the corners of Barron's work, but in this case, it's standing right in front of you, staring you in the face. It's horrific, no doubt, and only those who share a grim sense of humor will appreciate it, but if you want sardonic, boy howdy, you got it! One of the primary elements here is corruption: You'll read about a ten and twelve year old boy doing things you thought biologically impossible, which has its own . . . er . . . charm? Squicky charm? Okay, I give up, it's just plain squicky. But charming. No. Wait. Don't go! Hear me out!

If you're a fan of Venture Brothers, as I am, and a fan of Lovecraftian horrors, which I also am, you can't go wrong with X's For Eyes. But where VB steps off into the ridiculous, Barron's boys take a left turn into a serious warping of reality that reveals a certain kind of "coming of age" story. Sort of. From a certain point of view. A point of view that is as twisted and grim and hopeful in a fatalistic sort of way as you can't imagine. Because you can't imagine it until you've read this novella.

So what are you waiting for? No, wait, don't tell me. I know already. Because I saw it before you said it, even though you said it after I asked the question. Laws of causality be damned.

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Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook: Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft

Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook: Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft (Call of Cthulhu RPG)Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook: Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft by Sandy Petersen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Call of Cthulhu has made my list of #7RPGs (which is in need of updating to include Dungeon Crawl Classics, but I digress). This 7th edition takes the previous editions and ratchets the game up a notch, not by any hugely different mechanics (you'll still find the Basic Roleplaying system at its core), but by presenting a carefully-crafted approach not only to the Call of Cthulhu game, but to roleplaying in general. In fact, I recommend any game master of any roleplaying game to read Chapter 10: "Playing the Game". This chapter is one of the best guides to how to run a game, especially a game involving mystery or horror, that I've ever read. I will be applying many of those lessons for years to come, and I am a game master with nearly 40 years of experience on the table.

The book's presentation is exceptional. It is sturdy (unlike a certain 2nd edition of another very popular roleplaying game, which are known to crumble into sheafs of paper) and exquisitely crafted. Each chapter is host to a full double-page full-color painting and there are full-color paintings and sepia tone illustrations of extremely high quality throughout. It is as much a coffee table art book as a roleplaying book. The sewn-in red silk bookmark is a nice touch, as well. Even if you never play the game, you might just want the book for the artwork.

On another level, you might just want the book for its treatment of the Lovecraftian mythos, tomes and grimoires, alien technology, and magic. You need not have a great grasp on the mechanics to appreciate Call of Cthulhu 7th edition Keeper Rulebook as a sourcebook. All creatures, books, artifacts, and spells presented here are well-researched and fleshed out just enough to let your imagination run wild if you are, for example, a writer wishing to explore the Lovecraftian universe.

This is not to say that the book is without flaws. There are some niggling editorial misses, little things, but enough to be distracting. And while the chapter on chases is, I'm sure, brilliant, I just don't get it. After listening to two separate podcasts (The Miskatonic University Podcast and The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, for which I am a patron of both), I still just don't get it. It's probably the sort of thing I need to watch in action a few times to really grasp. After all, I'm a kinesthetic and visual learner. Someday, I hope to really understand this one.

That said, the book is absolutely five star worthy, despite its flaws. Of course, the real test is "how does the book/how do the rules work at the table". I can attest from numerous Call of Cthulhu 7e sessions at Gameholecon and Garycon that the rules do, indeed, work very well (except for the chase rules, which I still need to play myself to understand). So if you've ever been curious, you could do worse than to splurge on a copy of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook for yourself, then dive in and play. Or, if you want it for the art, or just as a sourcebook, that's fine too. There's no wrong way to use this book, except to not use it at all.



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Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Secret of Ventriloquism

The Secret of VentriloquismThe Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I almost bought this in the limited-edition numbered hardcover. Alas, I waited too long and only got the signed softcover. I regret that decision now. Really regret it, deep down in my bones. Had I known that this collection, this book was going to be so strong, I would have dropped the cash in a heartbeat. I've been reading a lot of short fiction collections lately, and this is among the best I've read in recent memory, which is saying something, as I've read some great ones. So, without further ado, let's go through the stories:

"The Mindfulness of Horror Practice" carries a lot of power in very few words. An examination of the story would take longer than the story itself, which is a sort of self-help guide to feeling horror. Thankfully, the visceral nature of the content explains itself in so few words. 5 stars, and an ideal start to this collection of horror stories. In my original notes, I wrote "I get the feeling that this will set the stage for much to come. One foot in the doorway of nihilism . . .". Oh, if I only knew!

"Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown" is terrifying for what it does not say, defining the motives for vengeance without revealing the act, and creating fear not through a sudden shock, but through a more subtle, more methodical revelation. 5 stars for this near-perfectly crafted story.

"The Indoor Swamp" speaks to our (or maybe just my) fascination with the macabre, the grotesque, and the terrifying. It's a labyrinth of the mind, fueled by morbid curiosity. 5 stars for this short, but very effective piece."

"Origami Dreams" is the type of reality-slipping unfolding I love in cosmic horror. Padgett takes the old cheap-thrill of "it was just a dream" type schlock and crafts it into something genuinely sinister, an alienation so thorough that even the narrator himself falls and breaks through layers and layers of reality. This is where the collection really takes off into the highest reaches of darkness. It is with this tale that the collection itself assumes a life of its own, where the collection begins to become more than the sum of its parts, which is what all the best collections do. It is not merely an accumulation of stories, it is an accretion of stories with themes, characters, and phrases that allude to each other, at the very least, sometimes directly, sometimes in an obtuse way that deepens the sense of "depth" even more. The perfect soundtrack to this story would be Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand". 5 stars.

"20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism" was obviously influenced by Ligotti (exact repetition of words and phrases, focused emphasis on specific words that create a sense of hopelessness, and so forth). This is probably intended. What I'm not sure is whether or not the voice was meant to sound like Steven Millhauser. But it does. And that's a good thing. 5 stars to this story, as well.

"The Infusorium" is a fantastic crawl through a polluted noir horror that is the kind of grey, burdensome, yet titillating story I always wish for when opening a volume of dark fiction, but rarely find. The procedural ends in a surprising way that, in hindsight, is the only way it could have ended. But as it's unfolding, there is a twist that throws things in an unexpected direction, only to spin right around to the ending that you might have guessed, except the twist threw you off the scent. It's an exhilarating sensation that adds to the feeling of terror. The accretion I mentioned earlier continues, like a spider web being slowly built around the reader's mind. In fact, this story would be in the thick of the web. Cross-references with other stories that might normally be obtrusive or jarring feel natural and yet continue to surprise. This is becoming a complete, complex BOOK. 5 stars.

Unfortunately, "Organ Void" was a bit of a void for me, with only a very tenuous connection with the rest of the collection. The weakest of the bunch, but still a decent enough story. 3 stars.

"The Secret of Ventriloquism" is written as stage directions and dialogue for a play. Padgett leverages the medium by using metatextual stage directions as a way to expose another layer of meaning and terror "behind" the story. This layering effect give a richness to the story that would have been compromised had these subtle elements been presented in too-straightforward of a manner. It's a lot like . . . ventriloquism. 5 stars.

"Escape to Thin Mountain," frankly, reminds me of some of my own early writing. So, yes, I do like this frenetic, manic voice that is so sing-songy and pleasant as to be absolutely horrific. I was a tiny bit disappointed that there is only a tenuous connection to the rest of the collection, which seemed to be forming such a strong book. Still, a solid 4 star story.

I won't say that the collection would have been better without "Escape to Thin Mountain" and "Organ Void," but they were both distractions from the rest of the collection, which is near perfect. And I don't use the word "perfect" to describe books very often. But this is pretty darned close.

I can't recommend this book strongly enough. I will be on the lookout for even more of Padgett's work and for whatever Dunhams Manor Press produces. Kudos all the way around!



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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Daybreak 2250 A.D.

Daybreak 2250 A.D.Daybreak 2250 A.D. by Andre Norton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let's get one thing right out of the way - this is not high literature. It is a pulpy story, well-written. "Solid" is the word that comes to mind, but not mind-bending by any means. If you're looking for a golden age scifi post-apocalyptic book that fills your need for post-atomic mutants and radiation porn, it's adequate to the task.

That said, this is one of the earliest examples of post-nuclear holocaust fiction. One can see how other books, movies, and even games dipped deeply into this work. It is seminal.

It is also an interesting example of an early attempt at addressing race-relation issues in science fiction. When I caught these undertones, then, later, overt criticisms of the cultural climate, which was contemporary with the work, I was surprised to see that the book was published in 1952. Norton was ahead of her time in this regard. Only the year before did the nascent civil rights movement make news of any appreciable kind. Remember: Brown v. Board of Education didn't get decided until 1954. It's clear from Daybreak 2250 A.D. that Norton was aware of the underground sentiment, the warm coals of dissent that hadn't yet fanned into full flames. I'm not sure how many people would have read the book at that time, but it had to have come as a revelation to some readers back then. A case of fiction as political tool for action.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales

The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird TalesThe Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am becoming convinced that Mark Samuels is incapable of writing a bad story. No writer is perfect, and there are a couple of "misses" in this collection, but none of the stories are bad. And while I didn't find The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales to be as strong as The White Hands and Other Weird Tales, it is still essential reading for lovers of "weird" fiction (whatever that means).

Unfortunately, this collection got off on the wrong foot for me. Thankfully, it recovered gracefully and continued on in a remarkable manner. The opening story, "Losenof Express" is a predictable, pedestrian effort for a writer of Samuels' caliber. I expected much better. I can only give this story 3 stars. I'll be honest, this was an inauspicious start that caused me to put my guard up with repeated chantings of "please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck".

The title story soon resolved my concerns, and in a very powerful way. I thought that Samuels had stumbled again when I read the rather abrupt, and particularly jarring phrase: I had the bizarre notion of having entered into occult territory, a phrase that seemed to artificially "push" the story in a self-aware way that smacked of railroading the reader. But while this sentence seems to tear the narrative structure asunder, it also serves as a segue into a very different voice that ultimately resolves in a most satisfactory way. It's the closest thing I've ever seen to a literary Hegelian dialectic. I am not certain if Samuels did this with intent or not, but either way, it is extremely effective in pulling the reader down the rabbit hole, shedding disbelief the whole way down and transforming the mindscape in such a way that one feels fully immersed in strangeness. I had wondered why this story was used as the title for the collection, but after feeling the sheer muscle of this story, I now know why this 5 star tale should lend its name to the whole collection.

Of course, stories after the titular tale are always disappointments, right? Wrong. In fact, "Thyxxolqu" is a perfectly-paced story about language and its corruption. It is a dark revelation, a creepy peek into forbidden enlightenment. You speak into the abyss until the abyss speaks back and you come to a full understanding of its words. This reminds me of the game mechanic in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, in which a character sees dreadful things or is given unholy revelations that drive her sanity over the edge. If she sees too much at once, the game dictates that she must do what is called an "idea" roll. Usually, you want to pass your idea roll, as it gives you insights into things you might not otherwise realize. Unfortunately, when faced with cosmic horrors, you want to fail your idea roll so that you do not come to the full realization of how awful the universe and its shadowy denizens are, in reality. You want to fail that roll so that you do not come to that full realization, saving you from potentially permanent insanity. To put it in these terms, the protagonist of "Thyxxolqu" . . . well, you'll see. 5 dreadful stars.

"The Black Mould" is the most "Lovecraftian" story I've read by Mark Samuels. Or, maybe that's "Ligottian". In any case, it's a baroque non-story of existential, even nihilistic dread. Beautifully written, yet it tries so hard to be significant that it becomes insignificant. I'm still giving it 4 stars for the writing, though. The writing is amazing, and if there were a bit of plot, it would have received 5 stars.

It seems like every horror short-fiction author just has to write a scary story about Mexico and strange old cults. They can't help it. Simon Strantzas' collection Burnt Black Sons has a couple, I believe the collection The Gods of HP Lovecraft has one, and I could probably point to a few more with little effort. "Xapalpa" is Samuels', and it's very, very good. 5 stars.

Once in a while, an author seems to be trying to mimic another author's style (note I said "seems" - this is not to say that this is intentional) when the other author has already done something so perfectly as to ward off all pretenders. I got this feeling while reading "Glickman the Bibliophile". While it is a good piece of conspiracy literature with a philosophical bent, it isn't up to snuff with Brian Evenson's works (whom it seems Samuels might be imitating, though I don't really think he was intentionally doing so) in the same vein. Here, Samuels' work is a shadow of Evenson's, I am sorry to admit. Still, a good story, well written, if a little rushed and somewhat hollow. 3 stars.

"A Question of Obeying Orders" finishes with a nice O'Henry ending. And while that twist can get old, if overused, it hit all the right spots for me here. Prussian soldiers and seances, a sense of twisted cosmic justice, and abominable things-that-should-not-be. Vampyres? Fah!!! 5 stars.

"Nor Unto Death Utterly by Edmund Bertrand," despite it's somewhat overwrought prose, is an existential tale worth the read. It pulls primarily from the 19th-century decadent tradition interwoven with threads of very modern cosmic horror. If you can stomach the first few treacle-smothered instances of narrative extravagance, the read is extremely rewarding in the end. 4 stars.

"A Contaminated Text" is a simultaneous ode to and metatextual subversion of Lovecraft, Borges, and Bierce. It is a story that invades the reader's brain, but only once one is finished reading it. I think this one bears a few re-readings. It is, structurally and thematically, a labyrinth. One doesn't realize where he is in the trap until it is far too late. 5 stars and my favorite story of this collection.

"The Age of Decayed Futurity" is a pop-culture conspiracy-cum-contagious-paranoid-fantasy that provides a peek "behind the curtain," a'la The Matrix, but with an even more sinister antagonist: the spirits of the dead from the future who work through Hollywood celebrity to create a world of TV-entranced zombies. Now, I'm not a big TV watcher to begin with, as I'd much rather be reading and writing and playing games than watching TV most of the time. And I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to knowing everything about celebrity lives, who was in what movie, blah, blah, blah. Honestly, I couldn't care less, for the most part (there are exceptions). But I don't know that I've ever felt that the Illuminati have infiltrated Hollywood. But now I wonder. Suddenly, late night TV static has a much more sinister connotation. 5 stars.

While I typically love stories with strong philosophical underpinnings, particularly those of existentialism, I felt that "The Tower" might work better if stripped altogether of any pretense of "plot" or "story", rather than being a mass of philosophical muscle hung on an etiolated skeleton of prose fiction. Still, it is a solid piece with great eerie moments that warrants 4 stars.

While the average star rating of the stories, collectively, is 4.45, I have to round up based on the strength of a couple of the stories. The title story and "A Contaminated Text" alone give reason to push this one up into 5 star territory. If you haven't read Samuel's work before, I'd recommend going with the stronger collection The White Hands and Other Weird Tales first, then take in The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales.




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Monday, April 3, 2017

Umerican Survival Guide KS, Part Deuce

I’m a child of the Cold War. I was born on an Air Force base in Germany in the late ‘60s. My entire childhood was spent on or very near bases that housed, delivered, or directed weapons of mass destruction. I can tell you the difference between a yellow, red, and black alert siren by merely hearing one. Those “duck and cover” drills you see in the old black and white reels? Yeah. We did that. In elementary school. All the time. Tuck your legs up under yourself, put your hands over your head, and whatever you do, make sure your genitalia are away from the blast so you can preserve the human race. I’m dead serious. That’s what we were taught. I lived in Omaha, NE, Ground Zero (the first place in the US that would have been struck by enemy nuclear missiles, if it came to that) for several years. In fact, while I was there, a made-for-TV movie entitled “Ground Zero” was released. It was a pseudo-documentary about what would happen if a 5-megaton bomb were to fall on Offutt AFB, about 5 miles from the military housing where I lived. Part of it was filmed at Peter Sarpy Elementary, a block from where I lived. Since CGI wasn’t a thing yet, they filmed kids playing on the monkey bars. As the nuclear bomb exploded on my television, I saw these kids, some of them only a couple years younger than me, melt on the playground as the thermal pulse passed through. A few weeks later, my family took our vacation to Kansas City to a large theme park there. We were in the hotel room one night, and what should come on the TV but another made-for-TV movie entitled “The Day After” which showed – you guessed it – a nuclear attack on Kansas City!

I was 13 at the time.

And people wonder why I am the way I am. :)

But this was my reality. AND it was my fantasy. It might surprise you that post-apocalyptic roleplaying was a very positive thing for me. But I loved it. Ironically, it gave me some hope! I was introduced to Gamma World in 1980, the same year that Thundarr the Barbarian crashed through my TV screen (and a year after Mad Max and a year before Heavy Metal and a year before The Road Warrior and . . .). Though I had started seriously roleplaying in 1979, the leap from the then-present ‘80s world was not as much of a stretch as that really famous fantasy game that I had picked up the year before. In my mind, fantasy and reality became conflated. Post-apocalyptic roleplaying was my window to the future.

Post-apocalyptic roleplaying was (and still is) for me, in a word, therapeutic. It gives me some measure of control over the future, even if only imagined. Of course, humor and horror are bedfellows, so having a good laugh (which I *always* do at the gaming table) was not out of place at all.

The prospect of nuclear war faded in the late ‘90s, but it seems to be back again. The time is ripe for more post-apocalyptic roleplaying, and Crawling Under a Broken Moon is among the best settings I know to indulge in it. I am extremely excited about the possibility, the timely possibility, of completing work on Killer of Giants and getting it in your hands; my ode to the threat of nuclear destruction that saturated my childhood and seems to be coming back just in time for a mid-life crisis filled with visions of mushroom clouds dancing in my head. I'm laughing death in the face!

What you'll find in Killer of Giants is a delve into some of the iconic structures of the Cold War, the underground missile silo complex. But these are replete with all the weirdness and fun you already associate with Crawling Under a Broken Moon! You see, nuclear destruction can be fun!!!

Did I mention therapy? Well, as I’ve said to many who have asked, writing is my drug. And I need a fix. Bad. This time, you get to be the beneficiary. Welcome to my post-apocalyptic nightmare. Let's laugh it in the face!

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