Monday, February 5, 2024

The House of the Moon

 


Benjamin Tweddell has a gently diabolical touch. Whether it is the claustrophobic-um-ecstatic The Veneration at Polwheveral Manor or the decadent apotheosis of A Crown of Dusk and Sorrow Tweddell's tone floats freely between the sacred and the obscene, from light to darkness and back again. The House of the Moon is no exception. Tweddell's literary chiarascuro, for lack of a better term, contrasts hopeful light and hopeless darkness as dissonant foils to one another, but also, behind it all, pieces of the same completeness, ends of a spectrum, rather than a stark duality. 

As with all of Mount Abraxas books, the production values are outstanding, but in this case, I think the publishing house has outdone itself. This is absolutely exquisite in form and execution. This little work is a treasure, especially with the deft hand of Luciana Lupe Basconcelos at the pen and brush. Her works are the gems on the crown here.

As with Tweddell's other work, a looming building looms large in this story. Here it is the titular House of the Moon, so-called by those who see beyond it's facade as an empty, if disquieting, Cavendish Hall. Julian Ashford moves to the estate of his recently-deceased mother and sees a mysterious, beautiful, yet sad young lady near the grounds of Cavendish Hall. He discovers, in time, the secrets of the House of the Moon, the identity of the young lady, and his mother's own connection to the strange edifice and its inhabitants. This is a moody and seemingly serene bit of poetic prose, until a certain point, where Julian's perceptions about the place and his place in the universe are shattered. To say more than that is to give too much away, but I end with one word of warning: be careful when looking up into the night sky and staring at that blackness between the stars. You may learn something about reality that you aren't ready yet to know. And rather than reality coming crashing down upon you, you will be lifted up and swallowed by it.



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Thursday, January 18, 2024

Beloved Chaos That Comes By Night

 


Make no mistake about it, one of my favorite Mount Abraxas authors is Jonathan Wood, whom I have never met, but whom I have made a mental picture of, without one shred of evidence. 

When I lived in England, I knew a man whose name I don't recall. He was a US Marine Vietnam Vet who had retired in England, not far from RAF Chicksands, where I lived at the time. He's got to be dead now, or if he is alive, his liver should be studied for the furtherment of medical science once he finally does give up the ghost. Yes, he did a drink a bit. I know, because I joined him on a few benders. Note: Kids, don't drink. I gave up drinking 35 years ago and it's one of the best things I've ever done. Anyway, this un-named alcoholic vet was slightly portly, dressed in nothing but sweats, and lived in a very dark little cottage "in the country". He was a jovial man, but he definitely had his demons. I don't know anything about his education, but he was eloquent, with a wide-ranging vocabulary, and he told the most sordid and morbid stories (did I mention he was a Vietnam Vet?) about his days in the military with such poesis that I could sit enwraptured, listening to him for hours (being lubricated by Southern Comfort probably helped). As I said, he was a joker, but he had a grim side to him born out of the horrors he had seen. 

This is how I picture Jonathan Wood. I'm certain that my assessment of the man falls well outside the realms of reality, just like the visions we make in our head of someone we've spoken to on the phone several times, but never met in person. But until I meet Mr. Wood, this is the image I will have.

That vision is a result of reading his writings. They are eloquently grim in the best of ways: poetic and hopeless, like being buried in diamonds that sparkle so beautifully, but they cut, oh, they cut.

Some of Wood's works err on the side of poetic brilliance, while others wallow in the mire. But there is a certain cognitively-dissonant hegelian synthesis that arises out of the seeming chaos.

Beloved Chaos That Comes by Night starts on the brilliant side, but devolves into, well, chaos, in the end. At the beginning one is buoyed up by the prospects of a young playwright who is honing his craft and, in the end, we see a hopelessly desparate man that has been bullied, used, and abused by others (and, one must add, as a result of his own desires) to the point of barely thinking of himself as human as all. This is a story of the potential for great gain diseased by the tragedy of great loss. It is about the warping of dreams into nightmare, a true horror story devoid of ghosts, but full of monsters of one's own (ignorant) making.


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Monday, January 1, 2024

The Graphologist and Other Stories

 


When Rhys Hughes is on a roll, nothing can stop him. Of the four stories in this short collection, two are good, two are outstanding, and the stand outs were not the ones I was expecting to shine. I went into "The Puppet Show" thinking, oh no, here we go with a Jon Padgett copycat. But this story twisted in unexpected ways and unfolded a unique tale of existential dread that proved every bit as effective as anything Padgett, Ligotti, etc., have produced, while remaining true to its own vision of cosmic horror. The second standout story, "The Filtered Ones," about ghost-pirates with a psychogeographic layer, flips from existential dread to enduring hope. Yes, I know, ghost-pirates. I was very skeptical going into this one, ready to be disappointed. But the story turned out to be a delight! The other two tales, "The Tipping Point" and "The Graphologist" are both good, but they are very much overshadowed by the greatness of "The Puppet Show" and "The Filtered Ones". Nothing disappoints, and Hughes excels here at taking the reader's expectations and fully flipping them on their head.Strongly recommended, especially for the two standout stories!



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Friday, December 22, 2023

Gameholecon 2023 Rogues Gallery

 Here is the Rogues Gallery of people I played at Gameholecon 2023, in no particular order:





My first game of Vaesen, which I quickly fell in love with, I played Father Art Nilson, a preacher (of rather liberal values). He took a rather "universal" approach to theology.



Once in a while I steal a real name. I did so for my Blade Runner RPG character. This name is that of an old friend from high school many, many years ago. Hopefully, he won't sue me. First time playing Blade Runner, which is, like Vaesen, a Free League publishing game with very similar mechanics. Lots of ethical grey areas in this game, which I like. 



This is Hayu, a servant whose name actually comes from the waking world ("Hey, you!"). This was for the excellent Dreamland RPG, which is in development now. The setting is H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands and, particularly, author/artist Jason Thompson's visionary graphic novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and Other Stories. The system is very unique, utilizing word-cards as prompts to creating sentences that mold actions or even the environment itself. Also a first-time play for me (noticing a theme here?). I loved, loved, loved this game. The system is very different from any other RPG system I've played, and lends itself to really digging in on the creative side. I will definitley be buying and running this one when it comes out of development. I was blown away by it!


My second game of Vaesen was actually an introductory adventure, but I don't mind that I played "out of order," so to speak. Here I played Soren Neilgaard, a social media content creater. The overall mood in this session was VERY different from that first game of Vaesen, which speaks to the versatility of the setting, I think. In terms of play style, the game reminded me just a titch of Trail of Cthulhu, though it's far more stripped down than TOC. Simpler, faster, slicker. I really do like Vaesen a lot. Can't wait to play it again! Maybe there will be a session at Garycon next spring?



The character for my first session (yeah, yeah, I know) of Never Going Home was named after an author I know. This session was set in Serbia pre-World War I, before the machinations of the Black Hand which led to the war (and the subsequent breach in reality posited by the setting of Never Going Home. This was a heist story set on a train, but with long-lasting consequences. The game uses a simple system of skills, with playing cards as a part of the resolution system. I like the way it played, but loved the scenario. It's one I could see playing in any number of other systems, but it hews thematically quite closely to the setting paradigm of the game itself. Stripped to the bones, though, this scenario could easily port to other systems. I'm going to keep it in my back pocket for off-books games at stupid o'clock at cons. 




Every con I attend, I try to get into one of the You Too Can Cthulhu sessions. This was a "black letter" event, which means it was extra special. I believe almost the entire YTCC crew was involved in one way or another in this massive game. I think we had something like 16 PCs in this game? Something ridiculous like that. We were all gangsters, more or less, from Chicago who were trying to expand our family "business" in and around Kansas City or Saint Louis (I forget which now). Of course, this is a Call of Cthulhu session, so it's not a question of if things will go horribly wrong, just a question of when and how. Well, we found out. Another fantastic production by You Too Can Cthulhu. Here's a photo of the crew. These guys are amazing. If you've never played in one of their games, you must. Just make sure you leave a slot open for me!





This was NOT my first game of Empire of the Petal Throne. But it was, by all means, the best one I've played in yet. It was an open exploration, by tube car, of the planet of Tekumel. It was great playing a higher-level EPT character after having trudged through some requisite lower-level adventures over the years to really familiarize myself with the setting. The setting is . . . challenging for people who have notions about what fantasy should be. Tekumel is absolutely unique and rich. One must give onself up to the cultural norms of the planet, and they can seem rather strange at first. But once one allows oneself to dive in, there are few settings that can match it in grandeur. If you haven't played EPT, but remember seeing those old adds in Dragon Magazine so many years ago, maybe it's time you gave it a try?



Now, while I've played many, many games of Classic Traveller, this was my first game of Mongoose Traveller. The systems are really quite similar. Yeah, Mongoose Traveller does flesh things out a bit more and maybe provides a little more breadth in character creation, but at it's heart, I didn't see much difference betweeen it and the Classic Traveller I know and love. So, while it was my "first" time, it really wasn't. Though it WAS my first time playing a Vargr. We all played Vargr, in fact, which was pretty cool. This was a very Indiana Jones-style adventure. Set in a pyramid, even. I liked that none of us were good combatants. We were just a bunch of scientists and archaeologist. My character was, in fact, an expert in paleolinguistics. If you're familiar with Traveller, you'll know that the combat system is downright deadly. So when you get a bunch of nerds trying to use weapons . . . well, hijinks ensue. But we, through a couple turns of raw good luck, prevailed, defeating our rivals and preserving cultural integrity and good inter-planetary relations the whole time. 

One last thing. I've mentioned before how much of an influence Marc Miller has had on my life. He put on a couple of seminar sessions, one of which I attended. He said to us there "when you have a moment, stop by my booth, I've got something for you". So I did. And he did. I won't say what it was that he had for me, but let's just say Marc is as generous as he is intelligent. Here is a picture of me with one of my childhood heroes, one who turned out to be every bit as good as I pictured in my eleven year old mind back in the early '80s.


As always, I'm looking forward to my next Con experience at Garycon in the spring. I hear it's sold out! I guess the 50th anniversary of D&D will do that to a convention named after Gary Gygax. See you there!

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Sunday, December 10, 2023

A Man Worth Killing




 Oh, what an existentialist web Douglas Thompson has created here in another volume of Mount Abraxas press's series The Old Ways Remain. In this short decadent novella, one sees, as the opening remark claims, "a forensic record of an ordinary man's descent from staid normality towards a moral void". We begin, as one does in this sort of story, with a murder, then work our way back to the initiation of the abandonment of morality that eventually leads to the trap of an inescapable conscience wherein one cannot even confess the truth to find some absolution in guilt. It truly becomes a "moral void". Debauchery may be fun, and the discovery of guilt might offer a cathartic, if terrifying relief of tension from holding guilt within. But what if one is trapped in an in-between state, a static purgatory that promises neither punishment or salvation. This is the conondrum we are presented with here. It is every bit as horrible as it sounds: a certain kind of undeath of the moral being, forever hungry, never satisfied, but never released from bondage. There is no resting in peace for that sort of psychological noose. It ever tightens, but never strangles, Tantalus unleashed.

Did I mention a lost Scottish village reappearing in a time-slip that seems to mirror the moral entrapment of the narrator? There's that, too. It's a nice piece of psychogeography, a form that I don't see often enough in weird fiction. If you've ever wondered what it might be like to be trapped by the fey, this might be your tale. It's not all magic dust and laughter, though. Far from it. It's an uncomfortable slippage into some sort of liminal hell, if anything. Venture forth, if you dare.







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Friday, December 1, 2023

The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain

 

The Hellebore Guide to Occult BritainThe Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain by Maria J. PĂ©rez Cuervo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Next time I'm in the UK, this book is coming with. The unstoppable crew at Hellebore have created a mostly (though not completely) comprehensive guide to magical places in teh British Isles. Sections are divided geographically, so you can pull this Baedeker of the bizzare wherever the ley lines have taken you and have a Virgil to your Dante.

The book itself is a handy size and seems well-constructed, which you'll want if you're taking it with you. Most of the place entries have a postal code listed, so if you can interpret that (or ask a local postmaster), you'll be good to go. Entries range from megalithic tombs to occult bookstores to locales tied to famous practitioners of magic (though one should take any location related to Aleister Crowley as questionable because, you know, Crowley).

Now, I have two slight complaints. First, and this one is small . . . too small . . . the print is too small! This is the case especially in some longer, colored text blocks. Pardon the old guy with eyes that are going bad who are interested in this subject matter. There are thousands of us, I'm sure. Might want to consider bumping those fonts up a point and doing a slightly longer book.

Earlier, I said that this book was mostly comprehensive. Of course, not everything can be covered in an almanac such as this, but I noted two glaring ommissions of which I am personally very aware. I won't go over details in this review, but if you read my blog post on The Priory at RAF Chicksands and The Devils Quoits, you'll see exactly what I mean. The weird thing is that Clophill Church, which I mention in my blog post, and which is DIRECTLY tied to the Chicksands Priory (albeit by an undergroudn tunnel - I kid you not; I've been in that tunnel myself) is mentioned, while the priory is not. I don't get it. The very reason that people went to Clophill Church to put up satanic graffitti and sacrifice animals was because the church was physically tied to the alegedly haunted priory. So why no Chicksands Priory? It's not about accessibility. You can arrange a tour of the Priory with the non-profit that cares for it. I don't get the ommission.

I won't spend much time on the other one, The Devil's Quoits, in Oxfordshire. Sure, it's hard to find (my wife and I got lost looking for it at first), but it's a beautiful megalithic structure that has been researched rather well. maybe it's because the archaeological dig that revealed the full scale of the Quoits was only done in 1945, so it doesn't have the old magical associations that, say, the Rollright Stones do? Again, I don't fully understand.

Perhaps one can slip index cards in with one's own entries where the Hellebore guide is missing them?

Still, it is enough. Not complete, but enough. If you are lucky enough to live in the UK, you really should buy a copy. And if you're visiting and looking for the magic of the isles, you definitely need to take this with you to read on the plane flight over. It's a long flight, trust me. Be prepared.



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Friday, November 24, 2023

The Castrato of St. Petersburg


 

The Castrato of St. Petersburg, by Stephan Clarke, is another in the Mount Abraxas series of booklets The Old Ways Remain. If the quality and tone of the other books in this series continue as they have with this book and The Tome of Ravass Bhavatan, we might have here a fine, fine series from Mount Abraxas, yet again. 

This novella traces the somewhat excrutiating, but at times triumphant history of Norcinelli, a castrato from rural Italy who finds his way, eventually, into the court of the Tsar. And by "triumphant," I mean triumphant in a banal way that celebrates small victories, or the avoidance of horrid tragedy. That's not to say that Norcinelli avoids all tragedy, least of all the circumstance which led to his "operation" at the very beginning. There is a modicum of hope in every forlorn circumstance, always driven by his delcaration "I will sing for the tsar". 

The writing in this volume is not flowery, and I think this might have something to do with being told in the first person, which lends itself to a more conversational tone. I've recently read some older murder mystery stories where the first person perspective it sold with purple-prose, and it comes off as disingenuous. Clarke's prose here is conversational, but at times "jerky" with little oddities. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's noticable. Or maybe I'm just overly sensitive given my recent readings. This doesn't take away from the overall telling of the story, it just introduces some "hiccups" here and there, nothing jarring enough to throw one out of the tale. 


The tone here is a strange one. Some might incorrectly consider this a work of "weird" fiction, but there are no supernatural elements and no breach of reality. Still, the nature of the story, that of a young child wiht very strong religious propensities who must negotiate the disappointments of learning that humans are humans, and sometimes despicably so, along with the rarefied environments in which these different experiences are set, make for a strange feel. The theme of loss and longing intensify this feeling, making for a contrast between ethereality and grit that gives a dream-like quality. 



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