Monday, July 4, 2022

Descended Suns Resuscitate

 

Descended Suns ResuscitateDescended Suns Resuscitate by Avalon Brantley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had heard rumors about Brantley, but only read a couple of short stories before getting my hands on Descended Suns Resuscitate thanks to Zagava Books' publication of the collection in paperback. As others have pointed out, she sprang on the scene with 2013's Aornos to immediate acclaim. As one other reviewer states, Avalon seemed to spring forth onto the scene like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully-formed and at the height of her powers . This volume is a testament to the breadth of her writing prowess and a sad vision of what might have been, as she passed away at the age of 36. I have a (again, paperback) copy of The House of Silence, which I am definitely looking forward to reading after having enjoyed this volume so greatly. My only wish is that she had lived longer and that we could have seen the full growth of her substantial talent.

Before the fall of the Roman empire was its decline. We are thrust headlong into this decline in "The Way of Flames," an incredibly-well researched tale of corruption and, ultimately, collapse. The story is immersive, one feels what it would be like to be on the edge of a civilization that is about to be plunged into utter random chaos and oblivion. I now may have learned everything I need to know about Rome.

I dare not reveal too much about "Hognissaga". Though the subject matter might be a subject of which I have lost interest long ago, Brantley has enjindled a flame in me with this story. I was nearly as surprised as the young prince in the tale. But I can't tell you why, for fear of . . . No, I've already said too much, even if in vagiries. Oh yes, the mis-spelling is intentional.

John Dee meets a demon in "The Dunwich Catharsis," but not the kind of Renaissance demon one might expect. The story is a nested framework of letters, books, and conversations about a heretical Christian sect replete with revelations aplenty, both light and dark. A fabulous tale that gives one pause and sends the reader to the history books to peel away fact from fiction, if such a thing is even possible.

Love meets necromancy meets revenge in "The Regretting Pond". But what is the emotional toll of one who weaves such a web of vengeance. Can satisfaction ever come from justice's answers to tragedy? Or are some festering wounds, no matter how ill-deserved, best left to rot? Moral ambiguity abounds in this tale of love lost. Who is justified in their taking from another? There are more questions than answers here.

"The Last Sheaf" is a folk horror story with all the expected tropes. Not as evocative as the other stories thus far, it is still "effective". Had I not read a fair amount of folk horror lately, I might not be as jaded about it. It's very well-written, with enough twists to set it apart from many stories of its ilk. But nothing spectacular. Still, I'm glad I read it.

"The Window Widows" is a Scottish ghost story par excellence. Perfectly told, when it needed to be, and perfectly untold at just the right moments. Brantley paints with a chiaroscuro-heavy brush here, and it works amazingly well. This is the kind of short story writers of the "weird" should aspire to. A perfect economy of "weird" and "eerie" in a credulous, if sublimely-poetic, voice.

Take, for instance, this description, which sets the absolutely spectral undertone for this chilling tale:

The day that followed was hardly fit to be called so. Heavy clouds blanketed the close tangles of leafbare trees nearest the house, turning the world into vague shapes and textures, and when the wind rose up it seemed to rip shreds of the fog and send them fleeing across the world, like ghaists in flight from a greater ghaist ,or perhaps born therefrom.

Brantley assumes the persona of an avatar of the dread goddess Kali in "Kali Yuga: This Dark and Present Age". It's a piece of social existentialism bordering on despair for modernity and its paramours. The voice is beautiful, with echoes of Beckett and Burroughs, with all the darkness engendered in the same names. But it is clearly Brantley's own apocryphal tale which, like Beckett and Burroughs, no one will heed.

An afterword by Brantley gives the provenience of each story. She lays out the influences for each story and gives some insight into her writerly process. A valuable scrying stone into the work of a writer who was taken from the world far too soon.

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Saturday, June 18, 2022

Heqet

 

HeqetHeqet by Brendan Connell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've discovered over the last few years that my favorite forms to read and to write are the novella and the prose poem. Here, Brendan Connell hits some crisp notes on these two scales. Or, rather, he hits some dirges tinged with sparkling beauty, like the silver edges of a black, malicious storm. I couldn't be more pleased. Now, I should note that I co-authored a story with Brendan many years ago, so I am not without bias. But I didn't write a story with him because I wasn't already a fan of his writing. On the contrary . . . I've had a glimpse of his creativity in media res, as it were, and I was, and remain impressed. In the intervening years, I've seen Brendan's fiction published in the same boutique small presses I love to read (and am sometimes lucky enough to be published in). I'm never far from his fiction, and there are strong reasons for that.

The title novella, Heqet, is a plunge into decadence - not the wealthy, indulgent decadence of Huysmans, et al., but a journey beneath the scabs of degeneracy and self-loathing. There is really nothing to love about the main character, who speaks like a more eloquent and even more socially-depraved shadow of Beckett's low-lifes. It's a relentless eternal round of depravity and disgust with oneself, a portrait in hopeless and well-deserved self-loathing. And it's beautiful.

Imagine Huysmans and von Grimmelshausen running full speed at each other, arms thrown behind them, jaws thrust forward, then smashing their faces into a bloody, co-mingled pulp and you'll begin to find a tenuous grasp on the voice of Hequet; painful, bloody, messy, erudite, and exquisite. But in this story, the antihero finds no redemption whatsoever.

There are several shorter pieces (and by shorter I mean poetry, prose poetry, and microfiction). Of the shorts, I liked "The Abbey of the Heart" and "The Organist" the best. "Abbey" is a nasty little macabre piece, a piece of the heart, so to speak. To say much more would give it away.

"The Organist" is like a fine medieval woodcut in tone and in subject. Dürer couldn't have done it better. This sinister little tale has just enough experimental "bite" to keep the reader on their toes, but isn't over-indulgent. If I could read nothing but stories like this the rest of my life, I would be quite content.

There are several others, all of them good, most of them great. But these two, in particular, are the cream of the crop, as they say. There are moments (very few) when Brendan's experimental side gets just a touch too surreal (I mean this in the original sense, not the more recent sense - these aren't just weird, they are a very particular brand of abruptly weird). I think he's at his best when he toys at the edge of classical surrealism, but only teases, usually by means of synesthesia, expanding our view of the possible, while not overwhelming our sense of what we perceive. That liminal space is the perfect space for my reading tastes, and for the most part, Heqet not only treads that space, it patrols it, dominates it, looming.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Hellebore #7: The Ritual Issue

 

Hellebore #7: The Ritual Issue (Hellebore #7)Hellebore #7: The Ritual Issue by Maria J. Pérez Cuervo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is only the second issue of Hellebore I've read, having read issue 1 previously. Now I think I'm going to have to go back and collect the intervening five issues! Because while I really liked the first issue, this one really knocked my socks off! As with any great anthology, the sum is greater than the parts. But that won't stop me from looking at this issue piece by piece.

Francis Young's article "The Making of a Folklore Bible" traces the sometimes surprising historiography of how Folklore, Myths, and Legends of Britain not only came to be, but came to be beloved by so many. A series of anecdotes about the place the book holds in many contemporary folklorists lives and work.

In "Killing the May Queen," Catherine Spooner disabuses us of the notion that the white dress worn by the May Queen and even the notion of the May Queen are of ancient origin. In fact, the association of the dress and the supposed sacrifice is of quite recent origin. Spooner outlines the historical ambiguity of sartorial choice and ritual in a clear, concise manner accessible to scholar and stan alike.

Lest you weary of May Queens, Victoria Pearson unveils a wide variety of folk traditions from throughout the British isles in her article "The Ritual Isles". A nice grab-bag of celebrations from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland.

In "Ancient Antlers, Clashing Swords" Clare Button expounds on the Morris dance and analyzes not only its history, but ways in which it has been and can further be updated to meet societal needs.

The beautifully illustrated (by Richard Wells) article "May Day on Summerisle" is an examination of the hodge-podge of traditions mashed up in The Wicker Man written by Hellebore editor Maria J. Pérez Cuervo. It's a good reminder, along with the other essays in this issue, that cinema does not equal reality, though much can be gleaned from that medium, if one is careful.

In "Possessed, Magical, and Dangerous to Handle," Hannah Armstrong expounds on the feminizing influence that Jane Ellen Harrison had on ritual and its interpretation. It's a fascinating mini-biography that shows how the talented Harrison has affected modern ritual, possibly as much as Frazer. This has gotten me wanting to know much more about Harrison and her history.

Aleco Julius provides an excellent primer on labyrinths, their history in the British Isles and in Europe, and dances associated with these mystical structures in "The Path of the Labyrinth". There is so much more about labyrinths that one can study, but this gives a great basis from which one can spiral inward in their study of these ritual devices.

Angeline Morrison pens a poignant and provocative essay in "Ghost Hunting in the Ruins of Empire," in which she engages in intentional subterfuge of British society's quieting of the black voice. As I've read and reread, I've found that this is possibly the most important of the pieces in this volume. Notions of Fisher's "Weird" and rituals of misrule lead to many salient points regarding historical whitewashing and a sort of inverted colonialism that leads to the denial of black history (especially pre-colonial black history) of the British Isles. The structure of this essay, with it's "slippery" transitions between philosophical and historiographical arguments reminds me of Michel Foucault's writing, truth be told. This is an essay worth reading and re-reading, the kind of genre-breaking, media-spanning (and I mean, here, the academic notion of media as various ways of analyzing data, not the popular media) heuristic kit-bashing that spawns fresh, new thought. It's a bit of a jarring transition, going from the previous articles to this final trickster of an essay. But I can't think of a better way of planting the largest gem in the ritual crown of this issue of Hellebore.

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Sunday, June 12, 2022

Welcome to the Machine: Olivetti Lexicon 80, 1948

 I learned to type when typing wasn't cool. Before home PCs were ubiquitous. I don't even remember why I took that typing class in high school. I had no goals at that point in my life (outside of scoring the next bowl, getting enough money to go to the arcade, record, and comic book store, and making sure I had time to play D&D). The teacher was the football coach, so I had absolutely no desire to be "in" with him. Besides, he seemed like he really didn't want to be there. I suppose there were a lot of girls in that class, which I saw as a bonus. But as for aspirations to use typing - nothing . . . at that time. Still, I learned. 

Then, I grew up. When PCs became readily available, I was ahead of the curve of many of my friends, who had to hunt and peck and learn the keyboard. Some still do. Old dogs, new tricks. 

And I discovered that I loved to write. I also discovered that I am a primarily visual learner, and secondarily (a close second, if I'm honest) a kinesthetic learner. When I seriously started writing (back in 2000 or so), I found that I liked writing best with a pen and paper. That hasn't changed. I always do my first drafts by hand, then type the results into the computer, editing as I go.

But keying stories into the computer has its drawbacks. With ottokorrekt, one becomes less cognizant of errors. And word processing programs have only recently developed the AI to catch "their" versus "there," "two" versus "too," and so forth. And, honestly, AI still misses many of the subtleties of the English language. It's better, but it's not perfect. Yet we rely on it like it is perfect. I'd say in reading any published book (my own included), I find such subtle errors almost every time. 

Another issue for writers is that the computer is an amazing tool for research. Perhaps too amazing. As this article points out, the computer is a distraction factory. It draws the writer away from actually writing. And if a writer isn't writing are they actually a writer? Don't get me wrong, I use online resources to research as much as anybody else. But to me, writing is a drug. Why do I so often interrupt my ecstatic, sublime experience? Writing with pen on paper is a rushing start to that sublimity. And, of course, one must edit. Most of the work of writing is editing. But if I go to type in my hand-written notes, editing as I go, and am distracted by all the bells and whistles of the computer, I short-circuit the experience. 

So, I'm trying an experiment. It's an expensive experiment. I won't say exactly how much I spent on my typewriter, but let's just say it was slightly less than . . . my computer. To be fair, I bought my computer many years ago. Nevertheless, I sold many books in order to buy this old piece of technology built in 1948. My hypothesis is that having to carefully key in my words will: 1) Slow down my editing process to ensure I'm using the exact right words, 2) extend the sublime experience of writing by forcing my brain to slow down and be in the moment in order to think about needed turns of phrase, added layers of poetic flavor, or to recognize and remove un-needed dross and clunky phrasing, and 3) give a more kinesthetic experience than the chiclet PC keyboard could ever give. 

Will this slow me down as a writer? Absolutely. I'd pose a question in retort: Is that a bad thing? My experience says "no". Quite the contrary. 

There's a bit of a philosophical agenda here, on my part, as well. I've been intentionally limiting my time on social media. Each day I get 30 minutes each on Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram. And I am going to bring that down to 20 minutes each over the course of the next few weeks. I hardly spend any time on Facebook anymore, and that's by design. I recently watched the excellent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. It gave me pause to think about things I had suspected, but never knew explicitly: the Attention Economy, the way in which we are being manipulated by social media, and the way it affects our real-world behavior. It didn't terrify me enough to shut of all social media. I think social media has it's place. But boy have I rethought how I use social media or, more importantly, how social media uses me. This isn't new. I've been working on reducing my social media use for nearly two years now (thank you, Covid). I've read books on the subject. I've taken a few social media fasts, where I didn't use social media at all for weeks at a time, and I've assessed the benefits for myself

An unseen side-benefit of saving for this typewriter was that I was able to put into action my plan to downsize and upscale. This is a continual effort that has a long way to go, but this is a good start to show that I can do this thing! Given that my mom was a hoarder and my mom and dad both bought into the middle-class 1970s - '80s materialist dream (and that I was raised in this environment), being able to make such a fundamental change to attitude was not a given. It's good to have some success in this regard. It emboldens me for the future.

In essence, I want my life back. My analog life. I want more time doing the physical act of writing, I want more time to read physical books (sorry e-book readers, no offense to you, but give me a nice hardback or a ragged, nicotine-stained paperback every day of the week), I want time to sit down and practice my guitar, I want more time at the gaming table, I want more time to blog, I want to do more jigsaw puzzles, I want to be fully focused on my travels, I want to spend more time listening intently to music, like I did when I was a kid. I need to carve out this space in my life, and I'm doing it! The typewriter is one of many tools to help achieve these goals. 

When I took that typewriting class back in high school, I didn't have any goals to speak of. Now, though, that class is allowing me to pursue goals I never knew I had. Way to go, pot-smoking, metalhead, long-haired, spiked wristband-wearing young Forrest. You've come full circle on a more-fulfilling life. You rule. 

Am I leaving the digital world altogether? Heck no. But I'm making a more conscientious choice as to how I interact with that world. I want the best of both worlds!

One final note: This typewriter requires attention. I bought it refurbished, but it needs internal cleaning and maintenance. I sat down for a couple of hours last night, put on some good Fado, and got into the guts of the thing to give the basket a good cleaning. I've got more to do, especially on the bottom. And while you might think this is a distraction from writing, it's quite the opposite. There's something about that repetitive, careful action that drones me into the writing zone where I can think about my characters, my plots, my story. Of course, I keep a pen and composition book handy to write down the things that need writing down. All the time, I know I'm prepping this beautiful machine to take and transform the input that I give it, body and soul!

And for those who have read to the end, the curious, here are a few photos of this beautiful Olivetti Lexicon 80, 1948:





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Wednesday, June 8, 2022

The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies

 

The Dark Eidolon and Other FantasiesThe Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies by Clark Ashton Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let me let you in on a little cosmic secret: Clark Ashton Smith's writing is better than Lovecraft's. Way better. Alright, HPL got in on the game early, and it's obvious that CAS looked up to him in some ways. But let's not kid ourselves. In terms of pure writing ability, CAS >>>> HPL. That's not to say he's perfect. As you'll see in my notes below, Smith stumbles from time to time. But when considering the quality of his work as a whole, I find him a notch above the old man from Providence.

Let's start with the short stories.

The volume (and Smith's world) is introduced through "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," a low-adventure story that blends tropes associated with cosmic horror and sword and sorcery rather seamlessly. One can already see, in this story, the influence Smith had on later writers. Fred Saberhagen's Empire of the East comes to mind immediately.

"The Last Incantation" would be heartbreaking, if the heart in question wasn't already broken beyond all repair and recognition.

Smith out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft with "The Devotee of Evil". THIS is true cosmic horror, without the mis-steps of HPL. The mysterious remains so, unspeakable things remain un-uttered, and no name is given to the dark vibrations collected and transmitted by the devotee. The obfuscation, ironically, gives the horror here a crystalline clarity. This is among the best cosmic horror stories I've read.

Perhaps "The Uncharted Isle" loses some of its original power because the tropes used in it are now, well, tropes. It is a luxurious story, but easily predictable, with little new to offer those who have been steeped in weird fiction. Still, it's a good read. Perhaps if I had read this earlier in life it would have stood out to me more. As it is, it's not bad, not great.

"The Face By the River" rises above '50s horror comic hackneyed tropes only by mere inches. The last paragraph was the best part of the story. I only wish the rest was that good.

"The City of the Singing Flame" is one of the better stories of cosmic horror I have ever read. Tonally, it reminds me most of A Voyage to Arcturus. There is a beautiful ecstacy to this brand of horror, something terrifying not because of its darkness, but because of its chromatic, refulgent light. I am reminded of the carousel in Logan's Run. Here's a little snippet:

Wall on beetling wall, and spire on giant spire, it soared to confront the heavens, maintaining everywhere the severe and solemn lines of a wholly rectilinear architecture. It seemed to whelm and crush down the beholder with its stern and crag-like imminence.

I wonder if Dan O'Bannon was inspired by "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" when he wrote the screenplay for Alien. At least one important element seems to have been snatched right from these pages. It's an effective tale of horror mixed with science fiction. Heck, I might steal this idea next time I run the Mothership RPG. This is some good stuff!

"Ubbo-Sathla" is another story of curiosity turning to obsession to doom, but with the twist of something akin to transmigration of souls (metempsychosis). This was a good, old-fashioned weird story and I quite liked it. A step above Lovecraft in terms of writerly control and evocation of atmosphere, with the same level of weirdness.

"The Double Shadow" is what one traditionally thinks of when one thinks of CAS: sorcerous deviltries from time immemorial, necromantic rites, ages long since past (so long ago, in fact, that a long-dead ghost must be compelled to travel even further back into its pre-birth past), and dark abominations that even the greatest of sorcerers dare not invoke. Cosmic horror and ancient sorcery make for a heady admixture.

"The Maze of the Enchanter" speaks in the same voice as Jack Vance. Maybe that's coincidence, but the resemblance is uncanny. The same sort of strangeness, replete with transformations and hideous consequence, as well as winsome villains, resonates strongly with The Dying Earth. These are all good things, laudable, and slip into the dreamer's mind quite easily. Did I say "dreamer's"? Perhaps I mean "reader's". Or no.

The title story "The Dark Eidolon" is everything the weird fiction connoisseur could hope for. Mad wizards, decadent empires, gargantuan architecture, extravagant sin, devil-patrons, gigantic skeletons, crowned mummies of long-dead kings, and an age-old morality tale (though seemingly devoid of morals, except on the part of a devil!) make for heady reading that one drinks and drowns in, rather than simply reads.

The banal predictability of "The Weaver in the Vault" is more than offset by the luxuriant language and clever turns of phrase used to describe the setting and the action of three ill-fated warriors sent by their king to retrieve the mummy of his dynastic ancestor from the ruins of a fabled city of the dead. The Shakespearean affectations of the men's speech adds to the feeling of antiquity. Weirdness ensues (could it be any other way?).

"Xeethra" is a story of dream, of yearning, and of dashed hopes and the inevitability of decay and ruin. If I were to pick a tale to represent "nihilistic weird fiction," this might be it. It's a devastating story, made even more so by Smith's ability to lure the reader into a sense of comfort and even luxuriance, before stripping away the idyllic innocence he had already bestowed.

I would consider "The Treader of the Dust" a minor story in Smith's canon. There's nothing terribly original here, though it is weird and creepy. The mummy-cum-grey-alien-space-baby was a nice touch, but it was probably the only extraordinary thing here. The rest are pretty well-hackneyed weird fiction tropes. It'll do , if you need a fix, but no one is going to get addicted to Smith through this one, I'm afraid.

The moral of "Mother of Toads" - don't allow women who look (and smell and sound) like gigantic toads ensorcel you then sleep with you. Got it. Check. Not my favorite story, though it would make a great 1950's horror comic!

"Phoenix" is a classic piece of science fiction. A beautiful story with a predictable outcome, but told in such a soothing, almost solemn way. It's a joy to read.

Besides the short stories outlined (or critiqued?) above, there is a healthy dose of Prose Poems and Poetry.

All of the Prose Poems in this volume are excellent. I find myself increasingly fond of those two genre oddballs: novellas and prose poems. Smiths prose poems rank up there with Arthur Machen's Ornaments in Jade for sheer beauty, eloquence, evocation, and conciseness. The ideas behind the words are expansive beyond the page.

The poetry is good, some of it excellent, some of it repetitious almost to the point of self-referentiality.

"The Hashish-Eater; Or, The Apocalypse of Evil" is the type of epic poem you see tattooed across someone's back or airbrushed on the side of a conversion van or presented in an incredibly expensive edition book with gold leaf impressions and silk ribbons. To quote teenage me "it rules". I would spend good money for a beautifully-produced book containing this poem alone. Apparently CAS didn't like it much, feeling it too derivative of other poets (particularly Flaubert) and inadequate in presenting the true horror of understanding the vastness of the cosmos. But . . . well, he was wrong. If you're going to read any one piece of writing by Clark Ashton Smith, make it this poem!

All-in-all, this is a worthy collection. Though it lacks the tight cogency of, say, Zothique, it shows Smith's breadth of writerly skill and subject matter and is a fantastic introduction to this criminally-under-rated writer. There's a reason that this book has become one of the Penguin Classics. Here's to hoping that Penguin continues to produce more in this vein!



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Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Exalted and the Abased

 

The Exalted and the AbasedThe Exalted and the Abased by Damian Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve run out of superlatives.

If I haven’t convinced you of the brilliance of Damian Murphy’s writings in my reviews of Psalms of the Magistrate, The Star of Gnosia, The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt, Abyssinia, and The Acephalic Imperial, I’ll never convince you of anything. If any of these have convinced you in the least bit, read on . . .

While all of the stories in The Exalted and the Abased contain the signature elements of Murphy’s work: transgressions of rulesets, enigmatic processes, systemic bureaucracy (that may or may not exhibit “mystical” qualities), and so forth; (these are to be expected) there is a deeper feel to these elements, a moral (amoral?) dimension that, while not absent from Murphy’s earlier works, seems to be much more explicit in this volume. This hews closer to an esoteric primer than a work of fiction. Perhaps a series of parables? Because nothing is given outright. There is still a work for the reader to do, if they wish to reach for and possibly seize the reward.

Not every quest results in a treasure, not every question leads to an answer, and not every prophecy fully foretells the future. Such are the vagaries of "The Ivory Sovereign". Here, meanings are hinted at, but obfuscated. Potentialities arise, then, just as quickly, fade away. Revelations are not heralded by a resounding "yes" or "no". There is still much divining to do. The mystery-qua-mystery is everything.

Three of my favorite writers - Borges, Calvino, and Kafka - came to mind as I read "The Notary". Needless to say, this surreal, ever so slightly spry story caught and kept my attention. I don't want to give details on which aspects of the story seemed redolent of which author. That would take your fun out of reading it. Discover for yourself!

Amorality, gamesmanship, and a strong dose of trickery in pursuit of a higher knowledge, a higher being, are woven throughout Murphy's work. These tropes come to the forefront in "The Hieromantic Mirror," a longish (novella? I haven't counted words) piece that lauds the breaking of rules and the breaking of barriers. Here, the unknown becomes known through focus and determination. Will is everything.

Some of the most rewarding experiences are those in which you don't know the rules of the game, but find yourself in the middle of the action anyway. You might even be the focus against which the rules seem arrayed, so you push against them, carefully, at first, sometimes getting away with it, sometimes being censured. And sometimes you win when you lose. Such is the experience in the titular story.

"An Incident in the House of Destiny" reflects on chance versus destiny and which subsumes which. This is personified in two characters and idolized in two houses (which are more akin to temples). An incident is examined, but one isn't completely clear regarding the dominance of destiny over chance or vice-versa. Readers aren't to reach a conclusion, but are forced to contemplate and think, finding answers themselves.

The Exalted and the Abased is a challenging work, yes. But the best rewards are reserved for those who pass the toughest challenges. One doesn’t just read this book, one engages with it. One works (and does a Working, or several Workings) as one reads. It’s not for the faint of heart. Those who persevere through force of will, intelligence, dedicated practice, and a bit of whimsy will understand The Understanding.

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Monday, May 30, 2022

Khazad-dûm, outgunned in Traveller, and 5E

 Trigger Warning: If you looooove D&D 5E, you're probably not going to like this post. I mean, you do you, man. Whatever gets you to the table is great for you. But you're likely not going to like this post.

Events in original version of The Fellowship of the Ring are admittedly different than the movie; in some ways vastly different, in other ways more subtle. The scene in Moria at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm is no exception. The movie, of course, compresses time and does not allow for the same explication that the book provides. Be that as it may, one thing is common: the Fellowship are pursued by orcs. Lots of orcs. In the movie version, they all flee once the Balrog appears, in the book version, they move clear out of the way, but do not flee altogether. They watch, along with the Fellowship, as Gandalf declares his title, gives his command, and seals his own fate.

But the thing I'd like to emphasize here is the sheer number of orcs. I'm sure some enterprising nerd with all kinds of time on their hands has already figured out exactly how many orcs appear in the movie scene. Hundreds, to be sure. The book doesn't elaborate, but states that when they begin to fight their way out of the Chamber of Records "how many there were the Company could not count". I'm guessing they weren't stopping to count. Even with the power that the Fellowship represented, with one of the most powerful wizards of Middle-Earth (not even a human - people forget that Gandalf was, essentially, a demi-god), a Ranger of renown (who wants to guess at Aragorn's level as a ranger? 10th? 12th?), a great warrior in Boromir, a heroic dwarf and elf, and a smattering of halflings (they might be bordering on 2nd level at this point . . . mmmmmmaybe); even with all this firepower, what was Gandalf's reaction? "Fly!"

Remember, this was before the Balrog showed up. With so many orcs giving chase (Okay, they had a cave troll and a big chieftain orc - who doesn't even get a mention in the movie), the leader of this very capable group of adventurers felt it best to just get the heck out of there!

Back in 1983 (I only remember because I watched the Twilight Zone movie on HBO at the Recreation Center right before the game I'm about to tell you about), I played a game of Traveller run by an older gentleman whose name I can't remember. He would run games (D&D and Traveller, mostly, though I only got in on a few of his games) for us kids (I was 13 or 14 at the time - most of the others were a year or two younger than me). In this game, I had a character with a leadership skill of 5, which is absolutely ludicrous. I rolled him up openly and honestly using Mercenary, Traveller Book 4. This guy legit had Leadership - 5. Unfortunately, as a 14 year old kid, I did not.

The scenario was a ticket to assist in training and acting as "observers" (read: people who shoot guns at other people for money) on a backwater planet that was trying to establish its hegemony against, you guessed it, the Imperium. We had visions of glory and took a good part of the session planning the tactics and training the group of rebels in how to fight using guerilla tactics, for the most part. My Leadership score gave us some hints as to how to better prosecute our battle plan, though the GM left it mostly up to us to plan and execute the plan. 

Things started out great. We took out an APC using, of all things, cow manure (flushing the soldiers out and gunning them down, then taking the APC for our own use). Then, we downed an Air Raft and were able to repair it enough for our use. We had a few successful strikes against the local Imperial garrison, wiping out several platoons of surprised low-ranking Imperial navy personnel.

Then the Imperium got serious. They brought in the Marines in a trio of ships boats from ships that were orbiting the planet. And . . . a meson accelerator.

Oops.

Seeing our trainees being needled like swiss cheese with gauss rifles and watching the meson accelerator disintegrate an entire village (and surrounding environs), we felt it wisest to flee.

But it was too late at that point. We had picked our fight. And the fight picked us. Or, rather, the ravens picked out bones clean. It was an utter disaster.

And I'll never forget it. We were devastated that we had been so callously and easily wiped out by the Imperial Marines. But we were elated to be a part of that story, even if the Imperium's data logs would register perhaps one sentence on the incident. We had made history.

Since that time, I've not been afraid to die in an RPG. I've lost countless characters in a number of different games. I'm kind of proud of those graveyards and even more proud of the few characters who made it through adventuring to live to a ripe old age. Okay, one of them was artificially-aged by a ghost, but that's beside the point. 

But I do still get a thrill when my party is outnumbered. Especially when it's *really* outnumbered. These situations can combine the best of hack 'n' slash, puzzle solving (aka: strategy), and roleplaying. Which is more exciting: a group of adventurers ganging up on a big baddie and using their various skills and powers to defeat a single monstrous foe, or having to puzzle out a way to get away when faced with hundreds of little baddies? I can go either way, to be honest. But the prospect of dying at the hands of hundreds of kobolds is, somehow, more terrifying than facing Lolth and knowing you are going to be toast, in all likelihood. I think it boild down to statistics. When my analytical mind boils the situation down, I'm faced with a 5% chance every time one of those little critters attacks that it's going to be a critical hit. And in the games I play (and run), the critical hits tables are absolutely ruthless

Same with that Traveller game. When it dawned on us that those three long cylinders dropping from the skies were filled with Imperial Marines (using Gauss Guns, no less) and a Meson Accelerator. Well, we knew the jig was up. And yet, being early teens, we fought on. Stupid. Just plain stupid. We should have fled. We might have had a chance to escape. Or at least to be captured by Imperial authorities and be "re-educated," if the local noble was feeling in a generous mood. Being stuck in that situation could have forced into some great roleplaying. Alas, we were young and inexperienced. But we learned from it.

Now, full disclosure: I have not played 5e yet. It's been out how many years? I dunno. Many. I have plenty to keep my plate full between my regular AD&D 2e game, my semi-regular DCC game, and any games I might randomly run once in a while (usually DCC, MCC, Traveller, Delta Green, or Call of Cthulhu). Plus with all the con games I play in (I usually try to get at least one DCC game, one CoC game, one EPT game, one miniatures game, and one game I've never played before) I really have no need to play 5e. Yeah, it's what all the cool kids are doing, but I never was a cool kid, ESPECIALLY when I was young and into gaming, when mentioning that you played D&D was liable to get you taped to a locker room pillar and have the entire football team punch you in the arms - yeah, that happened to me. Tell me all about bullying . . . 

Anyway, I haven't played 5e, so shoot me. I have lots of friends who have, and they are still cool people. So I've got nothing against others playing 5e. Whatever makes the hobby grow, I'm cool with it, honestly. But I've learned enough about 5e that I can say that I have intentionally avoided 5e. At last Garycon, I sat down to the table thinking I was playing Mothership, when the GM said "we'll be playing a 5th edition version of this scenario". Thankfully, two other players spoke before I did, saying that they came to this session intentionally to learn Mothership. I'd played Mothership a few times before, and that's what I was looking for, too. So I threw in my 2 cents, as well. The GM graciously switched gears and we played using the Mothership rules. Phew! That was a close one!

My two big problems with 5e, and I'm speaking from a stance of relative ignorance here, I admit are: 1) the fact that you have to try really, really hard to die in 5e, from everything I've heard from people who play the game and 2) Challenge Ratings for monsters facilitate this, more-or-less guaranteeing a "balanced" encounter where the difficulty of defeating the monsters is commensurate with the power of the PC party. This is purely a preference. If you play that way, I'm not knocking you. You do you, man. But as for me and my house, we will face enemies that are well beyond our power to defeat and, usually, we will die.

Now is the part where you type up comments telling me I'm sociopathic (if you've ever met me, you'll now how far from the truth that is) and that I'm a boomer (false: my parents were boomers. I'm as Gen-X as they come and I've got the credentials to prove it). But what I'd really like to know are: have you ever faced overwhelming odds, in terms of sheer numbers, as a player? Or have you thrown impossible odds at your players as a DM? And most importantly, how did you handle it? Has it ever gone horribly wrong (for the players, not for the characters)? And what are some of the best solutions you've seen come out of those situations?

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