Saturday, January 21, 2023

House of the Nine Devils

 

House of the Nine DevilsHouse of the Nine Devils by Johannes Urzidil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I write this review, I am listening to Lech Jankowski's "Pause in Shadows" from his album Street of Crocodiles . This is done with intent, as I want to set the proper mood for this review and felt that Jankowski, whose music has been used by the Brothers Quay, echoes the Central/Eastern European tradition in his music. Though Jankowski is Polish and author Johannes Urzidil was a German-Czech-Jewish writer born in Prague, I see some tenuous connections. Jankowski's music, as I have said previously, has been used by the Brothers Quay. The Brothers Quay filmed a short based on Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles, Schulz has been called "The Polish Kafka," and Kafka and Jankowski knew each other and spent time together (along with Gustav Meyrink). So pardon my syncretism as I create my own little artificial Central European world in my head. I live here, so I get to make the connections.

The artifact-qua-artifact of this Twisted Spoon Press book is solid. The hardcover is elegant, with a silk ribbon spilling from the headband for convenience in marking pages. It is just the exact right size for a book, in my opinion: 5.5" x 7.5" and about .75" thick. It really sits in the hand perfectly. The cover, a negative photo of what I presume to be the titular "House of the Nine Devils" is understated, but complex enough to draw one in. I will definitely be buying more Twisted Spoon books in the future, especially at the price point. That's a lot of great book for $23.00.

And what about what's inside? Let's explore. I should begin by saying that, while I bought the book thinking it was fiction, the autobiographical elements tell me that it's not. Or, if it is fiction, it is extremely well-realized. One feels immersed in Urzidil's life throughout. For those who despise non-fiction, I say give it a chance. You'll find that often, as they say, truth is stranger than fiction, and there is enough of a dose of strangeness throughout to whet the appetite of those who love "The Weird".

The title story, "House of the Nine Devils," tells the uncanny tale of a house that might have been the residence of both Faust and Tycho, or maybe neither. A mysterious visitor and his portrait appear and disappear, and the house itself may be the cause, but maybe not. We are never quite sure and this unsurety places the story somewhere between quaint mystery and unsettling frisson. I was reminded, ever so slightly, of the strangeness of Danielewski's House of Leaves. A fabulous start to this volume!

"Vacation in Flames" is far more beautiful than the title indicates; even sublime. Childhood innocence is somehow betrayed and upheld at the same time, with a profound and moving respect for beauty being the tie that binds. It is a haunting tale, but in a light, lovely way, a gentle haunting, if you will, with an ephemeral character who may or may not be a ghost. This story will stick with ne for some time to come.

It was with "New Years Commotion" that I began to suspect that the book was not fictional. I'm still not completely sure if "New Years Commotion" is autobiographical or not. The narrator claims so, but is the narrator a fictional entity or Urzidil himself? Regardless, the author has captured, quite effectively, something that has happened to most of us: being a child who has lost something and is desperately searching for it, along with the many little steps of experience that come with that.

"Porter Kubat" threads its way through Bohemian society among military officers, ballerinas, porter-messengers, and a young man who becomes entangled by his own guilty conscience in a labyrinthine societal maze of which he has little understanding. Like others in this volume, it is a tale of waning innocence, of the shocks of life, all enmeshed in Prague's streets, theaters, and barracks. A sublime story.

"We Stood Honor Guard" is not a story, but a powerful essay (clearly non-fiction) on the causes of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The relevant argument holds relevance to any historical or contemporary empire, including the one in which I now live: The United States of America. This is critical to "keeping things together". Simple, yet genius.

The question of why the Francisco-Josephinian era (including the brief reign of Charles) actually came to an end repeatedly elicits all manner of possible historical, political and other explanations, enough to fill up thick books and which, taken on their own, may ring true, but that nevertheless mean very little. For they are only symptoms of an overall attitude. And this overall attitude in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was characterized by utter lovelessness, by the absolute lack of kindness or the willingness to ever do anything for anyone except oneself, by the indescribable callousness and selfishness of everyone. It was the ignominy of an all-embracing mutual lovelessness that ultimately destroyed that era. And if one objects that selfishness is fundamental to being human, is a part of our individual social and political nature, the answer to this is simple: it's exactly what ruins human beings and empires, what has always ruined them, and what will keep on ruining them in the future, however rich or powerful they might happen to be at times. As Heinrich Mann once so magnificently expounded during the First World War, this was what ruined the Second French Empire, what ruined czarist Russia, Wilhelmine and Hitlerian Germany, Britain's world empire, the list could go on and on, backwards and forwards, as long as it is selfishness that underlies the political rationales ostensibly causing these collapses - ostensibly because empires do not fall apart due to external causes but begin to crumble from within. These may be truisms. But, as Goethe once remarked, we have to keep on repeating the truth, since the falsehoods all around us are constantly being repeated as well.

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, everyone hated and no one loved. Everyone sought their own advantage, no one was willing to make a sacrifice. At best they made a deal and cheated their way around it. How was such an empire supposed to hold together?


A long, seemingly meandering coming-of-age story, "The Last Tombola" starts on the most banal of notes, a father's request to his 13-year-old son to deliver a letter to the father's superior. The story "jumps," then ends on an unexpected note that colors the entirety of the story, flipping a switch on that reveals highlights and shadows from the previous 29 pages. It's done naturally, as well, without artifice.

In "The Assassin," Urzidil's encounter with Gavrilo Princip, who changed world history by triggering the events that led to World War I and hence, World War 2, etc.) turns from a chance encounter of morbid curiosity to a rather erudite philosophical analysis of world events and those behind them. Frankly, his implications are horrifying when one thinks of Trumpism, not because of Trump himself, but because of the impetus behind him, the bleak social fuel for the Trump movement's engine.

Again, I don't know if Urzidil is writing fiction or memoir here. But "A Night of Terror" in which he and another soldier spend the night in a friend's apartment hiding from police will stick with me, either way. If it's a fictional story, I wish it was real. If it's truthful, then truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. Perhaps it lies in that strange limnal zone in-between, much like the narrator.

"One Last Deed" takes place in a real-dystopia: Nazi-occupied Prague. It's a dark reminiscence punctuated by the light of laughter. Old enmity turns to new friendship and provides a gift from the past, a gift that Urzidil would have liked to forget, a gift that ultimately saves his life. This is a powerful, good story about being human.

"Step and Half" starts and spends most of its pages and energy in describing Urzidil's relationship with his step-mother, recounting her acidic personality and comical mannerisms. I won't say what "Half" represents, but I will say that the story takes a melancholy and poignant turn once this element is introduced. This has caused me deep introspection.

Resignation, melancholy, and triumph swirl around "Paternal Prague," and I am struck by the vision I have, while looking into that whirlpool, of my relationship with my own dead father. Though I haven't had Urzidil's self-same experience in life, I read about his relationship and feelings toward his father, and I understand him clearly, as if we had inhabited the same emotional space for a time.

The collection (translated into English for the first time, incidentally) is profoundly moving. I had bought the book largely because I am hungry for more work by Central and Eastern European authors in translation. I am being fed. Well fed.

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Sunday, January 1, 2023

Reading Challenge 2023

 Since 2015, I've participated in the Goodreads reading challenge where one sets a goal for how many books they will read in a year. Your reading results are tabulated as you complete a book. In previous years, my totals have been:


2015  Goal: 25  Read: 68 (to be fair, I read a lot of graphic novels that year)

2016  Goal: 15  Read: 31

2017  Goal: 17  Read: 27

2018  Goal: 18  Read: 32

2019  Goal: 19  Read: 40 (starting to sense a pattern here . . .)

2020  Goal: 21  Read: 37

2021  Goal: 25  Read: 36

2022  Goal: 24  Read: 25


So my average goal was 20.5, average read was 37.

For 2023, I have set my goal at . . . 

10.

Yes, 10 measly books. "You must be getting old," I hear you say. While true, that's not the reason. "You must be busy with other things". That's . . . not true. Not really. I had a lot more going on in previous years, to be honest. 

So why only 10 books? 2 reasons.

1. I want to be writing more. I'm currently working on a novella, and, frankly, it feels good. I love the rush of writing. And while I've never fully stopped writing for an appreciable amount of time (three or four months, but that was before I started keeping track of reading goals), I don't write as quickly as I used to. At one point, I was cranking out a significant short story every couple of weeks. Now I tend to write longer stories (the novella is my favorite length to both read and write), so I need more time to write more material. Besides, I'm more careful about editing and crafting than I was, say, 20 years ago, and that editing and crafting takes, you guessed it, more time. 

2. I have some challenging works ahead of me. As I write this, I am in the middle of Heidegger's Being and Time. This is not a minor work. I also have, staring at me from the shelf, Joyce's Finnegans Wake. I've read excerpts from this before, but never the full work. And given how Ulysses was, I'm expecting this to be an uphill climb. Proust's Swann's Way is also on my shelf and, well, you likely know the reputation of that one. Meditations on the Tarot is another thick one squatting on my book pile. That brick is going to take a while to get through. Now, I'm not guaranteeing that I will read all (or any) of these books, but they are physically present on my shelf and I've been wanting and meaning to read some of them for a long time.

3. Most importantly: I am hoping to do some thematic readings this year, which means re-reading many works I've already gone through, as well as some I have not. For example, I have Kenneth Gross's Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life on my shelf, as yet unread. I am very excited to read this one alongside a re-read of Victoria Nelson's outstanding The Secret Life of Puppets, as well as a re-listening to an episode of my favorite podcast, Weird Studies, in which the hosts interview Nelson. With these two pieces, I will re-read The Quay Brothers' Universum, The Quay Brothers The Black Drawings, The Journal of the London School of Pataphysics, #21, and Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets, and I will be sure to re-watch Phantom Museums: The Short Films of the Quay Brothers. I anticipate that I will revisit two RPG posts I've made here, as well: What's in the Quay's Wunderkamer? and Experimental RPGing: Help, Opinions, and Insights Needed! Part I and Part II. All of this work, then, will "count" as only 1 read book for the year. And you can see that this is a months' long endeavor, in all likelihood. I have another, similar deep-delve planned for Gaston Bachelard's On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (thanks go to my oldest son for gifting this one to me for Christmas), which is new to me, and Gary Lachman's Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, a re-read, with a potential sidestep into Fiddler's Green Our Bogeys, Our Shelves. Yet another set will center around Mark Fisher's The Weird and the Eerie and David Peak's The Spectacle of the Void, both of which I've read, though I've never reviewed Fisher's book fully, though I did riff off of it in one of my more . . . morbid posts. In any case, you can see the dilemma here: For every "new" book that "counts" toward my goal, there will be anywhere from one to five books (plus a podcast episode, a Blu-ray, and a lot of thinking and writing on things TTRPG) that I will need to complete.

Mind you, I'm not complaining. Not at all. But I suspect my book reviews and blogposts will be more spread out over the year than usual. On the other hand, I'm hoping they'll be more thorough, well-thought out, compelling, and useful to readers. This also means I probably won't be on social media nearly as much (that is also part of my goal here), so if you have a google account, follow me so you can be apprised of those times when I am posting something. I don't want to hide, and I love the interaction, so please, post comments and I'll be sure to respond!

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Monday, December 26, 2022

Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality

 

Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of RealityTechnic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality by Federico Campagna
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had high expectations for Technic and Magic, since it had come so strongly recommended by my favorite podcast Weird Studies. I was excited for the prospects the book held, but I must admit that, at first, the setup felt a little . . . pedantic? For some reason, the Ralph Bakshi animated movie Wizards seemed appropriate to the opening salvoes of Campagna's analysis. And while I do love that movie, I did not want to simply read a book that was a rehash of the overly-simplistic "technology bad, magic good" argument. Also, I am often suspicious of works that explicitly or implicitly identify themselves as Marxist or Neo-Marxist critique, mainly because these forms can so often be idealized and lacking nuance. But in this case, I can see the utility of these arguments because of the natural mapping of scientific to economic power structures and people's blind faith in those structures. Honestly, I felt the book was largely apolitical, or at least dismissive of both liberal and conservative attempts to subsume interpretations of "reality" under their respective rubrics. Not directly dismissive, but passive, really. I honestly didn't feel like Campagna was concerned with politics here. Or at least, he barely nodded in that direction. This is a book about an individual's view of and participation in "reality". If anything, it's a touch anarchic.

Campagna's outline and explanation of the basic structure of Technic's version of reality felt well-reasoned and organized. Of course, that's easier when one realizes that Technic's overarching "power" comes from the use of linguistic strictures as a way of describing and categorizing . . . well, everything. The logical extreme of the argument is that "if it can't be explained in words, it's not real". I'll leave it at that, but there Campagna does an excellent job of breaking down how this "power" (this is my word, not his) radiates out to encompass all aspects of the way we think about reality. And before you go asking "what is reality," I'm not going to go over it, as Campagna takes an entire chapter to describe in detail what he means, and I'm not about to transcribe an entire chapter of a philosophical work. He wrote the chapter so I don't have to. Sorry / not sorry.

i worried that the second half of the book would not provide some practical examples of alternative paradigms that can provide some kind of escape from the Technic-al world. Without this, this text becomes sheer nihilism, with an especial emphasis on how we are trapped en masse. If one were to finish the book halfway through, the end result would likely be deep depression. Campagna laid out the skeletal structure of the "Magic" reality system, and I was skeptical if he could clothe those bones with flesh (the unsubtle reference to Ezekiel is intentional, by the way).

The arguments on the Magic side seemed a little more subtle, a little less cogent than the arguments about the structure of Technic. Can we think / work our way into a Magic reality? Can we even picture, clearly, what a world outside of Technic would look like? I hoped so, but I had my doubts that Campagna could effectively lead the way.

The main reason for my distrust while reading the second half of the book was that the biggest weakness of Campagna's book was a lack of examples. Perhaps he felt that pulling discrete data out of context was too "Technic" of a move, but a couple of case-studies would have gone a long way in more fully understanding the theory that is the kernel and the whole of his "Magic" proposal.

However, in the last chapter, through the use of "Secret," "Initiation," and the "As If" motif, Campagna gives some hints (though not outright instruction) as to how one can begin to implement Magic reality while living in a Technic world. This saves the book from the pile of pseudo-philosophical texts that present all the problems, but provide no solutions; or, at best, they present the need for "further exploration". But this is not what I came here to seek. Thankfully, Campagna does provide some starting points for a new way of thinking, a magic way of thinking.

It must be said that "Magic" here is not about illusion, but there is a strong element of the trickster throughout this last section. It is more, however, about tapping into the ineffable in the way that only you, as a "self" can. This is strongly opposed to the Technic view of the individual as a cog in the machine of ever-more efficient production and becoming. It is about Being, not Becoming.

Campagna ends on a hopeful note, albeit an open-ended note. As with all difficult texts, the reader is left to ponder what is presented and start on the path to reaching their own conclusions.

I think this book is necessary. It's not a utopian piece, at least not on the societal level. In fact, Campagna makes it clear that Magic is just one more way to contextualize reality beyond that of Technic. And while he doesn't, alas, provide any other concrete examples, he has shown a way (though not the way) to reconstruct reality, along with a roadmap or intellectual structure of how one might find their own way. He's taught us, as it were, how to fish. It's up to us to outfit ourselves and find the best places to drop our nets.

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Sunday, December 18, 2022

Get to Know Me! TTRPG Edition

 Okay, let's do this thing . . . This is as of December 2022. Things might change in the next . . . days? Weeks? Months? Anyway, here is a snapshot in time in relation to me and my relationship with TTRPGs;






1. It was a toy store in the lower level of Southroads Mall, Omaha (maybe Bellevue?) Nebraska. Can't even remember the name of it. My mom had bought me the AD&D PHB (1st edition, of course) for Christmas, 1979, and I bought the Holmes box set there, along with Dragon Magazine #33 in 1980. The first *gaming* store I bought something at was Aircraft Hobbies, Bellevue, NE, where I bought The Traveller Book in 1981. 


2. Probably the one I created in the mid-90s: Glamwell. It was a haberdash of Greyhawkian baseline, with a strong dose of Tekumel, and elements from Jorune. I still have all the notes. I even created my first website (now very defunct and no longer available) for that world. It was gaudy as heck and I loved it.


3. Lassiviren the Dark, from the AD&D Rogues Gallery, made a strong impression on me as a kid. In my adult years, at a gaming convention, I sat down to play an all-evil PC game with Alan Hammack as DM. I was the first one there and so he let me pick from the characters. I saw Lassiviren and said "Oh, heck yeah, that's who I want to play". He said "That's who I played in Gary's campaign". Good thing we were on the same level as the bathrooms because I nearly shat myself. I had completely forgotten that he, Al Hammack, had originally played Lassiviren. So I got to play the wily assassin for that game. Well, until I (or Lassiviren) was killed by a bouncing lightning bolt that our lead mage had stupidly cast in the inner chambers of an arch-devil. Way to go. Needless to say, we all died horrible deaths, but Lassiviren was the first to go. And I couldn't have been happier!


4. The first TTRPG I bought directly from the creator was Black Sun Deathcrawl by James MacGeorge. Now I game with James online on Saturday mornings and have been to a concert with him. Good times. 


5. I honestly don't know. It's a toss up between Gamma World 1st edition, AD&D 2e, Classic Traveller, DCCRPG, and Call of Cthulhu. I honestly don't know. 


6. Pheelanx Durrowphael: My entirely chaotic (and, to be honest, borderline chaotic evil by the time that campaign finally fizzled out after five years straight) 1/2 elf Magic User / Thief. He had a penchant for wild magic and just all around chaotic action. If it caused chaos, he was totally in the deep of it. As a result, he got caught up in the blood wars in a limited way, for instance, grabbing a fairly powerful devil (not and arch-devil, though) and dragging him (via teleport - but that's a different story) into the Abyss, to abandon him there once he had attracted the attention of several demons in the area. My DM took the idea of the Deck of Many Things and created a Wand of Many Things, which combined ten different tables of variations on the Deck of Many Things. He would use that wand a LOT, which got him in serious trouble a few times and got him out of serious trouble more than once. That many random results gave a lot of leeway for chaos, and Pheelanx loved every minute of it. It's a wonder he survived, but somehow, he did . . . barely. 

You'll note that some of his stats are preternaturally high. This is the result of using that Wand of Many Things so many times. I think he embraced chaos so much because, as a rule, he was very, VERY lucky!



7. As a rule, if I spend money on a TTRPG, I play it. Life's too short . . .


8. Favorite TTRPG for its art: Has to be Skyrealms of Jorune. Wow. Just wow. Incredible art. 


9. Favorite TTRPG for its writing: The Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Keeper Rulebook, Chapter 10: "Playing the Game". Everyone who runs any TTRPG of any system at all should read this chapter. I think I learned (and re-learned) more about running a game reading this than the previous, oh, 25 years or so of advice I had read before it. Yes, it's that good.


10. I have not yet played a journaling game, but I recently bought and reviewed Thousand Year Old Vampire, so I will be playing it, maybe this next year. 


11. I've played more hex crawls than I can number. But I prefer point crawls over hex crawls. 


12. I've designed many dungeons. I've published and sold a few of those dungeons


13. Outside of doing historical fencing with metal swords and daggers, no. But I have done rapier and dagger matches. Got kicked in the nuts the first time I did that and learned really quickly that historical fencing is not a sport, it's COMBAT!


14. See Wand of Many Things in section 6, above. Best. Magic. Item. Ever.


15. I played a really flirty thief character in the last Greyhawk campaign. He had . . . relationships. Um, yeah. 


16. Certain designer? Not really. I'm pretty loose and free with who designs what. If I like it and I think I can use it, I'll buy it. If not, I won't. 


17. I try to play a new TTRPG at every con I attend (usually I get to Garycon and Gameholecon each year). I'd like to play Vaesen in 2023. Tried to get in on a game in 2022, but they sold out quickly!


18. I'm going to answer the question I wanted to be asked here: What is the most memorable confrontation you've had with a villain in a TTRPG? The flirty thief I mentioned in section 15, above, Ryn was his name, was going through Return to the Tomb of Horrors. That is one tough mofo of a module, let me tell you! Anyway, we were squaring off with some Death Knights (yes, plural). We were getting pounded pretty good. Ryn had been saving a Potion of Gaseous Form for an outright emergency, and this was it. But rather than slink away while the rest of the party died, he made one last desperate attempt, a do-or-die proposition, to save the party. I asked the DM if gaseous form would allow me to enter a small hole, say 1/4" in diameter or so. He agreed, so Ryn, in gaseous form, snuck into the nostril of one of the Death Knights (who did not realize what was happening and failed his save and Magic Resistance rolls), then, once he had wiggled down to where the chest cavity was, shut off the effect of the potion. Ryn literally exploded the Death Knight from the inside out, essentially piercing the thing with his pair of magic daggers. The Death Knight was wearing platemail, so Ryn suffered substantial damage, but managed to hold on with just a couple of hit points left. And that was the end of the Death Knight. True story!


19. I don't know what this means. Yes, I have bled before. Sometimes profusely.


20. I was introduced to TTPRGs indirectly by one of my dad's friends named Bill Walters, in 1979. He actually gave me a copy of the Steve Jackson metagame "Rivets," which I became enamored with. Before he had a chance to get me to play a TTRPG, though, we moved from San Vito AFB, Brindisi, Italy (where Bill and my dad were stationed) to Sartell, Minnesota to live with my grandma while dad was getting cross-training. While in Minnesota, I discovered and bought the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album. We then moved to Offutt AFB, Omaha, Nebraska. A few months later, Bill was reassigned to Offutt and, with my mother's permission, he whisked me off to play D&D with a bunch of people 2 - 3 X my age. And the rest is history. 

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Saturday, December 17, 2022

A Trick of the Shadows

 

A Trick of the ShadowA Trick of the Shadow by R. Ostermeier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Broodcomb Press is doing some amazing things. Their trade paperbacks are, first of all, beautiful books - about the best quality you'll ever see in a TPB. Secondly, they are distinctive. There is no mistaking a Broodcomb book for something else, which speaks to their dedication to a tight, easily identifiable aesthetic; so kudos for that.

But what really stands out is, of course, the prose. I've previously reviewed The Night of Turns and Upmorchard and noted the style of both. They are smooth and and clean, and yet idiosyncratic, especially Ostermeier's voice. There's a certain "tic" that I can't quite suss out that is a sort of literary fingerprint. I'd have to spend more time than I have to pull out an example, but I know it when I read it. Something for me to watch when I next read another Ostermeier book (which I will). I'd love to know how much crafting goes into the writing - how many rewrites, edits, notebooks full of scratched out paragraphs, etc. I know my own experience, but what I wouldn't give to watch Ostermeier write a couple of stories from beginning to end.

And how do the stories in A Trick of the Shadow fare? I liked all of them, loved most of them. There were two that didn't hit home for me, but that's because of my personal tastes, not because of any fault on Ostermeier's part.

To start, Ostermeier folds Mark Fisher's notions of the weird and the eerie in on themselves in "A Tantony Pig". It is a disconcerting method, to say the least, and deeply affecting. I rarely get legitimately scared while reading a story. This was one of those that scared me, even with the lights all on and other people in the house. The unexplained mysteries left behind in the wake of the story make it even more effective. There's a lingering aura that one feels long after reading the closing words.

In "finery" the old phrase about the clothes making the man is transformed and split into the clothes making the woman and the woman making the clothes. Both are inextricably sewn together, the weave and weft of what one wishes to be and what one one must admit she is.

"The Chair" is as disturbing as the title is banal. A strange device may or may not allow one to see another's dreams. I'm reminded somewhat of the Christopher Walken movie "Brainstorm", but this is much more disturbing on a personal level. Children's dreams meet adult problems in this story of the loss of innocence amidst family dynamics where no one, yet everyone, is to blame. A strongly affecting story!

While I do like vagary in short stories, I don't like downright inscrutability. I found "The Object" more affecting than effective. Yes, there was an emotional response to reading it, but the utter chaos of the elements didn't work particularly well for me. Utter nihilism and loss, without some stirringly emotional connection feels empty and a bit academic. I supposed nothing's more horrific than academia. Still ... I liked the story, but didn't love it as much as I loved the others.

Body horror just isn't my thing. And "The Intruder" is all about body horror. It was highly unpleasant and disturbing, just like the experiences of the main character. The story was "clunky," and maybe that was by design. If so, it clearly engendered discomfort in this reader. Not that I like my reading comfortable. Au contraire. But stories that leave me feeling almost physically ill are not for me. Maybe for you? If so, this story is definitely for you.

I love folk horror. For folk horror of a different sort, "The Bearing" is hard to beat. The rurality and ritual tropes are present, but the horror doesn't arise from the strange inhabitants of the area. In fact they are trying to prevent the evil from gaining a foothold. Or a hoof-hold. One is left wondering if they actually succeeded, and the need for an annual rite all but ensures that some day they will get it wrong. But only once.

The longest story in the collection, "Bird-hags," is not easily categorizable, which means it's right in my wheelhouse. Part psychological horror, with a slight flicker of body horror, but a huge dose of cosmic ur-horror from the depths of our dreams, this novella hits many different notes, but hits each one soundly. The cosmic aspect is something disruptive to our world, yet uncaring. Not malevolent, just uncaring. I believe this is the sort of thing that Lovecraft was striving for, but Ostermeier uses far more simple language to greater effect, in this instance. This is possibly because the horror here is so darned personal. Perhaps it's because the narrator, while an adult, is showing the story from his childhood point of view, where innocence is slowly being eroded away.

A Trick of the Shadow is another gem in the Broodcomb Press crown. Gaze into it and let it dazzle your eyes! You will . . . see things . . .

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Thursday, November 17, 2022

Rayguns & Robuts an RPG Review

 Take one part Flash Gordon and one part Space Riders, mix liberally with system-agnostic role-playing game accoutrements and package in a digest-sized comic book. This is Rayguns & Robuts by Planet X Games.





Look at that fantastic sea monkey spoof. This gives you a pretty good idea of the mood of the whole thing. It even comes with a soundtrack!

And what do you get for your hard-earned deneros? Well, here's the TOC:


Yes, all that tasty goodness with a brief explanation of what "system agnostic" means. In short, no, you're not going to compromise your religious values by using this supplement (well, maybe you are, but there's no guarantee). What you will do is use the brains you've been gifted to slide the narrative pieces here into an existing game structure. Best to use this with a system with which you are familiar (I would suggest DCCRPG or The Simplest RPG System Out of This World, but you can use whatever you feel like. The offerings here are not tied to any particular system. There is almost no crunch here. You want crunch, you add crunch. You do you, man.

So, you might ask "is this a campaign world"? Well, yes and no. Mostly no. You'll find in here many heroes, antiheros, robuts, and worlds. The narrative descriptions act as signposts or "points of interest" in a potential campaign universe, but you fill in all the gaps. It's what we do with TTPRGs, right? Rayguns & Robuts is a starting point or, more properly, several starting points and waypoints. What's the end game? Up to you. Incidentally, I've been thinking that this could provide great material for a campaign that starts in the Ultraviolet Grasslands, then goes off-planet. If I were to do that, I'd be sorely tempted to use the Troika! RPG as my system. 

Well, if it's not a full campaign world and doesn't have any rules, what does it do for me? What am I paying for anyway?

You are paying to have your mind BLOWN! I'm listening to some heavy psych metal while I'm typing this and, you know what? It's entirely appropriate. R&R is a mind-expanding supplement meant to crack the spaces between your synapses clean open and let psycho-pulp laser pistols, killer robots, cyborg chimps, and astro-zombies worm their way through into the depths of your brain. This is all about vision and mental expansion, it is, dare I say it, a prompt for your imagination to run wild. And all this without the use of mind-altering substances (or with, if you prefer - I won't judge). I don't want to spoil all the fun by telling you about every little detail to be found herein, just be aware that there is a depth to the ouvre of this work. A "voice" if you will, like a writerly voice, that is unique and memorable and, above all, playable.

You are also paying for some of the best eye candy I've seen in an RPG supplement. Artists Ed Bickford, Lawrence Hernandez, Je Shields, Dan Smith, and James V. West (who did some of the art for my own Beyond the Silver Scream) provide a shockingly-effective visual treat that is eclectic, yet "of a piece". Think of the movie Heavy Metal (one of my favorites of all time), where several different artists come together to form a complimentary work of art that is greater than the sum of its p(art)s. 

There is an adventure in the back, which should provide a good starting point (or later waypoint, if you like) for a potential campaign. Now, I am partial to adventures with environmental hazards, but I realize that not everyone likes these. But if you do, you're in for a treat. Sure, there are a couple of monsters, but player characters are much more likely to accidentally bump themselves off than to be killed off by sentient (or at least semi-sentient) nasties. Not saying they won't be killed off by those nasties, but they are more likely to succumb to environmental hazards.

Don't you succumb to the hazards. Go buy this thing, already! Strongly recommended for acid-tripping psychonauts out to defeat killer machines - or those who want to be. Grab that raygun and GO!

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Saturday, November 12, 2022

Asterix und die Goten

 

Asterix und die Goten (Asterix, #7)Asterix und die Goten by René Goscinny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a kid, I grew up with Asterix, having discovered him when we moved to Italy in 1975. Asterix and the Goths was one of my absolute favorites. They're all great, but there was something about all the factional infighting among the various tribes of Goths that I found hilarious.

Fast forward to 2019, when my wife and I take a long-anticipated trip to Europe. A large part of that time was spent in Austria, with a couple of days in Germany (Frankfurt and Munich). We stopped in multiple bookstores, including a comic book store in Vienna and a used bookstore in Munich. I was specifically looking for this Asterix book auf Deutsch, but I could not for the life of me find it. Several stores had ALL of the Asterix books in German, except this one. Then I remembered that one of the speech bubbles had a Goth chieftain, who had just been thumped on the head with a club, swearing up a long string of explicatives (I thought of my German-swearing grandmother when I saw this). The swear words were represented by lots of different symbols, including (gasp) a swastika.

Then it dawned on me: the book had been banned because it has a Nazi symbol in it.

Germany, Austria, I love you, but . . . seriously? I'm all about punching nazis, but really?

Anyway, I eventually found a copy . . . on Ebay. I bought it right up because who knows how many of these will survive?

It's kind of strange how things turn. Banning books, in particular . . .

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