Monday, June 7, 2021

Vienna Part I

 After our visit to the UK, which ended on a wonderful, exhausting day hike, we were off to Heathrow the next day to fly into Munich. After a very pleasant talk with the Munich police (no, really, they were super nice) we entered Germany and drove our rental car to an outlying hotel where we spent the night before heading to Vienna the next day.

And by "rental car," I mean the Mercedes that I splurged on. It was almost my 50th birthday, and . . . you know . . . the Autobahn!!! Now for some, a Mercedes is pretty run-of-the-mill, but not to this guy, whose fanciest car ever is the Camry sitting in my driveway.

I should note, also, that I was almost born on the Autobahn. My Dad had to drive my Mom from Frankfurt to Wiesbaden, where the hospital was, when she was in labor with me. There was a traffic jam and my Dad, being a brash American, decided to drive up the shoulder to bypass traffic. Mom was apparently about to pop! And, of course, he was pulled over by the Polizei. However, like a scene out of a bad movie, when the officer saw my mom's condition, he turned on his siren and led my Dad up the shoulder of the Autobahn all the way to the hospital. I waited until we were inside to make my entry into the world.

So, I had a sort of affinity to the Autobahn. I made sure to watch a LOT of youtube videos on Autobahn etiquette, because I was certain (and correct) that driving like an American there would land me in handcuffs explaining myself to some US diplomat. 

I'll be honest: Germans (and Austrians) are some of the best drivers I've ever encountered. Granted, that's comparing them to drivers in Italy, the Philippines, and Utah (ugh, Utah drivers - UGH!!!!), but the combination of courtesy, a strict adherence to the rules of the road, and a certain confidence in their driving ability made driving the Autobahn a pure pleasure.

I'll anticipate your next question: How fast did you go? Well, I topped out at 225 KMH or so, or around 140 MPH. Yeah. That was good stuff. Would definitely do it again, in a heartbeat. Natalie got some really bad pics of me approaching that speed, but she was a little freaked out that she might bump my arm and make this our last drive ever, so she only got the following shot. To be honest, I was really worried about her bumping me, too. What is the quote from Mario Andretti? "If you're in total control of your car, you're not racing." Or something like that:


After checking in to our Air B-n-B (thank you, Vera, you were wonderful!) we got passes for the U-bahn and headed to Figlmüller, which is, from what I understand, fairly famous for its schnitzel. You can see the extensive "specials" menu in the background behind Natalie here. We chose . . . um, let's see . . . uh . . . oh, yeah . . . schnitzel!


And, oh my, if you're in Vienna, make the time to get a meal here. Oh my, oh my, oh my. I ate mine like any good Wisconsinite would:


Okay, so Door County isn't exactly accurate here, but we had been in Europe for a week. I just forgot the correct proportions. Besides, I like abstract art.

There was also a potato salad that was to die for, but pictures of potato salad are so blasé, I will pass. The chocolate cake at the end, however . . . you know, I'm typing this while fasting. Sometimes I really hate myself:


Then there was this apple-soda sort of thing that I absolutely fell in love with: Almdüdler. I had it a couple more times while we were over there. I need to find a US source for this. NEED . . .



Why do all the best things in German-speaking countries have "ü" in them? I don't know.

After dinner (Tip: You'll DEFINITELY want to get reservations ahead of time!), we headed to Stephansdom to check out that beautiful cathedral. 



And, lest we forget: Gargoyles are everywhere in Vienna:




Yes, it is as gorgeous in person as in the pictures. No, actually, it's better!

One bit of advice: If you visit Vienna, LOOK UP!!! There is so much gorgeous architecture there, from gothic to art nouveau to modern and everything in-between. It's an architectural historian's dream. For example, there's this building (I never did get the ID on this one, as with many buildings there, since I was too busy gawking to worry about names), which is right on Stephansdom Platz.


Or, there was this very cool modern building that faced Stephansdom. Note the thinned reflection of Stephansdom in the photo I took here.


Also note that in that upper window area was a statue that looked down (probably with great condescension) on the Platz. I couldn't tell what the statue was, but I got the impression that some power broker of some type had his office in there:


Most people just went about their business, completely ignorant of this inanimate onlooker. I had about a dozen story ideas flash through my brain when I saw this. I'll need to work on those.

And we saw this beautiful art-deco cornerpiece on our way to the Secession building:


I had visions of Wim Wender's "Wings of Desire" here. No, it's not Berlin, but this style would have fit right into the movie. Or maybe "Blade Runner"?

On to the Vienna Secession building, which was absolutely stunning. Here, try pictures, not words:






Again: more beautiful in person, but you get the idea. I'd say this was my favorite building that we saw on our entire Europe trip. I was absolutely gobsmacked.

After waking up from that architectural dream, we took the U-Bahn (the transportation system that makes Vienna one of the most "livable" cities I've visited) to Marien Theresa Platz. I'll skip the history lesson (you can look up Maria Theresa on the interwebs) and show our first impression of the old Empress:


Yep, she had her back to us, the old snob. So we favored her by going around front:



As you can see, night was falling, so we turned our backsides to her (turnabout's fair play, as they say) and headed for Hofburg Palace and the surrounding buildings. 



The palace was all nice and such, but I had really come to see . . . Orcs?


Isn't that some fine, fine Orcitechture? And don't try to tell me it's not an orc, it totally is, and you are wrong!

There was an interesting building that was obviously made for grand entrances and exits to the palace grounds that we quite liked:



Hercules beats people up, absconds with women, you know, his typical schtick. What I love the most about this, though is this lion "hiding" atop the gate (#rollforinitiative):


And these decked out battle maidens:


I would totally want these paladin-ladies (Paladiens?) in my adventuring party. They are ready to rumble!

Lastly, there was this super-cool piece of statuary of an aquatic nature, though I'm not sure which myth it represents. Anyone? Bueller?

When we approached this statue, some guy was taking a picture of someone who was either his sister or his girlfriend and she looked EXACTLY like the woman at the top of the statue. I mean EXACTLY (well, except for the clothing). I didn't get a picture of her, unfortunately. But somehow, even though I tried hard to protect people's privacy, I caught some girl who had weaseled her way in just as I was taking my shot. She most definitely did not look like the statue and was, I am hoping, cursed by the goddess of the statue to be . . . I don't know, infested by eels or sea urchins or something?



On the way back to our place, we did some window shopping. We spotted the following in a window and were sad that we didn't have hundreds of Euros to just blow on an outfit for our grandson that he'd outgrow in a few months.


Is that not the kyooootest little boy outfit you've ever seen? Oh that I had money to throw around like that. *sigh*.

Then, of course, I spotted the following jacket in a window (the first of many such jackets I would lust after and not be able to justify buying):


So, our sartorial ambitions crushed by financial reality, we went back to our Air BnB to rest up for the next day and our visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Opium and Other Stories

 

Opium and Other StoriesOpium and Other Stories by Géza Csáth


This is a tale about a book. Not this book only, but a specific copy of this particular book, the one that's sitting on the desk in front of me as I type this up.

I had not heard of Csath until a few months ago, when this book arrived as part of an exchange package with an author whose work I greatly admire. I traded one of my books for one of his and he sent "extras". I was very pleased with this, and this copy of Opium and Other Stories was part of the package. I saw that there was an introduction by Angela Carter and thought "well, if she wrote the intro, it can't be all that bad". And, of course, Opium. The connection to decadence (as well as the cover art - clearly from the Symbolist era, my favorite era of art) told me that I would at least like some of the stories contained therein.

I was mistaken. I liked all of the stories, and a few of them were exceptional.

But we'll get to that in a moment. Back to the story about the book. I was told that there were some pages missing from the book, but I completely and utterly forgot this by the time I began reading it. I don't typically look ahead at what I'm going to read outside of checking the next story up (in order to ascertain if I can read it with the time remaining that day/lunch hour/whatever or if I need more time, as I am an admittedly slow reader). So, I "discovered" (re-discovered, really) that some pages were missing . . . and to be quite honest, the missing pages made me love the book all that much more. Why? Because I am not a fan of tidy endings. And because I hate it when authors spoon-feed me too much information. I like the mystery of maybe not fully understanding everything that happened in a novel or story. Sure, I like to know enough to follow the thread, but I abhor when the author tries so desperately to tie off every single loose end. I much prefer that the author let me use my imagination to fill in the blanks and make the connections. That way, the story becomes "mine" in a way. And it sticks in my brain better that way. I am more vested in the happenings, the characters, even the setting if some bit of it is left to my imagination.

In this case, it wasn't the author who did this, it was the fact that a few pages were physically missing from the work. One story (the title story, in fact) was without a beginning, so I had to imagine one up. Another was missing the end, so I . . . imagined one up myself. Now, I wouldn't want to do this with something with an overly complex plot and lots of characters, but in this case, with these short stories, it worked for me and worked for me quite well.

Who was Csáth? He was a gifted neurologist who wrote on the side and who struggled with a powerful opium addiction throughout his short life. At one point he shot and killed his wife and tried to commit suicide, but was unsuccessful and was, thence, institutionalized. He escaped and, after being stopped by Serbian border guards, he swallowed poison, this time successfully committing suicide. A tragic life, to be sure, and one can sense traces of a troubled mind throughout these works, a few of which give graphic descriptions of animal torture and murder (of both animals and humans). there is no doubt that his artistic side was overshadowed with darkness. At least one of these stories ("The Black Silence"), I would consider required reading for horror aficionados. Had his work been available in English translation sooner and had his work been more widely distributed, I feel that this work would have been considered a classic.

But again, I'm getting ahead of myself. To remedy that, let me introduce my notes to the various stories:

"The Magician's Garden" is a wonderfully evocative tale of mysteries, somehow obfuscated by the characters' frank admittance of them. Attila Sassy's illustrations (peppered throughout the book) lend a distorted elegance to Csáth's beautiful prose. The words are strongly redolent of symbolism, the art somewhere between Beardsley and Klimt, with an utterly alien quality unique to Sassy.

"Paul and Virginia" is a simple story, self-effacingly so. And yet, with one small twist, Csáth sends the whole setup into a maelstrom of conflicting emotion. Iys incredibly effective for a four page piece of what moderns would call "microfiction". But there's nothing micro about it. This little twist sends the story well beyond the bounds of the words, deepens them into mixed poignancy and, perhaps, regret.

I want to say that "An Afternoon Dream" is a brilliant symbolist tale. But I don't really know what that means. Reminiscent of Symbolist art, I suppose (I am reminded of Gustave Moreau, in particular, or, perhaps - a bit later - Fernand Khnopff or Klimt), though this might just be some kind of artistic synesthesia which I suffer. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful tale, mythic, poetic, and, yes, brilliant.

"Saturday evening" is a quaint recollection of domestic life, with the ambiguously sinister (?) Sandman waiting in the wings, watching, looming.

don't think that it was just the name "Trepov" in the title "Trepov on the Dissecting Table" that made me think of Nabakov. No, the voice is similar, and the peasants-eye view of day to day life in the face of death was Nabakov to a "T". Strong echoes of the Russian here. Oh, and the story really is all about Russians.

"Erna" is a bitterly funny morality tale. It is, like most of the stories herein, very brief, so to say too much is to spoil it. It is a brilliant and cutting character study with a bit of a twisted sense of humor, which is to say, I liked it quite a bit.

At first, I thought that "The Surgeon," with its philosophical allusions, would delve into the depths of the epistemology of time, but the story took an abrupt term toward physiology that reveals the titular surgeon as an absinthe-addled madman. My kind of guy, truth be told.

"Meeting Mother" is a ghost story, I suppose, but different than any other ghost story I've read. Or it is a hallucination, who can tell?

"Murder" strips the act of any kind of romantic notions and wallows in the utterly futile banality of what it feels like to take another man's life. It's disturbing for the profound emotional effect it has on the one telling the tale. The continuously surging regret is palpable.

Don't let the title fool you, "Little Emma" is the most horrific thing I've read in a long time - animal torture, caning, and hangings throughout. This is highly disturbing stuff!

And, oddly, the next page in this copy of the book is missing, so I'm going to start the next story "Opium" three pages in, not knowing what came before. Intriguing . . . an adventure!

Csath gives an interesting argument for "Opium," namely that only during the transcendental high are we truly alive, and what appears to be hours to the outside are thousands of years to those who are living. Thus, it's all worth the sacrifice. While I don't agree that it's all worth it, I've been in that headspace before, and it's always a temptation to dive back in. Too bad Csath imploded.

What's a decadent collection of stories without a tale of insanity and unfaithfulness? Such is "A Young Lady".

"Festal Slaughter" is a tale of peasants, but not idyllic. These are rough people, treated roughly, especially Rosie, whose only respite from her hard life and the harder life to come, lay in the comforts of sleep. I wonder if Jonathan Wood's excellent novella The Deepest Furrow wasn't at least partially inspired by this tale.

"A Joseph in Egypt" is a wonderful subversion of the story of Potiphar's wife in the form of a dream. It evokes a certain dream sense of simultaneous longing and contentment that often accompanies the best dreams.

"Musicians" is a communally-depressing piece, well, maybe just more fatalistic, about an end of an era and those who got out just in time. Reminiscent of Steven Millhauser's work, in ways, but definitely a step darker in mood (which is saying something, if you've read much of Millhauser).

I am absolutely convinced that if "The Black Silence" had a wider audience, it would be considered a classic of horror literature. It is an extremely effective story packed into very few words. It is written such that the emotional effect bursts out far beyond the confines of the story itself. This really is a must read!

"Railroad" teaches a hard lesson: silence and inaction exact a price, a festering inner rot from which one cannot escape. Brutality must be met with justice, or the brutalized may decline, even die, because justice has not been sought by the victim.

"Toad" is the first story in this volume that was a decidedly "meh" story. I suppose it was inevitable. Not a bad story, just so-so.

"The Pass" the highly-erotic tale of a young man's journey across fields of nude figures, is balanced on the edge between Symbolism and Surrealism. One is left wondering what to think of the observer/narrator and his cultural milieu as much as how to puzzle out the protagonist's actions and inaction.

My copy of this book is missing the last page of the story "Matricide". I love that fact. It makes this book unique and quirky. Now, I shall have to make up an ending:

The constable discovered their mother dead the next morning. Irene's father, a drunkard who had been out the night before, was blamed for the crime. The elder married Irene, then the younger tortured and killed them both. The end.

I chose to listen to a black metal album while reading "A Dream Forgotten" just for some background music, specifically Andavald's album "Undir skyggoarhaldi". Turns out, this was the perfect soundtrack of anguished dirges for this story. Perfect, or as the narrator laments: "Horrible. Horrible."

Anyone who has spent time alone with the dead remains of a loved one knows the poignancy and strange, numb pain of the story "Father, Son". I'm one of those. This story breaks my heart a little bit more. Simple, but powerful for those who know, and I know . . .

"Souvenir" is a reminiscence of an author (not Csáth himself, I mean, but a character in his story) that touches on the hidden pangs of longing after a lost, young love, the premature ending and subsequent spoiling of a nascent youthful romance. I remember those feelings . . .

"The Magician Dies" is strangely prescient, at least by way of Symbolism, of Csáth's forthcoming death by opium, or by reason of opium (via suicide). A haunting choice for the last story in this remarkable volume, tying the artist to his legacy through one of his own stories. Yes, "haunting" is exactly the right word.

And "haunting," like the feeling slightly sickening feeling that one has after reading highly disturbing works, but with less "ick" factor, is how I would describe the collection. There is no doubt that this was written by an opium addict. Even without the explicit references to drug use, one can sense the dream-like quality (some of the stories are explicitly about dreams, obviously) tainted with an underlying darkness, a sinister something lurking within many of the narrative voices throughout the work that struggles with an epiphanic, almost angelic other that pulls the reader simultaneously heavenward and down to hell. Csáth's life was clearly spent being torn in both directions and ultimately torn apart by those diametrically-opposed pulls. Would that his life (not to mention his wife's) not ended so, but one wonders what his stories might have been like had he not suffered so. We'll never know, just as I'll never know the true beginning or ending of two of the stories in this volume - and I don't care to know. Let me live my mystery!

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Flowers of Evil: fleurs du mal in pattern and prose

 

Flowers of Evil: fleurs du mal in pattern and proseFlowers of Evil: fleurs du mal in pattern and prose by Charles Baudelaire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Was this the most amazing book of poetry I've ever read? No, though I would have a difficult time nailing down exactly which one is (though Mark Valentine's At Dusk would be a strong contendor). Is it among the better books of poetry I've read, absolutely. It's easy to see why people both revere(d) and revile(d) Baudelaire. Take this line, for instance, from "Hymn to Beauty":

So to her heart she ravens back the spume of her loathing . . .

I look at this as a near-perfect sentence. The use of "ravens" as a verb, rather than a noun (or the adjective "ravenous"), is absolutely spot-on for the context. How could one better describe being on the edge of exploding, but forcing oneself to pull that emotion inside and let it fester? This is the type of sentence that makes me, as a writer, envious.

On the other hand, when one looks at the whole poem (or Hymn, in this case), one wonders if Baudelaire was not bordering on misogynism? At the very least, he has a dark view of beauty, like he has been spurned too many times and is thinking about becoming a serial killer. Not the kind of guy I'd like to hang out with, even in a writer's group. But, perhaps I misread him?

Or, perhaps he was simply trying to be decadent. Some might argue that he is trying too hard. I would tend to agree in some instances, disagree in others. There are moments when his purple prose is too treacle-laden even for this lover of baroque forms, words, and constructions. At other times, he shows just enough restraint (ravens his words?) to give his expansive vocabulary and sometimes-convoluted structures the extra kick that good poetry ought to deliver.

I will say, though, that reading this, and particularly this edition of Flowers of Evil has left a strong impression on me and has opened a well from which I will almost inevitably draw. This is the sort of work that influences, whether by pushing writers to write more like him or by pushing them away, to be more intentional about specifically not writing like him. And why is this edition so good? I have three good reasons, though I cannot speak to the translation itself. My French is terrible and, truth be told, nearly non-existent (the only class I failed in college was French for Reading Knowledge - though I can read a fair amount of French. That debacle of a class had everything to do with bad pedagogy, but I digress . . .). The first reason is simply the book's overall design. This 1947 edition has an engraved cover with the design you see in the little cover photo, but the colors are reversed on mine. There is a simple elegance to it, and that engraved cover feels good in the hand, literally. Besides, I get that old book smell out of this volume more than most of my other books. Reading this version is a tactile, olfactory experience. Second, the layout is not in versified form. I find that reading this work as prose-poetry works far batter than trying to read it in carefully laid-out verse. There is a certain flow to Baudelaire's work, or at least to this translation, that would become disjointed and choppy were it all laid out just so. Finally, there is the art by Beresford Egan. It is highly transgressive and would sit well alongside Aubrey Beardsley's most risque, erotic works. There is an expressionism that "breaks" Beardsley's sinuous lines, however, giving the illustrations a decidedly more modern feel.

As I said earlier, this is the kind of work that influences. To illustrate this, let me end with Baudelaire's outstanding poem "A Voyage to Cythera". I'm not sure if this poem influenced Richard Calder's under-rated novel Cythera, but my mind kept popping with mental imagery from the novel after I read this poem . . . three times in a row. Maybe that's just my psychic connection, but I think I can feel the influence there. Even if that's not the case, the feeling of "the weird" that has spawned its own sub-genre is just seething throughout this piece. But here, I'll let it speak for itself, and end there:

A Voyage to Cythera

My heart as a bird fluttered exulting, and fearlessly hovered around the high rigging. 'Neath a cloudless sky rolled the vessel as an angel who of the sun's radiance too deeply had drunk.

But what is this isle, dark and sad?

'Tis Cythera, land famous in song, banal Eldorado of all the old bachelors. See, after all, it is but a poor country.

Cythera, isle of soft secrets and of love's revels, o'er whose seas, as a perfume, hovers the haughty phantom of Venus of old, loading men's spirits with languorous love; fair isle of green myrtles and blowing flowers, for ever by every nation revered, where adoration's sighs roll as fragrance over a garden of roses or the murmurous cooing of doves never-ending - thou wast no more than a spare, barren waste, a stony desert distraught by shrill cries. Yet there mine eyes a singular object descried.

No temple was it, with green shading groves, whose flowers would see their young priestess, with robe to the passing breezes agape, striving to ease her body of the secret fires that consumed it. But, as we skirted the coast so near that our white sails raised the birds in flight, we saw, as a dark cypress against the clear heavens sharply etched, a three-branched gibbet, wherefrom a rotten carcase hun. Savage birds perched there were greedily riddling their prey, thrusting their foul bills, as awls, in the bloody crannies of its stinking mass. Two yawning holes were the eyes; the belly gaped shameless and from it hung heavy the uncoiled intestines that flowed down the thighs. Its hideous executioners, gorged on their unspeakable delicacies, had with their beaks pulled and rent it to tatters. Beneath the feet, in envy of this glutting, roved a pack of creatures, with raised muzzles sniffing the spreading reek, ceaselessly turning hither and thither. One, out-topping the rest, restlessly paced as an executioner amid his assistants.

Cythera's denizen, child of so fair a sky, in silence didst thou these insults suffer, to expiate the infamous cult and the sins that have cut thee off from the tomb.

Ridiculous carcase, thy pangs are mine. At sight of thy limbs in mid air hanging, I felt to my teeth as a vomit rising the gall of my ancient sorrows' long stream. Before thee, poor wretch, reaping thy harvest so sweet, have I felt the crows' probing beaks and the black panthers' jaws, which once did lacerate my flesh.

Lovely the sky, unbroken the sea; but for me thereafter was all black and bloody. Of this allegory wove I my heart's black winding-sheet. In Venus' isle naught did I find save mine own image on a gibbet raised.

Great God, give me the courage and the strength to look upon my body and my heart without disgust.


View all my reviews

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Red Right Hand Patron for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

 Preamble: I've done this thrice before, once for the Mold Mother Patron AI for Mutant Crawl Classics, RPG, once for Supreme Brainskull Commander Patron for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, and once for The Dimensional Dogs Patron for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (which you can also find in my DCC adventure, Beyond the Silver Scream, which you should, of course, go buy now if you haven't already done so - and for those who have, a hearty "Thank you!"). But doing up a Patron for DCC/MCC, I've learned, is really, really hard work. So, this time, I've left out Patron Spells. They are, as you can imagine, a huge pain. I might do some in the future . . . maybe. In the meantime, though, I'd suggest gorging your ears on a bunch of Nick Cave (and the Bad Seeds or The Birthday Party, or whatever flavor of Cave suits your fancy) for inspiration and come up with some spells of your own. That way, we can spread the wealth, as it were. Also, if I were a player, I . . . probably wouldn't take Red Right Hand as my patron unless I was in a really morbid mood/had a deathwish/just wanted to see what it would be like. It might be neat, though, to use a Wizard who has had this patron as an NPC, so long as he/she has had enough patron taint to be really . . . well, unique. You'll see what I mean below. TRIGGER WARNING: I do reference depression and other mental illnesses here, so please steer clear if these are too sensitive of a topic for you. No worries, I've seen and experienced my share of mental illness. There's help and there's hope! With those caveats, I present to you your new lord and master, Red Right Hand.

Red Right Hand

If you were raised in the ghettos or the barrio or the bowery or the slums, you've seen him. You might have only caught furtive glances from alleys or felt that the flickering streetlight on that trash-strewn intersection had a presence, a force that hinted at quiddity, a movement behind the squalor and gravel-encrusted loneliness of abandoned streets and cracked, weed-infiltrated walkways.

If you concentrate long enough, or if you don't get out of the gutter quickly enough from your vomit-riven, headache-split reverie, full of regret and bile from the night before, you might just see him as he is. Or, at least, as he wishes to present himself to you. If so, this is your witness:

A tall man waring a black trench coat and fedora approaches. As he grows nearer, you notice that he holds his right hand inside the chest-fold of his coat. Crooked under his left arm is a sheaf of green papers inked with cryptic sigils that seem to move about the page and metamorphose of their own volition. The man's face is incredibly handsome and you are drawn in by his warm smile and friendly demeanor, which cuts through the dread of ineluctable doom you felt when you first saw him. he withdraws his hand from the trench coat and offers it to you in a friendly token of good will. The hand is as red as blood.

Invoke Patron Check Results

12-13   "He'll wrap you in his arms, tell you that you've been a good boy." For the next turn, you gain a +1 bonus to any Personality checks or Will saves. 

14-17  "He'll rekindle all the dreams it took you a lifetime to destroy." For the next 1d4 turns, all Will saves are made two steps up the die chain. If you would normally roll a D20, for instance, you make your Will save on a D30 for 1d4 turns.

18-19   "He'll reach deep into the hole, heal your shrinking soul." You are cured of all damage and have a temporary "bonus" of +20% of your normal maximum hit points for 1d8 rounds, after which you return to the level of your hit points as they were before this effect took place or -20% below maximum hit points, whichever is less.

20-23  "You don't have no money? He'll get you some" A bag of 500 gold pieces appears at your feet. Of course, you are expected to pay it back, with interest. The 500 gold pieces, along with an additional 500 gold pieces, comes "due" in one month. The 1,000 gold pieces must be paid as a donation to a local thieves' guild (which could prove problematic in and of itself - this has to be a formal gift, not just a dumping off of funds. You need to talk with the guild representatives.). If the 1,000 gold pieces are not paid to a local thieves' guild, a representative of the Red Right Hand will come to collect. this representative will always be a demon of some type (see the DCC RPG rulebook for how to "construct" a demon). If, somehow, the debtor is successful in defeating the demon, two more will arrive in one month's time, and the debt will increase to 2,000 gold pieces; then to three demons and 4,000 gold pieces, etc. until the debt is either paid in full or the debtor is dragged down to hell to suffer for a number of years equal to the number of gold pieces owed at the time of their capture.

24-27   "You don't have no car? He'll get you one." You get a car. Roll a d8 to determine the make and model. You choose the color: 1) Corvette Stingray (you pick the year, any year), 2) Mercedes AMG GT 63 S, 3) Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato (yes, of course with the wood interior), 4) Bentley Continental GT Speed (Judge Forrest's choice!), 5) Lamborghini Aventador, 6) Ferrari 812 Superfast, 7) El Camino (with a blower and 8-track player and your choice of five 8-tracks), 8) Bugatti Veyron. The tank is full! Take it for a spin! But for every turn you drive the car, you must make a DC 18 Will Save or have a deep depression fall over you that will force you to drive into a tree, pylon, or friend at top speed. This affects anyone who drives the car. Maybe you'll just want to let it sit? Besides, can you really afford the insurance for that hot rod?

28-29   "You don't have no self-respect, you feel like an insect, well don't you worry buddy, 'cause here he comes". A 30' tall spectre, in the form of Red Right Hand, strolls forward in the sight of everyone within the Wizard's line of sight, distance notwithstanding. This has several effects on anyone on anyone within that line of sight, friend or foe of the spellcaster: 1) all except the spellcaster are affected as if by a "Turn Unholy," the check being made at D30+2. Those that remain are subject to further effects, as follows: 2) All must make a morale check every round or flee, immediately, at top speed in a randomly-determined direction for 1d6 full turns, 3) All are at -4 to Initiative, 4) All luck bonuses are nullified - Luck penalties remain, 5) All Personality bonuses are nullified - Personality penalties remain. The spectre remains for 1d20 turns, after which it dissipates with an odor of asphalt mixed with rubbing alcohol. The spellcaster permanently loses 1 point of Personality each time this effect is used.

30-31   "You'll see him in your nightmares, you'll see him in your dreams." The sky grows black and lightning flashes, but only for an instant: long enough for all within 500' to have the residual image of the Red Right Hand imprinted on their retinae for 1 full turn. When those who have been exposed to this affect attempt to rest or sleep, they must make a DC 16 Will save to get a restful night's sleep, else they are tormented by dreams and nightmares of encountering the Red Right Hand amongst dilapidated buildings, overgrown railyards (whatever those are), and among pollution-belching smokestacks. Characters that do not get a restful night's sleep do not heal either hit point loss or ability loss. They also suffer temporary loss in ability scores as follows: 1 Day) No appreciable effect, 2 Days) All Agility bonuses are lost and the character suffers -1 to Agility, Personality, and Intelligence until a night of rest is obtained, 3 Days) All Agility, Strength, Personality, and Intelligence bonuses are lost and all of these scores are reduced by a further -3 points, 4 days) All ability scores are reduced an additional -8 points Any character whose ability score drops to zero, even temporarily, dies. The effects of these dreams and nightmares last 1d5 days or until the first restful night of sleep is obtained, after which there are no further effects. Note that each individual is affected separate from all other individuals - each person seeing the lightning-burned image of the Red Right Hand rolls 1D5 separately to determine how many days the image (and the dreams) lingers.

32+      "He'll appear out of nowhere, but he ain't what he seems." All within line of sight of the spellcaster (regardless of distance) who fail a DC 20 Will save perceive every person around them as the Red Right Hand for the next 1d6 days. This is extremely unsettling and will quickly lead to fear and outright paranoia for the duration of this effect. Roleplay accordingly!

Patron Taint: Red Right Hand

When Patron Taint is indicated, roll 1d6 on the table below. When a spellcaster has acquired all six taints at all levels of effect, there is no need to continue rolling any more.

Roll                  Result

1                      A raven comes to visit the spellcaster whenever they go to seep. The visitant is completely deaf to its incessant cawing, but his or her companions are not. The second time this is rolled, a trio of ravens circles overhead during all waking hours. They do not bother the spellcaster, and they are silent, but they are always there. Always . . . The third time this is rolled, a raven sprouts from the spellcaster's shoulder flesh. This is actually a growth from the spellcaster's body. It caws and calls out to the ravens overhead and to the night-visitor raven. They are, after all, social animals. If removed, the spellcaster dies. 

2                      Whenever the spellcaster introduces him- or herself, a quill held in a floating Red Right Hand appears in the air, seemingly out of nowhere, writes the spellcaster's name as a glowing signature in the air, then disappears. The signature fades from sight in 1 round. The second time this is rolled, the same effect happens whenever the spellcaster attempts to cast a spell. This glowing signature remains above the spellcaster's head for one full turn before fading. The third time this is rolled, the spellcaster's signature is emblazoned on his forehead by the Red Right Hand. Nothing will remove it or stop it from glowing. This might cause problems when trying to go un-noticed, unless the forehead is covered with a hood or hat.

3                      The spellcaster smells of hot pitch and basement mold. It's off-putting enough that others might mention it. The second time this is rolled, the smell is intensified and one can actually see the stench radiating off the spellcaster's body in the form of wavy black lines emanating from the spellcaster. These lines radiate outward out to a full 3' length and are clearly visible in even reasonably well-lit conditions (such as in a dark tavern). The third time this is rolled, the earlier effects accrue and, on top of that, every time the spellcaster opens his or her mouth to speak, noxious fumes issue forth in the form of billowing, polluted green smoke. The overall stench, whether the spellcaster speaks or not, has become so intense that it results in a permanent loss of two points of Personality. 

4                      A black fedora appears on the spellcaster's head. the fedora worsens the wearer's armor class by 1 point when worn. For every turn spent without wearing the fedora, the spellcaster loses 1 hit point. .Hit points return at the normal rate of healing if the fedora is donned again. Destroying the fedora causes a permanent loss of 1d4 hit points to the spellcaster. The fedora can sustain one point of damage before being destroyed. Protect it! The second time this is rolled, a black trench coat appears on the spellcaster. Its effects are the same as those of the fedora, except in one case. Thus the spellcaster wearing both the fedora and the trench coat suffer a cumulative -2 to armor class and they lose 1 hp/turn for each item not worn. The one difference is that destroying the trench coat (which can take 1 point of damage before being destroyed) causes the wearer the permanent loss of 1d5 hit points . The third time this is rolled, a sheaf of green papers appears in the spellcaster's left hand. These are treated the same way as the fedora and trench coat, with the same worsening of armor class and loss of hit points, except that, should the papers be destroyed (1 hp), the spellcaster will suffer a permanent loss of half their hit points.

5                      The spellcaster feels a slap across his or her left cheek, and an audible slapping sound is heard. Permanently imprinted on that left cheek is the red mark of a hand. The second time this happens, the sound and sensation happen to the right cheek, this time leaving a permanent red outline as if someone had back-handed them. The third time, a dead, lolling red right hand grows from the spellcaster's hairline, like some morbid cocks-comb. If the spellcaster has already had his name scrawled across his forehead (see result #2, above), the hand has the letters of his name tattooed on the fingers. Cutting the hand off kills the caster. It gets in the way of . . . stuff. 

6                      The Red Right Hand is always scheming, and you must scheme, too! The spellcaster continually wrings their hands, hunches, and leers at people with sidelong glances, making them feel uncomfortable and mistrustful toward the spellcaster, at a minimum. The second time this is rolled, the spellcaster must constantly interrupt any planning that he hears going on around him and share his "expert opinion," even when the plan has absolutely nothing to do with him at all. Whether friend or foe or just plain stranger, the spellcaster just cannot help themselves from conspiring and interjecting how "the plan" can be made "better because of my genius!" even when there is no plan. This results in a permanent loss of one point of personality and usually results in the spellcaster being banned from kitchens and forbidden from watching recipe demonstrations. The third time this is rolled, the spellcaster must: 1) always be right, 2) always be scheming, 3) always make any action un-necessarily complicated, even when, or especially when there is a simple solution, 4) always interfere with another's successful completion of anything the spellcaster deems is "a plan". Only he can properly finish a plan! Everyone else is too stupid to see how the plan should be carried out and concluded! So he will intentionally subvert any plan that doesn't allow his efforts to be the crowning feat of a (un-necessarily complicated) scheme! The spellcaster's Personality score is cut in half, permanently, which usually precedes the spellcaster being cut in half, permanently.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Best of Beardsley

 

The Best of BeardsleyThe Best of Beardsley by R.A. Walker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Next year, I will have been alive twice as long as the ill-fated Aubrey Beardsley lived. And yet, it was at about the age he died that I became enamored of his work. I has seen his work here and there, but remember that this was before the internet had been populated with every desirable image you'd ever want (and many you wouldn't). My real introduction to his work came as an undergraduate humanities student nestled comfortably away in the Special Collections (read: Rare Books) room, where I discovered a set of books that would fix my love for late Victoriana forevermore: The Yellow Book: An Illustrated Quarterly.

When asked about why I became so enamored of Beardsley's work, I respond: "Why wouldn't I?" I really think it best to just let the work speak for itself. You know, a picture is worth . . .?

The Best of Beardsley a few of his images from Yellow Book Quarterly, but steps far beyond that short-lived (and seemingly doomed, once Oscar Wilde was arrested) relationship between Beardsley and editor John Lane. These were the drawings that really cemented his reputation, but before this there were earlier illustrations for Wilde's play Salome and the romantic poem Mort Darthur (none of which are included in this volume, being considered a sort of juvenalia), among others. And, of course, his art continued for several years after his ignominious departure from Lane's publication. The opprobrium that struck Wilde did little to taint Beardsley's output and, in fact, increased his fame and exposure to adherents of fin-de-siecle decadence. Unfortunately, tuberculosis killed him at the young age of 26 years, just as his art was hitting new heights of style and composition.

The introduction to The Best of Beardsley is one of the better introductions to an art book that I've had the privilege of reading. Of course all the biographical details are there (but let's face it, you can just go to Wikipedia to find this information), but what really stands out is R. A. Walker's analysis of the four phases of Beardsley's work, four phases that I had missed until I read this introductory essay and was able to cross-reference if with the full-page black and white plates that compose the vast majority of the book. But even at about 110 illustrations, we still are only seeing "The Best of". Notably absent are his explicit, one would have to say downright pornographic works, which even the Tate Museum housed in a different, restricted-access room in their 2020 exhibition of his work.

I see you combing the internet for those. Naughty, naughty. Honestly, I prefer to retain a little Victorian prudery in this regard. Besides, as Walker points out several times, Beardsley's sumptuous costumes are oftentimes the center of attention, and rightfully so. Take the Pre-Raphaelites' attention to detail and distil it down to sweeping, textured black-and-white illustrations, add a touch of whimsy, a pinch of, one must admit, Orientalism, and some intentional disproportion and, voila! Beardsley!

This art collection is not nearly enough Beardsley, but it can legitimately argue for being "The Best of," in large part because of the context given the illustrations by Walker's essay. Recommended.

View all my reviews

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Secret Life of Puppets

 

The Secret Life of PuppetsThe Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I haven't read a book with marking pencil in hand since graduate school. That was a long, long time ago. This book forced my pencil out of retirement and back into action. The difficult part was not marking nearly every page with something so profound that I wanted to memorize it.

I recently read Arthur Machen's Heiroglyphics and just last year I read Gary Lachman's Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, two incredible books about the need to temper "scientism," for lack of a better term (it's a term that Nelson uses, as well) and to expand the critical use of the Imagination. Nelson would use different terminology: Empiricism versus Transcendentalism, but she traces, essentially, the same lines of thought. Although rather than the artistic evaluation of Machen or the esotericism of Lachman, Nelson traces a socio-anthropological path through the maze of the past two millennia (and beyond), following an unbroken Ariadne's thread that begins and ends (an intellectual ourobos, if you will) with our individual and societal desire to reach for the transcendent, to at least want to believe that there is something beyond this pale existence.

The short version of the thesis is that the idea of an underworld (or, by extension, Plato's cave) was transformed during the Renaissance into the mundus subterraneous, a world beneath the crust of our earth, then to terra incognita, most notably in the form of the Arctic and Antarctic, and after these had all been explored and revealed, our desires turned to the outer worlds beyond earth and to the inner worlds of, among others, cyberspace. All of this exploration, Nelson convincingly argues, is born of a desire to know the unknowable, to transcend our meager lives, to be a part of something grand. She does not engage in psychological speculation on a societal scale as to what causes this drive, merely traces our desires by way of "low" literature, and . . . puppets.

One of the more interesting pieces of this exploration is seeing how man, in past ages, worshipped graven images - anthropomorphic statues imbued with some mystical aura of power, then turned that worship on its head to eventually become a fear of inanimate "men" (or women). We witness the transformation from Baal to Punch to Pinocchio to Maschinenmensch to Terminator to Chucky, with many branchings-off in-between. First, man worships the puppet, then they manipulate the puppet (fulfilling the theandric urge for some kind of false apotheosis), then they fear the manipulation of the puppets they have created.

While Nelson does avoid the psychological analysis of society as a whole, she does give examples of those whose individual psychosis reflect this push-me, pull-me dynamic of manipulating and being manipulated, particularly when it comes to the diaries of Daniel Paul Schreber and the woman who inspired the "false Maria" of Metropolis, a patient of Viktor Tausk, one of Freud's disciples. The analysis of psychosis and particularly schizophrenia in the context of The Secret Life of Puppets makes for a poignant reminder that real lives are affected in real ways by these perceptions.

But the book is largely about a deep dive into popular literature, cinema, etc., to see where we, as a society, long to discover the transcendental, long after "high" society has relegated such longing to the ghetto of ignorance (in their view). Nelson hits many favorites of mine throughout: The movies of Brothers Quay, the fiction of Philip K. Dick, "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe, Lovecraft, The Matrix, the works of Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz, the German expressionist movies The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, and Der Golem - the list of personal touch-points goes on and on. And I was rewarded with learning of some new or previously un-seeen/un-read cinematic and literary works which I shall have to explore. I also made some of my own connections (as with Machen and Lachman, above) such as the connection between the earthly and celestial poles and another of my favorite problematic and uncategorizable books, Hamlet's Mill.

This will be reread, probably many times, but next time I'll know to have my marking pencil ready before I crack the cover.



View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism

 

Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, PostmodernismArt Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism by Hal Foster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two years and three months, with frequent interruptions and long stretches of lassitude; this is what it took to finish this tome.

I cannot begin to impart the knowledge contained herein. This could easily fill a two-semester university course, especially if one were to read the ancillary readings in the suggested reading lists contained at the end of each chapter. I was a humanities major as an undergrad, and would have loved to have had this book as a reference. Modernism and post-modernism got short-shrift in my studies. Yes, we touched on some of the major movements (Cubism, Expressionism, The Vienna School, Bauhaus, Futurism, etc.), but this volume delves much deeper, especially on the level of academic analysis, than we were ever able to get in my undergraduate years.

But that doesn't mean the work is without problems. Au contraire, I found that the biases toward one school or another sometimes overwhelmed the analysis and even overshadowed and occluded the art itself. This was especially true in the essays where Freudian analysis was given so much emphasis that the essays turned into pastiches of their own intellectual position. The Marxist analysis came in a close second place in its ability to obfuscate the works themselves. Yes, both are useful, and there are some good insights gained from both, but the writers' confidence in their respective schools turned into over-confidence, at times, and undercut their overall theoretical arguments.

One thing that is presented successfully is the scattered nature of modernism and post-modernism. Influences cannot be seen in a strictly linear fashion, as have might have been the case in earlier artistic eras. The introduction of new media (photography, film), as well as the intentional anachronisms introduced into modern art (Primitivist art, Art Brut, Outsider Art) muddle the picture. Also, the intentional subversion of art itself and its presentation, especially from the 1970s onward, served to tie any linearity up in Gordian knots.

Keep in mind that this is a textbook, not an art book, per se. Yes, there are some beautiful and compelling plates throughout, but you'll note very quickly that there is a relative weakness of visual presentation vis-a-vis the written presentation: i.e., for every piece of art shown, another four or five are referenced that are not in the book, and sometimes those referents are critical to making sense of the words that refer to the pieces that are in the book.

Am I glad I read it? Absolutely. Will I ever read it again? Absolutely not. And if I read another paragraph of Freudian analysis like some of those found herein, I am going to need therapy. So, approach the book, but do so with caution. You will be better for having read it, and you will gain insights into art that you otherwise would not have found. In other words, this book could make you smarter (or at least sound smarter), but at the cost of developing a strong (or even stronger) aversion to academic blathering.

View all my reviews