Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Lich Keep Getting Licher

 I've been in love with Liches since 1979. It was this picture, from the Official Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Coloring Album that caught my eye. 

It was love at first sight. And I was reunited with this, my first undead crush, a few years back. Curiosity got the best of me in the years between, and I . . . um . . . got to know others: Vecna, Vlaakith, and Acererak, to name a few. I learned to love them for who they were (and eternally are). Don't judge. There's nothing worse than Lich-shaming . . . 

But I sometimes grow weary of the old story: crazed mage/priest decides to seek eternal life through elaborate and expensive magic rituals that cause them to become even more crazed (and undead). You know all the tropes. Here, I'd like to propose a few alternate ideas for how certain ex-people (and ex-non-people) became liches. You can figure out how their powers manifest, stat them out, etc. These are just ideas of origin-stories, if you will. Consider this a surprise gift to kick-start your imagination, your campaign, or whatever. The details are all up to you.

Variant Liches:

  1. A young boy with an oversized nose wishes upon a star. That star happens to be a manifestation of Orcus (a gleam in his eye, to be exact). The boy gets his wish and lives forever in undeath. Orcus even gives him a pet, a sentient cricket wearing a tuxedo and top-hat whose initials are the same as one very famous religious figure. The cricket is not as nice as he seems. And the boy . . . well, let's just say he's not like all the other boys.
  2. A young maiden waits for the perfect lover. She is saving her love for them. She has been searching for a long, long time. She is . . . er, charming. Nearly irresistible. This would explain the dense pile of bones in her cottage's basement. Who knows? Maybe you are The One. She's going to do everything she can to find out. She keeps searching for a heart of gold, and she's not getting old.
  3. Fido has been waiting for his master to come home. But the master of the castle will not be returning. So the dog waits. And waits. And waits. Visitors come, but not his master. And the visitors never seem to leave. At least Fido has a good supply of bones to gnaw on. He's been thinking, lately, that maybe he should leave the castle and go hunting for his master, come what may.
  4. A certain merchant wants nothing more than to keep the wheels of commerce turning. And he does. He's been in business longer than he can remember, going from city to city in his horse-drawn wagon. He's gone through a lot of horses . . . He's a powerful trader, buy low, sell high, or sometimes don't sell at all. He admits to keeping a few things he's bought (though, again, he can't remember how long ago he bought them). There's that silver amulet with a certain aura. And the colorful scrolls he reads nightly before going to bed. The gold ring he bought from a gravedigger. And that strange mummified hand with the sigils tattooed in the palm. These are things he will never sell. Never.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Writer's Hideaway, Redux

 Several years ago, I wrote a post on my "Writer's Hideaway". Since that time, well, a lot has happened, not the least of which is a move from Madison, Wisconsin to Janesville, Wisconsin, at the height of the pandemic. This was to cut the commute from Madison to my then-new job in Whitewater in half. Very long story short, after having a house in Delevan fall through on us (a dream house, in many ways - that one still hurts), we found a place in Janesville, which has its benefits (living a mile away from my grandkids, for example). 

One big benefit was being able to move out of my basement writing cave in Madison to a much less dank writing area here in Janesville, up on the second floor. I've moved up in the world, as they say. So, as I did then, I thought I'd do a mini-tour now that I'm mostly settled in there after a year and a half. Your interest may vary, but this is my little microcosmic world where I can immerse myself in the imagination and bleed my ideas onto the page. Not that all my writing takes place here - I will write anywhere and everywhere when the mood strikes. I keep a little notebook and pens with me wherever I go just for such occasions. But when I want to dig deep and experience the ritual magic that is the writing exercise, this is my holy-of-holies.

We'll start at one of two desks. In all honesty, I don't use this desk much. Once in a while, when the mood strikes. It's nice to have options, I suppose. The rocket lamp in the photo obscures the original painting I bought, which is one of two covers for The Umerican Survival Guide. This is the original oil painting of the "Delve" cover, and it's a beaut. You'll also see some of my unpainted miniatures (mainly Call of Cthulhu nasties and martians), a candle, my deck of Moebius trading cards, a can of Crazy Aaron's Thinking Putty (magnetic version) for meditative purposes, and my tarot deck by Micah Ulrich (which gets a lot of use in my writing, believe it or not). There are some skulls and spaceships back there (dunno if you can see my space battleship Yamato or not), and probably lots of other inspirational knicknacks I'm forgetting because I'm not in that room at this moment.

You can probably see why I don't often write here. This used to be an attic, and the ceiling is very low here, even for a shorter than average guy like me. It's cozy.

Here you can see my collection of art books, my very small (and very particular) vinyl collection, my very small and very particular stack of DVDs, my very small and very particular stack of CDs, my collection of Grimjack comic books (No, I don't have all of them. If you have some you want to sell, message me!), and sundry other knicknacks, some of which are original art made by me or my kids or my wife's students (when she taught - she's happily retired now). Also, a chain of pictures of my kids from when they were much younger, and an antiqued mirror, which I should buy more of . . . The antiqued mirror plays tricks and causes illusions and visions that I use in my writing; a sort of hallucinogenic scrying stone. To the right, outside of the picture, are a couple boxes of my novel Heraclix and Pomp (softcover and hardcover). If you're interested in getting a signed copy from me, message me. 

Turning clockwise, you'll see my shelf containing two rayguns, an incense burner hand-carved by famed Poppet artist Lisa Snellings, and a ceramic piece of a face I did in high school (I'm still pretty proud of that guy). Some books, of course - too many to list here - are under that. And at the bottom, a print by Valin Mattheis (who also did the cover art for my book The Varvaros Ascensions). 

Just below that is "sword corner" where I keep my Darkwood armory rapier and dagger. There's also a lantern there and a birdcage containing a paperback copy of Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven, along with over a dozen origami ravens a friend made for me. They are hard to keep fed, but I am rather fond of them.

Looking to the right of sword corner, I have couple of bottles sitting on the window sill over some art. I don't drink, but the bottle on the left was a homebrew rootbeer with the Heraclix and Pomp cover on it that my agent brewed up years ago for the H&P release party. Next to that is an empty bottle of a beer concocted by the band Droids Attack. I used to work with Brad, the lead singer, and he gave me this. If you're into heavy music, definitely check them out!

Looming above this is a wall-mounted book hanger loden with some of my favorite books. A venetian mask and the face of one of the doctors from the Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder" keep vigilant watch - except on Halloween when one or both of them attach themselves to my face. 

Lots of art in this next area. A picture of my wife on the left windowsill keeps me in line(!), while candles, bookshelves, and my old record player (more on that in a moment) underlie shelve containing a drawing by myself, more Valin Mattheis art, my World Fantasy Award 2003 trophy (replete with pinocchio nose on Lovecraft's face), a piece of art by my friend and artist Doug Kovacs, a day of the dead color-shifting lamp thingy, a faerie door made by an old co-worker, a couple pieces of statuary by Green Man Gate Keeper, and a bronze piece of an astronaut reading a book I bought from Vince Villafranca

Now, forgive an aging man as he grows nostalgic. After my parents died, I was going through their stuff and found my old record player. I'd listened to records on this thing from about 1979 to the late '80s, when I left home. Because of the nature of that departure (long story), I didn't take this with me. Besides, I had another stereo that went with me then (and was subsequently stolen from storage in the early '90s). But this machine, along with a really crappy cassette player/radio/boombox, was the machine on which my love of music was forged. I'm guessing that the first record I played on here was my 45 RPM of The Hobbit, you know the one, with the Glenn Yarbrough song and all?

So, when I found this in my parent's house, I honestly cried. I had so many memories, so many hours tied up in this thing. I can't overstate its importance in forming my life. It really is that meaningful. 

But it needed an update! So, I learned to do decoupage, found some awesome dark imagery, and redecorated it. I might do some more work on it, who knows? And since vinyl is now back in style, I've picked up a few select records to play on it, crappy, scratchy audio and all. A few weeks ago, I spent hours just listening to some of these records and watching the disks spin. I had forgotten how much of a calming meditative exercise that can be (even when listening to heavy music). That's some inexpensive therapy there!

Incidentally, if I used your art on my decoupage, I'm not making any money off it. Nor am I making any money off this blog. Please don't sue me, okay? Thanks.

Now, on to the writing corner. Let's see there's another original piece of Doug Kovacs' art (from The Cthulhu Alphabet - you'll see the printed version in the book at 3:46 on the video I've linked), a sculpture one of my sons made, some medieval coins (yes, genuine), and an original piece from Valin Mattheis that I bought just a few months ago. The boxes are a box of old Analog magazines I need to read through (there's a writing notebook and a handwritten letter that Rikki Ducornet sent me years ago, when we were in correspondence), and a box of slides from my parents with a slide viewer atop that. Then a tube of handmade marbled bookend paper that I'm saving for a project. There's an edison lamp, another piece of original art on the wall (can't remember the artists name - something Jamaica, I think), a wooden kaleidoscope-lens thingy, and a four foot high glass vase/beaker filled with Christmas lights. Then there is my writing desk. My actual writing desk.

Yes it's an old gramophone case. Someone had put it out on a curb in Madison and I knocked and asked if it was really available. They said yes and I stuffed that puppy in my car ASAP!!! All the guts are missing. You can't play records on this. But the case is solid and complete. I have no idea why they put it out on the curb, but I'm not asking. This is the perfect standing desk for writing. And under the hood . . . 

This is what faces me when I'm ready to write. Lots of candles, including a creepy baby doll candle holder (I need more of those), a cool wooden candle holder my wife bought for me, and a couple old Reuzel cans that make handy candle holders that reflect a lot of light. Then there's the inkewell/penholder of art nouveau design (I have no idea if it's actually from that era, but I wouldn't doubt it, given the style and craftsmanship). Oh, and there are a couple shards of antiqued/distressed mirror under that, as well. in the cabinet underneath are plenty of cheap composition books, some pens, some incense - you know, all the necessities of writing.

And there you have it: my new writing area. Now that I've gone on an on about it, I'm going to stop writing about writing and actually do some . . . writing!

Friday, December 24, 2021

Strange Epiphanies


Strange EpiphaniesStrange Epiphanies by Peter Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let me begin with the end. The end of the book, that is. It's an utter delight to see a well-researched explanatory essay at the end of this book of outstanding tales. Unlike an academic volume, it's not relegated to endnotes in a smaller font. "Marie Emily Fornario: A Historical Note" tells as strange a tale as any of the others included in Strange Epiphanies. The referent, the fine tale "M.E.F.," which I will comment on later, is bolstered by having this little essay in the back of the book. In fact, the whole volume is given more credence, if you will, once the reader realizes the careful research that Bell has done for this one tale. I have no doubt that he put a huge amount of work, as well as a bit of a personally revelatory experience, into the writing of "M.E.F." - he must have put a similar amount of work and craftsmanship into the other works, as well; and it shows!

The first story, "Resurrection," ticks off all the checks on the folk-horror list. Quite predictable, but still well-written. The emotional state of the protagonist at the end is an interesting twist. I've read my fair share of folk-horror (both fiction and non-fiction) in the past year, so perhaps I'm a little jaded. Despite knowing the trajectory before it happened, this was a satisfactory story. Four stars burning in effigy for this little tale.

"M.E.F." is pretty much perfect from beginning to end. I tend to like creepy stories that hint and infer, rather than openly shock. There's a certain warmth to the narrator not only accepting fate in this tale, but gently, smoothly easing into it. A kind of radiance of oncoming ineffable transformation suffuses the story. It glows with grayness. Five stars for this wonderfully gloomy, yet comforting story.

Similarly, "The Light of the World" has a sense of completeness that is hard to describe. It is wrapped up very neatly, perhaps just a touch too neatly, but only enough to strain credulity a bit, definitely not enough to ruin the tale. A satisfying read about destiny and connections across time and space, like a full literary meal. Having lived in both the UK and Italy, I greatly appreciated the descriptive settings, which Bell brings to light perfectly.

I'm usually a much bigger fan of "creepy" than "scary". "An American Writer's Cottage" was just plain scary. Here are my notes after reading it: I've put the book down, but every flash or shadow has me spooked. I'm hoping to never discover any heretofore-unseen attic doors in this house. I can't even think about that right now. Time for me to go hide under the covers until I can sleep.. I will state that the frisson caused by this one was acute and made for a nice change of mood from the other tales, without clashing with them.

I've read a lot of creepy doll stories in my day, but "Inheritance" has to be among the best. The creepiness is beyond bounds, but what makes the story marvelous is it's strangely redemptive ending, an unexpected conclusion that, through its banality, pushes the story into the transcendent. You may have read a creepy doll story like this, but the resolution is nothing like anything you've read before. Five stars.

While reading "A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians" I was mostly listening to the black metal band Reverorum ib Malacht. There could not be a more appropriate soundtrack to this gothic novella, which is redolent with illness, dreadful forebodings, and sweeping vistas of dark beauty. I hate mentioning the "V" word, but Transylvania + illness + wolves + Vlad = . . . well, you do the math. This was an amazingly realized story. Here is a sample of the beautiful prose:

"We crossed the pass soon after one in the afternoon; already, overhead, it was growing as dark as the hour preceding dusk. As we looked back, dismayed, clouds were seething over the cold, a grey, flowing cataract. The air rapidly assumed a torrid weightiness that sapped the very limbs, and made even breathing a trial. A helm of steely-grey hid Peleaga's brow, as if readying for conflict; yet across his southern slopes fell beams of an angry sun, escaping through a rent in the dismal heavens, colouring the mountain's sheer, black precipices in a dread, coppery lustre. Clusters of lesser summits nearby partook of this exhibition, streaks and splashes of the same fiery pigments colouring the wasteland, as if some great slaughter had been done there, in the old days of the world. At last, after insupportable tension, Vulcan's fire seared the firmament, again and again, like sparks shooting from a multitude of Satan's forges; ushering in a downpour such that we could see not a thing before us, and with blasts so terrifying that our ponies were grievously affrighted."

It is this prose and the method of hinting and inferring that I referenced earlier that steers this V-word story clear of the hackneyed tropes of the past. I sometimes get cagey when I encounter this subject in a story, but in Peter Bell's hands, the old subject takes on fresh new life . . . or undeath. Five stars for this tale, as well.

Finally, From the title to the last paragraph, "Nostalgia, Death, and Melancholy" weave a cohesive triptych of . . . well, just what the title says. This is the kind of tale that seems to meander until you find you're on a one-way path and there's no other way, yet the plot didn't feel forced in the least bit. Furthermore, there's an emotional depth here (nihilistic, to be sure) that one doesn't often find in horror shorts. Five stars here.

What a marvelous collection (plus essay) Bell has constructed here! It has been a while since I've read a collection with so many powerful supernatural stories - and I read a lot of collections of supernatural stories. Strange Epiphanies ensures that Peter Bell will sit on the shelf right next to Robert Aickman, on my shelf, at least. This is one you must find and read and savor. I'll be coming back to this one again in the future.

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Sunday, December 19, 2021

Sphinxes & Obelisks


Sphinxes & ObelisksSphinxes & Obelisks by Mark Valentine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am always edified by reading a Mark Valentine book. Inevitably, I pick up new words I was unaware of or that I had never paid attention to (Divagation was the first such word in this volume - found on page 1), I learn about obscure authors from Valentines explorations into the recondite corners of literature, in the case of his non-fiction, or the strange corners of irreality in his fiction, and I am always struck by his understated sense of humor, which pops up at the oddest of times (this chronological quirkiness is part of the charm, I suppose). buying a book by Mark Valentine is never a wasted dollar. Reading the introduction to this book alone justified the cost.

The problem, of course, is that Valentine sets my wallet on fire with his discoveries and revelations. The first urge to go hunting here was spurred by the essay on Riccardo Stephens. Last time I followed Valentine's recommendation, I absolutely fell head over heels for the works of Mary Butts, whom I had never heard of before reading about her in Valentine's outstanding Haunted by Books. Tempting. Yet again, so tempting. Get thee behind me Mark Valentine!

Does this mean that I take the Valentine bait hook, line, and sinker? Well, okay, in terms of his fiction and poetry, yes. But his nonfiction, while amazing, sometimes shows holes. For example, Valentine's review of Asquith's anthology The Ghost Book is . . . nothing special, to put it bluntly. Maybe the first instance I've seen of Valentine "phoning it in," as they say. Given the source material, though, no one can blame him. Still, I was a little disappointed with the essay. I suppose that with Valentine's prolific output, one is bound to find a dud. Soon thereafter, the essay on Nephele, or at least the idea of the novel, I found intriguing, but not necessarily compelling.

Thankfully, this was just the warmup act. He soon hits his stride, as one should expect:

In his essay "Phoenician Rites and Chaldee Roots," Valentine carves a labyrinth, a sort of archaeology of an intellectual maze that meanders from Shakespeare to Machen to Homes and Watson. This is the sort of wandering intellectual exercise that I love and that Valentine excels at. What is the thesis? Um. I'm not sure there is one. What is the conclusion? Ditto. Do I care? No. Not all who wander are lost . . .

Anyone, really, could have written the essay "The Summoner of the Sphinx," but only Mark Valentine could do it with such ease and panache! A documentary-style exploration of one of the most memorable magic tricks ever could fall flat quite easily, but here the event is given all the observational filigree it deserves, with some subtle nods to the kitsch, properly ensconcing the event in both its historical context and our modern notions of tomfoolery.

Continuing in the vein of the Valentinian educational program, I think I learned more about William Hope Hodgson in Valentine's essay "The Wonder Unlimited" than I have ever known before. Not biographical details, dates and such, but really about him - his sense of humor, brusqueness, and so forth. An interesting glimpse into the author's personality by way of his most obscure work.

One thing that stood out to me on reading this particular volume is the personal detail that Valentine shares about himself and his work. A very interesting and highly personal essay on "Tin Mine Gothic" provides a peek behind the curtain to see what brought Valentine to his interests (and, ultimately, his own writing). I really enjoyed this. It makes this volume absolutely and unarguably his.

"A Fashion in Shrouds" is just the sort of quirky essay I love. In it, Valentine explores the sartorial choices (or compulsions) of the (un)dead. Through ghost stories, both (supposedly) veridical and literary, Valentine traces the evolution of ghostly dress with a dry sense of humor that causes soft laughs in barely-perceptible whispers on fog-enshrouded moors.

Library ephemera (both personal and public) are the subject of the literally-titled "Stuck in a Book," a delightful examination of the sometimes strange, sometimes ironic physical bits and bobs one finds in a used book. Valentine's insight is keen, his research formidable, and his humor only a touch morbid.

"The Saracen's Head" takes an ubiquitous object - the pub sign - and traces the history of England's fascination with the motif of the Saracen's Head. It's a piece of pseudo-Foucaltian "Archaeology of Knowledge" examining the entrance of the motif into the English public imagination. This is the sort of thing doctoral theses are made of, or could be, if expanded to about 100 times its page count. Fascinating.

Lastly, we are given a fly-on-the-wall view of intrepid bookhunters Mark Valentine and John Howard (who are also two of the best living authors writing today - might I strongly, Strongly, STRONGLY recommend Howard's The Voice of the Air?) as they spend a Sunday looking for hidden treasure in the "Passages in the West". this was fascinating and appropriate at the end of one of Valentine's non-fiction collections. One sees Valentine's encyclopedic knowledge of recondite authors and works at play here, as well as a glimpse into his relationship with a fellow-book lover and the people who sell these paginated treasure chests.

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Friday, December 10, 2021

3 RPG Campaigns I'd Like to Run

 I've run several RPG campaigns across several systems. As I have gotten older, it seems more and more difficult to run campaigns, partly because I am a player in an ongoing weekly AD&D 2e campaign and an intermittent (usually every few weeks for me, to be honest) DCCRPG campaign. With Life(tm) responsibilities such as they are, that's really all I can get in on a regular basis. I try to attend two conventions a year (Gameholecon and Garycon), which is great for one-shots, but not great for campaign play. So, suffer an old man to dream for a minute or two about a trio of campaigns I'd like to run in my lifetime. They need not be long and for at least one of them, there would be a definite ending point. But something more than, say, twenty 4-hour sessions appeals to me. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. I recently discovered Troika RPG I've only played in one session (at this year's Gameholecon) and absolutely loved it. The adventure I played in was actually a converted Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, but I got a good feel for the simplicity of the game and its shunning of musty old fantasy tropes in favor of something more expansive, something more along the lines of the New Wave of '60s and '70s science fiction and fantasy (Moorcock, Harrison, et al) than the '50s pulps. Elric instead of Gor, The Pastel City versus Cimmeria. You get the gist. In my mind, the absolutely perfect setting for this is The Ultra Violet Grasslands by Luka Rejec. An explicitly psychedelic setting like this is just the thing to riff off of the (slightly subdued) wackiness of Troika. This could spiral completely out of hand in short order, depending on what the player group is like. And "out of hand" would be precisely the goal with this. Throw on some good psych-rock, generate those half-crazed Troika characters, drop them in the world and GO!
  2. I've played lots of Call of Cthulhu one-shots and even dared to run a few (3 = a few, no?) in my day. One of those three is a scenario which I wrote up and which I am now trying to get into publishable form to foist it upon the masses. I don't want to spoil much, but it involves rabbits, Pan, a mysterious hill above a small English village, and the BBC. It is possibly the most "me" RPG scenario I've ever written (though most who know my work probably think that Beyond the Silver Scream is "that" scenario, and while I do still love it and am awfully proud of it, I think what I have for this CoC adventure is going to be much better. Sorry to disappoint, but this one is closer to my heart.). In my mind, and vaguely outlined on paper, I have a whole campaign that can arise from this scenario. For the time being, I need to focus on getting this first bit publishable and published, but after that, you can expect a decidedly non-Mythos campaign (though chock FULL of cosmic horror - just not the kind of Derlethian stuff that has been hackneyed to death) that eventually ends at the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun. I am leaning heavily into pagan European tradition both for this scenario and for the eventual campaign as a whole. Forget all you know about tentacles and oozing creatures from another dimension - rather, you should be very, very wary of those hares in the hill!
  3. I love Traveller. I've called it "the simplest RPG system out of this world," and I mean it (PS: is it gauche to quote yourself? Probably . . .). And, though I truly believe that the Traveller system is adaptable to just about any kind of scenario you can concoct (high fantasy, cosmic horror, whatver), I also love the setting. So my overly simplistic idea is this: A band of mercenaries are making a jump that goes suddenly wrong. They end up deep in Zhodani space (maybe in the Eiaplial sector?) with their jump drive inoperable and effectively destroyed for good. They have to find their way back to the Imperium through or just around Zhodani space. This could be a campaign that could go on for many, many years, should the players play it right. Or it could be done in one session if they are foolish.
So, there you have it. 3 campaigns that I want to run, but need to find the time (and the right players) to run. Maybe when I retire I can run all three at once, who knows? Come to think of it, it could be interesting if they somehow intersected each other. Hmm . . . ideas, ideas . . .


Addendum: Looking at my shelves, a Call of Cthulhu campaign that mixes Berlin the Wicked City with the Trail of Cthulhu supplement Bookhounds of London suddenly sounds very, very tempting.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

LP Review: Skáphe, Wagner Ӧdegård

 I've always had pretty diverse interests in music. In high school, I predominantly listened to heavy metal and punk, but I also listened intently to funk, classical music, and, of course, '80s pop. Since then, I've expanded my repertoire to include celtic music, synthwave, and, one of my favorites: "uncategorizable".

I only occasionally blog about music. I suppose it's easy to just let music be in the background of my life. This is contradictory to my life as a young man, when music was right at the forefront. It really was one of the most important things in my life, because I could afford it to be so. With crazy schedules, kids, work, and life trials in general, music has become something I turn on when I'm doing other things

Yes, I've attended live concerts for many years (especially pre-Covid) and always enjoy that release. But only recently have I really honed in on music like I used to as a kid. Maybe it's because of my discovery of my old record player after my parents died. It's a crappy little red and white job with a terrible little speaker. A real piece of junk. But it works still, and I love it. Finding it was like finding a piece of myself. For a number of years, vinyl LPs were passé, a relic of the past. Then people figured out that they liked the uncompressed sound of non-digital media. This has dovetailed nicely with my recent (within the past few years) desire to turn back to analog in my life. So I've started buying vinyl again. Not in any kind of big volume. I still buy digital albums and CDs because they are conveniently portable and easily accessible. But in a few rare cases, when the music is, in my eyes, worth it, I've bought vinyl. Again, this is rare, and I only reserve such buys for albums that I think are truly unique, something different than the rest, something that needs to be celebrated and admired in a different way. Because vinyl is more expensive and because it is such a more intentional media than digital forms, I am reserving LP buys for special items. I'd like to go through a few of these here. I don't know that this will become a regular thing on my blog, but who knows what the future holds? In the meantime, I need to briefly share three albums that I found "worthy" of buying on vinyl. 


First up is the last one I bought, chronologically, Skáphe's third album, cleverly titled Skáphe(cubed) (sorry, I can't get the typefont to work with superscripts). 

Now, my picture, taken in low light up in my writing area, does not do the cover justice. It is a brilliant red cover, absolutely striking. If I didn't think it would scare my grandchildren, I'd put it on the wall as the cover art (by artist Karmazid) is stunning. To further cement that fact, here is the back cover:

But what about the music? Last night, I hearkened back to my childhood and listened. Just sat and listened with no distractions. I wasn't reading or writing or eating while I listened, I gave it 100% of my full attention. 

Of course, I had listened to the album digitally before I bought the analog version. Now, I am not normally one to like a whole lot of "Black Metal" or "Death Metal". For me, I can only take them in small doses. But I continue to search and sometimes find something I really, really like, something compellingly different than the others in these sub-genres. I'm open to have my mind blown by something out of the ordinary, something spectacular, and here I found it!

With raw, staccato drumming and vocals that blur the borders, such as they are, between Black Metal and Doom Metal (which I listen to quite a bit), this album rides in a liminal space that is rarely visited. The long slow glissando of harmonic guitar notes over pulsating drums and fairly complex rhythmic forms give a psychedelic edge to the songs, but do not slip into the realm of the quaint psychedelia that is ubiquitous in the metal scene. This retains a razor-sharp edge because of its uncompromising production values. Even short "melodic" episodes are loden with anguish, which explodes into outright howling despair. The contrast takes the music out of the muddy depths of much of today's Black Metal and transforms it into something like a dark ritual ecstasy. It's easy to lose yourself in the whirling abyss with this as your soundtrack.

Ur Törnedjupen and Nattslingor

Next up is a pair of albums by Death Metalist Wagner Ӧdegård, except neither of these are Death Metal albums. In a move reminiscent of Bohren & der Club of Gore, a German death metal outfit that turned to extreme downtempo "doom jazz", Ӧdegård here goes in a completely different direction. These are the sort of albums that would drive record store owners absolutely crazy because they don't fit into any neatly-marketable categories. Now, I have a special place for that sort of media (especially when it comes to books) as it is, again, in those liminal spaces where I find some of the greatest works of art, literary or aural.

 Ur Törnedjupen is evocative of a soundtrack to a lost folk horror film, newly re-discovered in some dusty archive in the basement of an obscure university library, which has been lurking in the stacks for decades, yearning to be found by some hapless student whose curiosity is about to unleash something sinister on the world. The instruments listed for this album are pump organ, accordion, Arturia Minibrute, voice samples and "lots of vinyl noise". The sheer atmosphere on this album is suffocating. But my words can't do it justice. It really has to be heard to be understood. Though I was careful not to let my visual focus wander to the art, book covers, and ephemera that fill my writing area, I had the films Begotten, The Seventh Seal, and particularly Nosferatu kicking around in my skull as I listened. The music has a sort of dreamlike ambiguity, for lack of a better term, that is unsettling. However, the closest analog to the mood I feel when listening to this is that which I feel when watching much of the work of The Brothers Quay (who are, incidentally, my favorite directors). The occasional admixture of vocals that mimic a muted and slightly twisted Gregorian chant give a pseudo-religious - or perhaps blasphemous - tone to the whole.

Nattslingor continues in the same vein, but with more of a Russian sepia-tone silent movie than black-and-white horror vibe. The instrumentation is nearly the same, but the first part of the record feels more documentary than artsy, if that makes any sense at all. 

Still, these albums are definitely cut from the same cloth and should be listened to in rapid succession, in an endless loop, if you can somehow manage it. This is an aural vortex you need to give yourself up to. To help that, the effect of the circular paper label on the center of the vinyl itself absolutely mesmerizes as it spins. Movement manifests as the silhouette of a devil "pulling" an Elder Furthark "*Ansuz" rune in a never-ending circle, lending a hint of something sinister which blooms into full-flowered demonic and ghastly mode on side B. My only regret is that it doesn't spin widdershins. But your brain will, believe me: it will!

Saturday, December 4, 2021

The Delicate Shoreline Beckons Us


The Delicate Shoreline Beckons UsThe Delicate Shoreline Beckons Us by Jonathan Wood

At 71 pages (in the paperback edition, at least) this is a slight book, but it is by no means a trifle. The introduction by Mark Valentine is a treat in and of itself, as Valentine's essays usually are. When I finished the essay, I had the impression that I was about to read something along the lines of "Morrisey's 'Every Day is Like Sunday' meets Alan Moore". I was not far off, though I had a more Oscar Wilde sense than Alan Moore. Whatever the comparison, the book works and it works well.

Fans of Wood's prose and poetry will find much to like here. Were I to quote a particularly beautiful selection of prose from the book, I would be quoting the entire book! This does not, however, mean that the voice is delicate (which belies the title). Rather, there is a workman's voice throughout - an intellectual narrator who is steeped in a workman's frame of mind. It makes for a very interesting voice that sometimes shows a crass edge to the smartness, a sort of "knowing" of how the base man lives while delivering that knowledge in some clever turns of phrase:

The landlord is the sort of bloke that likes a crafty half-pint in a pint glass that he hides just under the corner counter next to the old whiskey tumbler with the 'hunting with hounds' coloured transfer on the side of it. The hunstman's head has been worn off by the repetition of the same fat fingers day in and day out, raising the tumbler to the optic of the finest blended and then down again with precision and native speed, to ensure his Missus does not catch him at it too often. There's nothing better than an alcoholic running a pub and using all the camouflage at his disposal so do do and to do it well and with pride. The faded thick cardigan fits him perfectly as he raises his fourth double blended of the day to his lips and down the hatch, evoking all that he could ever want to see from his past as it tumbles like dying gulls into the vortex of the open grave of the rest of his life.

Again, while Wood's depictions of brutal lives hit hard upon the consciousness, the words themselves are gently deceiving. Wood is very sly, surreptitious in his dripping of hints. He is a careful craftsman, just like his narrator. Even the "slips" that the narrator commits as the plot unfolds are intentional, but don't seem intentional on first or even second reading. There is a sleight of hand there, a very pleasant sleight of hand, that sneaks in, ultimately, for the throat. It is an artful strangulation, so well done that one must examine it again and again, like a football player watching film in slow motion to improve his game, in order to catch the moments when the fingers clasp the trachea. Such sweet suffocation!

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