Monday, November 30, 2020

Splendid in Ash

Splendid in AshSplendid in Ash by Charles Wilkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charle Wilkinson's sophomore outing with the elegant and accomplished Egaeus Press is less of a novelty to me than his first Egaeus book, A Twist in the Eye. My earlier "discovery" of Wilkinson was startling and swept me off my feet. Now that I've become more familiar with his work, it feels more . . . well, familiar. And that's not a bad thing. The ebbs and flows of a reader with "his" author can become a sort of cat-and-mouse game, where some maneuvers lose their surprise and others add a whole new dimension to the readerly relationship that would otherwise not emerge. We grow, taste changes, the author's voice ages, and yet, there is, inevitably an element of wonder amidst the familiarity. Here is my "dance" with the text of Splendid In Ash:

The title of the first story in Wilkinson's second collection. "In the Frame," is a triple entendre: one for art, one for being set up, and one for ten pin bowling. The one that is most horrific is not the one you're thinking of! Deftly written, as usual, this story will send your expectations into a tailspin in a fit of readerly vertigo.

"The Ground of the Circuit" is a strange admixture of folk horror and technological terror. The ending reminds me of Aickman - one is left wondering what has already happened, while seeing clearly what is coming, and it's not going to turn out well for the man who was a husband. The disjointedness of rurality and modernity, combined with the short circuited thoughts of both pro- and antagonist, frame it all well.

Did I predict the ending of "Slimikins" well before it came? Sort of. The overall event on which it ended, I saw coming. But I did not see the exquisite detail forthcoming. Wilkinson has an eye for details and, in this case, that meant absolutely plunging the reader into the final moments of a story. Yes, it was inevitable. But by "shoving your face in it," so to speak, the story is raised to an unexpected pitch!

One part David Lynch, one part Robert Aickman, one part Brian Evenson
Limn rim with Charles Wilkinson bitter and salt
Stir quickly
Stir the other direction, quickly!
Shake vigorously
Voila! "Boxing the Breakable"

And though the influences are apparent, this drink is undiluted Wilkinson. Bitter, salty, with a lingering aftertaste, intriguing, and altogether unpleasant.

A marvelous weird cocktail. Bottoms up!

The elements of "The White Kisses" were just a touch too ephemeral for me. I like open-ended stories that don't have to explain themselves, but I prefer a story that is thematically tighter. Don't explain everything, but explain something, please. Anything. Or at least "hang" all the elements together. Sorry, but this one just dissipates into wisps for me. There's potential, but I felt this one too easily forgotten. One needs a few touchpoints, and "The White Kisses" didn't press hard enough for me.

"The Lengthsman" is a tale that bubbles with meaning underneath. You can sense the horror rising from below, surfacing as a bubble whose surface tension expands the dread. Wilkinson does well to let that tension grow, but leaves it to the reader's imagination to pop! The cultural underpinnings are also redolent with alienation and hints of barbarism. An outstanding tale that shimmers with an earthy darkness.

"Absolute Possession" does nothing to slake my thirst to revisit Wales. Quite the contrary. Again, Wilkinson subverts expectations by thrusting the reader even deeper into the weird than expected. Here, nature itself, the land itself, is the realm of the weird. The issues of ownership, free agency, and self are questioned here in the most fundamental of ways. Is it a marvelous escape, or a trap? Or both?

I might note there that a few other stories in the volume are set in Wales (unsurprisingly, given that this is where Wilkinson lives). When I visited the booktown of Hay-On-Wye in summer of 2019, I was a bit saddened that I didn't see Wilkinson's work in any of the bookstores there. Someone has to rectify this! Come to think of it, I had a hard time finding a Machen book there, which is downright criminal and unpatriotic, though I did eventually find a copy of The Hill of Dreams. Anyway, I digress. I'd like to digress permanently to Wales, but my wife won't have it. Oh well.

"Mr. Kitchell Says Thank You" is . . . scattered. Like it's trying to be too many things at once. There are intriguing elements - an occult master, motive for revenge, academic intrigues. And while there is a thematic continuity of . . . elephants . . . the theme isn't strong enough to tie it all together. It's a decent enough story, but I'm not nearly as compelled to love it as I was with other tales herein.

I found "Drawing Above the Breath" a fine story, but also uncompelling. There's a very slight twist on the vampire and fountain of youth myth, a fine point, if you will, on the canon. While the subtlety of the idea is interesting and the writing gorgeous, at times, I can't view the story as anything other than minor, given the context of a volume with so many excellent stories. And, truth be told, I'm just not a fan of vampire stories. Bauhaus did me in on that front. The Count is dead, long (un)live The Count.

"Aficionado of the Cold Places" is a thematically-solid tale whose banal title belies a deeply-fantastical weird, even borderline-surreal story of yearning and the haunting past. The understated use of the word "Aficionado" for such a life-preserving need gives this very serious tale a bitter (I use the word intentionally) twist. Stark beauty pervades the setting, the characters, and the mood. Wonderfully chilling.

Sometimes you pick the perfect soundtrack for reading. This was the case as I listened to Paysage d'Hiver while reading "Catapedamania," thus far, and by far, the most outright disturbing tale in this volume. Bizarre and forlorn with a touch of schizophrenia, just like the musical accompaniment.

In lesser, more rudimentary hands, I would call "The Solitary Truth" a clever story. But Wilkinson's facile handling of language and character make this story not just clever, but intelligent, even cunning. There is a certain dark manipulation happening here that sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder when you least expect it. It could be a sad story, or not, depending on whom you believe. The story is a kind of Rorschach Test with no pass or fail.

"His Theory of Fridays" is an ethereal, yet altogether satisfying story of four siblings, one of whom has a theory . . . of Fridays. The theory isn't mentioned and, in fact, cannot be, according to the narrator, as there are no words to form it. Yet it is a reality, unwritten, unspoken, possibly even unformed. A ghostly-wisp of a story, this is, in a way that "The White Kisses" was not, vanishing, yet fulsome.

"An Absent Member" is the most classically-surreal of the stories in this volume. Ribald, if a bit silly, I found the story enjoyable in its farce, especially in the way it never took itself seriously, even if the narrator did. A nice little change-of-pace story that would normally upset the "flow" of a collection, but seems to appear at just the right point here. I don't know if that was Wilkinson's choice or that of the editor, but it was well-played.

With a heavy does of Brian Evanson-esque matter-of-fact irreality, "Might be Mordiford" shows a glimpse of a bureaucratic hell that would torment even Franz Kafka. Stultifying consequence is not so easy to shake when even memory loss is no excuse for paying the price of one's misdeeds.

"Legs & Chair" (the ampersand is important!) is a science fiction story (so far as I can tell) in the mold of the New Wave (now old) of Science Fiction, tinged with an extra dose of Philip K. Dick. A good story, strange and heartfelt, and a different voice for Wilkinson. Not a fully dystopian vision of the future, but definitely a view of a dysfunctional future society.

The collection ends powerfully with "The Floaters," a post-apocalyptic tale of the erosion of the land and relationships and the crumbling of language itself. The tight narrative speaks volumes more than its word-count. And, in the end, it really is about words and how they are tied to our reality. When one disintegrates, so does the other. As above, so below, but only in a hopeless sense. Grim, grey, awe-inspiring. Reading this could be a way to ease in to Beckett's Molloy trilo- no, who am I kidding? Nothing can prepare you for that.

You will note that I drop the names of several authors throughout this review. While I disagree with at least one review that stops just short of calling Wilkinson's work a wholly derivative mishmash of weird fiction, the influences are apparent, at times. This happens with all writers. I've done my share of channeling other writers myself, even to the point where I have a 100K page manuscript of a science fiction novel that I will have to rewrite, oh, say 90K pages of to make it mine (I was channeling Alastair Reynolds, if you must know). So, maybe I'm remiss in looking past that to some extent. Wilkinson is his own man. And this is his own collection. But, if you like Aickman and Evenson as much as I do, you're going to want to get a copy of this and see what he brings to the table!

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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Blackstar Carcosa: a Hex and a Ritual

 With the upcoming fifth anniversary of David Bowie's departure into the unknown caverns of space and time, I thought I might use his song Blackstar, with its incredible accompanying video, as a springboard for some material for Carcosa. You'll need the Carcosa RPG book to fully utilize this, but one might steal elements from this for use in just about any campaign. In fact, I could see this leading to an entire campaign based around the various avatars of David Bowie, a campaign that could last for many years with a wide variety of adventuring flavor. Such a campaign need not be set on Carcosa, but I think that the planet's pull might be irresistible. For those who followed Bowie through his incarnations and who know Carcosa well, I think you will see the connections quite readily. I would love to hear, in the comments, how you might springboard off of this theme. Here are just a couple of short starting points:

Hex 1310

The hideout of the Orange brigands has been cleared of their previous inhabitants by a group of Blackstar cultists, who raided the hideout, killing 10 of the brigands and sacrificing the remaining 11 in unknown rituals. The hideout was built into a veritable citadel, the Villa of Ormen, in which a solitary candle burns night and day with an un-extinguishable fire. The cult consists of 13 barren women, one of each color. Strangely, they do not experience the prejudices and racial acrimony that almost inevitably occurs among men of opposed colors on Carcosa. Their leader is a 16th level Bone woman sorceress who is also a powerful psionicist. Each of the other women are 9th level sorceresses that are also psionically gifted. All thirteen are "blessed" with some sort of positive mutation. The Brigands never stood a chance . . .

The narrow cleft in the stony hills has been cleared of it's denizen, the cultist having banished the green ooze to another dimension, and the beautiful green sorceress having been utilized in another ritual. This is sacred ground for the cultists, the place where they witnessed the apotheosis, through ritual and death, of their god, Major Tom. The Bone woman sorceress can almost always be found here, alone, unless she is being joined by her compatriots from the Vila of Ormen. Here she broods and communes with the avatars of Blackstar in his many guises.

Ritual: The Day of Execution

This ritual takes exactly 9 minutes and 57 seconds to complete. It requires the willing self-sacrifice of a Bone man, who willfully plucks out his own eyes and allows himself to be beheaded. Thirteen participating individuals are required for the ritual, one bows and allows the severed head of the sacrifice to be placed on his or her back. The one governing the ritual leads the others as they first jump in a circle, then kneel on the dirt, sweeping the floor in unison with their hair. 

The ritual has several effects:

1) All non-participants within one mile of the ritual center are paralyzed from the moment of the end of the ritual until 9 minutes and 57 seconds later. There is no save.

2) The severed head of the sacrificial bone man speaks, channeling one or more of Blackstar's avatars. For the 9 minutes and 57 seconds that he is able to speak, the one overseeing the ritual may ask any questions of the head, and the head must reply truthfully to the best of its knowledge. Depending on which avatar(s) manifest, the answers may be profound and wise, or something that might come from a drug-addled moron. The avatars know about much more than Carcosa and can sometimes, if questioned properly, speak of far off places with strange names like "Earth", "Mars", "Moon", "The Labyrinth," or even "Blackstar" itself. The answers always come in the form of a poetic song, sometimes beautiful, sometimes dissonant. In the context of Hex 1310, several of these answers have been written down in a book covered in the tanned hide of an Ulfire man.

3) The ritual inevitably and uncontrollably summons the Shambler of the Endless Night to the lavender fields nearby the Villa of Ormen. There it roams for 9 minutes and 57 seconds, attacking and eating any who have succumbed to the paralysis of the Day of Execution ritual. The cultists will have crucified three individuals among the fields in order to keep the Shambler distracted from their working in the cavern, but this foul creature is not always satisfied with merely three victims, but will stalk the environs of the citadel for what little time it has. At the end of the duration, the dimensional space around the Shambler explodes, destroying it (for now) and causing one random mutation to all within 100'.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Oxford July 2019

 It's been over a year now. Things are a bit hazy, just like the sky was when we landed in London last July. After a long wait in Chicago (10 hours delay that also cost us £96.75 - thanks a bunch, American Airlines. Jerks.), we took the approximately 8 hour flight over to London. I don't fly particularly well, so I didn't rest much. Pretty much kept my eyes either on the flight monitor map or on my pinball app. I didn't want to watch any movies that might even hint at an air disaster and I didn't need any reminders that the wreck of the Titanic was somewhere far below us. I might have taken a couple of benadryl before getting on the plane, I don't remember.

Morning found us going straight from Heathrow to the car rental place (did I mention the £96.75 in lost hotel fees because of the delay?) where the nice young man there tried to upsell me to a Mercedes. No thank you, I was saving my Mercedes for the Autobahn when we went to the continent the following week (what a great drive that was, but that's a different story). 

Here are the taxis we didn't take (but I had to get a picture):

Cute, aren't they? Unless you've been watching Sherlock

I quickly found that driving on the other side of the road is, frankly, terrifying. I'm surprised my wife didn't just kick me out of the (right hand) driver's side door. I was freaking out - a lot. Eventually, though, we miraculously made it to Oxford, our first stop of the trip. I was so relieved to get out of the car.

We took a double decker into Oxford. Yes, quaint, I know, but it really was the most convenient way to get into town from the carpark. I have to admit it brought back a flood of memories and feelings from when I was a teenager living in England. Back then we'd sit in the back of the top and smoke cigarettes. It might have even been legal back in the '80s, I don't know. Not that illegality would have stopped us.

Yes, there's a sign telling you you're in Oxford. Helpful, that.

Our first order of business was filling a dream of mine: Visiting the Bodleian Library. If I had a million dollars, I'd go on a world tour of incredible libraries and bookstores. On my meagre budget, we were able to go to the Bodleian and stop at an Oxfam to buy a book or two later that day. Well, there was the booktown trip to Wales, but that was not this day (why is it I hear Aragorn's voice when I type that?). Here' is the first photo I took:

Next, one the courtyard:

And one of the library's facades, viewed from the courtyard:

Sorry, fellow Yanks, but America just doesn't have this kind of architecture. This building was older than America itself and yet, there it stood.

We paid our two bits (okay, it was more like twenty quid) and stepped inside for the tour. We started in the Divinity Room, where most of the tour was held. 

Here's the door we came through. Lots of people were coming and going, so it too a while before I could get a "still" shot of it:

"Wow," you might be thinking "what an architect!" Well, yes and no. There were two architects. One of them an artisan whose name I can't remember. Like all good corporate entities, the board of trustees wanted to cut costs, so they hired another builder (whose name I also can't remember) who was more . . . practical. And less expensive. You can actually see where one quit (I can't remember if he died, retired, or was fired) and the other took over:

You can see, on this cornice, where the fluted columns give way to something more . . . prosaic. That's not to say the newer part of the build (still older than America, I must add) was not beautiful, it was, just a little less baroque than the earlier work.

Now, rather than continue teasing, here's a shot of the ceiling:

Look closely and you'll see words up there (among other ephemera). They form important religious and scholarly phrases (in Latin, if I remember correctly) that seemed profound at the time. I mean at the time we were there, not just . . . before America.

And, what's this? The Oxford Coat of Arms? Here? You don't say. Of course, it's held up by angels. This is the Divinity School after all.

And if that wasn't enough divinity for you, here is . . . um . . . I think it was John the Revelator (is he eating a book? If so, that's him). And definitely a Madonna and Child (ah, fertility cult left-overs):

I joke about it, but it really was beautiful. If only my picture-taking skills were as heavenly as this iconography. 

Next, we went into what I think was the exam room, where students quivered and fainted in the presence of their examiners:

The examiners would stand up behind those pulpits to question students. Not intimidating at all! And, hey, what is that distracting oddity in the window?

Of course! It's a stained glass . . . sundial? Yes, it is. I would argue that, given it's provenience in England, it was useful for perhaps one out of every three days. But it's a nice gesture, anyway. And, yes, you can tell time by the way the shadows fall (if there's sunlight). Pretty ingenious.

Next, we went into the room where Oscar Wilde was held on trial and kicked out of Oxford. I don't know if this was the place where he was tried and sent to Reading Gaol, but he was definitely kicked out of the university from this place. Here's the imposing entrance:

I was too busy being awestruck and touching the table that Oscar Wilde had sat at to take a photo in that room. But my wife took this shot of the paneled walls. Probably the last thing that Wilde saw as his university career was snatched away:

I half expected to see "O.W." carved into the wood somewhere, or maybe "D.G.".

We were then taken up to the holy-of-holies, where we were expressly forbidden from taking photographs - the Medieval Collection, where King Charles I studied in his (and the Queen's) own reserved kiosk(s) after the young soon-to-be-regent asked to have a book sent to him, but was denied by Sir Thomas Bodley himself, who felt he had a sacred duty to hold up the injunction imposed by the Archbishop of London (who had rebuilt the collection after it had been ransacked during the Reformation) that none of the collection could be checked out. This is exclusively a research library! I was also able to see here, in person, my first chained books. And while I would have surreptitiously taken a picture or two (trust me, I totally would have), we had to lock up our cameras and phones before going upstairs to the medieval library. But it was worth it to fondle a couple of medieval chained books!

Many of these "facts" may be misremembered or outright fabrications. What do you expect after an utter lack of sleep for two days straight and having to rewire my brain to drive on the other side of the road?

Lastly, there was this little guy right near the entrance to the Bodleian gift shop. A leering bard, perhaps?

After the Bodleian, we had another appointment - for lunch - at another literary must-see:

"What's so big about a pub?" you say? Never speak to me again.

This, my friends, is the Eagle and Child, noted as the pub where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis would hang out and chat over a pint. I understand Mervyn Peake was also occasionally in on the conversations, as are other minor writers whom I will probably never read.

There is the famed Rabbit Room, which was filled with people in various states of drunkenness. We ate down the hall, under a quote by Lewis:

This will surprise those of you who knew me in high school, but I don't drink. Haven't had a drink since I was 18. So rather than enjoying a pint, we got a meal. Fish and chips and smashed peas. And, I must admit, this was the best fish and chips I've ever eaten. Ever. And I've eaten a lot of fish and chips. On that rainy day, this just hit the spot:

And since my wife wanted to taste English cuisine, this was a dive into the deep end! Satisfied, nay, stuffed, we took our leave of the Eagle and Child, back out into the rain:

After this, we traipsed around a bit, stopping at the aforementioned Oxfam and a chocolate shop, admiring the beautiful old tudor buildings, among other sights.

And where else would you expect this? Because: Duh!

Let's face it: Hogwarts is Oxford, and Oxford is Hogwarts: Magical!

But we were soon driving (*insert terror here*) to our lodgings in Moreton-in-Marsh to get some much-needed rest and have our body clocks adjust a bit. The next day was our trip to Wales and the booktown of Hay-on-Wye. Even now, though, the joy of Oxford lingers. It is truly one of my favorite cities in the world (and I've seen a few). Perhaps someday, money permitting, we can make it back!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Esoteric Denim Addendum

Regarding the Esoteric Denim, did I ever say I was finished? Well, did I?

Apparently, I did.

I admit it. I was wrong. There was more to do. And there may be yet more. I guess it took me another social media fast (the one I'm undertaking right now) to carve out the time to sew on a couple more patches. As much as I hate sewing (and I really do hate sewing), I like the results. 

First is this cool patch I picked up from Seventh Ink. I'm a fan of Folk Horror, and I thought nothing encapsulated the motif of folk horror like a sun with a skull shining inside of it. Think you're safe because it's a bright sunny day out? Think again:

And, of course, what folk horror-themed accoutrement would be complete without Sister Moon?

So, now, with the sun and moon flanking the mystic third-eye skull (well, one of them , at least), my shoulders are adorned thusly:

And . . . oh, hey! Lookee there! There's a sun emblazoned on that skull, too, right in the position of the third eye. I honestly didn't even realize that until I uploaded the picture just now. Seriously, that's weird. My subconscious has been doing costume design, apparently. 

If I had to guess, I'd say there's more to come. At some point, though, I'm going to run out of room on this battle jacket and will need to get another. Maybe some day I'll learn to like sewing. On the other hand, nope.

 In any case, it feels good to escape the clutches of social media and create something. I need so much more of that in my life. I'm so glad I've done this for a second time this year. This might become a much more regular occurrence. I'll let you know.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

A Crown of Dusk and Sorrow

A Crown of Dusk and SorrowA Crown of Dusk and Sorrow by Benjamin Tweddell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A grey world dipped in impure, tarnished gold: this is the spiritual milieu for Benjamin Tweddell's melancholy novella A Crown of Dusk and Sorrow, in which a struggling bookseller whose soul is still weighed down by the death of his wife is invited by one of his customers, an enthusiastic amateur scholar, to investigate an isolated spot in the hills mentioned in an obscure reference to an ancient Celtic miracle worker who sat atop a barrow mound communing with the dead. Daniel, the bookseller, and Jacob, the scholar, set out and discover the place, only to fall asleep there and experience a gloaming vision of the dead and their dark masters, where Odin/Wotan, God of the Hanged, the Grim Mask (or hood), who entered these realms by his apotheotizing self-sacrifices, looms larger than life or death, in the spaces in-between.

Good fortune follows the two in the wake of this shared vision (of which they never speak), but these blessings of wealth and good luck come with adverse effects, not the least of which is a series of further visions driving both Daniel and Jacob further into the darkness. It is a slow-burning journey saturated with sorrow, but a sort of hollowing sorrow, rather than anything cathartic. In their own ways, the pair begin become one with the dark visions, being tempted to embrace them further and learn of the mysteries that lie at edges of perception, faint hints and shadows of what lies in store for the dead.

Less sardonic and hopeless than sad with acceptance, A Crown of Dusk And Sorrow is precisely what the title indicates, a grim journey to kingship . . . of a sort.

One of the most haunting books I have read in recent years. Another powerful work from Mount Abraxas Press, beautifully presented, a work of art in its own right. Strongly recommended for a few grey, windy days' reading.

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Thursday, November 12, 2020

Gameholecon 2020 Report and Fast

Well, it wasn't in person, and it wasn't as long as I usually go, but Gameholecon happened in 2020 - virtually. I took the Friday off of work (normally I would take Thursday and Friday, but work has been insane lately and I didn't relish the thought of getting that far behind - good thing, given this grind of a week) and gamed Thursday night, all day Friday, and all day Saturday. Well, that was the plan, anyway. Thursday night didn't happen because our Keeper (it was a Call of Cthulhu game) had a family emergency arise. And, as I say, "family first"! No compromising on that rule. So, I took some time to work on a gaming project I've been working on for a little while.

Friday morning started off with a game of Empire of the Petal Throne - my third, I believe (though I played in a game of Bethorm: The Plane of Tekumel at Gameholecon last year, so that's four games in Tekumel, but three of them using EPT rules). Victor Raymond, whose judging style I really love, ran the game. There was all the cultural intrigue one expects from Tekumel, no small amount of lucky dice rolls in our favor, and a fun premise. My character's family had been kidnapped by a local warlord, a sort of prince-pirate, in the area known as Háida Pakála, and I, with some very capable compatriots, had to try to get them out of their hostage situation in three days, after which I would either have to pay an exorbitant ransom or they would be killed. I know just enough about Tekumel (having read two of M.A.R. Barker's novels and having played a few times before) to be able to encourage others in the party to strategize, though I wasn't socially adept enough to affect a lot of the ideas I suggested. We had one extremely lucky dice roll that saw the local consulate from the Tsolyani empire (of which we were citizens) offer us whatever help he could. The right bribe in the right place in the right time, combined with a critical success roll, gave us just what we needed - guidance to the best entrance to the underworld, where we could make our way to the family, and a distraction "up top" while we were busy doing our thing down below. It was as much fun as I've had adventuring . . . in any game . . . in a long time. I'm probably going to make it a habit to play in at least one EPT game at every Con I attend, so long as their ones I haven't played in before. So. Much. Fun. Here's my character:

Next, a much-needed game of Dungeon Crawl Classics, entitled "Escape from Algol," run by my friend Julian Bernick. I've known Julian for a long, long time (we first met at a World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis back in 2002) and it was good to play with him. I played a halfling, which I've never played in DCC before. That was fun. I would play a halfling again, for sure. Anyway, the premise was being transported to the planet Algol by a wizard who hired us (and, of course, died in the process of transporting us there). We were the first humans to visit this planet in many years, and the lizard men entities that lived there had a prophecy among them that humans would one day return. It was a nice blending of Dungeon Crawl Classics and Mutant Crawl Classics, in some ways. A sort of Sword and Planet affair that had us fighting nanite spiders and floating laser-shooting eyes. My favorite part: Being tied to a rope and pushed out by another party member to try to grapple with one of the immense laser-eyes, missing, then being pushed out again, where I succeeded in beginning the longest running battle of the game by wrastlin' the eye, with the help of several other party members. Long story short, we ended up blasting up through the floor of the dungeon in a spaceship that had been buried there (but, of course!) and then crash landed on the planet Carcosa - which I thought was a great touch, given that I had played in an online game at Garycon with Julian running it, wherein I played a Hot Dog Suit Guy (yes, that was his character class - and it was awesome) on Carcosa. Just stupid amounts of fun.

That evening, Julian and I played, along with our mutual friend Trevor, in our mutual friend Larry Hamilton's AD&D 1e game "Ogre Island and the Black Crate". I played two characters, a half-elf mage and a human fighter. I really liked this because 1) Julian, Trevor, and Larry are all awesome, 2) we were all a bunch of old skool Grognards playing 1st edition, and 3) it was a sandbox setting in a ruined city full of ogres, giants, trolls, goblins, and pirates. It felt good to not be railroaded - really, Larry was up for whatever we wanted to do. It felt like I remember D&D feeling as a young kid, honestly. And that's a good feeling! The climax was the party and two stowaway ogres holding on to a chained crate for dear life as it magically flew through the air back to the wizard that had hired us. I seriously loved the open "feel" of it - yes, we had a goal, but we didn't have to stick to it if we didn't want to. We prevaricated a fair amount, then decided to do it. But man, that feeling . . . gaming freedom! I need more of that in my life.

Saturday morning, it was Call of Cthulhu time. "Horror On the Buffalo River" set in the Ozarks of the 1920s. I played Wesley, an outdoorsman hired by the University to go with the party to determine if a state park should be opened in the Ozarks. Long story short: hell, no, it shouldn't! After successfully summoning Shub-Niggurath, and encountering the main "bad guys" (which, I must admit, was a morally ambiguous call as to whether they were bad or not), we had three of six characters left, one of which was permanently insane. Just like you want a Call of Cthulhu adventure to end! My character besmirched the other sane survivor, a pompous southern gentleman on the Board of Trustees, threatened a law suit against the University, won, and retired to be a hermit in Alaska . . . as perfectly befit the character. At some point, though, I'm guessing Delta Green paid him a visit and . . . well, you know.

Saturday afternoon I was able to game with my good friend Brendan LaSalle. It had been quite a while since I'd gamed at Brendan's table, and he's the guy who first ran DCC for me. He ran us through a new Harley Stroh adventure, something something of the Black Abbott. Or something. Doesn't matter. I played an Elf (with a name suspiciously like the halfling I played the day before), along with Jim Skatch, Haley Skatch, and others. The adventure is set in a really cool pentagram-shaped dungeon, which was full of puzzles and traps for us. It was like a low-level Tomb of Horrors for DCC, in many ways. I really enjoyed playing with this group, especially seeing Jim and Halley, whom I hadn't seen since - good grief, Garycon two years ago? Has it been that long? *Sob*.

Lastly, I played in a game of Numenera, which I had never played before. The players were great, the GM was great, the setting was great . . . and I hated the system. If I want to do a bunch of math, I'll just turn on my work computer and log in (I do purchasing and sourcing for my day job). I felt that the game system was trying way too hard to emulate a video game, which is a real shame. The setting is rich and super enjoyable to explore. But I felt like every time - no, I didn't just feel this way, it was true - every time I needed to do anything, I'd have to pull up a friggin' calculator or a scratch pad to get anything done. Just not my cupa java. But I swore that I would play at least one new game at every Con I attend, and I haven't broken that promise to myself yet. So, I played Numenera, and probably won't again. Win some, lose some.

All-in-all, Gameholecon was a great time, as usual. The guys running Gameholecon are top-notch, whether virtually or in meatspace.

But let's get that vaccine done, 'K, Pfizer? I want to be around my gaming buddies in the real world before too long. Please? 

And did I mention that I fasted for 62 hours over the weekend? Yep, started Thursday evening and broke my fast on Sunday morning. Trying to get this last 8 pounds of "overweight" tamped down and done with. Nothing like 50 hours of ketosis to help things along. I'll be fasting every weekend this month (not for 62 hours each time - that was rough - more like 40 hours) to try to get rid of this last batch of stubborn fat and, no joking, to enjoy the benefits of long fasting. I gotta tell you, after fasting, eating, and . . . um . . . processing that food (*ahem*), I felt the best I have felt in years. Granted, you feel pretty rotten while fasting, but the extreme hunger only lasts for about 17 hours. Once your past that, you're, well, not golden, but you'll be fine. 

Oh, and how is the social media fast going? It's . . . not as easy this time. Trying to move back into the analog world is hard work, some times. I think I need to fill my calendar with stuff to keep me busy, such as writing this blog post. And I need to slow down and enjoy my unstructured time more, rather than feeling like I need to always be doing something busy. In fact, I'm going to go do some leisurely reading right about . . . now!

Chiarascuro Void

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chiaroscuro Void (Goyesquean Fictions and Visions)”, Raphus Press’ newest offering, is a dark delight, oddly bound (I am no expert on binding, so I can’t name the style, but it is unlike any book I’ve held before), wonderfully designed, and teeming with a physical character of its own. A variety of fiction, poetry, and prose-poetry by some of the best contemporary authors now writing fills the pages like a grey mist. I am reticent to use the “weird” label here because while some of the stories do contain weird, supernatural elements, some work just fine without any interpretations lying outside our daily perceptions. But where the weird or eerie elements are there, they add to the backbone of each specific work in which they appear, and the collection as a whole. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on each:

Rhys Hughes' "The Distant Critics" is everything I've come to expect of Hughes’ work: dark and erudite, but with a sense of humor that is infectious. You'll never view Goya's painting of Saturn devouring his son the same again.

D.P. Watts' "Quinta del Sordo" is a boiling churn of darkness, as one would expect from a story named after the residence where Goya created his (in)famous Black paintings. The story is a poetic, baroque depiction of depravity and, ultimately, collapse under the weight of fate. The plot is thin, the atmosphere thick.

Karim Ghahwagi, you have broken my heart. "Dandelion Spring" has shattered me. Never have I thought that a piece of existential hard science fiction could hold so much emotion. I literally had tears in my eyes when I finished this story. The emptiness and beauty of the story are absolutely gut-wrenching. I've rarely felt so deeply reading a work of science fiction, let alone hard sci-fi. This was an unexpected surprise, to say the least, full of melancholy.

Jonathan Wood is at his most transgressive (and that is saying something) in "The Face That is Not There". Eros and Thanatos entwine in the shadows, twisting together until both are shaded impressions of one another. I can think of no greater words to describe this enthralling, poetic story than "Chiaroscuro" and "Void". The sum is greater than the obfuscated parts.

I have not read a Brian Evenson story I haven't liked. "The Devouring" is no exception. The rule stands. Though "like" might not be the right word. Can one really like such a bleak, hopeless story that makes you feel like you are suffocating while reading it, that robs you of any good feeling? Maybe "admire" is a better word. Or "respect". In any case, I prefer to read it.

Wade German's "I, Goya" – is a short, powerful poem. Evocative in few words, this packs a punch.

Colin Insole digs into the grotesqueries of marriage - the realizations that your spouse is far from perfect - in the ghost story "Memories of the Bone People". Emotional distortion and the realization of the potential shallowness of a loved ones' devotion act as a prise between husband and wife. They will never be the same, their vision of one another and of themselves forever corrupted.

Stephan Friedman's short tale, "The Fiery Serpent," I found iridescent, but too blunt. The prose is excellent, but the story unrefined, perhaps intentionally so. His two poems, though, "The Dog Night" and "The Full Moon," I found more rewarding. Though they were, at points, also forward in their transgressiveness, the weaving of the poetic voice here with such starkness, works exceedingly well.

The title of Fernando Naporano's poem "Whims of Goya, Nagoya In Paranoia" seems to be nearly as long as the poem itself, but upon examination, the poem's layers unpeel and reveal treasures of carefully obfuscated insight. A dark delight to see these stanzas unfold into the intellect.

In "Soplones!", Alcebiades Diniz Miguel takes the readers' delight - a story about purchasing rare books - and turns it into something horrific. That musty mold-tinted smell of old bookstores is a warning that is best heeded before the bookseller approaches you! Buyer beware!

"Futility and Wonder," a long series of verses by poet Joseph Dawson, plums the depths of existential hopelessness and heretical thought better than anything I've read since Jonathan Wood's poetry; to the point where the poet admits even the futility of fully capturing such despair in the poem itself. It is a black hole of a poem from which nothing, including its own hopeless creation, escapes. A poetic mobius strip, wonderfully realized!

I did not expect the strong emotional response I had to Fabio Waki's story "Lessons by Candlelight". I am a grandfather, and any proud grandfather who reads this story should be ready to feel the tears well up. This was an unexpectedly powerful story that cut deep. A "dark" piece, in many ways, yet so very full of light shining in the darkness. Any grandfather worth his salt that does not get wet eyes from this story needs to have his pulse checked.

The quote on the back cover of the book, "There is only light and shadow," aptly captures Thassio Capranera's "Dithyrambs in Ancient Cantabria," a sumptuous pleasure shattered by abject horrors. One does not know where reality ends and fantasy/horror begins, because the terror one wakes to may be as horrid as the worst of nightmares preceding that awakening. Exquisitely written, for pleasantry and pain.

Jean Du Bois' "A Thing of Nature" is rich in sumptuous detail, but poor on movement. The idea is to show the overlap of past and present, the ghosts of the old infecting the new in an ever-repeating pattern. While I enjoy the hauntological idea greatly, the execution is too staid and static for my tastes. A quiet, a too quiet experiment that passes the theoretical test, but is a bit too cold.

"Sad Presentiments of a Proud Monster" by Timothy J. Jarvis provides the apocryphal story about what happened to Goya's skull after his death. A wondrous tale featuring painter Rosario Weiss Zorrilla, who may or may not have been Goya's daughter (but was definitely his God-Daughter), a strange diviner, several prints of the deceased Goya's work, and an uncanny divination ritual. This was the perfect tale with which to end the anthology.

In summation, Chiarascuro Void is a complete artifact. From the font to the book’s tones (both hue and literary tone), the varied looks at Goya’s work and his life, this volume hangs together, framed perfectly as a celebration and a warning. I would love to see similar books around the works of such artists as Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and Felicien Rops, to name a few. I could see an entire series emerging via this model, something which I would gladly subscribe to.

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Sunday, November 8, 2020

Psalms of the Magistrate

Psalms of the MagistratePsalms of the Magistrate by Damian Murphy

As with all fiction, his expositions contained a grain of truth. They seemed to function as a mirror in which the facts were distorted only by the necessities of the muse. The author served as poet, oracle, and hagiographer . . .

This quote, describing one of the characters in Psalms of the Magistrate, might just as well be used to describe Murphy's mystical auctorial foray. As usual, with Murphy's work, there are multiple meanings and multiple entry points for readers, "a diversity of operations," as they say. "Weird" fiction? It could be. Or it might be a revelation of esotericism, or an obfuscation of the same, or, perhaps, both at once. Possibly mere fantasy? Yes, possibly, but those who know better . . . well, they know better. Horror? Not at all, though the awe and reverence that some horror hints at can be found here. Kitsch? Taste is on the tongue of the taster.

Whatever your entry point, there are some aspects of this work (and of Murphy's work overall) that will strike the reader. Most immediately, the characterization. I should love to encounter nothing but Murphy's characters in my travels. Not only from this book, but from any of his works, most especially Abyssinia and The Acephalic Imperial). I'd be careful, however, to hold on to my wallet and watch what I say. I would want to remain, in a word, elusive. Their oddities are endearing and I should like to be surrounded by such . . . interesting people.

Next, the discerning reader (and/or writer) will soon realize that Murphy's playfulness is apparent in the way he structures the interplay between characters, via their editing of each others' writings. Very clever, this device of nested texts and one character editing another character's words. This leads to unanswered and unanswerable questions. But where does Thomas (the protagonist) come up with the edits that he applies? What inspires him to change Mittel's (the "catalyst" character, I will call him) words from harsh pronouncements to amorous excitations? It is possible that these manipulations are mere whimsy, but there seems to be something more intentional happening there. At the very least, Thomas uses Mittel's words as a combination that he can manipulate until the sacred safe is cracked, so to speak.

The sacred is exactly what is at stake here. Thomas, whether unwittingly or with great precision (or, more likely , both) is determined to find his way not only through Lucifer's gate, but through the Noctiferian portal. Thomas's Working, which opens him to both the presence and the perception of the Magistrate (and the Magistrate's perception through him) is, simply put, magical, both in its substance and its execution. One cannot read this and not feel edified and desirous of participation in such a Working, but Murphy's symbolic Working will not work, directly, for a reader. The reader must subvert it, if it is to have any efficacy. And how to do so? Discover yourself. Discipline yourself enough to embrace a bit of chaos.

Finally, there is the artifact itself. One might look at the description of this book and thing "64 pages - that's too short!"

Economists might balk at the price vs page count of, well, any of Mount Abraxas' editions. No, it's not too short. It is in the goldilocks zone - just right. The artifact, with its scarlet pages, sublime cover, and, of course, silk ribbon, is as gaudy as it needs to be, while as classically clean as it ought to be. Don't fool yourself, fool. This is well worth the price, whatever the sacrifice, Mammon be damned.

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Thursday, November 5, 2020


 A few weeks back, I announced on Twitter that I needed to take another break. I entirely forgot to post something here. No wonder, with how busy life has been! Hence, part of the need for a social media fast. Really, I'm burned out on the electioneering. I have unsubscribed from all the mailing lists I was on. I had decided, weeks ago, that no matter what, I needed a break. After reading about the benefits of a social media fast and having done one this past winter, I decided it was time again. I'm glad the election *seems* to be going the way I had hoped (though I am very disappointed with the Democrats senate showing - *yawn* - they need to do better), so I can leave it off without a ton of anxiety. More than anything, I am looking forward to being away from the twitter storm, a storm that I, admittedly, helped create. So, I won't be stirring any chaos there for about a month. In any case, I'm not nearly so nervous to begin the social media fast as I was the first time through, back in February. A little nervous, but not so bad. The world didn't fall apart while I was away and I was able to get a lot of projects done. This time, I have several writing projects to do, at least one more blog post about my 2019 trip to Europe, maybe two more if I have time, an RPG post or two (one for DCC, one for Carcosa), and, yes, a little touch up to do on the Esoteric Denim.

Furthermore, in an attempt to get my physique to where I really want it to be, I'm going to be doing water fasting each weekend this month. I've got this last eight to ten pounds of fat I need to burn off and it's not coming off easily. Yes, I've lost - good grief - over thirty five pounds since I began seriously watching my weight a few years ago, but I need to bust through the floor and get rid of some of this extra junk. I've been working out regularly and will continue to do so while fasting, so as to build, rather than lose muscle. But on the a good chunk of the weekends, I will be only taking in water. Ketosis, here I come!

One thing that will make it a bit easier this weekend, anyway, is that I am participating in Gameholecon virtually. I'll be playing in 2 DCCRPG games, 1 AD&D1e game, 2 Call of Cthulhu games, 1 Empire of the Petal Throne game, and a game of Numenera, which I've never played before. I always like to try at least one game I haven't played before, so this year, it's Numenera. I'll see what all the fuss is about. 

Speaking of games, I ran the new Casting the Runes RPG on Halloween day for some good friends (who I know are not infected). The scenario I prepared was loosely based on the story "The Tractate Middoth" by M.R. James, but with a twisted folk-horror ending in which players needed to make some tough moral (or immoral, as the case may be) decisions. I love pinning players in a corner where their characters have to make a difficult decision and they need to justify that decision. This one ended up with the human sacrifice of an innocent victim (though the innocent victim was quite a jerk) to bring another person back to life. Always fun to see the players squirm a bit as they discuss the pros and cons. That's what makes a true horror game, huh?

It will be weird, not being on twitter, instagram, or facebook for the month. Again, I'm not counting Goodreads as social media, though it technically is. There's something qualitatively different about the conversations that I have there. Facebook is not quite dead to me, but its comatose. Twitter I will be "cleansing" and continue to be careful about who I follow. Instagram . . . it's alright. But I'm really starting to lean into blogs again. If I thought I could get enough followers here, I'd just blog and roam around other people's blogs, but it's a bit like walking around a metropolis that's been hit by a little tornado. Yes, there's a lot of activity, but when you turn the corner and see some of the ruins and bodies . . . *shudder*. But maybe we can make a go of it, I dunno.

PS: Thought I'd change the theme here - because: because.

Monday, November 2, 2020

The Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James

Complete Ghost StoriesComplete Ghost Stories by M.R. James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m no “completist” when it comes to reading. I like to dabble, dip my toes here and there, and move on to something new. So, it’s saying something that after reading Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, I still picked up the Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James while at an Oxfam in Oxford on vacation in 2019. Mister James obviously made an impression on me the first time around.

Since the first several stories are collected in Antiquary, I shall forbear repeating myself. On to the rest.

"A School Story" is not bad, not great. James puts his own twist at the end - after any other writer might have considered the story done - that brings it up a notch. Three stars.

"The Rose Garden," while a weak ghost story, is a strong piece of of psychogeography, or perhaps a very strong example of the liminal spaces in-between. Four stars.

I took the story "The Tractate Middoth" and used it as the backbone for a Casting the Runes RPG adventure I ran on Halloween day. Such a clever story. The last line of this mystery made me laugh out loud, which I don't normally do when reading. But it's so. darned. good! James’ understated humor is commendable, and what do they say about humor and horror being complimentary? So very true. Five smiling stars.

"The Residence at Whitmnister" is an interesting tale of young men, now dead, dabbling where they ought not, then paying the price for eternity, and the effect on those left living in the wake of their uncovering of things that should have remained concealed from mortal eyes. The last bit is a "time bomb waiting to go off" ending, which I quite like. Four stars.

Maybe it's just my modern sensibilities or maybe I've read enough M.R. James that my expectations for his stories are unreasonably high, but I found "The Diary of Mister Poynter" to be fairly dull. This is mostly because there is not a compelling connection between the haunter and the haunted. It seems almost haphazard. Still a good story, good enough for three stars. But not among James' best.

"An Episode of Cathedral History" has its frisson, but it's a fairly stock story of what happens when you go about disturbing very old things. Just. Don't. Three stars.

Among James' "weirder" stories, "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" features one of my favorite horror tropes: a Punch and Judy show. The dream sequence in the story is particularly horrific, even by Jamesian standards, and weird in the extreme. The rest of the story is a bit predictable, but unique. Four stars and "that's the way we do it"!

Just as "The Two Doctors" starts to get interesting, the story ends. A bit too much preamble here. A decent enough story, but definitely a lower-tier story for James. Three stars.

Here, James actually apologizes to the reader that "The Haunted Dolls' House" might be construed as nothing but a variation on "The Mezzotint". With all due respect: apology rejected! I found this story every bit as compelling, if not as interesting. Five stars for another story that Rod Serling surely read before he set out to create The Twilight Zone.

Somehow, I will morph, mold, and beat "The Uncommon Prayer-Book" into my next horror RPG scenario. Something about ghosts and old books that just go hand in hand. Anyway, a good story, much to my tastes, that could have easily been a novella, rather than a short story. Hmm. That gives me an idea . . . Four stars.

"A Neighbour's Landmark" is a nice piece of pastoral folk horror that could be made into a compelling movie. I picture it as a really artsy piece, probably filmed in the Cotswolds. It would be a short movie, but the revelations about the screams heard on the hill, the historical context, etc. could provide for some good drama. Five stars.

Machen must have read James. "A View from a Hill" seems like a parallel story to Machen's "Hill of Dreams". I find it hard to believe that the similarities are coincidental. The story is possibly one of the earliest "weird tales" I've read. A ghost story, yes, but running thick with weirdness. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and will likely return to it again and again. Five stars viewed from a hill on a clear night!

"A Warning to the Curious" is aptly titled. Some things, tempting as they are, are better left buried. Sacrilege carries consequence, and nothing can save those whose curiosity tumbles one into blasphemous transgressions. The dead care not for your motives, only your actions, and forgiveness is not on their agenda. Four stars.

It's difficult to pinpoint what I like so much about "An Evening's Entertainment". Even the framing story of the grandmother telling her grandchildren a ghost story is pleasurable, in a strange way. The strange companions and their hidden lives, the lord of flies, spooked horses, a frightened community . . . it all works together so well! Five stars to what should be a rather ordinary ghost story. Emblematic.

"There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard" feels like a story that James wrote as a writing exercise, just something to keep in practice. You'd call it "phoning it in" if your favorite band performed at this level at a live concert. Still good, but only three stars worth of good.

"Rats" has little to do with its title, except by implication. This is a good thing, as the story is stronger than anything rodents might have generated. It's a genuinely scary story mainly because it is so forthright. The scariest moments happen in bright daylight, and the mystery is fully revealed by the owners of the inn. I thought this openness added a dimension that many ghost stories are missing. Demystifying the mystery, in this case, proved the most horrifying thing of all. Five bright stars

James seems to echo A.A. Milne's whimsical animal tales in "After Dark in the Playing Fields," but with a more sinister shadow. Most readers will ask "but is it a ghost story?" To which the answer is "yes," if you'll recall that the fair folk and ghosts were often conflated in that era (c.f. Machen's "The White People" for similar blurring of those lines). A darkly humorous tale by James. Five stars.

"Wailing Well" is a predictable story of a rebellious individual going exactly where he ought not and suffering the consequences. Predictable, but creepy, nonetheless. Another ghost story in the bright heat of day. Oh, and there are a troop of boy scouts. Well, minus one member. Three stars.

“Stories I have tried to write” is not a story at all. It’s a cataloging of ideas that James had that he just couldn’t quite make work. At least two of them are complete stories, but he couldn’t quite get the details to work to his satisfaction. An interesting window into his creative process and some of the things we was trying to do (and usually succeeded at doing) in his writing. Frankly, it’s quite encouraging to me, as a writer, to know that he walked down dead ends, as well, and probably wasted a deal of time on them. I feel your pain, Montague.

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