Monday, April 5, 2021

In That Endlessness, Our End


In That Endlessness, Our EndIn That Endlessness, Our End by Gemma Files
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t hide the fact that I’m a fan of Gemma Files’ work. Her writerly reputation is solid, and deservedly so. Take, for example, her previous novel, Experimental Film, frankly one of the best horror novels I have read in many, many years. I had read and enjoyed Files’ stories as they appeared in various publications, but felt like she had hit a new watermark with Experimental Film. I was, admittedly, amped-up to read In That Endlessness, Our End. I even pre-ordered it, something I rarely do with books. But I had pre-ordered Experimental Film and loved it, so I felt that being an early adapter for this collection was a pretty safe bet.

And I was right.

Like any collection, there are “danglers and outliers,” but really, these fifteen stories hung together quite nicely. There are no bad stories among them. And because of my very high expectations, the one story that I rated at three-stars (out of five) might have just as well had something to do with my mood or something I ate (or didn’t eat) the evenings I spent reading it. Keep in mind that, at three stars, I still liked it. And overall, I loved the collection. The tales are sometimes horrific to the point that you wonder if the author poisoned the pages themselves, but many of them have a subtext of intimacy – not explicit sexual intimacy (though that is implied, in places), but familial intimacy and the intimacy of close friends. This, I think, is what sets Files’ stories here apart from much of the horror field – the foil of these intimate relationships against an uncaring or even inimical universe is profound and stark, casting love and friendship into relief against hatred and selfishness.

Note: Hatred and selfishness win out when you least expect it to. Some of these stories are heartbreakers, full stop.

Without further ado, here are my (slightly edited) notes from each story:

"This is How it Goes" posits a split. I won't go into detail, but suffice it to say that doppelgangers are compelled to kill their originals. Many Worlds Theory comes into play here in a quantum apocalypse unlike any other you've read about, guaranteed. The horror comes both from without and from within, the apocalypse arising from and further fomenting the horror of literally facing yourself and conquering your demons. Four stars.

"Bulb" skirts the border between creepypasta and cosmic horror. You might not want to turn the lights on after reading this. Makes me want to extend my social media "fasts" indefinitely. If you're at all averse to technology, this story is one giant trigger. A fantastic tale that will have you questioning every source of electricity around you. Five dazzling, electric stars.

"The Puppet Motel" is a haunted-house story for the 21st-Century, a modern take on some old tropes that doesn't feel like a modern take on old tropes, but feels like something absolutely unique and terrifying. It's not your "typical" ghost story, but something far more Weird or, when one really thinks about the story, Weird and Eerie, in the Fisher-esque senses of both words. Five stars.

So, what happens when the haunted house comes to you? And do you regret taking notice of some things, when you could have lived in blissful ignorance your whole life, but that one thing you took notice of consumes your life, consumes you? The characters in "Come Closer" have to ask these questions. And they don't get the answers they want. The characters here are extremely compelling, making us care for them, despite their broken-ness. Four stars.

Take the twitter account Pagan Hollywood, add the Eastern European legends of the Night Hag, and trace the story of an obsession through a multi-document approach, and you get "Cut Frame". I am enamored of all of these things and I absolutely love the method of using disparate documents to point readers to the story behind the story (I am a trained historian, after all). A tragic story leading to the abyss. I love this style of storytelling (both as a reader and as a writer), and Files excels at it.

"Sleep Hygiene" is . . . difficult. Because I've seen, up close and personal, a mental breakdown caused by lack of sleep. It's not pretty. It's terrifying. The narrator in this story ends up damaged in ways that, thankfully, the one I know did not. The fact that it hit so close to the mark is a testament to File's ability as a writer. After this, you might not trust a therapist ever again. And, Public Service Announcement here: please, please see that you don’t skimp on sleep. The effects are truly horrific. Five stars; reluctantly.

"Always After Three" has a decent premise and characterization. For me, though, it lacked a natural sense of dread, like it was forced. I think it could have been longer to allow the characters and their situation to develop a bit more. I liked it, but didn't love it. Three stars.

"Thin Cold Hands" is a morbidly beautiful story of possession, both of the ghostly kind and of the kind that binds mother and daughter in their relationship to one another, even if both parties aren't exactly willing. It's a clever subversion of that relationship, as well as the apocalyptic threat that would arise if such relationships were to multiply as, statistically, they must. Shades of Doris Lessing’s “The Fifth Child” here, folks. Five stars.

The collective unconscious has spawned something inexorable in "Venio," and it's coming. The more you try not to think about it, the closer it is. And you want it to be as far away from you as possible. But its visitation is inevitable; only a matter of time. Here Files develops her familiar themes to a sharpened point, leaving the reader no escape, entrapping them in the story. Five stars.

Folk horror meets vampirism in the guise of a pseudo-Fisher King in "Look Up". The shifting viewpoint is at times confusing, always kaleidoscopic. The motivations of the main subject seem to ebb and flow, winsome and immature with indecision, then stubborn resolve, then submissive acceptance. Tropes of inheritance, destiny, choice, and change swirl throughout the tale, both clarifying and confusing. Four stars.

"The Church in the Mountains" is Files at her best. Varied viewpoints, sepia tones, the hidden interstices of media at once so familiar, yet so alien, the horror of becoming that which we don't want to be, but inevitably must. A written story finds validation in a long-lost film and concludes by folding external reality into internal realization. A symphonic, tenebrous collapse into fate. Five stars.

Science fiction or horror? "Distant Dark Places" has an emotional resonance missing from much of modern dark fiction. It's a big story, yet personal, as big as a planet (or three), yet as small as the misfiring gaps in the human neural structure. The tale takes conspiracy theories and "prepping" to a cosmological level, yet never leaves the human sphere. The undulating scope of the story never loses focus. Five stars

"Worm Moon" is a highly poetic piece of infestation, metamorphosis, and unwanted discovery. A horrific voyage into a murky realm of self: what was self, what is self, what is to become . . . something else. Four stars.

"Halloo" is an utter gut-punch. I don't even know where to begin: the bottle? The therapy? The relationship between Isla and Amaya? Between Isla and her mother and Nan? It's all so wrong and just when you think it's going to turn right, it goes even more wrong. Ugh. This was an excruciating read, but in the good way. Yeah, the good way.

Note: Rorcal's album "Mulladonna" was the perfect background music for reading this story. Definitely the right mood.

Five stars (to Files and Rorcal)!

Much more poignant than horrific, "Cuckoo" asks tough questions of a (autistic?) child's parents. The myths of the Changeling are explored throughout as a means to examine the themes of dedication, love, duty, and disappointment. This is an evocative meditation, if you will, on fate and responsibility, on a universe that gives not one whit about you, and yet calls on you to reach deep to find compassion inside yourself. Five stars.

On balance, I am giving In That Endlessness, Our End a full five stars, despite the one story I only "liked," because I loved the rest to varying degrees. I strongly recommend getting the hard copy - believe me, with many of these stories, you'll want to be able to close the pages quickly when you reach the end . . . so you can pull the covers over your head and hide.

But you can't.

Can't hide.

You can't hide;

It's coming . . .

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Monday, March 22, 2021

Samuel Beckett's The Complete Short Prose. 1929 - 1989


The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989 by Samuel Beckett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

About once a year, I like to read what I consider to be a really challenging book. Moby Dick comes to mind, as does Ulysses. Gödel, Escher, Bach was a back-breaker. And I have more heavy challenges sitting on my TBR pile: Proust's Swann's Way, Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and Heidegger's Being and Time. They stare at me at night, waiting . . . lurking . . . seething.

Why do I hate myself read such works? Well, a sick part of me actually enjoys the challenge. I love puzzles. I tend toward jigsaw puzzles (though never simple ones and never under 1000 pieces - booooring!) and doing crossword puzzles helps keep me from mentally falling apart with fear when I'm flying, though I have this superstition about finishing all the "across" words before working on the "down" words - it's probably a control thing, but I digress. I do love puzzles. I like challenging my brain, though I like doing so on my own timeline, when I don't have to. And there is the side benefit of actually knowing what the heck I'm talking about when talking literature, philosophy, etc., with random strangers I meet (or whom I hope to meet in a post-pandemic world). Nothing quite like talking Gödel's theorem with someone on the shuttle to the rental car place, you know? Heartwarming.

This isn't my first dance with Beckett. Many years ago, probably about twenty years or so, I took a train ride from Chicago to Salt Lake City for work (yes, I do have a fear of flying, but I'm better about it now then I was then). During that trip, I tortured myself read through Beckett's "trilogy" of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable. It was a harrowing experience, not because of the subject matter, but because of the sheer tediousness of it. But I wanted to understand them. So, I plugged ahead. It was slow going. It took a two day trip one way, reading every night for a week while in Salt Lake City, and a two day trip back. In fact, I don't think I even finished it then, but had to slog my way through a few more days after I got home. It was, in a word, agonizing. And yet, I couldn't pull myself away from it.

You see in those novels, you just have to know what happens to those characters, and you have just got to know what happened to them in the past. They are like human train wrecks that you can't look away from. I am reminded of Jim Morrison's (in)famous childhood encounter with a car wreck in which he saw bodies strewn all over the road and heard the screams of the wounded and dying. He claims that an Indian's soul leapt up and took over his body. I feel the same way about Beckett's characters. They leap up and jump into your soul. You can't get rid of them without an exorcism, and I don't know the method for doing so or another person who does. If you don't want to be possessed by Beckett, it's best to just stay away.

But for those who won't or can't, here are a few of my disjointed notes. The analogy of watching a car wreck just kept coming back to me again and again as I read, so you might find strands and echoes of this throughout. These notes are not in the order they appeared in the book, as the order really doesn't matter except to contextualize "more experimental" and "less experimental" periods or, one might say "more readable" and "less readable". I find Beckett's short fiction to feel like a long, aimless meandering walkaround and through the liminal places, the little used alleys an abandoned lots, of a town. Not a city or village, but something between, and only those spaces in between. Whereas the 3 novels are like a marathon, this is a series of day trips. You just concentrate on whatever interests you, with no compulsion to "see the sights".

Beckett is the master of entropic literature. The old black | white partitioned sandbox with the child running clockwise, mixing it all up. Send him back around counter-clockwise and it doesn't reverse the process, it makes even more chaos. This is actually an appropriate analogy to the works throughout the volume. Beckett's masterwork is undoing, and I can't help but watch, fascinated, like seeing a passenger trainwreck in slow-motion or watching a cow being folded and crushed in a meat-grinder. Utterly disgusting and fully engaging. One feels simultaneously sickened and fascinated.

The story "Fizzle 1," however, just left me feeling sick. I'm continually amazed at how a story like "Fizzle 1" can trigger in me such a feeling of claustrophobia that I have to remind myself to breathe while reading it. Exhausting and uncomfortable, Beckett knows how to wriggle into your brain and flood your insides with oppression. It's like having a bull sit on your chest, slowly crushing the breath out of you.

I am more than willing to give Beckett's experimental works the benefit of the doubt, but "The Image" was a complete flop. Probably should have just kept this one on a private notebook or sent its ashes up the chimney flue a'la Kafka. That said, I was greatly intrigued and entertained ("enjoyed" is exactly the wrong word) by the other experimental work in the volume. There is a smartness to most of the works that isn't "oversmart". This story was "oversmart". It just plain tried too hard and looked stupid doing it.

In "Fizzle 4" consciousness asserts its independence from the body. A rather successful little piece of experimental fiction, possibly the most successful of the fizzles. I think that this is what Beckett was trying to do with his trilogy of novels, or something akin to it. But this little piece did it without becoming in the least bit tedious. I rather liked this one.

I suspect that Brian Evenson read and was influenced by "The Lost Ones" early in his writing career. Perhaps I'm wrong, but boy does this read like an Evenson tale. That's a good thing. This was possibly the most "approachable" of the stories in this volume, while also being the most strange and surreal. I would loved to have an entire collection of Beckett stories in this mode, but alas, such stories don't exist beyond this one. A definite favorite.

"Heard in the Dark 2" is Eros and Thanatos, entwined in a car wreck. Messy, but you can't stop looking. I warned that this analogy was going to keep coming back. It's like herpes - you can't get rid of it!

I would be remiss if I didn't quote the man himself. So here is a nugget that stuck out to me because it exemplifies the mindset of many of Beckett's characters; so much so, in fact, that one wonders if Beckett even had more than one character, or if this poor sap was trapped in an eternally-recurring loop of dissolution?

Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this, saying it's me?

Here you have Beckett's short-story oeuvre, in a nutshell.

As an addendum, something dawned on me as I was reading the end-notes (talk about tedium!).

The "Notes on the Texts" gives a perfect example, under one cover, of Machen's differentiation between Art and Artifice. This section is as dry and soulless as a ledger, while Beckett's short stories, while difficult and sometimes near-undecipherable, clearly have "soul" and at least approach, in their own strange way, that "ecstasy" that Arthur Machen spoke of in Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature, as defining Fine Literature. It's an excruciating road to get there, but rewarding to the mind and heart, whereas these last notes are just pure academic/bibliographic dross. A car wreck you really can't be fascinated by, no matter how hard you try, unless you're just trying to look smart.

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Saturday, March 20, 2021

Malevolent Visions: The Art of Der Orchideengarten - 1920 - Issues 9-15


Malevolent Visions: The Art of Der Orchideengarten • 1920 • Issues 9 - 16Malevolent Visions: The Art of Der Orchideengarten • 1920 • Issues 9 - 16 by Thomas Negovan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I supported the kickstarter for this volume, the fifth in the series, mostly because I could get the book and a set of postcards featuring art from Der Orchideengarten for about the same price as just buying the book later. I'm using the postcards as postcards for a snail-mail roleplaying game that I am participating in, which is set in the year 1921. What better way to add authenticity than by using postcards showing macabre art from the year 1920 in a snail-mail RPG set in 1921? I've sent one thus far, and it seems to have done the trick of giving the player to whom it was sent a visual to go with the (handwritten) words of my character to his. Verisimilitude helps.

And what of the book itself? I'll admit that, because I was so focused on the use of the postcards, I didn't read or didn't absorb the fine print in the kickstarter. I had expected (ignorantly) that the book would include facsimiles of all the issues of Der Orchideengarten for the stretch of issues indicated. I was mistaken. While there is some interesting commentary about the stories and their authors, there is little directly quoted from them. There are decent summations of many of the stories, but they are merely summations. The information about the artists lends a bit of depth to the book, especially as it relates to how the artist's political sympathies were manifested, in time (you can imagine why), but the real focus of the book is the art itself.

At this, it succeeds wonderfully. Certain artists predominate, most notably (the notorious) Karl Ritter, who did the majority of the covers for the issues examined in this volume, but there is a variety of styles shown throughout. Wilhelm Heise's "Nocturnal Garden" is akin to a black-and-white illustration in the style of Der Blaue Reiter; Paul Neu's illustrations for the story "The Elevator" and Carl Rabus' illustrations for "Giulio Balbi's Disappearance" are heavily-influenced by cubism, but with an art-deco flair, and Ritter's work is composed of grotesque, but fine line work with a sort of Aubrey Beardsley depth, albeit far darker in both its subject matter and its artistic tone. There are also several illustrations that are purely anonymous, which somehow seems appropriate for a periodical focused so much on the grim and macabre arising out of Germany's interwar years art scene.

The book is, as you might imagine, lavishly illustrated with plates showing full-color covers and even one maquette of Karl Ritter's shown opposite the final cover for issue eleven of Der Orchideengarten, an intriguing pseudo-diptych of the expressionist work-in-progress alongside the finished product. One wonders why various changes were made by the artist, what led to the alterations? It also shows that this cover, at least, wasn't just a fever-dreamed off-the-cuff outpouring of artwork, but something more methodical and thought-through. Many critics of "modern art" don't understand (or don't believe) the crafting that goes into many modern (and "post-modern") works. Such dismissiveness is, I believe, to be dismissed. Here and elsewhere, Malevolent Visions shows both the art and artifice needed to generate these enduring (if somewhat forgotten) works of strange art.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstacy in Literature

Hieroglyphics; A Note Upon Ecstasy in LiteratureHieroglyphics; A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of course, I am a huge fan of Machen's ethereal, even oneiric fiction. His non-fiction, at least in the case of his exploration of Art versus Artifice, Hieroglyphics; A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature shows a great level of precision in its arguments, even as the narrator confesses that the largely-inexplicable, but precisely knowable concept of "ecstasy," is difficult to pin down because of the slipperiness of language, or, rather, the slipperiness of our use of the language in trying to describe and categorize that which is nearly indescribable and far from easily categorizable. Still, at least a part of Machen's early career was taken in cataloging (works of the occult, no less), so he brings a level of exactitude to the argument eventually, after circling around the subject, like a whirlpool spinning his interlocutors around in a dizzying series of arguments before pushing them down into the depths of his logic.

This doesn't mean that he is entirely successful. At least not in the end. His assertion that all ecstatic works are "Catholic" is less than convincing, perhaps because I, as a reader, see the capital "C" and assume that he is talking about the institutional church of the same name, rather than the concept of universalism, which might have been a better word choice around which to center his final argument. Yes, I know he didn't mean The Catholic Church, but using the term "Catholic" with that attention-grabbing "C" and all it implies, distracts from what could have been a more elegant argument.

Still, I find it hard to argue with his assertion that: A gold nugget may be as pure and fine as you like, but it is not a sovereign; it lacks the stamp; and it is the business of art to give its stamp and imprint to the matter of life.

And: . . . you must never tell me that a book is fine art because it made you, or somebody else, cry; your tears are, emphatically, not evidence in the court of Fine Literature.

This doesn't make Machen a high-falutin' snob. Far from it. He admits to the enjoyment he takes in reading laugh-out-loud books and enjoying a well-spun yarn, but he does not yield in his argument that Fine Literature is fundamentally different than most "popular" books. I use the word "most," because Machen admits that even within Fine Literature, there are matters of degree. He also says that many of these more popular works might have elements of Fine Literature, but without the ecstasy that he struggles so long to explain (and which I will not explain here), they cannot cross that line. He uses Austen, Dickens, Quixote, Collins, and Rabelais as examples to form his arguments, and with great effect. Now I need to read Rabelais!

Two interesting sub-theses stuck out to me. The first, about poetry, states:

The most perfect form of literature is, no doubt, lyrical poetry which is, one might say, almost pure Idea, art with scarcely an alloy of artifice, expressed in magic words, in the voice of music.

He goes on to argue that lyrical poetry, rather than being artifice, as he has defined it, is highly natural. This seems to contradict his earlier arguments that artifice is largely a manner of structure that lacks true spiritual inspiration. Poetry, however, he claims, is a different matter. Think of children out playing - if they are by themselves, they quite naturally form "poetry" of a sort as they learn that words have cadence, that rhymes can be pleasing, etc. Because these things happen at a very young age, Machen seems to see this kind of structure as emerging from the very soul of innocence, whereas the artificial construction of popular stories, novels, etc., stray from this innocence into a form of connivance.

The second argument I find extremely intriguing is how Machen ties in drinking in literature with Dionysian worship, of a sort, man becoming divine through wine. He points out that if we miss this, we might be missing the entire point of some Fine Literature. This, to me, is a very interesting take on the Mysteries, that sacramental truths can be revealed in the drunken-ness of the characters of Fine Literature. Perhaps he sees this as akin to returning to child-like innocence and, thus, the shedding of the shackles of "civilization"?

If so, I'll accept his "catholic" views, so long as they remain with a lower case "c". Case matters.

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Thursday, March 11, 2021

A New Hobby Emerges: Bookbinding!

 As if I don't have enough things taking up my time, I got "the bug" to want to try my hand at bookbinding. I've watched a couple of youtube videos and subscribed to Vintage Page Designs channel, started following some book-binders and paper marblers on Instagram and Twitter, etc. But the best thing I did was purchased a DIY bookbinder kit from the American Bookbinders Museum

The kit comes with instructions and everything you need to create a small bound book. The instructions were fairly straightforward and the quality of the materials was excellent (so far as I know, but I'm just a newbie). After familiarizing myself with the instructions by reading them a couple of times (just to be sure - measure twice, cut once, right?) it took about 45 minutes from the moment I started folding to the time I put the finished book between some heftier books to flatten and dry. Not too shabby! Here are some pics of my progress:

No pics of the finished product yet, but if you look at that last picture and imagine another black, book-cloth-bound board on the right side of it, that's what it will look like. I'm already thinking about the next project(s). I've been thinking of doing some incredibly over-priced RPG supplements or adventures, hand-made. I'll need to save up to buy some more materials, however. You do need the right materials. And I have a thing for marbled endpapers . . . I mean: a Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu adventure with marble endpapers - what's not to like (except for the price - this won't be inexpensive, I'm guessing)? This might be the start of something, who knows? And I might just make some books for myself and friends, too.

Like I needed another hobby!

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Feathered Bough

The Feathered BoughThe Feathered Bough by Stephen J. Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Books are books, except when they are performative grimoires, the sort of book that opens itself to the reader as the reader opens their soul to the book. This is one such grimoire, a ritual descent into a labyrinth of madness and memory, and the shutting out of memory. It is no mere mechanical work, however, being suffused with a spirit of both sympathy and vengeance, a human spirit.

I've made no bones about my love of Stephen J. Clark's fiction. Thus, I was pleased to see a sort of continuity here with his astounding novel In Delirium's Circle. A "sort of" continuity because the protagonist of The Feathered Bough has completely forgotten that he is the protagonist of In Delirium's Circle, or at least they share the same name. The twist here is that the traumas suffered in the first book lead to a willful disavowal of the person in the former by the (same) person in the latter. The man who has found The Feathered Bough wants nothing to do with the man who existed in his body, who looked through his eyes, In Delirium's Circle.

As with any work of fiction, that is merely one reader's interpretation. The wonder here is that, as a grimoire, different acolytes will be led to different forms of gnosis. Though the ritual is the same for all, the insight gained from its performance is keyed to each individual's experience, capacity, and need.

Regardless of your personal gnosis, however, we all descend into another world, exploring its dark, verdant caverns echoing with the caws of rooks and seething with shadows, until that world prolapses into our own, turning an escape-route from trauma into an explosion of such into this dimension. Reality, then, is turned inside-out, as above, so below.

The author helps this along by illustrating the work throughout in his signature artistic style, letting that other world seep deep into our own through our eyes, directly into our brains. It is at times sinister, at other times almost playful, but whatever the emotion evoked, the visualizations help to add yet another dimension to this darkened place.

This is a book-as-artifact that should not be missed. Zagava has bound this as a "tight" package, each part supporting the other. It is as immersive as a book can be without a soundtrack (though I do have a recommendation for that, as well). And while the subject matter may trend toward the esoteric, the book is readily available in paperback, numbered limited-edition hardback, or an absolutely stunning lettered edition. Whichever way you enter, tread carefully, and with eyes wide open.

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Thursday, February 25, 2021

The English Heretic Collection: Ritual Histories, Magickal Geography

The English Heretic Collection: Ritual Histories, Magickal GeographyThe English Heretic Collection: Ritual Histories, Magickal Geography by Andy Sharp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Finding "the" starting point for this review is impossible. Though the book is contained in space, its ideas expand out in a herky-jerky supernova of stochasticity. The omphalos here is present, one can sense it, but to define it is to understand the entire work at once, an impossible task (I suspect, impossible even for the author, Andy Sharp himself). One can discern layers on the surface of the navel-of-the-world such as the grand trifecta of folk horror movies The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan's Claw, and Witchfinder General, or the earth-shattering pop-tragedies of Hiroshima and November 22nd, 1963, or the creepier-than-is-proper-for-"good"-English-folk television of the 1970s (Robin Redbreast, Children of the Stones, Doctor Who, et al). There are feverish spikes into the occult underground and dives into the deep chambers of haunted Britain.

But to identify a "theme"? Practically impossible here.

Which is to say, I loved it. Like De Santillana's Hamlet's Mill or Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, we have her a work that is absolutely recognizable for its coherence, yet absolutely unexplainable in its breadth and diversity. These layers upon layers of seemingly-unrelated bits of academia, psychedelia, and cinemania churn in a veritable stew of potential conspiracy theories. But where the Q folk might take themselves far too seriously for the rest of the world, Sharp is fully aware that as he points one finger at the strange phenomena of the world, there are three other fingers pointing back at him in abject self-mockery. The humor saves us from what might otherwise turn into a panicked revelation of a Grand Conspiracy concocted from the paranoid dreams of those who would make too many connections where they should not, "seeing" "reality" for what "it is". No, Sharp is clear (and, pardon the pun, sharp) that while this work can be seen as a Working (in the esoteric magical sense of the word), it is not ritualistic, in that no one is expected to take an oath of fealty or secrecy or even to take any of this seriously.

But the connections are intriguing. And this Working is one of seeding the imaginal, of altering consciousness by pointing out the threads that at least seem to tie the strange underworld of the English isles (and, to a more limited extent, their distant American cousins) into a cohesive, meaningful whole. I use the word "seem" carefully. Because it's not these fallacious connections that stir the imagination, it is the possibility of such that calls on the reader to make their own connections, to carry on the Working into their own sphere of intellect, spirituality, and, yes, even their sense of humor about the ridiculousness of the cosmos and our self-important place in it.

So, welcome to the Working. Don't worry about when or where it will start. As you will see, in the stratums psychogeography, between Kennedy, Stonehenge, Baphomet and Brighton, peeking out from behind Fulcanelli and Manson, between the pages of the Necronomicon and and the astral-drenched walls of The House on the Borderland, there is no beginning, there is no end. Careful where you step - that rabbit hole might go down to forever, or never.

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Monday, February 22, 2021

Weird Walk #4


I was not born in England. Though I have Welsh (thanks, Mom) and Irish (thanks, Dad) ancestry, I was born in Germany. But I am not German (well, Mom's mom was German through and through, I suppose). I'm an American, a mongrel, and my Dad's service as a United States Air Force veteran is what brought me to England, back in spring of 1985. I was 15 when we arrived and 18 when I left in 1987. To say my time in England was a formative experience is a pithy understatement. Everything I've done and everything I am since then was profoundly affected by my time there. My wife and I visited in summer of 2019, and I got to see some of my old haunts again (as well as some new ones). I may never be able to afford to go back again, but I hope to. I sincerely hope to. I'd be quite happy to die in the Cotswolds or Wales, out on a day hike. Quite content to lie down on a hill for a nap and never wake up. For now, though, I have to forego my death wish and "travel" from afar. Even if I did have the spare change to take a trip there: coronapocalypse says "no"!

So, I dutifully bought a copy of Weird Walk issue 4. It's the first issue I've bought, and maybe an admittance that I might not make it back there, I don't know. After reading this issue, though, I am sure to continue buying more, forward and backward through the issues. Though I don't want to get too spoilery, I'd like to introduce you to the different essays and reminisces here, as they are well worth your five quid fifty (plus shipping)

First, the zine itself and the layout evoke the old '70s and '80s childrens' shows that Americans were mostly spared, but I had the "pleasure" of seeing (as reruns, by the time I got there). Something about the fonts, the polaroid-quality photos, and the colour-which-I-cannot-quite-identify on which the articles are printed (or in which the words are printed against a black background) makes me think of Children of the Stones. Of course, the seemingly running commentary on megaliths might have something to do with it, too. 

We start with Zakia Sewell's outstanding "Questing for Albion," a reminisce about an idealized childhood in the wilds of Wales, before the realization fully set in of what it meant to be a person of mixed-descent in a country founded on colonial exploitation. Moody and poignant, yet hopeful. Cynicism isn't swept entirely aside, but it is kept at bay.

In "Boundary Sounds," Archer Sanderson gives  us "The solo rambler's edgelands primer" to music from the edge, beneath the buzzing pylons, on the periphery of town and country. Good recommendations, though I found the absence of any mention of The Soulless Party to be a profound oversight. Perhaps they are mentioned in another issue and I've just missed it? Glad to see a small shout-out to Pye Corner Audio (another one of my favorites), however. It's difficult to go wrong with the recommendations here - something for everybody. 

Stewart Lee takes us on a ramble through Lamorna, in Cornwall, a guided tour of the erstwhile (is it still current? I don't know.) artists colony on the very tippy tip of southwestern England. I've never been to Cornwall, though I have been just north of there. Given Lee's little Baedeker here, I think I shall have to visit there sometime. I do love their pastries!

Apparently a regularly-recurring section of the zine is "Dolmania". It's about, you know, dolmens. If you can't figure that out, you're not allowed to be my friend. The particular dolmen in this issue is the re-jiggered "Hellstone" in Dorsetshire. Peter Jackson missed out by not having this be the barrow-mound (I know, I know, it's not the same thing, but Americans don't know/won't care) where Frodo and his companions find their swords. Oh, that wasn't in the movies? Well then read the freaking book!!! Sorry, I'm still bitter about that. And Tom Bombadil. But I digress.

The next section, an interview with Nick Hayes, is about something near and dear to my heart. It's entitled "How to Trespass". And it is, at least in part, about trespassing. But, really, it's about the activists who are fighting for the legal right to cross another's land. Many countries have laws that state a citizen's right to walk across land owned by another person. England is not one of those countries (hint: neither is America). Hayes and company mean to change that by trespassing - leaving the place better and tidier than it was when they came on the land, but crossing the forbidden boundaries nonetheless. My wife and I found ourselves inadvertently doing this when we got lost off the King's Way in the Cotswolds . . .let's see . . . on four different occasions? After a while, we said "screw it," picked a landmark (the town hall of Morerton-In-Marsh) and just walked toward it. I'm pretty sure we were all sorts of places we weren't supposed to be. And you know what? It felt good! It felt right! So, tread on, I say! Of course, easy for me to say, we had the excuse of being tourists and we were honestly lost. I kept having visions of stumbling into Wakewood

This issue wraps up with an educational and fascinating look at the Neolithic of the island, a piece about the London Stone that I admittedly hardly understood, and a final piece on a walk through Glastonbury and its environs (another pilgrimage that I must make). 

All-in-all, it's quite the excursion. No, it's not the same as wandering the hills, stumbling across ancient stone circles and ruined churches, and finding sweet solace at a pub in the middle of a day-long hike in the heat of summer (trust me on this one), but you know what? This might be the next best thing. I'm looking forward to more excursions this way. They're way easier on the pocketbook.

Now, I'm off to bed . . . after watching a few episodes of Cruising the Cut. Some day . . . some day . . .

Oneiric Adventures through Impossible Geography Part 4


To recap:

Oneiric Adventures through Impossible Geography Part 1

After having mapped things out for myself, quite literally, I can now see patterns, mostly of loss and regret. In my dream-wanderings I long to reconnect with those I have wronged and those I loved, with the places that I felt sank deep into my soul, as silly as that may seem. It isn't a case of lost innocence - that was happening way before I ever moved to Chicksands. But it is, I think, a case of misplaced magic, something that I feel I might pick up if I can connect again. Of course, that's a forlorn hope - I have change, others have changed (some, I am guessing are dead and gone anyway), the place and my previously-privileged ability to move about it freely are no longer the same. What's the analogy of entropy? A child let loose in a sandbox where half the sand is white and half is black. Let the child run in a clockwise direction for a while, until the sand is good and mixed. Then let him run counterclockwise. Sorry, but widdershins doesn't undo the initial chaos. In fact, it makes it worse. You can't step into the same river twice.

And yet, my dream self, my astral self wants to at least try, despite the heartache, he wants to try and will keep trying until . . .? What?

Now that I've been able to visit Chicksands, if only for half a day, I am curious to see if the tenor of my dreams change. They are sometimes very intense. It's been a year and a half since we visited, and I visited in a very different context (married, with children - though they weren't with us, drug and alcohol free for almost 34 years now) than when I lived there, so it wasn't exactly going widdershins against the past. But I can't recall having dreamed about Chix since that trip. Maybe once, but apparently it wasn't so intense that I can recall it. Some of those post-1987, pre-2019 dreams had me waking up crying, some had be waking in a panic, others had me so coddled that I didn't want to wake up at all. For once, I'd like to dream of . . . just a pleasant stay with friends there. That's all. But then I think, if my intent wasn't so intense, if I wasn't so driven in my dreams, could I recapture the magic? I simply don't know.

I've mentioned the non-existent barrow in the western woods. The dreams around that have had a particularly magical, un-real feeling, probably because it is the least real, or most un-real of locations in my dreams about Chicksands. It is purely imaginal. But then again, what is magic but activating and expressing the imagination in an un-expressible manner? In my barrow-dreams, I explore a lot, usually alone, but sometimes with an unseen companion(s) whom I think of as friends. Maybe some of my lost friends are alongside me, though I can't see them. Maybe they are looking, as well. How will I ever know? These dreams inevitably end on a note of ecstasy. Not sexual ecstasy, though the feelings in the body are enough to cause paroxysms. There is a sense of such utter happiness that I feel like I'm going to explode in a shower of light and, in fact, my body oftentimes shines so brightly in these dreams that I illuminate the vale of trees (the barrow dream always happens at night) and the round stone hill in white light that cascades from me. Perhaps it's because I'm unfettered by all the worries and loss and anguish that drives me to other parts of the dream-Chicksands, searching in vain for friends and familiar places. While I'm trying in vain to climb the hill to the bowling alley, or searching through a labyrinthine NCO club that holds more nooks and crannies than Pirenesi's world, I literally skip places, passing instantaneously "through" long stretches where my feet used to trod. But no matter how quickly I "teleport" I can't ever seem to find what I want.  Except in the barrow. It's a place of contentment, where I don't feel that I have to grind out this pilgrimage for lost friends and vanished (to me) places. It is my magic sanctuary, if you will.

It's really the only place I need.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Sacrum Regnum I

Sacrum Regnum ISacrum Regnum I by Daniel Corrick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I recall seeing the two volumes of Sacrum Regnum up on the Heiroglyphic Press website many years ago. Foolishly, I didn't buy the volumes back then. In hindsight, I robbed myself. Yes, I would eventually come to know and love the work of many of the authors in this volume, but I would have come to it much sooner had I picked up these volumes. I had already known and liked Brendan Connell's work by this time (he and I actually co-wrote a story that was published years before the volume under discussion was published) and I was familiar with Mark Samuel's work, at that point, as well. I should have followed my hunches and bought both volumes right then. Alas, I waited, and wouldn't you know that the editor, Daniel Corrick sold out of his remaining copies of volume 2 literally two weeks before I got in contact with him (about a week ago). Drat. Now I shall have to comb the interwebs and pay an outrageous price for the next volume.

But if volume I is any indicater, it's totally worth it!

Some of my favorite artwork is that of the Symbolists, a group of painters and poets, for the most part, whose peak output occurred in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon (some of whose work I have seen in person), both considered Symbolists, are among my favorite artists of all time. The stated desire of the editors of Sacrum Regnum to hew closely to the Symbolists obviously resonated loudly with me.

The structure of the work is divided among fiction, poetics (many in translation), essays, and reviews.

I can think of no better start to such a volume than D.P. Watt's "The Phantasmatorical Imperative". It is an invitation, through story, to unleash and revel in one's imagination, to participate in the transformative magic of dream and irreality, which is, in a way, it's own reality. It is a wonderful story espousing a most hopeful philosophy of life interwoven with magic; imagination as apotheosis. Wonder-full.

If Watt's story was the dream, then Mark Samuels' "The Ruins of Reality" is, in contrast, the nightmare. Nihilistic to the utmost, this tale still shares an ontological bent with Watt's work. Perhaps these two extremes set a framework for the rest of the volume, for "everything in between". The Ligotti-esque wallowing in misery is something I've seen in Samuels' fiction before, but which surprised me a bit here. It didn't feel completely out of place, but did contrast sharply with the other fiction presented herein.

With typical aplomb, Mark Valentine interjects a bit of absurdity into his typical gravitas with "An Officer of the Reserve". Valentine's turns of phrase and often-metaphorical imagery never cease to amaze. As usual, the reader is left to wish that he would have written such a story as he simultaneously squints to see what lies between the lines. And therein lies the story behind the story, unwritten, but not unread.

"The Candles of Widondorf" is a monument to beauty in the midst of decay and decay in the midst of beauty. Perhaps this story effectively ties together the tones of Watts' and Samuels' works mentioned earlier. Here Colin Insole traces a micro-history, a psychogeography of the borders of the iron curtain before and after the war that led to its construction. It is a map of sepia-tones and lost colors, contrasting brightly with the brilliant, rich smudges of a time that once was, but is now lost in grey entropy. Poignant and horrid, but not without an almost overwhelming beauty.

The Poetics section in this volume is marvelous. Prose poems of Hugo von Hoffmansthal, translated by Claus Laufenburg, are dreamlike, while Brendan Connell's translations of Gabriele d'Annunzio's poems are keen works with a touch of cynical humor. I dare not delve too deeply into the poems themselves, as I don't want to spoil them (isn't this always the trouble with reviewing poetry?), but they are truly something special and a rare treat, coming from poets that are relatively unknown in the English-speaking world.

Adam Cantwell's essay on The Dedalus Meyrink Reader is far more than a book review. It's a biography, literary analysis, and review rolled into one but, more importantly, it reflects the inner Meyrink and the zeitgeist of his era (even though he was anything but subsumed in it). I've read The Opal and Other Stories and my Tartarus Press edition of The Golem is among my more prized possessions, but I had somehow missed the Dedalus book. So many books, so few years on planet earth. I shall have to make up for lost time and read it, especially after such a thoroughly engaging and enlightening essay.

Speaking of engaging and enlightening essays, Hugo con Hoffmanthstal's poetry and life continue to be examined through Daniel Corrick's long essay "The Cavalier of the Blue Rose". This is the sort of essay that sends me scrambling for the bibliography in a search for sources, both primary and secondary. An excellent piece of scholarship on an a relatively unexplored life and work. I will be mining this essay for future readings of those whose work influenced or was influenced by Hoffmanthstal, as well as the work of the man himself.

Mark Valentine's essay on the mystical fiction of Mary Butts is, as is always the case with Valentine's essays, thoroughly-researched, erudite, and entertaining. Valentine is known for bringing "lost" authors back into the light, and this essay is an illuminating example of him doing just that.

Finally, a series of book reviews and recommendations of then-forthcoming (now long-since released) works rounds out the volume, sending the reader off to hunt down copies of many of these books.

I am saddened that the "series" only consisted of two volumes. If I were to begin editing again, this is exactly the sort of thing I would produce. This volume makes me want to edit again, a desire that has lain dormant, but very, very weak, for many years. This, I could sink my teeth into!

View all my reviews

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Simplest RPG System Out of This World

 No single roleplaying game can cover all demands. No, not even that one; or at least not without spending oodles of money. Some systems are easier than others at being flexible, as long as the system itself is divorced from setting. Some are inextricably tied to the setting. The marvelous (and marvelously complex) Skyrealms of Jorune comes to mind, for instance or, to a lesser extent, Empire of the Petal Throne (both of which I love, incidentally). 

More to the point, no single roleplaying game can cover all demands simply and with little modification. i believe that fantasy games that include a magic system are the big culprit here. Magic systems require an underlying philosophy or set of mechanisms that stray from the core thrust of what it means to roleplay. It is a beautiful appendage or is so tied in with setting that, like the two examples above, it is inextricable. And, well, it's magic, so it's supposed to be something out of the norm, something extraordinary. It doesn't behave by the same rules that govern "normal" human interaction (even if the "normal" interaction is thrusting a sword through a dragon). 

When I want to introduce someone to roleplaying, and they want to play a fantasy game, I default to AD&D (a mixture of 1e and 2e) or, more commonly, Dungeon Crawl Classics. If they want to play a horror game, I use Call of Cthulhu (7e) or, more recently, Trail of Cthulhu/Casting the Runes, as these all have solid, fairly simple rules for sussing out information.

In all other cases, when I want to introduce someone to roleplaying and want to keep the emphasis on the roleplaying and not merely rolling dice (not that there's anything wrong with that, you roll how you roll), I like to use an unlikely contender: Traveller. Or a stripped down version of Traveller. Let me explain.

Traveller is often thought of as one of the original scifi RPGs, and this is true. Oftentimes the setting is conflated with the system in people's minds, but the setting came after the fact of the game itself. Yes, the Imperium is a rich setting that I recommend quite strongly, as the abundant resources allow you to enter a rich universe and explore it with your players. However, the game came first, the setting second. To quote creator Marc Miller from the interview linked above:

"I envisioned a generic rules set that would enable any science-fiction situation, from space opera to serious drama. One of the first reviews of the game said something like 'I won't play a roleplaying game that doesn't provide background and adventures,' and the editor interjected, 'And I won't play a game that constrains me like that.'

"I'll confess that was an awakening for me, and I realized I couldn't make this game all things to all players; I had to choose. Our reasoned corporate choice was to provide background and adventures for those who lacked the spare time to make up their own."

I would argue that Miller's first sentence is an understatement. While I don't think one can safely scratch out the words "science-fiction" from his response, one could feasibly do so, if one adds the word "almost" in front of the word "any" (his bold, not mine). Again, magic is problematic, so if anyone wants to take the time to concoct a workable magic system on the skeleton of Traveller, I am all ears. I don't have enough lifetime left to do so, with all the other RPG projects I'm currently working on and have lined up for the future. So, have at it!

Barring magic, I believe that the skeleton of Classic Traveller can bear the muscle of just about any genre or setting you'd like to tackle. 

Classic Traveller has been lambasted for the fact that one's character can die before even entering play. A valid concern (that I don't share, but that's a different story). So . . . skip that whole process altogether. Simple. Here's how:

First off, you need to roll your character's stats. They are, in order:






Social Standing

Roll 2d6 for each, in order. If you are into hexadecimal notation, you can shrink just about everything you need to know about your character into one line of hexadecimal code. Numbers 1-9 are just that, the numbers 1-9. The number 10 is represented by the letter A, 11 is represented by B, etc. So, for a character with STR 10, DEX 8, END 6, INT 11, EDU 9, and SOC 7, you would have:


Easy peasy. You have everything you need to play.

No, seriously, that's it. 

How do you determine if a task is "doable" by your character? First, pick the stat that you think is relevant to the task. Justify this to your referee. "I'm looking for hidden clues. Since we're in a library, I'd like to use my Education," or "I'm trying to hold on to this cliff. I could use Strength or Endurance, but my Strength is higher, so I'll use that." Fine. Second, the referee should determine if there are any modifiers. They will add to your ability score if conditions are favorable, and subtract from your ability score if conditions are unfavorable. Third, roll 2d6. If you roll under, you succeed.

Of course, in our modern age of specialization, you will say "but my character is a doctor, shouldn't she have medical skills?" Of course. This is where skills come in. Determine ahead of time (or, better yet, on the fly, if your referee is cool with it - I would be!) a skill you might have, given your training, background, etc. WARNING: This is where things get touchy, statistically speaking. I would strongly recommend having very few skills, as these represent a high degree of specialization and because you don't want to be a slave to your character's background. They're here to grow and change and become better, right? So, keep those skill levels very low. A "1" shows specialization. A "2" is extremely exceptional. A "3" is almost unheard of, near godlike. Be careful you don't skew your game into ridiculousness, unless you're trying to emulate Toon (again, if anyone would like to shoehorn Toon into Traveller mechanics, I'd be delighted to see and play this)! 

Now, when you make your 2d6 roll for success or failure, you simply add the skill level to the chosen character attribute to determine your "roll under". For example, let's say our character above is a doctor with medical skill who is trying to resuscitate a companion who has stopped breathing. She uses INT (at an 11) + a medical skill of 1, so she needs to roll 12 or under on 2d6. Practically guaranteed success. Hopefully this also illustrates how ridiculously unbalanced the game might become with even a skill level of 2. Again, be careful (or dare to be stupid)!

One potential twist was introduced to me (and others) by Marc Miller when we played in a two-hour session of Traveller that he refereed at Garycon a few years ago. Yes, I was star-struck and a bit giddy. But I remember it well because it was so quick and clean. We rolled our stats, I asked about skills and he said "sure, you're all Imperial marines, so you'll have a skill of Rifle-1," and that was it. We were playing in about three minutes. Now, the twist: since this was a two hour session, and to avoid repetition, he had us rotate the stats we used. Once we used a stat in that session, we couldn't use it again. If you did a strength-based check, that was it, the rest of your checks that game had to use something other than strength. This was a neat way of limiting any one character who was overly-powerful in a particular area and spread the spotlight time to everyone at the table (there were eight of us playing). In a campaign, if you wanted to use this caveat, you could reset the board, so to speak, with each session. It's not necessary to successfully use the Traveller skeleton, but it does make things a little more . . . democratic?

He recaps what happened better than I can in an interview done not long after this session at which I played:

Stargazer: While rereading Classic Traveller recently I noticed that the encounter tables and other parts of the rules hint towards a certain play style. It seems as if the referee was supposed to basically use the random generated events as inspiration and improvise at the game table instead of meticulously planning adventures beforehand. Is this how you planned the game to work?

Marc Miller: I think that players can adopt any style of play they prefer. As the designer, it is my responsibility to make materials available that will support them in their choices. On the other hand, there are players (and referees) who come to the game without experience in other games, or without specific preferences in how they will player and what they will do. In my designs, I want to make available some guidance in what to do, and you see that, however imperfectly, in the texts and tables.

I recently refereed (we use referee instead of GM or DM) a two-hour session of Traveller at GaryCon. In that sort of situation, the focus is on having a good time rather than slavish adherence to rules that some players have not even read. I used random events to control the action. Specifically, I imposed a “force field” around their ship as an obstacle, and they had to overcome it. Frankly, I had no idea what the field die, except that it was big, and they couldn’t get through.

Everything after that was driven by random events and the players’ responses. Someone used his strength to push on the field, and it budged a little. Another used dexterity to try to wiggle a knife into the field, and he succeeded. I was as surprised as they were that something DID penetrate the force field. They tried many things that didn’t work, but ultimately, two of them forced their rifle barrels into the field, and then levered them to create a bigger opening. They succeeded, and made a space big enough to crawl through.

What I liked was this particular scenario took a winding path to a destination even I had not thought of. On the other hand, imagine the smartest of the characters pushing against the field and saying, “I’m testing to see if this field is impenetrable.” He would have checked Intelligence, probably succeeded, and the logical answer would have been: “Yes, it is.”

I was one of the guys who forced my rifle barrel into the force field. Yay, me.

Of course, one of the big questions is "how do I resolve combat" - because we feel that in RPGs we are somehow obligated to kill things. First of all, is that really an obligation? Nope. We did the above scenario with no killing at all, no combat at all, though we did fire our rifles at the force field in a vain attempt to get through it. But if you insist, here's how you handle combat. Again, this is going to involve some negotiation with your referee. First, pick a stat, probably DEX if you're using a firearm, laser, wand, etc, or STR or DEX if you're in melee (note that you will have to make an exception to the "only use one stat per session" caveat if you've invoked it). Add any skill level (note that we all had Rifle-1, which we could add to our stat to for our under-roll), and, if the weapon is magical, high tech, etc, the referee may determine that a bonus will apply. Roll under the target number to hit. Now, this is where you need to get more detailed. How much damage does a weapon do? Depends on how deadly you want combat to be. I'd suggest that a "goodly" amount of damage is 1d6. Firearms should probably do 2d6. High energy weapons, lightning bolts, a halberd swung by a giant, etc. 3d6. But you decide with your referee. The person who suffers damage then picks one of their physical characteristics, STR, DEX, and END, and applies the damage to one of those stats. Then, if there is any "spillover" damage, that is, damage accrued beyond the statistics' point value, the player may divide the "leftover" damage between the remaining two stats. Any one stat being brought to zero indicates unconsciousness. Two stats brought to zero equals death. You may want to make it such that unconscious characters bleed at a point a round unless given successful medical attention. Then again, I like my combat deadly, for a number of reasons, including risk versus reward and the avoidance of combat to resolve issues leads to more creative ways to resolve issues. Your mileage may vary.

So, in the above example, our doctor is attacked by street thugs. One of them takes a shot with a one-shot derringer and rolls 2d6 for damage, for a total of 7 points. Our doctor doesn't fancy passing out at this point, so she chooses to take the damage to STR, leaving her with 3 points of STR. She shoots back and hits one of the miscreants, downing him, just as the other raises a weapon and fires at her. This second thug is also successful and rolls a total of 10 damage. At this point, the good doctor has no choice but to slip into unconsciousness. She applies the damage to her DEX score, leaving two "spillover" points that must be spread between her STR and END scores. She decides it best to push the extra damage into END, rather than putting any of it into STR, which would put her in a very precarious position, indeed. She passes out, but she's alive . . . for now.

As you can see, combat is nasty. Receiving a combat injury affects your ability to engage in further combat. It's best to avoid it, if you can (and immerse yourself in some juicy roleplaying instead).

Lastly, so you like "leveling up" when you've been successful? Great! You and your referee should decide on a skill, preferably one that was used during a series of adventures, and your character receives skill level 1 when you and/or the referee deem it appropriate. Or, if you, say, educate yourself by spending hours studying those mystic tomes left by some mysterious monk from the distant past, maybe you could bump your EDU up by 1. Again, be judicious, unless you want to be ridiculous. When is it appropriate to level up? I can't tell you that. Each group of players and referee is going to be different. Do what thou wilt, as they say.

Are there holes in this paradigm? Probably. But if you want quick, clean access to roleplaying, especially with a group of people who has never played before, you can do this in a jiff. 

So, break out that dusty yahtzee game, hand out some dice, get a 3X5 index card, heck, get a post-it note, and a pencil and go for it! The universe, just about ANY universe (again, with the magical caveat) is yours to explore.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Oneiric Adventures through Impossible Geography Part 3


Now, to the crux of the matter. Above, you'll see my horribly inaccurate map that I posted in my last post, a map that does not reflect reality, except in that it is a hazy representation of the RAF Chicksands of my dreams. Keep in mind that I spent nearly three years here. And these were my late teenage years. I was 15 when I moved there and 18 when I (ignominiously) left. I did not have a car, so I walked everywhere there. If we wanted to go into the city of Bedford or down to London or to Donnington Park to catch the Monsters of Rock show, we got on a bus at the base gate, then hooked up with a train and, if going to London, bought a tube pass when we hit Kings Cross station. But on base, it was all by foot. I wish I knew how many steps I laid down on that base, but my best guesstimate is over 8 million steps. Probably more, when I really think about it. I mention this just to say that I have trod that ground so much that I am fully confident that I could walk from one end of the base to the other on complete autopilot, even in a blacked-out drunken stupor. I know because I did exactly that several times. My legs knew the way, even if the brain wasn't paying attention. And that had to have affected my dreams in some way. I don't think that dreams are a complete escape from reality. While I think there is some slippage in consciousness of space (reality? dimensions?) when one enters the dreamworld, there must also be some grounding in the waking world. Whether this is some sort of out-of-body experience, I don't fully know. But I have my suspicions that at least some of the time, when we dream, we actually travel. I can't account for the intensity of experience otherwise. Your willing suspension of disbelief may vary. 

In the map above, you'll see that I've highlighted some features in day-glo orange (correct me if I'm wrong - I have some degree of hue blindness and oranges and pinks and yellows sometimes all bleed together for me). These are:

1) The woods outside the barbed wire fence, to the west, including a barrow mound that did not exist.

2) The Stars & Stripes bookstore.

3) The trail north of the River Flit that led to some woods and farms to the east.

4) The NCO club.

5) The dorm where my lost friend Greg Bohler lived.

6) The road curving up hill from the NCO club to the bowling alley.

7) The forbidden area.

I have highlighted these areas because they either 1) appeared more frequently in my dreams than other areas or 2) were the location of particularly meaningful or intense dreams that evoked more emotion in me than the others.

You would think that my home and the Chicksands Priory would be the center places of most of my Chicksands dreams, my home because that is where I lived and slept, and Chicksands Priory because it was such a unique and strange place (and may very well have been haunted, but I won't go into those stories now - suffice it to say that I saw and experienced some VERY strange things there, as have many others). But this is not the case. I've dreamed about both, or they wouldn't appear on my map. But not frequently or with any great intensity. This is in direct contradiction to my waking experience: of course I had some of my most intense emotional experiences in my home, we all do. And, as I've said, the Priory was a place of great spiritual intensity, partly because when we were sneaking about the Priory at night, we were almost always doing so illegally, so on top of the bizarre experiences I had there, there was always the possibility that we might run out of the Priory (this happened more than once) and right into the arms of a waiting Security Policeman. Truth is, though, and I learned this from an S.P., the cops never went into the Priory. If they thought someone was in there, they would wait for them to come out. They never, ever went inside. Yes, it was that spooky.

Returning to the list above, I wanted to outline the kinds of dreams I had regarding each place, to give you an idea of the dreamplace psychogeography as I mapped it. Let's go in reverse order:

The Forbidden Area:  As stated in my last post, this is the geographic position of the actual intelligence-gathering machinery of the base and the interpretation of said intel. I believe I had actually seen that area in person twice, though I can't recall why I was up there. I was never allowed through the fence, as only those with the correct clearance were allowed in there, and I was just a military dependent. I never saw my Dad's workplace there, though I had seen his workplace when we lived at Offutt AFB, Omaha, Nebraska, before deploying to Chicksands. In my dreams, I picture this area as being riddled with barbed wire fences topped with concertina wire. There are lots of people in military uniforms milling about, each bedecked with numerous lanyards from which hang different kinds of identity cards. Beyond the fences, men and woman cycle in and out of nondescript Quonset huts. Beyond the few Quonset huts I can see is a mist or fog into which uniformed personnel disappear and from which they emerge. The radar array, that I know was there in real life, is lost in the mist in my dreams. This is probably my brain's way of symbolizing the hidden nature of what really went on there at the base.  (note: years later, when my Dad's classified clearance ran out, I asked him. He told me some things, but others he took with him to the grave, intentionally. My Dad was an honorable man who kept his promises, even though I bugged the heck out of him to tell me more. Oh, and Area 51? It's not aliens. But it's not "normal" either. That's all he would tell me.). The feeling of my dreams here is one of being just on the tip of knowing something striking, maybe earth-shattering, but not being able to be fully let-in.

The Road: In waking hours, I rarely actually walked up this curve of road. There were sidewalks and steps that traversed the hill, south to north, and I most often walked up these or just ran up the hill itself. Honestly, there may not be a road there at all, though it seems like there would have to be. I'll be curious to look at satellite images later and see if there is a road curving up there like that. I honestly don't know. What I do know is that in my dreams, I will often be leaving the area near the NCO club and walking up this curve of road (real or imaginary), trying to get to the bowling alley. I never get there. Ever. I spent a good amount of time in that bowling alley; I even worked there for a few months. One of the very few jobs I had in high school. Now, I have to state that something happened there at the bowling alley near the end of my time at Chicksands, something that I won't relate. It's not something I'm proud of, and it is tied in closely with my departure from the base. Perhaps that is why my dreams won't let me get there. I try and try, but never, ever, can I get up that hill. One of three things happens: 1) I walk and walk and walk and don't move, 2) I make it partway up the hill and the bowling alley and the security fence there simply dissolve away and I am walking on farmer's fields toward the extensive woods to the north of the base, or 3) I wake up. I have an intense desire to make it up that hill every time, and every time, I am denied closure. It is here that I often feel the biggest sense of loss, that if I could just make it to the bowling alley, I'd find one or more of my lost friends. But it never happens.

The Dorm: In the dream world, this is a mixed bag. Sometimes I am there and there is an extensive party going on. This reflects reality. Some of the craziest parties I ever went to were in this dorm. I mean, really crazy! Military personnel know how to party, I'll give them that. Other times, my dreams are simple: I'm sitting in the day room watching TV with some other people there. In fact, this also reflects reality. Though I wasn't supposed to be there, I often was. They weren't very stringent in enforcing the rule that only military personnel who lived in the dorms were supposed to be in the dorms. I do recall one dream, however, where one of the Security Police sees me there and chases me out. I don't recall that ever happening in the waking world. Now, I have a really difficult time in parsing out one thing: Of course I saw Greg there - all the time, in fact. We'd be hanging out, listening to music or watching Robotech or playing Battletech or D&D. But I can't tell if I ever dreamt about Greg being in the dorm or not. I'm hard-pressed to separate my memories, registered in the real world, and my dreams. I think I remember talking with Greg or having some event happen, but are those real memories or dreams? Or some shading of both? I can't tell. It is one of the more confusing places in my dream world, in this regard.

The NCO (Non-Commissioned Officers) Club: Before I turned 18, this was a place where I sometimes went for a meal. They actually had really good food! After 18, I drank myself into oblivion here. This was ground zero for my teenage alcoholism. I dreamt about this place from time to time, but I had a rather intense dream just a few months back about the club. There was a certain House of Leaves quality to the dream in that the building, as I made my way through it from room to room kept expanding, becoming larger and larger. Corridors would lengthen, new stairways would emerge where there weren't any stairs before, doorways would loop back into other rooms that were not the room you saw on the other side as you began walking through the doorway, halls folded in on themselves. In this dream, I know that there was some sort of renovation going on, and that it was transitioning from a place where military personnel and dependents went to relax with a drink, to a place where civilians were taking over the management of the place. This probably has to do with my knowledge that the base was decommissioned for US Air Force use back in the '90s. But it was never a civilian-managed place, so far as I know. British intelligence runs the base now, and I have to presume that if the old NCO club is used for anything like its prior purpose, it would be run by government employees. In any case, my dream world NCO club was a maze that continued to grow and grow, like it was trying to swallow me up in its labyrinth. At the end of the dream, I was able to make my escape, bewildered and winded.

The Trail: There is, or there was, a gap in the security fence in two places. One was right by my house. The other was near where the River Flit flowed off base. The gaps were there to allow for a bridle path, in case the Queen wanted to ride her horse through the base. Literally, that's what it was for. One of the most ridiculous manifestations of the cold war alliance between the UK and the USA, but there you have it. Sometimes the CND would march right through the middle of the base on that path, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. Surreal. Anyway, the exit to the east led to some pleasant rolling hills populated with sheep. There were woods and proper farms further out. In my dreams, this has become a sort of golden , idyllic pasture, almost a sort of . . . heaven. I have no idea why this would be the case. It was all rather banal, in the waking world. There was a certain quaintness to the area, but nothing so resplendent as in my dreams. Maybe it was an escape hatch into some paradise in the dream world. I shall have to try to explore that possibility next time I'm there. This sounds like the great beginning to a horror story . . . 

The Stars & Stripes Bookstore: Every Air Force Base used to have one of these. I don't know if they do any more. I used to spend a fair amount of time there usually reading Dragon magazine or other D&D books, or comic books. Once in a while I would browse and buy an actual book. My dreams about the bookstore are invariably ordinary. I'm just browsing books. The outside area around the bookstore always seems to change, though. At one point, it's a big concrete slab. At another time, the parking lot next to it has become larger. At yet another, the concrete slab is gone and there are well-pruned bushes and trees surrounding it. I honestly don't remember if any of these were actually "true" or not. I was there for the books, both in the waking world and in my dreams.

The Woods, the Barrow: The woods beyond the security fence were a reality. When you're a military brat who was prone to get into trouble as I was, you learned the fine art of hopping the security fence - not to get on base, but to get OFF, usually because you were being pursued by Security Police, but sometimes just because you couldn't be bothered to walk all the way to the base gate to go off exploring. The two bridges that cross the upper and lower Flit were very convenient in that they were high enough that you could climb up on the "walls" of the bridge and maneuver your way through the barbed wire and over the fence, if you were really careful. I didn't do that often, but I did a few times. The thing is, the woods on the opposite side of that fence were a marshy mess. Yes, you were suddenly "out in the country," but it was a country of disgusting-smelling mud and biting flies and gnats. Trudging through the trees, I think that we were always looking for something outre, something exciting. But we never found it . . . except in dream. The dream world beyond the fence is really something spectacular. The woods glow green (no matter what time of the day or night) and there are perfectly circular clearings in the trees, at the center of which grows a giant oak. Or the Barrow, an ancient Celtic structure people by bright, ankle-high faeries (one thinks of Machen's "White People") and the shimmering ghosts (never scary, oddly enough) of the long-departed. If I were an artist and architect, I could easily draw the structure for you. It is consistent in every dream, and the feeling of mystical wonderment and reverence that I feel there in my dreams is always the same. It is the most detailed, clear, and solid place in my dreams about Chicksands. And yet, it never existed. It is clearly a figment of my imagination. Oh, I forgot to mention, there is also a labyrinth inside of it, made of stacked stones atop which grows thick green grass. The labyrinth is never dark, always light, glowing faintly along the walls and brilliantly in the passage up ahead. It is a place of contentment for me, a place of belonging. Really, it feels like home. And yet, it never existed. This is the most enigmatic of places, when I'm trying to connect the waking world with the dream world. This is the place that feels the most real of all the places I've mentioned. And yet, it is not. I am at a loss to explain it. It just is. Maybe that's enough?