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!

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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?

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Oneiric Adventures through Impossible Geography Part 2


Here is my dream map of RAF Chicksands, as promised in my last post on Oneiric Adventures. I have tried very hard to parse out dreams from actual memories, as much a possible. Given that dreams are, immediately after the fact, memories, there is likely blurring of those lines. However, there are many elements of my memory that I explicitly did NOT include in this map because I couldn't recollect a "dream memory" of them. 

I'm going to catalog the elements here starting in the bottom left hand corner, moving to the right, and then "up" a "line" and, again, left to right, and so forth. The main reason for this is because my home is in the lower left corner and, when I lived at Chicksands, I most often travelled north across the two branches of the River Flit, then east along the top branch, then on a diagonal up toward the bowling alley (in the extreme upper right corner) or I left home and travelled more-or-less on a diagonal toward the point where the lower branch of the Flit intersects the main road (which I've drawn incredibly large, as this road essentially bisected the base), where I would get on the main road, cross the river branches, and again head on a northeast diagonal toward the bowling alley. The features to note are:

1. My home.

2. The baseball diamond directly east.

3. The elementary school east of that.

4. The south gate of the base.

5. The home of Kelly, a girl whom I had fallen in love with and wronged, to my shame and regret.

6. (moving up) The woods to the west of my house and west of the base, beyond the barbed wire security fences that surrounded the base.

7. East to my friend's house. We called him "Moose" after the Archie and Jughead comics because, well, Moose was a big guy. 

8. The lower branch of the River Flit. A bridge crossed over onto the area between the two river branches, known as "Sports Island". 

9. (moving up) Sports Island.

10. East beyond the road, the confluence of the two river branches.

11. The commissary. 

12. A trail to the woods to the east and north, beyond which were farms.

13. A barrow. Clearly only a dream figment. There is no barrow in those woods that I know of, but I dreamt of it with some very intense dreams on many occasions. 

14. The upper branch of River Flit.

15. The Priory grounds and Chicksands Priory, which I was able to revisit in 2019. Strangely, it figures powerfully in my memory, but only faintly in my dreams, though I did dream about it a few times.

16. A conglomeration of buildings, probably the center of activity on the base for adults. This includes the Stars & Stripes Bookstore, the Library, the Gym, the Recreation Center. There was also a movie theater there, but I omitted it from my map because it never appeared in my dreams.

17. The NCO (Non-Commissioned Officers) club, where I spent a lot of time once I was of legal drinking age.

19. Another conglomeration of buildings on the other side of a road that curved up the hill toward the north of the base, including the Burger Bar, OSI (Office of Special Investigations) detachment office, the dorm in which I spent a fair amount of time (see the paragraph on psychogeographical context below), and the Mess Hall. Yes, the Air Force cooks the best food in the military.

20. (now in the upper left hand corner): what I will call the "Forbidden Area". It's where the intel work was done, where my dad and most people on the base worked. I was forbidden to go there, being only a dependent, but that never stopped me from dreaming my way there. Au contraire, I have all kinds of dreamtime images and experiences of that area, though I only saw it up close once or twice.

21. The Cop Shop. They knew me. Very well.

22. The north gate, where we would often catch the bus to Bedford. 

23. Other dorms, which I never dreamed about going into, though I did dream about walking past them to get to . . .

24. . . . the bowling alley. You'd be surprised how much of a hub of activity a bowling alley is on a military base. It is one of the places to be, for sure, where all the cool kids hang out. Seriously.

Now, some psychogeographical context. When I left Chicksands, I did so under a legal banishment by the base authorities because of an arrest and trial on drug charges. At the time, one of my best friends was named Greg Boehler (at least I think that's how his name was spelled). He had nothing to do with my crime, but I'm pretty certain he was brought in for questioning because of the substantial amount of time we had spent together and because two of the three other people arrested in this case had close ties to Greg, as well. But again, he had nothing to do with any of my crimes. Nevertheless, because I was under investigation, my contact with anyone was restricted. I was essentially under house arrest until my trial (and for some time afterward before I was banished from the base). Nearly all of my dreams involve a search for Greg, with whom I had almost immediately lost contact (though I begged my Mom to get his address or phone number so I could keep contact - if he wanted to do so - she never got me the information) and whom I have been unable to locate, even after many searches through the years for information on his whereabouts. More than anything, I want to talk to Greg again and apologize for any pain I might have cause him through this whole thing. This desire echoes throughout my dreams again and again and again. It is one of the main driving forces behind my Oneiric wanderings.

In fact, almost all of my dreams are spent searching for someone or some place. Even if it's to encounter a random person any place, just to assert that I am something more than a mere ghost wandering in search of my past, alone in an abandoned place that isn't even whole any more. 

My dreams here always carry a sense of loss. I think you can guess why. But not just a sense of personal loss of friends. There is a sense of spontaneous decay, of physical places disappearing. Or there is that dreamtime futility of trying to get somewhere and finding it impossible to do so, no matter how hard one tries, no matter how many different angles of approach one takes. These are the most frustrating of them all, I think, something like an alternate universe in which buildings are missing, buildings that I know are there, though I can't see them. Not that they are invisible, they are simply gone, vanished, though a lingering after-presence can be felt in the air that speaks to the feeling that there should be something there, that something belongs there, but it is not. It is this sense of loss that compels me to even write about the subject at hand. It is one of the most powerful yearnings in my life, to see those places and people again, if only briefly, if only long enough to become reconciled, remembered, and forgiven. Over thirty years after the fact of my living there, the place and the people haunt me.

Or, perhaps, I haunt them?

Oneiric Adventures through Impossible Geography Part 3

Friday, February 12, 2021

Flowers of the Sea

Flowers of the SeaFlowers of the Sea by Reggie Oliver
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm normally not one for complaining about not having the ability to assign half stars on Goodreads, but if I'm being honest with myself, I'd have this collection squarely at 3.5 out of 5 stars. I know, shocking for me, since I have absolutely loved Oliver's work in the past, and, well, Tartarus Books - need I say more? There were some outstanding stories in this collection, I mean some really amazing stories. But there were a few clunkers. "This is normal," you say, "it's a short story collection. They all have some clunkers in them." True. However, I expect more from Oliver (and Tartarus). But I don't think I can lay the blame solely on the author or the publisher. Every author writes clunkers and some of them get published (I can name a few of my early published stories that I'd rather have a "do over" on), and publishers all run the tightrope of trying to be commercially feasible while staying true to their art. Sometimes publishers come to trust an author so much that they are not so rigorous in collecting later works as they might have been early on - if they've seen success selling books from this author, why should they rock the boat? Again, I can tell stories about myself (and a couple of my stories) that I'm not proud of, in this regard.

But, again, I have a hard time laying the blame at the feet of the obvious potential culprits. Okay, everyone is complicit to some degree or another. But would it be terribly socialist of me to say that "the market" has something to do with it? And here, I mean the book market's seeming need for profit on a large scale: "the machine," if you will.

The machine needs to make money. That's what keeps writers, editors, marketers, bookstore owners and employees, and distributors all eating. Without money, nothing (or at least next to nothing) gets done. Unfortunate, but true. So the element of profitability enters the equation. Don't even get me started on the element of greed, or you'll see one angry Socialist in this boy.

What the market seems to have found is: big sells. Big series and big, thick books are what keeps the machine running and puts dollars on the table of those who produce the books. I remember back in the '70s and '80s that books, generally were much thinner than they are today, at least the ones on the mainstream bookshelves. I recall science fiction books that had two novel(la)s between front and back cover by two different authors. Thick books were there, yes, but they were a rarity, possibly having to do with binding glues on paperbacks in those decades, I'm guessing.

Then, along came Stephen King. I would love to see a study about how books "grew" in page count after King's The Stand came out. Perhaps that was not the watershed moment, but it's when I first recall thinking "jimminy Christmas, that is a BIG book!". Then, BIG books started sprouting up all over the place. And long series. Yes, you had series fiction before the '90s (I think of the Xanth novels or Terry Pratchett's Discworld, for instance), but the book market seemed to make a swift shift from K-Reproducers to r-Reproducers at about the same time as the sound of King's behemoth thumping down on reading desks resounded around the world.

This might be a direct product of the generation in which I was raised (Gen-Z, if you're wondering - no, I'm not a Boomer, okay?). Reagonomics made it not only okay to deregulate trade and open the door to "free" trade, it veritably blew the doors off the hinges. Not only was it permissible to feed the greed, it became a sin not to do so, as God seemingly rewarded the ambitious with untold wealth. You're poor? Well, God must hate you then. You obviously did something wrong!

And we all bought into this. Or the vast majority of society did, at least.

But as I've gotten older (at half of a hundred, I'm finally willing to admit that I am "middle aged"), I've found that fulfilling all those childhood dreams of collecting all the Star Wars toys I ever wanted and all the comic books I never had as a (middle-middle-class white) kid and getting to eat out at fancy restaurants almost as often as I want to (I wish) . . . was empty. I'm in the process of discovering (because old habits and attitudes are hard to break and clearing the scales from one's eyes requires time and habituation) that less really is more. Less property, less digitalism, less social media. Yes, even (here I'm going to be crucified) fewer books.

Regarding the latter, this is the point I've been coming to with all this rambling. Some books, especially short story collections, could do with fewer stories - screw the machine! The invisible hand of the market needs a sharp slap!

And what am I doing about it? Well, first off, I find myself, more and more, buying slimmer books. I've always been a huge fan of novellas, which I've expressed before and will continue to espouse. Heck, my two most recently published books, The Varvaros Ascensions and The Simulacra, are novellas (the first is actually two novellas in one book). Secondly, I'm buying slimmer books. I have found that some of the best literature "out there" is hiding in chapbooks and small, limited run editions of small press books. They tend to be expensive (i.e., less "bang for your buck" than traditionally-published books), but I know that this money, by and large, is going to smaller operations. My order of operations for ordering such books are: 1) contact the author and buy direct, if possible, 2) buy direct from the publisher, if possible, 3) buy from Ziesings or a local bookshop, 4) buy on E-bay, 5) buy from you-know-who (but only as a last resort). I like feeding the smaller machines, rather than the juggernauts, if at all possible, so I'm often willing to pay a little more (and in some cases a lot more) for books that are way smaller than their gigantic, less-expensive competitors. I like underdogs.

Now, how does all this relate to the book at hand, Reggie Oliver's collection Flowers of the Sea? Well, to be honest, this book could stand to be shorter. Like about 5 of 13 stories shorter. Or at least 3 of 13 shorter. You'll see why in my comments on each story below. Many of these tales were mind-blowingly good, including the first novella (also the first story in the book). A couple were good, but not quite great, and, well, there were clunkers. Shave those clunkers out and even a couple of the good stories, and you have a gem of a collection here. So, without further ado, here are my notes on each story. I think these notes are mostly spoiler-free, but if you're going to read the collection, read it first, then read my review (and tell me that I'm wrong):

"A Child's Problem" starts off rather stodgy. Right from the get-go, I could see that little George was going to learn some discipline. Things got ugly quick, as one might predict from the mix of characters in the house. It's easy to see why "A Child's Problem" was a Shirley Jackson Award nominee. The novella is near-perfect, a ghost story in Jamesian fashion wherein the main protagonist, the child George, grows from his pains and sorrows. Even the "evil uncle" trope can be forgiven because Oliver leans into the stereotype so strongly that the reader willingly accepts it. I could see BBC making this into television drama easily. Five stars and Christopher Lee as the uncle, please!

"Striding Edge," a tale of the capriciousness of nature and the intent of those who immerse themselves in it, doesn't end with a sudden, sharp twist, like some supernatural tales do, but it meanders, like a group taking a hike up a steep mountain ridge . . . until it plunges off into the abyss. I loved the "soft shock" of the unveiling (or, rather, the veiling) at the end. Five stars.

"Hand to Mouth" was just plain terrifying. I normally don't get shivers while reading works of horror, but this one chilled me (as the narrator is, quite literally, chilled). This went beyond my desire for a creepy story and skipped awe for pure fear. This could give me nightmares, a thing that I normally don't take from reading. Five stars like the five fingers of a cold, dead, wriggling infant exploring your body in the darkness. Ewwwww! Ew! Ew! Ew!

While suitably gruesome, "Singing Blood" felt a bit academic, as fiction modelled after the style of, say, Nabakov, can sometimes be. Not that Nabakov was dry or boring - far from it - but a pastiche of Nabakov, which this felt like to me, is a bit pedestrian. Unfortunate, as I usually love Oliver's work, but this one only gets three stars from me.

The titular story is a musical piece of grief, loss, and finally, abject horror. What happens as those we love "lose" themselves and we see the inevitability, after having been subjected to such pain, of losing ourselves. An unhealthy diet of existential dread is served here, which leads to the decay of all that is beautiful into something ugly, something . . . else. Chaos looms. Five stars.

"Lord of the Fleas" is a tale that Oliver admits was written reluctantly when he was asked to write a zombie story. It is an epistolary novel written in a strong Dickensian voice, both aspects of which make this a very unusual zombie story, pulpish yet "proper". I liked it well enough, but was about as thrilled to read a zombie story as Oliver was to write one - not very. Still, good enough for four stars, more for the stylistic panache of the writing itself than anything else.

I finished the story "Didman's Corner" and thought "that really reads like an Aickman story," only to find that Oliver admits he was trying to do an Aickmanesque story. Well, he succeeded, and in spades. And, what can I say? I'm a sucker for Aickman. The climax of this story is a soft, fluffy, stifling, and terrifying thing. And the denouement classic quiet, yet unfeeling despair. Five stars.

"the Posthumous Messiah" was likeable until the very end and the denouement. Endings are hard to pull off - I know I've flubbed a few here and there in my own stories. But this was really a let-down. There are moments when the story "sparkled" with promise (strange for a story that depicts almost everything as drab and grey, I know), but I didn't feel the promise was ever kept. Three stars.

"Charm" is a squeamishly uncomfortable story about a type that everyone knows: that party-animal playboy who is far, far past his prime and becomes an embarrassment for everyone to be around. This fall from charming to awkward is a long one, and the erstwhile player can't weasel his way out of this one. A cringeworthy, then terrifying (but sort of bordering on ridiculous, in the end) tale. Alas, only three stars.

"Between Four Yews" was written as a "prequel" story to M.R. James' "A School Story". Only James' setting is reflected in the story, and Oliver's tale is something quite apart from James'. It is a well-told tale of revenge (on multiple accounts) but without many of the typical tropes. The ending is a fantastic subversion of James' stories and quite effective, on reflection. Five stars.

Another case of liking a story up until the very end. "The Spooks of Shellborough" has compelling characterization (Oliver's characters are usually believable and familiar), an extremely compelling backstory, and a great set up . . . for what could have been a spectacular, eerie end. But the literal revealing of the "monster's" face just felt cheap. Four stars, but could easily have been three. Or five.

I'm usually not fond of stories in which the main character is dying throughout. But from start to finish, "Süssmayr's Requiem" held me in it's grasp, like the composer's own visions of blood and death, which are woven throughout the work. As you would expect, it's a solemn piece, and Oliver sustains the mood throughout, without making it drag, just like a great requiem should be! Five stars.

"Come into my Parlour" is a riff from the (in)famous poem "The Spider and the Fly". It was quite predictable, outside of one small twist near the end that proves inconsequential to the tale. Three stars.

Oliver is at his absolute best when he writes about acting, and "Lightning" is no exception. He captures all the pettiness that happens behind the curtain, the politics and personalities, with perfect clarity. It is clear that Oliver knows the stage. It would be very interesting to see this work staged as a play about a play. I loved this story, whose horror comes absolutely unexpectedly. Incredible. Five stars!

"Waving to the Boats" was an appropriate story to end the collection. Quiet and grey, with a morose bit of humor at the end. And while the subject matter and setting were languid, the story didn't have to be. Only three stars for this last tale, the collection ending with a whimper, rather than a bang. Then again, I think the author intended it this way. Still, a bit of a let down. The story "Flowers of the Sea" already hit a similar sort of theme as this story (at least peripherally) and did it much more effectively.

In all, a good collection, but not his best. I liked Mrs. Midnight and Other Stories and The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler and Other Stories much better. One thing that Oliver does as well or better than many other writers currently writing is creating characters that are, well, characters. They are unique and he reveals them, usually, in the most clever ways possible. Unfortunately, in the case of this collection, there is an over-reliance on a pithy last phrase in many stories that just does not tie out well. I'm going to hate myself for doing this, but I'm going to give it three stars and redirect you to his other outstanding collections.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Oneiric Adventures through Impossible Geography Part 1

In my readers' notes to Damian Murphy's sublime book The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt, I remarked: "The notion of a map constructed wholly from memory resonates with me. I often dream of places I've lived (and I've lived in a lot, being an Air Force brat) and visited again in dreams. My oneiric wanderings always take me to impossible nooks and crannies, skipping gulfs in a few steps, folding and unfolding interstices that were never there. I think I'm going to have to write a blogpost about my adventures." While I'm not fully prepared to go through all the peregrinations I'm hinting at (this might take a lifetime), I wanted to explore, very briefly, the dreamtime perception of space in regards to just one place I've lived, but that made a very strong impression on me, a place that I revisited (in a limited, nay, restricted capacity) in summer of 2019: RAF Chicksands, or what was RAF Chicksands, a US military base in the time that I lived there. 

I lived at "Chix" as it was sometimes called, from early May 1985 to November of 1987. My father was a lifelong veteran of the US Air Force, so I spent a fair amount of my childhood living overseas. Truth be told, if I could have lived at Chicksands the rest of my life, I might have been content to do so. Some of that has to do with the relative irresponsibility with which I was graced when I lived there. I was a bit of a ne'er do well, to say the least. In fact, it was my "troubles" that ultimately ended in my expulsion from the base as a sort of plea bargain in order to avoid a much more stringent punishment for a small handful of crimes. 

Perhaps it was the involuntary nature of my departure and the fact of my "banishment" (which is what the courts called it) that drew me and continues to draw me back to the base in my dreaming world. I visit there more than any other place (and again, I have lived in many places) and my feelings, upon awakening, are often powerful and full of longing and sadness, but sometimes pure joy that I could "return" even in my dreams. An inevitable part of almost every dream there is a search for long-lost friends. Since we're scattered all over the globe, I have only tentative long-term relationships with old friends, thanks to the internet. I've talked to a few friends on the phone here and there, but in my 33 years since my departure, I have yet to meet anyone in person who I knew there outside of my family. Now that my parents are dead and my only brother has all but broken contact with me, I can say that I am quite cut off (physically, at least) from the people I knew there. This happens to everyone, I suppose: we grow older, we change, we make new relationships, the old ones drop away. But my issue here is more deep seated than most. There is no "gathering point" for many of us Military Brats. I can't "go home" to be with old friends. There is no home. Not only was it a temporary stay, the place I lived and loved in is no longer the same entity that it was back then (the base being decommissioned in 1997, I believe), but since it is now under the auspice of British intelligence services, the best I can do (and what I did in 2019) is to visit what little parts of the base are less-restricted.

For me, there is no real "going back". That past is dead and gone.

And yet, I wander through the echoes of the past in my dreams.

There are a few memories that I can recall associated with specific people, places, and times. Some of them a joy to remember, some of them quite painful. Memory deteriorates with time, so I would be hard pressed to fully recall a memory of even a ten-minute stretch at a time. There are some episodes that, of course, took place over a longer time, but even those recollections are little islands of time: ten seconds here, a minute there, thirty seconds here, five minutes there, etc., all strung together in a sea of forgetting. 

Maybe this accounts for some of the episodic nature of my dreams associated with those years, just a function of the way memory operates. But the strange walks through Chicksands were always strange, even when I lived there. Dreams, as much as time, seem to alter the "real" landscape and render it in a landscape of the imagination. You've no doubt had a dream where you have travelled impossible distances in one step. Or there is the (in)famous dream that every child has of being chased by monsters and not being able to create any distance between the dreamer and the creature, no matter how fast the dreamer sensed he was running. Okay, maybe that dream is rarer than I think, but I know many others who have had a variation on the same theme. There is also the strange dream (is there any other kind, really?) of having to defend oneself from an attacker and swinging fists with all one's might, only to feel their arms nearly floating away, any hits that actually do land bouncing harmlessly off the opponent. There is a strong sense of futility in dreams, of the unattainable. 

And, yet, there are times where the dreamer seems to capture the impossible: you are reunited with the dead, the person you've had a crush on for years finally "sees" you and falls madly in love, you escape the monsters when your legs grow ten feet long and you simply walk over rooftops away from the impending threat.

But again, something smacks of desire, of longing, whether positive or negative, dreams have a pull on the dreamer, but that pull can never fully satisfy. In the end, we wake up to reality. Or those who remain mentally healthy do so (at least what mainstream society considers mentally healthy).

I've strayed far from my initial thoughts. Next, I shall try to construct a map of Chicksands from memory, without consulting photos or maps on the internet. Later, I will compare my map with photographed "reality," keeping in mind that some photos that I will be extrapolating data points from might have been from before or after my short time in residence there. I am confident, from my 2019 visit, that some things are different. Or perhaps, my memory (and dreams) are faulty. I'm curious to see how close I hew to archived verifiable data, but I'm more interested in what is omitted and why it was omitted in my map. Of course, I can't get too detailed in my map - there's just not enough time. But I will make the attempt in the next couple of weeks to begin to explore the dream space and maybe discover some of the whys and wherefores about inclusions and omissions. I am, of course, more curious than the rest of the world combined about what the results will be, but maybe you will find some entertainment here, if nothing else, or perhaps we might gain some insight beyond the merely trivial, who knows? Like my dreams as I fade off into sleep, I am going off into an unknown (and yet, previously known) country.

Oneiric Adventures through Impossible Geography Part 2

Monday, February 1, 2021

Half-time is Not Enough

 If you've been following my blog the past year or so, you know that I have been experimenting with social media fasting off and on. This past month, I went two weeks on, two weeks off with social media. Previously, I had taken two, one month-long social media fasts, one in February and one in November. The one in February of 2020 was pure "detox" - a chance to flush my system, as it were, and see what it felt like to do it (this was after reading Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. That was very successful - I accomplished a lot of the things I had been meaning and wanting to do for some time. It felt like a fresh start on life. I know, sounds crazy, but it was freeing! Then, with the election stress cascading upwards into a volcano, I decided to take off the month of November. This was quiet nice in that I avoided so much of the hullaballoo surrounding the election and saved myself a lot of stress. 

I decided that I wanted to do the social media fast more frequently, so, as stated, I split January half-and-half. And what did I find?

It didn't work.

More than anything, I was irritable as heck. Sure, having back to back to back high-stress 50+ hour work weeks didn't help matters. But that wasn't the core issue. i wasn't creating as much, I wasn't enjoying what I was doing as much, I didn't feel "in the zone" like I did with those first two longer fasts.

When I first read Digital Minimalism and saw Newport's (very strong) suggestion to take an entire month off of social media, I thought he was . . . a little extreme. He essentially stated that if you don't go off for a full month, you won't enjoy the full benefit of the fast, that a "hard reset" wasn't possible with anything less than a month away. 

He was right.

At least, I think he was. When I took a month off of social media, I felt it, I felt different, like deep down. When I took my two weeks off this past month, I most definitely did not feel it until the very, very end of the two weeks. I was just starting to feel that freedom and cleansing when I went back to social media. Then I found myself again wasting way too much time scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, and wondering what the heck I was doing. I think that while I was off for the two weeks, in the back of my mind I was thinking "just another week to go!" or "just a few more days!" - I self-sabotaged because I knew the end was coming quickly and I could go "have my fill" as soon as I finished the fast.

The fast had become a chore, not a joy, as it had in those months where I was able to unlatch from the promise of feeding my social media addiction. 

So here's what I'm going to do: one week "on" social media, three weeks off. I need to see what that feels like. I need to see what that does for me creatively - because creativity takes time, probably more time than we realize. The muses cannot be rushed and the more we try to rush them, the more we shortchange ourselves in whatever creative pursuit(s) we are undertaking.

In one week, then, I will "blip" off the twitter and facebook and instagram radar for three weeks. I've *seriously* considered sending out one last message on facebook and abandoning it completely. I get enough through twitter and instagram alone. In fact, I probably get too much! I may take a chunk of this three week period to figure out how I can gracefully exit FB and still keep the contacts that I want to, because I do want to keep in contact with some people there. I just don't really want to spend much, if any, time at all there.

And if three weeks off isn't enough, maybe I'll take a month off, then a week on, then a month off. Who knows? This is sort of a grand experiment for my mental and emotional well-being (as well as for my creative output). Will I abandon social media altogether? Very doubtful, but maybe. I suppose it depends on what you mean by "social media". There's no danger of me leaving Goodreads anytime soon. And I am keen on continuing to blog and read other people's creative blogs. But could I see myself abandoning twitter and instagram too? Maybe. Maybe. Time will tell. After all, one of my goals is to re-analog more of my life. I don't hate the digital world. but it does take away time from meat-space, and, frankly, that's where I live, love, and dream. And who doesn't want more time to dream - dream my own dreams, not those being spoon fed to me by the digital world. Man, now I sound like some crazed conspiracy theorist - and those are exactly some of the people I'm trying to get away from! Of course, Covid skews the perspective. I think that this journey would be much easier without having to worry about the plague. Maybe after things have calmed down in meat-space, it will be easier to re-analog. In the meantime, the struggle continues.


After a great conversation with some friends about social media and its inherent issues, I've decided I will now definitely take the three weeks off/one week on approach starting next week Monday. Part of this conversation circled around the performative nature of social media - that when we are on social media, we are often performing for others, rather than interacting with them. Thinking about this has caused me a lot of reflection. We might be on to something here.