Friday, October 6, 2017

Africa

Well, James Raggi made it official in an announcement sent out to those subscribed to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess E-mail list: I have been working for a good two years on a supplement for a developing line of historical books usable with the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG. I won't give the title out until James does, but suffice it to say that I'm finally using my Master's Degree for something directly related to my grad school studies back in the day.

As evidence, I present a few of the piles of books I have researched as I've worked on the project:




Now, this is barely the tip of the iceberg. I pored over literally dozens of volumes researching this. I spent days - DAYS, full 8 hour days, and many of them, in the University of Wisconsin's awesome Memorial Library doing the research for a supplement on West Africa in the 1630's. This is a fairly exhaustive survey of the lands, peoples, and customs of the region ranging east-to-west from the Atlantic coast to present-day Cameroon and north to south from the edge of the Sahara Desert down to the Ivory Coast/Gold Coast/Slave Coast.

My studies in grad school focused mostly on precolonial and early colonial East Africa (though my Master's Thesis was on later colonialism in East Africa), but we were trained to be broadly conversant in African history all the way around the region and for all historical time periods. So I had several courses and wrote several papers on West African history back in the late '90s. Nevertheless, I hit the books hard for this project and poured a great deal of effort into the research, construction, and writing of this survey. I wanted to do something that could go well beyond role-playing games, while retaining RPG use as the primary thrust of the writing.

The initial draft is done, edited, and submitted. I am awaiting another, related project, which I need to leverage, in order to complete my work. This will require a thorough rewrite of one particular section of the book, which I'm actually very excited about. Then, it's on to working with the cartographer for maps, working on the book design, etc. I can't give away the secrets yet, but this projected line of books that James has just announced will be an awesome addition to your LotFP library, your RPG library, or just your plain old library (for those who are history buffs).

I've written the book I wish I had in grad school, at least the one with a focus on early 17th-century West Africa. A huge amount of effort has gone into this - about the same amount of effort that went into writing my Master's Thesis itself, which was an incredible undertaking. I haven't poured this much effort into a book since my novel. And writing this might actually have been more difficult. Actually, yes, it definitely was more difficult. Writing non-fiction is a lot like real work!

More news as it happens and I'm allowed to share it!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Road

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I co-host the Glowburn podcast; a podcast about post-apocalyptic roleplaying. I've been a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre since I was very young, being raised as the son of a military man during the cold war. It seemed fated that one day the bombs would drop and we would all wake carrying guns openly in the streets fighting four-armed, two-headed mutants with glowing eyes.

Or at least, that's what we wanted to believe.

But that's fantasy.

The Road hits closer to potential reality. And it isn't glitz and guns and heroic escapes. It's about survival and scraping by in a gray, boring landscape where most of the other inhabitants - when you can find them - want to rape you, kill you, then eat you. Every step is tedious and terrifying.

And yet, somehow, McCarthy has carved out a thing of dark beauty here.

Part of the beauty is due to the sheer economy of words the author uses. Much of the dread is unspoken, implied between the words.

He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him.
Shh, he said. Shh. It's okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know.
Should I tell you what it was?
If you want to.
I had this penguin that you wound up and it would waddle and flap its flippers. And we were in that house that we used to live in and it came around the corner but nobody had wound it up and it was really scary.
Okay.
It was a lot scarier in the dream.
I know. Dreams can be really scary.
Why did I have that scary dream?
I don't know. But its okay now. I'm going to put some wood on the fire. You go to sleep.
The boy didn't answer. Then he said: The winder wasnt turning.


Simple, and easy to gloss over, but on reflection, this little vignette is terrifying in that it opens a window on a little boys fear of the unexplained, the inexplicable. And much of the world he inhabits, with his guardian father, goes unexplained. There are many answers to many questions, few of which provide any hope.

So hope has to be made on the fly. Faith has to be lit and stoked from within.

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked in the sand for the boy's hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.

And this, after the man had washed the boy's hair of the brains of a dead man who had tried to kidnap the boy from his father. Tried . . .

Still, hope is hard to come by.

They scrabbled through the charred ruins of houses they would not have entered before. A corpse floating in the black water of a basement among the trash and rusting duct-work. He stood in a livingroom partly burned and open to the sky. The waterbuckled boards sloping away into the yard. Soggy volumes in a bookcase. He took one down and opened it and then put it back. Everything damp. Rotting. In a drawer he found a candle. No way to light it. He put it in his pocket. He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

There is no triumph in such a world. Only pyrrhic victory and a dim candleflame of hope against the gale winds of decay.

But there is, in the end, love and memory, which keep that dim flame lit until the last inch of wick is finally, quietly, consumed.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Stealing Cthulhu

Stealing CthulhuStealing Cthulhu by Graham Walmsley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Years ago, I learned a number of surrealist games meant to spur creativity and put one’s mind into a frame where those playing the games could see the world in new and surprising ways. For example, “n+7” is a game in which one takes a text, say a paragraph from a novel, and identifies all the nouns. After this, the player grabs the nearest dictionary and looks up the first noun. Then, in the dictionary, the reader counts the next seven nouns and inserts the seventh noun for the one in the original text. This is an excellent way to spur the brain into an entirely different mode of thinking, having a form of logic, but with illogical, even jarring, signposts along the read.

Now imagine taking the already strange works of H.P Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, and Colin Wilson, pulling elements out, decontextualizing, then re-contextualizing them. Vary the levels of granularity (from such elements as a mythos monster, to a specific trait of a mythos monster, from a thematic element to a specific setting, for example), and you instantly have a multifaceted mythos mixing board from which you can subtract, to which you can add, wherein you can focus or blur – you get the picture.

This, along with the "Playing the Game" section of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook should give enough tools to any would-be horror writer (whether of games or fiction) to create a fantastic breadth of work that still retains its core “Lovecraftiness”.

This is all well and good, but my introduction to the work here seems far too mechanical. As I review books, I always like to take notes to inform my later review of the book. In this case, though, I want to give my updates to you in their raw, unadulterated form. Not because I’m lazy (though I am), but because I cannot effectively convey the utter delight I felt in reading this book, not from the post-reading perspective. This book made a strong impression on me, and I think it best to show that via the notes I made in real-time. So, here they are:

“This is one of the best arguments for plagiarism . . . er, adaption of another's material that I've ever read.”

“Well, this is definitely whisking away my reading time. Easy read, great advice.”

“The color out of space is quickly becoming my favorite "bad" guy.”

“Ah, I see, this is where we take the wisdom gleaned from earlier chapters and apply it to specific creatures of the mythos. Good stuff. I like that structure - helps the lessons to really sink in.”

“Leveraging Flying Polyps as representations of elemental creatures. Interesting. Hadn't thought of that. And substituting other elemental creatures (fire, earth, water, ???) in the seminal story "The Shadow Out of Time" to turn it into an adventure - simple, yet brilliant. Walmsley is giving a textbook lesson in adventure writing here. So glad I hunted down a hard copy of this book.”

In essence, I loved it. I can't recommend it strongly enough. And I am really glad I bought the hard copy (good luck - they're out there, but they're not cheap, and you can have mine when you pry it from my cold, dead hands). I will be returning to this book again and again. It is definitely making it near the top of my list of books about writing (which I normally despise), whether for games or for fiction. Apply these techniques to any genre you can imagine, heck, it's probably best to intentionally cross genre lines while using them. The possibilities are . . . expansive.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead (Ender's Saga, #2)Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been just under five years since I first read Ender’s Game at my kid’s bequest. As I pointed out in my review, the last chapter of that book, which occurred after all the action, was the part of the book that I found most compelling (and which pushed my assessment from a mere 3 stars up to 4). I mentioned this to my kids and they, having read almost all the books in the “Ender” series, told me that I should read Speaker for the Dead, that I would enjoy it much more than I did Ender’s Game.

They were right!

While far from perfect, I found Speaker for the Dead far more interesting and complex than the punch-‘em-in-the-face shoot-‘em-up that was the prequel. I had expected Card to take a condescending tone and to push his religious views on the reader, but found that Ender’s philosophy and the tackling of religious, moral, and political themes that predominate throughout, was much more subtle and nuanced than I expected. I also found the complexity of relationships and the navigation thereof to be, if not altogether believable, given the timelines involved, interesting and surprising.

To give a plot outline would involve me accidentally spoilering things that I ought not, and others have addressed the plot adequately already. Like many good works of literature, the plot doesn’t really matter all that much – it’s a platform from which Card explores, more than anything, the notion of forgiveness and compassion. There were moments that I found emotionally affecting, and was brought near tears more than once. It is not a comfortable read, and anyone who is paying attention to their own reaction as they read it will find that one’s emotions run strong. Some will feel manipulated. Others will feel guilty. Others will try to blow off their feelings and accuse the writer of being shallow and even callous. Still others will become angry. Just take a look at all the Goodread’s reviews! In any case, this book has a way of getting “under the skin” and provoking a reaction.

I know a lot of authors who would love to get that kind of reaction from their readers, this one included.


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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Collapse of Horses

A Collapse of HorsesA Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've made no secret of the fact that I love Brian's work; both his non-fiction and his fiction. I've published his work myself not once, but twice. I've only had the chance to meet him in person once, many years ago, but have had correspondence with him off and on for a long time now. He even let me have the honor of accepting the International Horror Guild Award on his behalf when he couldn't make it to a convention I was attending. So I might be a little biased. But only a little; even if he appears in my personal appendix N. I try to be objective when I read Brian's work, which means that, at times, I am a harsher critic than I ought to be. Then, along comes a story that entirely blows my mind and, well, there goes any semblance of objectivity or decorum, for that matter.

And what did I think of this collection? Brian's The Wavering Knife is one of my favorite single-author collections of all time, so A Collapse of Horses is up against its own stiff competition. Here are my thoughts on each story:

The structure (though not the subject matter) of "Black Bark" is reminiscent of the opening and closing sequence of the Twilight Zone movie, but much, much more scary. Wanna see something really scary? Four stars.

"A Report" is Kafka . . . *cough* *cough* Evenson at his most Kafka-esque. It's the absence of punishment that makes the torture portrayed here so excruciating. Four stars for "A Report".

"The Punish" is a story of bullying. And a story of revenge, sort of. But it doesn't play out quite how you'd expect. There is little of vengeful anger, little emotion at all, involved. At the center of it all is the sense of what's fair, what tit-for-tat comprises and how it plays out over the long term. Like much of Evenson's work, it is brutal in its lack of emotion. Five stars.

A tragedy that is not a tragedy is all the more tragic because it is not, in "A Collapse of Horses". Five stars.

"Three Indignities". Yes. Yes they are. Four cringe worthy stars that made me flinch and tremble, especially after having experienced one of them immediately after my back surgery, a few years ago. I did not care to relive that.

Using "Cult" as the title of this story may be the most clever use of a title I've seen in a while. Not the best Evenson story, but it still creeps into four star territory.

"Seaside Town" is an eerie, dissociative story that may or may not involve time travel. It reminds me of the work of Roland Topor, particularly The Tenant. A four star stay at the seaside town.

"The Dust" has a sense of paranoia that is almost palpable. It's a claustrophobic psychological horror story in a science-fictional setting. Fairly straightforward, by Evenson's standards, and yet flawlessly written to unfold a psychotic narrative that reminded me, simultaneously, of Pandorum and Carpenter's The Thing, but exactly not either of those. Four stars.

Don't judge a story by it's title! "BearHeartTM" was way less stupid and way more scary than I thought it would be from the title. Four stars, and a nod to Talky Tina.

"Scour" will . . . er, scour your soul. Evenson's ability to put the reader in the protagonist's head and cause the reader to, with her, willingly make the emotional phase shift from fear to sheer absence of will, is a draining spectacle to behold and be a part of. Four stars.

"Torpor" was a bit of grotesquery that I just didn't much care for. But you always have to admire Evenson's technically-perfect execution. Three stars.

"Past Reno" is clearly a riff on Lovecraft's idea of man's inability to correlate all the contents of the mind, along with the notion that what is off-screen is often more terrifying than what is right before you. But I've seen this done even more effectively elsewhere (though I can't for the life of me remember the title of the story that appeared in Ellen Datlow's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror that used redactions to horrifying effect - I'd be indebted if someone could help me remember what that story was and who wrote it. It was brilliant.). Still, a solid four star story.

"Any Corpse" will make you laugh, if you have as sick a sense of humor as me. I'm reminded of Evenson's Dark Property, but with a wry grin that quickly fades into a grimace. Five stars.

Many writers try to relay the feelings and sensations one encounters in a hallucinogenic experience. Evenson is one of the very, very few that actually catch the sensation of displacement that one feels during those experiences. Then he takes it two steps further, causing the reader to question reality itself in "The Moans". This is the PERFECT Evenson story, something transcendent. Five stars.

"The Window" appeared in the Fearful Symmetries anthology. Evenson hits the theme right in the middle in this ghost(?) story. Four stars.

"Click" is my new favorite Brian Evenson story. It may become one of my favorite short stories of all time. The sense of disassociative insanity is a fugue of unreliable narration, a drowning flood of swirling irrealities. I want someone to turn this into a black and white noir movie. No, not "someone". Definitely David Lynch working with the Brothers Quay. No one else could do it justice. Five gray supergiant stars!

I think I just read a Brian Evenson vampire story in "The Blood Drip". I think so, but I'm not sure. It ties in well with the opening story of the book and provides a thematic thread tying the beginning to the middle to the end, but it just didn't have the "pop" and "smarts" that I expect of Evenson's work. Three stars.

All told, that's a 4.1 average. And while I absolutely love "Click" (which should go in the end-of-the-world master textbook on how to write a short story) and "The Moans", I can't justify bumping it up to five stars. Though "The Blood Drip" and "Black Bark" bookend the collection and "A Collapse of Horses" provides a third equine leg to stand on, the various voices of the collection, the incongruous tones created by the overly-eclectic manuscripts, just didn't "bring it all together" for me. I think what we have here is two collections mashed into one: 1) stories that are more "clever" and sometimes downright funny and, 2) the more somber and grim (yet more linguistically playful) tones. My brain couldn't reconcile the two in such close proximity to each other. I appreciate both for what they are, but the two tended to repel each other, rather than pull the collection tighter together.

Still, four stars. And you're a fool if you don't rush out right now and find "Click" and "The Moans", whether in this collection or in their original incarnations. As usual, even with intervening weaknesses, Evenson proves that he is one of the greatest artists of the short story form alive today.


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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Head of Vitus Bering

The Head of Vitus Bering (The Printed Head Volume III, #7)The Head of Vitus Bering by Konrad Bayer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is no good place to begin a review of such a book. Because it "begins" all at once and "ends" all at once. Konrad Bayer's The Head of Vitus Bering is a phantasmagoric staccato nightmare of cannibalism and torture swirling in a tornado of anachronism and confused stories, none of which make an impact individually, but when combined into a stew of mixed syntax, somehow makes sense.

I would like to have a key or to have the patience to unlock any of the apparent formulae that Bayer used to write this work. There is a certain sing-song rhythm that betrays a pattern underneath, but like any work of complexity, the pattern can only be traced for a short while before one loses the path. This might be as much a function of intellectual laziness as inscrutability. How am I to know? Despite my shortcomings, however, there is evidence of rhyme and reason somewhere behind what would otherwise appear to be a random mess of words and broken phrases. I don't know whether to feel like Bayer is just messing around with his readers or if there was, indeed, a real plan, again, a formula, behind his experimentation.

Regardless of the real existence of possible patterns beneath the words, the evocative nature of the words themselves are sufficient to immerse any reader in the overpowering now that pulses out from the background of randomly-ordered events. By overwhelming the reader with chronological jumps to and fro, Bayer strips the reader of their sense of causation. In the whirlwind of suffering, all that matters is what is happening now. The sterilized academic tone of much of the book adds to this genericizing of time. Life, it seems, is just a machine through which one, including Vitus Bering himself, must pass, being ground down by the gears of experience. The universe is uncaring, the text seems to say, so why should the narrator of the work care? He is simply an observer, a canvas to be painted on, a manuscript to be typed with the impressions he receives.

What is the reader of this work other than a receiver of these impressions? Dare you try to interpret that which cannot be understood? Or will you just absorb the many lies and scant truths of The Head of Vitus Bering? If so, what are you, other than a palimpsest? In which case, time, chronology, causation really have no reward for you.

Now I find myself stuck in Bayer's most cunning trap: fatalism.

Still, it's sometimes intriguing to look up from the bottom of the pit and try to figure out the mechanism operating the trapdoor from far below, in the darkness. At other times, I'd rather just close my eyes and dream. But I can't stay down here forever, so, I climb.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants

The Inhabitant of The Lake & Other Unwelcome TenantsThe Inhabitant of The Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants by Ramsey Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From Campbell's Afterword, it is clear that he is a bit embarrassed at having written these early tales. I can see why. No, these stories are not terrible, not by any means. But if you've read any of Campbell's later work, you can clearly see an emergent, if struggling, genius trying to claw its way out of the pit of pastiche with this collection. August Derleth, who initially edited these stories, was generous to the young Campbell. The letters back and forth between the two during their initial exchanges before this book was first published paint the picture of a kindly mentor who, though unafraid to call out the young (and I mean very young) Campbell in strong editorial terms, shows a soft spot that this editor (namely: me) would have cut out of his own heart. Call me mean.

But if Derleth had let his editorial judgement cut too deep, Campbell might not have ever emerged as the writer he has. And that would be a shame. So, good for Derleth having a heart.

Enough of sentiment. On to the stories.

We begin with "The Room in the Castle," which was good, but not great. Clearly a pastiche of Lovecraft, this relied a little too heavily on the old "shell game" of teasing a reveal, then pulling it back, then teasing and pulling it back again, then revealing the thing that was previously teased about at the very end. Not very startling, honestly. Well written, as you'd expect, but the mechanics of the piece felt amateur and really distracted this reader. Three stars

"The Horror from the Bridge" is more like it. Though I think that Campbell tips his hand way too much by "giving it away" without the reader having to work for it, I still liked this story quite a bit. Campbell himself admits in the afterword that he is sometimes guilty of "telling too much too soon". I'd say that's accurate. This tale is not outright scary, but "the mythos" don't necessarily have to be. It exhibits well Mark Fisher's notion of "the weird" as something intruding in our world that should not be there. Features both undead and mythos! Four stars.

"The Insects from Shaggai" is full of great things. The semi-material nature of the insects and the notion of possessing the victim and leading them to bring catastrophe upon . . . well, I can't give away too much. Ramsey's one weakness, and I've seen it in each of these stories so far, is that he telegraphs way too much. Foreshadowing is not fore-10000 -candle-watt-shining, Ramsey. Tone it down a touch! Four stars.

I enjoyed "The Render of the Veils," but it is a story that definitely needs more breathing room (another early habit of Campbell's that he admits to in his afterword). One of the two main characters just seemed to willing to go along with just about anything with little or not questioning. A longer lead-in might have made it more believable. Naivete might have been developed, rather than curtly assumed. A longer story would have helped to develop more dread, as well. This might make an interesting setup for a Delta Green one-shot scenario, but it doesn't make for great fiction. Good fiction, but not great. Three stars.

The story "The Inhabitant of the Lake" fires on all cylinders, save one: The info-dump by the realtor is unlikely and un-necessary. The story would have been stronger without it. Still, that doesn't keep this one from five star territory. There is good reason for its reputation for frisson. It is a solid piece of cosmic horror that earns its laurels. I see why this was chosen as the title story. Five stars!

"The Plain of Sound" hits the sweet spot of giving the reader just enough to think they have an idea of what the horror really is, while keeping it "tucked away" enough that the reader's imagination reaches and claws for it, but never quite sees it full-front. And it's this yearning that creates the terror in the reader: the realization that you *want* to stare the horror in the face, but can't. A strange twist on possible invasions from another dimension that reminds me (though "remind" is anachronistic here, except that my reading order didn't match the publishing order) of Jeffrey Thomas's story "Bad Reception" from his collection The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions. Five stars!

"The Return of the Witch". Meh. Too much meh-tafiction in the form of a Doctor providing information he couldn't possibly know. Meh-chanically clunky grammatical structures. A meh-andering plot. Meh-phistopholes would have loved this story. Just meh. Two stars.

"The Mine on Yuggoth" was what I hoped for when picking up this book! Eerie, unspoiled by infodumps and credibility-straining coincidence. A protagonist who just can't help but want to know more, until he knows too much. Subtle until the end, then BAM! This is how cosmic horror is done! Five inscrutably sentient stars!

Ah, those crazy folk-magic practicing villagers. I hate it when I stumble into their village and am sacrificed to Shub-Niggurath only to find that there are fates worse than death. Next time that happens, though, Campbell will have provided me with a great example of how to document these strange happenings with "The Moon Lens". Four stars.

Besides the strength of the stories (and I do think that most of them were strong), this volume includes an awkward tell-all afterword by the author, several pieces of correspondence between Campbell and August Derleth, and the first drafts of all the stories (and one that didn't - thankfully - make it into the collection). It's an interesting piece of Lovecraftiana that only owes its inspiration to Lovecraft. The ancillary materials add to the collection overall, I think, even if it predisposes one to judge the stories themselves a little more harshly. Actually, maybe they would excuse the stories' juvenalian aspects if one were to read the afterword first. But that would be putting the Lovecraftian cart before the horse and might spoil the eerie enjoyment that does infuse many of the pieces.

All-in-all, the book is not a good introduction to cosmic horror (though a couple of the stories are), but a definite must-read for those who love their Lovecraft or who want to read the seminal stories of one of the modern masters of horror.

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