Sunday, May 21, 2017

X's For Eyes

X's For EyesX's For Eyes by Laird Barron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you, like me, graduated from children's books to Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Archie Comics, then "grew up" into more adult fare, including the work of, say, Laird Barron; if you've given up hooded hawks and double jinx's and replaced them with existential darkness and horrors that await us all, then maybe it's time for you to take a trip into the void between the stars and rethink your notions of causality.

Because it's all going to come back to you. Everything at once, in an extra-dimensional loop of a plot that draws in all your memories of the boy detectives, the debauchery of your college years, the super science of venture brothers, and your favorite eldritch deities. But you'll have to abandon any notions of "then" and "now". Most of all, you're going to have to let go of your notions regarding what is a Laird Barron story. All the right elements are there: desperation, brooding threats, and sharp humor, all wrapped up in exquisite prose. The ingredients are all the same. But the proportions are different, contrasting with most of Barron's other work. Here, you'll find that the dark philosophical elements you are used to being in the forefront are used to accentuate, rather than saturate the taste of this novella. And humor - you've seen it peek out from the corners of Barron's work, but in this case, it's standing right in front of you, staring you in the face. It's horrific, no doubt, and only those who share a grim sense of humor will appreciate it, but if you want sardonic, boy howdy, you got it! One of the primary elements here is corruption: You'll read about a ten and twelve year old boy doing things you thought biologically impossible, which has its own . . . er . . . charm? Squicky charm? Okay, I give up, it's just plain squicky. But charming. No. Wait. Don't go! Hear me out!

If you're a fan of Venture Brothers, as I am, and a fan of Lovecraftian horrors, which I also am, you can't go wrong with X's For Eyes. But where VB steps off into the ridiculous, Barron's boys take a left turn into a serious warping of reality that reveals a certain kind of "coming of age" story. Sort of. From a certain point of view. A point of view that is as twisted and grim and hopeful in a fatalistic sort of way as you can't imagine. Because you can't imagine it until you've read this novella.

So what are you waiting for? No, wait, don't tell me. I know already. Because I saw it before you said it, even though you said it after I asked the question. Laws of causality be damned.

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Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook: Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft

Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook: Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft (Call of Cthulhu RPG)Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook: Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft by Sandy Petersen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Call of Cthulhu has made my list of #7RPGs (which is in need of updating to include Dungeon Crawl Classics, but I digress). This 7th edition takes the previous editions and ratchets the game up a notch, not by any hugely different mechanics (you'll still find the Basic Roleplaying system at its core), but by presenting a carefully-crafted approach not only to the Call of Cthulhu game, but to roleplaying in general. In fact, I recommend any game master of any roleplaying game to read Chapter 10: "Playing the Game". This chapter is one of the best guides to how to run a game, especially a game involving mystery or horror, that I've ever read. I will be applying many of those lessons for years to come, and I am a game master with nearly 40 years of experience on the table.

The book's presentation is exceptional. It is sturdy (unlike a certain 2nd edition of another very popular roleplaying game, which are known to crumble into sheafs of paper) and exquisitely crafted. Each chapter is host to a full double-page full-color painting and there are full-color paintings and sepia tone illustrations of extremely high quality throughout. It is as much a coffee table art book as a roleplaying book. The sewn-in red silk bookmark is a nice touch, as well. Even if you never play the game, you might just want the book for the artwork.

On another level, you might just want the book for its treatment of the Lovecraftian mythos, tomes and grimoires, alien technology, and magic. You need not have a great grasp on the mechanics to appreciate Call of Cthulhu 7th edition Keeper Rulebook as a sourcebook. All creatures, books, artifacts, and spells presented here are well-researched and fleshed out just enough to let your imagination run wild if you are, for example, a writer wishing to explore the Lovecraftian universe.

This is not to say that the book is without flaws. There are some niggling editorial misses, little things, but enough to be distracting. And while the chapter on chases is, I'm sure, brilliant, I just don't get it. After listening to two separate podcasts (The Miskatonic University Podcast and The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, for which I am a patron of both), I still just don't get it. It's probably the sort of thing I need to watch in action a few times to really grasp. After all, I'm a kinesthetic and visual learner. Someday, I hope to really understand this one.

That said, the book is absolutely five star worthy, despite its flaws. Of course, the real test is "how does the book/how do the rules work at the table". I can attest from numerous Call of Cthulhu 7e sessions at Gameholecon and Garycon that the rules do, indeed, work very well (except for the chase rules, which I still need to play myself to understand). So if you've ever been curious, you could do worse than to splurge on a copy of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook for yourself, then dive in and play. Or, if you want it for the art, or just as a sourcebook, that's fine too. There's no wrong way to use this book, except to not use it at all.



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Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Secret of Ventriloquism

The Secret of VentriloquismThe Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I almost bought this in the limited-edition numbered hardcover. Alas, I waited too long and only got the signed softcover. I regret that decision now. Really regret it, deep down in my bones. Had I known that this collection, this book was going to be so strong, I would have dropped the cash in a heartbeat. I've been reading a lot of short fiction collections lately, and this is among the best I've read in recent memory, which is saying something, as I've read some great ones. So, without further ado, let's go through the stories:

"The Mindfulness of Horror Practice" carries a lot of power in very few words. An examination of the story would take longer than the story itself, which is a sort of self-help guide to feeling horror. Thankfully, the visceral nature of the content explains itself in so few words. 5 stars, and an ideal start to this collection of horror stories. In my original notes, I wrote "I get the feeling that this will set the stage for much to come. One foot in the doorway of nihilism . . .". Oh, if I only knew!

"Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown" is terrifying for what it does not say, defining the motives for vengeance without revealing the act, and creating fear not through a sudden shock, but through a more subtle, more methodical revelation. 5 stars for this near-perfectly crafted story.

"The Indoor Swamp" speaks to our (or maybe just my) fascination with the macabre, the grotesque, and the terrifying. It's a labyrinth of the mind, fueled by morbid curiosity. 5 stars for this short, but very effective piece."

"Origami Dreams" is the type of reality-slipping unfolding I love in cosmic horror. Padgett takes the old cheap-thrill of "it was just a dream" type schlock and crafts it into something genuinely sinister, an alienation so thorough that even the narrator himself falls and breaks through layers and layers of reality. This is where the collection really takes off into the highest reaches of darkness. It is with this tale that the collection itself assumes a life of its own, where the collection begins to become more than the sum of its parts, which is what all the best collections do. It is not merely an accumulation of stories, it is an accretion of stories with themes, characters, and phrases that allude to each other, at the very least, sometimes directly, sometimes in an obtuse way that deepens the sense of "depth" even more. The perfect soundtrack to this story would be Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand". 5 stars.

"20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism" was obviously influenced by Ligotti (exact repetition of words and phrases, focused emphasis on specific words that create a sense of hopelessness, and so forth). This is probably intended. What I'm not sure is whether or not the voice was meant to sound like Steven Millhauser. But it does. And that's a good thing. 5 stars to this story, as well.

"The Infusorium" is a fantastic crawl through a polluted noir horror that is the kind of grey, burdensome, yet titillating story I always wish for when opening a volume of dark fiction, but rarely find. The procedural ends in a surprising way that, in hindsight, is the only way it could have ended. But as it's unfolding, there is a twist that throws things in an unexpected direction, only to spin right around to the ending that you might have guessed, except the twist threw you off the scent. It's an exhilarating sensation that adds to the feeling of terror. The accretion I mentioned earlier continues, like a spider web being slowly built around the reader's mind. In fact, this story would be in the thick of the web. Cross-references with other stories that might normally be obtrusive or jarring feel natural and yet continue to surprise. This is becoming a complete, complex BOOK. 5 stars.

Unfortunately, "Organ Void" was a bit of a void for me, with only a very tenuous connection with the rest of the collection. The weakest of the bunch, but still a decent enough story. 3 stars.

"The Secret of Ventriloquism" is written as stage directions and dialogue for a play. Padgett leverages the medium by using metatextual stage directions as a way to expose another layer of meaning and terror "behind" the story. This layering effect give a richness to the story that would have been compromised had these subtle elements been presented in too-straightforward of a manner. It's a lot like . . . ventriloquism. 5 stars.

"Escape to Thin Mountain," frankly, reminds me of some of my own early writing. So, yes, I do like this frenetic, manic voice that is so sing-songy and pleasant as to be absolutely horrific. I was a tiny bit disappointed that there is only a tenuous connection to the rest of the collection, which seemed to be forming such a strong book. Still, a solid 4 star story.

I won't say that the collection would have been better without "Escape to Thin Mountain" and "Organ Void," but they were both distractions from the rest of the collection, which is near perfect. And I don't use the word "perfect" to describe books very often. But this is pretty darned close.

I can't recommend this book strongly enough. I will be on the lookout for even more of Padgett's work and for whatever Dunhams Manor Press produces. Kudos all the way around!



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