Tuesday, June 2, 2020

A Song of Heroes, Past and Present

A Song of Heroes, Past and Present
Our online D&D game set in Ravenloft continues.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock/rogue
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

The weather grew colder as the party ventured into Lamordia. Snow began to fall gently, settling on the bare limbs of trees and blanketing the roads that led north. Bela Drachen had been withdrawn and mostly silent as they traveled; he seemed lost in worry over his sister’s accursed state. Emilia remained catatonic. However, there was one sign of activity: something within her belly moved, wriggling just below the line of her flesh like a caught eel.

The party stopped to ask for directions to Leonora Vos's house at The Coxcomb, a small-but-cozy wayside inn. Inside, the proprietor stood behind the bar, chatting to two farmers. A bard, a young woman dressed in a stylish approximation of jester's motley, sat on a stool near the fireplace, strumming a lyre. The only occupied table had four figures seated around it: a grizzled man, gray of hair and beard; a feral-looking woman in furs; a woman with dark, curly hair and a gold chain extending from her ear to her nose; a man with a militaristic haircut clad in black robes.

Tekla chatted to the innkeeper. Eyeing the weaponry the party was carrying, he stammered, "Please, don't start any trouble here. Just...just don't kill anyone." After assuring him that no blood would be spilled on premises, Tekla convinced him to draw them a map that would take them the rest of the way to Leonora Vos's home. 

The bard began to sing a ballad in a clear, sorrowful voice while plucking the strings of her lyre. The first verse concerned a group of five unlikely heroes who banded together to prevent a monstrous child from being born under an apocalyptic prophecy. One of the heroes was a mighty orc warrior; although reviled because of their orcish blood, they were unfailingly brave and valorous. Another of the heroes was a feline trickster, cunning and clever, always able to squirm their way out of a scrape. And then there was a witch of the Vardegan clan, wise in the ways of the arcane and a staunch defender of the natural world. Yet another of the heroes was small in stature, but large in heroic deeds--she noticed things that other could not. The last verse told of the betrayal wrought by the last of the heroes: a drow matriarch whose faith in the goddess of life masked a deeper devotion to Lolth, the Queen of the Demonweb pits. This last hero forestalled victory; through her machinations, she managed to delay the birth of the apocalyptic child until a time more advantageous to Lolth instead of lifting the curse as the group had planned.

The content of the ballad was another strange echo that resembled the individuals assembled in the party, though inexactly, much like the group portrait that had been painted by Donna Pietra Sangino. Al' was also troubled by the last verse, which made him question whether the religion that had been passed down through his family was only a mask that hid devotion to Lolth. The tarokka reading he had been given did mention a crisis of faith and betrayal, after all.

13 Shattered Mirrors approached the bard after her performance, and she introduced herself as Cassie DuVal. When asked about the provenance of the ballad, she explained that the subject was an ancient tale, passed down through the generations, and that there are others like it in throughout the land that told tales of evil that was never quite vanquished--the tragedy of unfinished business. “That’s how it is, isn’t it?" she said, "We're all just living amongst the debris of the failures of past generations.” 13 Shattered Mirrors couldn't help up agree.

Figuring the seated group for a party of mercenaries, Tank approached them for some soldierly camaraderie with Gnargar in tow. The man in the black robes produced a folded piece of paper and showed it to the man with the gray hair and beard. The man put the paper face up on the table and threw a pair of manacles beside it. The paper was a wanted poster from Ghastria with drawings of Tank, Gnargar, 13 Shattered Mirrors, Tekla, and Al'. It offered five hundred gold pieces for each of them, dead or alive! "Well, looks like we found ourselves a nice, fat bounty," the grizzled man said as he drew a scimitar and a dagger.

Despite his eagerness to apprehend the party, the bounty hunters' leader spent almost the entirety of the fight paralyzed by a hold person spell until he was cut down. The feral woman was another story; despite fighting with a ferocity that left her open to counterattack, she dealt horrific wounds with her two-handed cleaver and withstood quite a few injuries herself. The dark haired woman charged at 13 Shattered Mirrors, keeping him pinned down at the bar. The man in the black robes cut himself with a razor to summon a scythe made of his own wretched blood.

The party was ultimately triumphant; the bounty hunters lay dead on the floor of the inn's common room. Suddenly, the door of the Coxcomb blew open, and a figure clad in a hooded black robe entered. His face was entirely obscured by his hood. He floated slightly above the ground as if the very act of walking was beneath him. He spoke to the innkeeper: “Ah, another fine harvest. Pleasure doing business with you.” With that, coins began to spill from his black sleeve onto the bar. More hooded figured entered and began to drag the corpses of the bounty hunters to a waiting cart outside. 

When this strange interloper had departed, the innkeeper was asked to explain what had just happened. He claimed that when he bought the inn he had also unwittingly inherited a bargain: anyone who died through violence in the inn would be claimed by that strange figure--a being known as Kalarel the Vile. Tekla was certain that the bodies he collected were being used for some unwholesome ritual purpose. 13 Shattered Mirrors asked Cassie if she would like to accompany them on their adventures. She asked if this kind of thing--random attacks by mercenaries, followed by the intercession of icy-voiced, floating magi--was usual for them. When they were forced to concede that it was, her answer was clear: "Hell no."

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Obsidian, Creatures of Charm and Hunger, Wicked Saints, and More

Things that brought me delight in May, 2020:

Paradise Lost, 
Paradise Lost are elder statesmen at this point: they pioneered the genre of doom metal as one of the infamous Peaceville Three and have had a decades-spanning career. Their early albums, such as Draconian Times, Gothic, and Icon, are unimpeachable. However, things haven’t always gone from strength to strength with Paradise Lost. Even though I’ve been a fan since high school, I have to admit that there was a lull in my enjoyment--you know how every big doom band makes an ill-advised decision to sound like Depeche Mode, the Cure, or shifts into industrial metal? Well, that happened with Paradise Lost. But they came storming back in fine form with 2015’s The Plague Within and followed that with the also exceptional Medusa in 2017. Obsidian follows those two albums without a dip in quality. It showcases how well the band can hit all the high points of their career on a single record: it’s got crushing glacial doom riffs, anthemic goth rock bits, the big depressive mood--it feels like a greatest hits package but all the tracks are new.

Gary Reed and Galen Showman,
Renfield: A Tale of Madness
I've been immersed in Dracula-related stories lately; last month was a further adventure of Vampire Hunter D, this month started with Powers of Darkness for Bad Books for Bad People. I'm considering Renfield: A Tale of Madness as the chaser. It's a surprisingly strange comic; since it focuses on Renfield, it could have felt like a minor extract from a larger work, but singling out Renfield gives a new gloss to aspects of Stoker's novel. There's certainly something going on in Dracula with faith, God, and servitude, but here it becomes a disquieting part of the story that can't be easily pushed aside. The art feels purposefully workmanlike; there are a lot of close-ups of faces in various attitudes of emotion, but the art does occasionally get the room to speak for itself--particularly in some of the full-page illustrations.

L'Ame Immortelle, 
Auf Deinen Schwingen and Gezheiten
If you are involved with the goth scene long enough, you will come to have a favorite semi-obscure band that is fronted by an attractive redhead. L'Ame Immortelle is mine. Although many of their albums are fun, I return to the Auf Deinen Schwingen and Gezheiten era most often; these two albums are their heaviest, and in many ways I think they've weathered the test of time better than their synth-based albums. (Not for nothing, some of their biggest hits arrive at this point.) Also, I don't think Sonja Kraushofer's voice was ever in finer form than it was on these two records.

Molly Tanzer,
Creatures of Charm and Hunger
It's interesting that Molly Tanzer notes that she considered dedicated Creatures of Charm and Hunger, the third and final book in the Diabolist's Library trilogy, to her anxiety. Although the book is ostensibly the story of two young women coming to grips with their own expectations and desires as budding sorcerers during World War II, the preparation for their practical examinations in the art of diablerie uncomfortably reminded me of some of the hoops one has to jump through in graduate school.

Someplace Better and Sil3nt Scr3am
My exploration of the minor bands in the Gothic metal genre continues! Elysion diverge from the pack in two essential, but important, ways: their songs do not aim for epic lengths and Christianna, the vocalist, doesn't pursue an angelic or operatic style. The songs on Someplace Better and Sil3nt Sc3am (my god, those numbers in the title...) are punchy and to the point; most are about four minutes in length. The vocals hit harder, opting for a balance point between forceful and poppy. Elysion are not the hardest band nor the most ambitious in their genre, but they have their own charms.

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island
Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island came out when I was working at a video store as an undergrad. Despite being a childhood fan of Scooby-Doo, I didn't really trust the idea of a new offering patterned after something I liked when I was a kid. (This hasn't changed much; it still captures my feelings about modern Star Wars media.) But it turns out that Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island is a pretty fun movie! Although, it also does feel strangely exculpatory about the Confederacy; having one of the gang explain to Scoob that the Confederate zombies aren't the real villain as he literally jumps into their arms certainly feels like a statement.

Dark Sarah,
Behind the Black Veil, The Puzzle, and The Golden Moth
Dark Sarah (who is not, as you might be forgiven for thinking, the lady on all the album covers) bill their music as "cinematic metal." A curious genre tag, but it fits; Dark Sarah's music feels like a combination of symphonic Gothic metal with Disney princess soundtrack music. Like King Diamond, each Dark Sarah album tells a story, but instead of tales of Gothic horror, Dark Sarah's albums are rich Gothic fairy tales.

Julia Gfrorer,
Vision vol. 3
An uncomfortable truth: any household is potentially a powder keg just under the surface. Vision lays bare something we expend a lot of energy trying to render invisible both to ourselves and to each other: the politics of the domestic sphere are exactly like the politics of the public sphere in that they are essentially shaped by whose needs are being met, whose needs are allowed to be sacrificed, and why that kind of imbalance persists under the cover of cultural sanction.

Mortal Love,
All the Beauty and I Have Lost
Apparently I did my exploration of Mortal Love's back catalog backwards; I started with their last album the previous month, hit the middle album and then found the beginning of the thread this month. Their three albums are part of a trilogy, and if you listened to them in chronological order they're evidence that Mortal Love grew more sure-footed over the course of their career. Mortal Love's music is essentially Romantic, but instead of shrouding their longing in the mists of time, they stake out modern desire and loss as their playground. Forever Will Be Gone is probably their strongest effort, and a fitting cap to their trilogy, but I do find that their earlier albums evoke a curious nostalgia in me even though their music wasn't a part of my own past. The sound of All the Beauty and I Have Lost reminds me of cemetery picnics and driving to Sunday night shows in dank clubs where red wine and good friends awaited.

Emily A. Duncan,
Wicked Saints
Wicked Saints is the first volume in a trilogy of Gothic fantasy novels about two nations at war. On one side, the faithful (read: zealots) who still follow the dictates of the gods. On the other, a nation of bloodmage heretics. A cleric, a mage-prince, and a magically warped monster form an unlikely partnership to kill a king and end the war, but it's all too good to be true. Hearts are broken and heads are taken. In some books you can't help but feel that you're getting a window into the things the author enjoys. Within the first fifty pages it jumps right into two D&D arguments: where are the interesting portrayals of clerics outside of tie-in novels and do clerics worship one god or an entire pantheon? Wicked Saints also does something interesting with spellbooks; here, each spell is a page that must be torn out of the mage's book and activated with their own blood. I feel pretty confident the author plays rpgs, but this doesn't read like game fic thankfully. Additionally, the author is definitely into "Reylo". The romance in the novel is definitely patterned after the Reyloian libido: the woman is a "chosen one" who might bring balance to the Force restore the gods to the world; the man is a vicious, but attractively tall, Sith bloodmage. I think if I were in a less forgiving mood, I'd knock the book for that, but in this case I just find it kind of humorous and even a bit endearing. My favorite character, of course, is the flirty lesbian with the eyepatch.

Melana Chasmata and Eparistera Daimones
Triptykon will never be credited with the impact of Celtic Frost; however, although Triptykon is far less likely to be hailed as a major inspiration, I do think that the project's consistency is a point in its favor. Triptykon's blend of doom, Gothic metal, and avant-garde experimentation manages to be both steady, cohesive, and still surprising. Melana Chasmata and Eparistera Daimones are well worth returning to, especially if you (as I'm sure many people will be) are just now getting acquainted with Triptykon after the critical praise for the recording of their live set at Roadburn.

Jonathan L. Howard,
Johannes Cabal the Detective
The story of Johannes Cabal the Detective is a locked room mystery, albeit one that takes place on an airship high above a militaristic Ruritania. Johannes Cabal, infamous necromancer and reluctant hero, finds himself enmeshed in solving the murders of his fellow passengers while teemed up with a beautiful and interesting young woman who both loathes him and is fascinated by him. Full of derring-do, wry humor, and just a little necromancy, this was a rollicking tale.

The End of Life
I listened to UnSun's Clinic for Dolls last month, so once again I seem to be working my way backwards through a discography. It's really interesting to see what direction these smaller bands go when they don't opt to go full symphonic bombast; as with the follow-up record, The End of Life mixes Gothic metal and Euro pop--although this time out I detect slight traces of metalcore and the fleeting Bjork influence is absent here.

Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, and Tyler Crook,
Manor Black
As a fan of Harrow County and The Sixth Gun, I always look forward to a new comic with Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook at the helm. However, from what I read prior to getting my hands on it, it seems like many people who picked it up were disappointed with Manor Black. I both understand their complaint and think it is a bit preemptory. The premise of the comic is strong: the aging patriarch of a magical lineage is thrown together with a young woman who has lost control of her fiery supernatural totem as warped rogue magicians and members of the patriarch's own family move against them. The problem is that this collection of issues cuts off right when things start to get moving. I'm more apt to take this as a sign of good things to come, rather than the story possessing an unfortunate inertness. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Aurorae, 100.000 Faces, Darker Thoughts

Listen to them, the children of the night...

Triptykon, "Aurorae"

Cadaveria, "100.000 Faces"

Paradise Lost, "Darker Thoughts"

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Death of the Rose Princess

Art by Enamorte
The Death of the Rose Princess
Our online D&D game set in Ravenloft continues.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock/rogue
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

As the sun rose over the grounds of Our Lady in the Mists, the party trudged up the hill to the convent buildings proper. They entered the dormitory, which had been partially scorched by fire, and found austere cells and the moldy remains of nuns' habits. Another building proved to be a shrine that held the mummified remains of martyrs of the Church of Ezra, but the shrine had been defiled; the corpses of preserved saints had been toppled from their niches and lay in ruins on the floor. The tombs behind the convent held a reflecting pool that was now clogged with lumpy green fungus; in the lower level of the tombs, they party discovered a secret door that led to an underground complex that connected the tomb to the convent's main building.

The group quickly came to grips with the system of secret doors in these underground chambers. While exploring they found several stone sarcophagi, a mural depicting the founding of the convent, a mural about the faith of Ezra that had been defaced with "fungal art," a toppled statue of Ezra that had been replaced by a statue of a woman made of fungus, a large plant-like pod that was affixed to a stone coffin, and stairs that led up into the main convent building. In the convent, they found a chapel that was still sanctified--a potentially useful sanctuary that could provide them with a place to rest and recuperate, if needed. 

But they had not yet found Emilia Drachen, so they returned to the underground chambers and discovered a secret dungeon in which an unconscious, and very pregnant, woman was found shackled to the wall. They unshackled her, but nothing they tried revived her to consciousness. As they attempted to carry her back to the chapel upstairs, the party was confronted by a beautiful and pale woman with pointed incisors. The woman wore a dark gown decorated with roses and tall leather boots--which Tank recognized as responsible for the footprints he had followed while exploring in the tomb. She was accompanied by three fungus-infested nuns. The strange woman told them that she couldn't possible let them escape with her "treasure." She then flew at them with unnatural speed as her fingernails turned to venomous talons.

The combat was fierce, but brief. Gnargar unleashed a flurry of radiant sun bolts, greatly wounding her. Al' called upon his faith to turn undead; the woman transformed into hundreds of fungus-encrusted spiders and fled, leaving the party to deal with her minions. The fleeing woman was tracked back to the seed pod that was discovered earlier, but now it had split open to reveal a pool of luminescent, mucus-like fluid within it. Determining that the pod was a portal of some kind, they swallowed their pride and climbed inside...and found themselves emerging from a similar pod inside the infected watchtower they had declined to enter in their earlier explorations of the grounds. 

In the tower, their battle against the woman resumed! The group were horrified to note that the wounds they had inflicted on her previously had healed. However, the gods were on their side; Al' hit her with a particularly well placed spell that tore her apart from inside with divine power. With her death, the fungal infection in the tower began to shrivel and recede until it was nothing more than motes of black dust blowing in the wind. With Emilia now secured, the party loaded her into Bela's vardo and they set off to find a cure, and perhaps a way home, in the house of Leonora Vos.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Powers of Darkness: Icelandic Dracula

Bram Stoker's iconic creation Dracula has been translated into numerous languages, but as it turns out, some of these translations are more like adaptations. One such adaptation is Iceland's Powers of Darkness (Makt Myrkranna) by Valdimar √Āsmundsson, originally published in serialized format in 1900 - 1901 in an Icelandic newspaper. The story introduces new characters, shifts the emphasis of the plot, and focuses on a satanic Euro-conspiracy plot.
How much of Powers of Darkness incorporates Bram Stoker's early draft ideas for Dracula? What if Dracula had a coven of evil ape men living in his basement? Does this Dracula even drink anybody's blood? All these questions and more will be explored on this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Shudder Files

I took advantage of Shudder's thirty-day trial during the quarantine. Here's the best of what I watched on the service that I hadn't already talked about in April's "best of" post:

Tigers Are Not Afraid
When orphans created by the violence of the cartels in Mexico find themselves in possession of a cell phone containing incriminating evidence against a local politician/gang captain, they're hunted by human traffickers trying to get it back. But one of them might possess three magic wishes and is visited by the ghost of her mother, adding the otherworldly to what would otherwise be a standard tale of crime and degradation.

Knife+Heart was a Tenebrous Kate recommendation. (You can hear her talk about it on this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.) It is very much a self-conscious modern giallo; someone is murdering the cast of a gay porn film, and director must delve into the heart of homophobia to unmask the killer...and maybe consider her own place in the appropriation of an orientation not exactly her own.

A woman's unborn child goads her to kill the people responsible for its father's death one-by-one. Part horror, part black comedy, this one works surprisingly well. I usually have a hard time getting into horror comedies, but Prevenge went dark enough with both the laughs and the murders to keep me invested.

Society lives up to its reputation as being unlike anything else you've ever seen. Tonally, it's a bit like David Lynch started making a movie and David Cronenberg finished it. There are a lot of "the wealthy feed off the underclass" horror movies out there, but this one sticks out because of how absolutely insane it is. The end bit will either freak you out or make you groan audibly. Maybe both.

Horror Noire
Horror Noire is a documentary about black involvement and representation in horror films. Although the documentary covers some films I'm familiar with, such as Night of the Living Dead, Blackula, and Candyman, it also delves into territory that was absolutely new and eye-opening to me. It also showcases the perspectives of a wide range of black writers, actors, directors, etc. Absolutely a must-see.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance
I've seen Oldboy a few times, though the last time I watched it was a number of years ago, so it was nice to finally see the rest of the "Vengeance Trilogy." Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the most straightforward of the films--though it does pose some questions about which of the characters is "Mr. Vengeance" and if our sympathies lie with him. Lady Vengeance was fantastic; everything about it worked for me.

Ganja & Hess
Ganja & Hess is a film I had not heard of until I watched Horror Noire. It is a black vampire movie, but instead of exploring blaxploitation territory the way Blackula does, it instead pursues art film aesthetics. Although I found it a bit slow in places, the way it handles vampirism as a metaphor for addiction, race relations, and the problematic role of faith in black communities was really interesting. 
Season of the Witch
Season of the Witch has a poor reputation among the films in George A. Romero's ouvre. My gut instinct is that this is because it is a movie that deals with women's experiences and isn't really shot in a way that encourages a male perspective on what unfolds in the movie. This is the "unfulfilled housewife" version of something like Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife.

Cursed Films
This documentary series on "cursed films" that covers The Exorcist, The Omen, Poltergeist, The Crow, and Twilight Zone: The Movie. I like that it shows the people who are really invested in the idea of "cursed movies" to be kooks. (The "exorcist" guy being named "Vincent Bauhaus" felt a little on the nose.) It was also surprisingly emotionally affecting when they interviewed crew members who had to deal with some of the tragedies that happened on those sets.

One Cut of the Dead
For the first half hour of One Cut of the Dead I thought I was watching an example of how derivative the "found footage zombie" genre can be, but after that the movie takes a hard left turn and became something I definitely didn't see coming. Good job, movie, you got me! One Cut of the Dead turns out to be a surprisingly sweet romp; I'd say more, but I don't want to spoil it for you so you can have the same experience I did with it.