Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Gray Lily Studios and Kholograt Prison

Below are two locations in Chancel: the studio of my players' most-hated villain and a not-so-subtle commentary on the carceral state.


Gray Lily Studios

Chancel is home to Gray Lily Studios, the atelier and gallery of Pietra Sangino—one of the most famous painters in Krevborna. 

    • Gray Lily Studios is patronized by nobles, rich merchants, and powerful members of the clergy. Having one’s portrait painted by Pietra Sangino is guaranteed to be worth the extravagant cost when balanced against the social capital to be gained from being noted as one of her subjects. 

    • Sangino has pioneered arcane methods of using her art as a medium for magic. When she paints a person known to her, she doesn’t just capture their likeness—she also captures a bit of their free will and binds it to her will. 

    • Sangino can also create any monster by painting it on one of her specially prepared canvases. When the painting is finished, the creature springs forth from the canvas and obeys her commands. 


Kholograt Prison

Koholograt Prison is an imposing edifice of gray stone surrounded by a tall walls topped with iron spikes and shards of broken glass.

    • Within the prison, the inmates are subjected to corporal punishment, torture, and hard labor as a rehabilitating regime supposedly intended to reform them. 

    • Grigori Trask, the prison’s warden, lends prison laborers to farmsteads, plantations, and former feudal fiefdoms for a small fee, but the prisoners he brings them are strangely silent, tireless, and require remarkably little sustenance. 

    • The unspeakable truth is that the laborers Grigori sends are already deceased—he is a stern, unfeeling necromancer reanimating the corpses of the prisoners who die behind Kholograt’s grim walls. Even in death, they must work off their supposed debt to society.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Ties That Bind

I ran another session of Call of Cthulhu, starring the same characters who survived "Genius Loci." They have returned to Arkham after panicking and fleeing the horrible scene that unfolded in the Danvers State Lunatic Asylum. What follows is a write up of "Ties That Bind," one of the adventures included in the book Doors to Darkness. If you want plan on playing through the adventure, skip this recap! Spoilers ahead.


The Characters

Sirus Mean, former boxer and hobo

Leslie Cowell, antiques dealer

Hazel Murphy, flapper

Tony Tunacelli, wiseguy


Events

Enid Carrington, the wife of a prominent and wealthy local banker, invited the members of the Arkham Historical Society to the construction site where her new mansion was being built. As a frequent customer at his antiques shop, she was on friendly terms with Leslie; she figured that the historical society might be able to identify some "strange rocks" that had been left behind at a scene of vandalism on her property.

As soon as the characters arrived, Enid pulled them over to a broken white marble fountain to show them the damage. The fountain's statue had been toppled and lay semi-submerged in water. Tony realized that something must have hit the statue very hard from the side to knock it down like that--almost as if it had been hit from the air. The group also noticed that the rim of the fountain had been gouged in several places; Enid told them that the "strange rocks" had been found near the the scrapes in the fountain's base.

Enid then took them to examine the stones, which she had had moved to the basement of the in-process mansion. The cellar door was solid steel and Enid had set three workers to guard it. Inside, the investigators examined the "stones," which appeared to be bulbous, banana-like structures. They were largely iridescent, reminiscent of mother of pearl, though their "tops" were akin to blue granite. Sirus realized that they were semi-transparent when held up to the light, which revealed that each piece of the "bunch" was filled with liquid and had a small solid mass floating within.

Enid mentioned that professors from Miskatonic University's College of Natural Sciences had been unable to identify them, and it was clear to the investigators that they had been barking up the wrong tree: these objects were not stone at all, they were most likely eggs of unnatural origin.

Some of the eggs had been broken, and their shards lay next to the intact eggs. The group noticed that the bits and pieces didn't add up to the number of eggs that were missing from the bunch. When they inquired into who had moved the eggs for Enid, they found that one of the workers on the site, Alfred Hackett, was absent from work today without explanation. Figuring that Alfred had absconded with one of the eggs, the group obtained his address at the Borden Arms from the worksite foreman.

The Borden Arms proved to be a run-down flophouse. Miss Osbourne, the owner of the Borden Arms, asked the investigators to remind Alfred that he was not allowed to have pets or women in his room--both of which she was sure was up there, given the ruckus she had heard earlier. After the group knocked on his door, Alfred opened it a crack and explained that he had stayed home from work due to illness. The investigators were blunt with him: they accused him of taking one of the alien eggs and hatching it. Alfred tried to close the door in their faces, but a woman's voice from within told him to admit them since the group clearly already knew something of what was going on.

Inside, the investigators found that Alfred was not alone. With him was Mary Carrington, Enid's daughter, and Dr. Leman, a professor from Miskatonic University. The creature had hatched from the stolen egg; they had placed it in a large terrarium in Alfred's kitchen and were studying it. The creature was about the size of a kitten, but its body was insectoid in shape--although it had reptilian skin. It's back legs were bird-like and taloned; its front legs were like those of a praying mantis, except they ended in square, blunt nails. Its head was horned and appeared somewhat like a horse's skull. It also sported batlike wings. 

As they were discussing the matter, a shadow fell over the kitchen window. A pony-sized version of the creature burst through the window, send shards of glass everywhere. Mommy was home! The creature swiped at Dr. Leman, decapitating him easily. Alfred rushed forward to protect Mary; the creature thrust its claw through his abdomen and ripped out his guts. Sirus and Tony unloaded their shotguns at the creature, causing it grab its baby and fly off through the window. As it ascended into the sky, it suddenly disappeared as if it had simply winked out of existence.

Mary Carrington was left in a catatonic state. They rushed her to their car and immediately drove to the construction site. At the site, they observed that the steel door to the cellar was battered and dented, but the creature had been unable to gain entry and retrieve its eggs. Although they were conflicted about what to do next, it was decided that they would destroy the remaining eggs so that no further creatures of this sort would be loose upon the Earth. Hazel decided to wait in the car with the still catatonic Mary.

Down in the cellar, Tony and Sirus took a sledgehammer and a crowbar to the eggs. When shattered, the liquid inside spilled out and immediately became gaseous. The smell was acrid and inhaling it caused Leslie, Sirus, and Tony to perceive the world differently. The walls of the cellar seemed to be breathing.

Back at the car, Hazel was trying to comfort Mary when the creature that attacked the Borden Arms materialized in the air and landed on the hood. It ignored Mary and Hazel, instead turning its gaze toward the mansion under construction. Realizing that its eggs had been destroyed, the creature howled in misery and took flight, again vanishing suddenly from sight.

When Sirus, Leslie, and Tony stumbled out of the cellar, to their eyes the sky was a lurid pink and the burning sun was waving fiery tentacles in the sky. Since Hazel was the only one in any shape to drive, she brought them all back to Leslie's antique shop to recover. As Hazel drove, the trio watched the sun split in two in mimicry of cellular division. A strange song came unbidden into their minds:

Along the shore the cloud waves break,

The twin suns sink behind the lake,

The shadows lengthen

In Carcosa.

Back at the antique shop, all of the statues turned their heads to gaze at the group as they entered--or at least that was how it seemed to Tony, Leslie, and Sirus. Each statue was wearing a mask, which it removed--the faces of the statues curled into ghoulish smiles.

The trio eventually regained their mental fortitude and the strange "hallucinations" stopped. However, Mary continued to be in an unresponsive state. Hazel remembered that Mary's older brother William was a graduate student at Miskatonic, so they drove her to campus and found him--they explained that there had been an accident (but not the nature of said accident) and pawned the girl off on him. 

Later that night, as they hunkered down in the basement of Leslie's antique shop, William Carrington paid them a visit to say that he had Mary committed to the Arkham Sanitarium. He was visibly nervous; he explained that Mary's raving description of the monster that had killed Dr. Leman and Alfred Hackett reminded him of the "dragon-like steed" said to be ridden by the legendary local figure of the Marsh Wizard. 

The next morning, the group did a little research into the Marsh Wizard. Generally thought of as a boogieman, the Marsh Wizard was used to threaten children into good behavior. A number of disappearances, stretching back at least two-hundred years, were also attributed to the Marsh Wizard's villainy. According to the folklore, the Marsh Wizard was supposed to reside on an island in a salt swamp in nearby Ipswitch. However, many attempts had been made to locate the island over the years, all of which had failed.

The group located and interviewed Ron Bryden, a man who claimed to have encountered the Marsh Wizard's flying steed back in 1906. He gave drew them a map of the area where the encounter occurred and which direction the steed seemed to be headed. Following this lead, the group waded into the swamp. Contrary to the experience of previous searchers, they easily located the island and spotted a number of huts in a clearing at its center.

The huts disclosed a grim tale: they found a hut full of human and animal skeletons, the corpse of a recently slain man of impossible age whose fatal wounds looked to have been caused by the monster they had already encountered, a whistle made of bone, and a dangerous spell for summoning the "steed" from a place beyond the stars. A number of their suspicions were confirmed: this was the Marsh Wizard of legend, they had been able to find his island because his death ended the ward hiding it from view, and his demise had also set loose the "steed" he had summoned over the last few hundred years.

However, the death of the Marsh Wizard had not ended a protective spell on the island that summoned six creatures made of moss and stone. When these unnatural wardens suddenly lurched into view, they panicked. Tossing down some dynamite, the group fled back to the island's edge, ready to depart. They noticed that six trees were now ablaze with blue light shining from uncanny sigils carved into their trunks. Surmising that the trees were connected to the creatures, they blew those up with explosive too.

After hiding in Leslie's basement, when nothing horrid materialized to murder them they became convinced that the monster had gathered its single remaining young and departed back to the unthinkable place it called home. Willing to let matters rest where they now stood, they decided that no good could come of delving deeper into this particular mystery.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Review: In the Mists of Manivarsha

When I was running the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel last year, I jotted down my thoughts on them informed by my actual play experience, much as I did previously with Candlekeep Mysteries. Next up, the last adventure we played through from the book: "In the Mists of Manivarsha." Warning for those who plan on playing these adventures: spoilers ahead!


In the Mists of Manivarsha

Written by Mimi Mondal

"In the Mists of Manivarsha" has an unusual premise, which I always appreciate: during a kind of mini-Olympics, a contestant (and the trophy!) are swept away by a clearly magical wave from the nearby river. 

Beyond that initially premise, though, I think the set-up lacks bite. When I ran "In the Mists of Manivarsha," I added an element of potential violence to light a fire under the characters: the people of the towns invited to the competition are apt to blame the host town for the loss of the trophy, which could further inflame already existing factional differences between the townsfolk--if the sacred trophy isn't recovered, there very well could be mass violence and local warfare.

"In the Mists of Manivarsha" suffers from another problem common to the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel: it's an extremely linear scenario. Any time an adventure calls for the characters to be ferried around on a boat by an NPC, you can bet that the players won't have much say over where they're going or how they investigate the situation. Also, this adventure suffers from a lack of site-based exploration; although there are places to go and things to do in this adventure, the layout of the sites the characters arrive at are very basic and feature few opportunities to make meaningful choices.

I will give "In the Mists of Manivarsha" credit for introducing a new monster: the riverine, a fey creature who is something like a dryad, but connected to a river instead. They really aren't meant to be fought in the context of the adventure, but I may have played up the idea of these creatures masquerading as gods a little too hard as my players picked a fight with one of them. Having played through the encounter, I can report that riverines are pretty bad-ass, with a good variety of legendary actions and lair actions. They'd make for a good villain if you wanted to use them that way.

Unfortunately, I also have to report that "In the Mists of Manivarsha" doesn't quite work right according to the rules of the game at the climax. The adventure's Big Bad is supposed to use their Hypnotic Gaze ability to turn two NPCs against the characters, but if you read what the villain's Hypnotic Gaze attack actually does on a mechanical level it only prevents the target from attacking the creature and stuns them. It doesn't "turn" them in any way; it doesn't allow the gazing creature to take over or impose their will on the target!

Although I have some pretty strong criticisms of this adventure, we did have a good time playing it. I'd rank it as a fairly middle of the road adventure for a WotC anthology.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Chancel

Now that I've finished showing off what the Sibersk region of Krevborna will look like in the revised version of the book, let's move on to Chancel. In many ways, Chancel is emblematic of Krevborna's themes as a whole. It exemplifies the power and corruption of the Church and the evil that hides in plain sight. It's also the area of the setting inspired by Catholic-critical Gothic texts like Matthew Lewis's The Monk.


Chancel

A Theocratic City of Decadence, Zealotry, and Hypocrisy

The scent of incense hangs heavy in the air of Chancel, a metropolis of towering churches and cathedrals. Statues of saints crop up like funereal marble gardens throughout the city. Once the seat of Krevborna’s tsars, Chancel has been reborn as the center of the Church of Holy Blood’s power. Chancel is nominally governed by Father Anjelus, the pontiff of the Church of Holy Blood, though he leaves the daily business of the city to a tangled conclave of magistrates, judges, and bureaucrats appointed by the Church.

The Church of Holy Blood infiltrates every facet of life in Chancel, but the Church is hideously corrupt. Crackling pyres stand ready to burn accused witches and other heretics alive—regardless of their actual guilt. Although piety is a prized quality in Chancel, the city is at once a den of immoral decadence and religious fanaticism. Chancel is the most wealthy city in Krevborna, yet it is also a place of crushing poverty for the city’s underclass. Afflicted beggars dressed in rags call for alms as gilded carriages roll past. 

Periodic outbreaks of strange miasmas and diseases that transform citizens into ravening beasts or the walking dead afflict the people of Chancel.

Hallmarks

The following elements and aesthetic notes define Chancel:

    • Chancel is the seat of power for the Church of Holy Blood.

    • The city is a theocracy currently governed by Father Anjelus Navarre, the head of the Church.

    • Great disparity of wealth exists between the upper- and lower-classes in Chancel.

    • Chancel has countless churches, chapels, and shrines dedicated to the saints; these edifices often dwarf the surrounding buildings.

    • It is not unusual for daily life in Chancel to be interrupted by the passing of a sacred procession consisting of gilded icons, flagellants, and choirs of children and castrati.

(Art by Tenebrous Kate)

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Clanbook: Gangrel

Welcome back to the continuing segment where I, someone who knows very little about the lore of Vampire: The Masquerade, reads one of the Clanbooks and tries to piece together the insane metaplot and backstory of the game and its Gothic Punk setting. This time we're barking at the moon with the Gangrel. 

The Gangrel's themes are focused on the bestial nature of the vampire: they have the ability to communicate with and control animals, shapeshift into bats and wolves, and generally have an animalistic rage and predatory wanderlust.

The Clanbook jumps straight in with a crazy biblical backstory for the Gangrel. It turns out that Lilith, Adam's wife before Eve, was sent away from Eden while pregnant with four children. (She is also described here as unusually hairy.) After she gives birth, Lilith entrusts each of her infants to a different animal. The daughter entrusted to the wolves eventually reaches maturity and starts fucking wolves (!). 

Some of the children born from these instances of beastiality look human, others look like wolves, but each carries the "seed" of both man and wolf. Later, she travels to Enoch and stirs up a bunch of trouble with her good looks and licentious ways; the product of her couplings in the ancient city are the ancestors of the Romani people (!!).

Even later, she encounters one of Caine's progeny. He "couldn't satisfy her" (!!!) but he did turn her into a vampire as a consolation prize. The Gangrel vampires are descended from her after she became undead. What this means that this woman is responsible for no less than three lines of supernatural beings: werewolves, the Romani (who are magical people according to the World of Darkness), and the Gangrel clan of vampires.

Since the Gangrel don't keep a recorded history, we only get snippets of what they've been up to over the centuries. Apparently the Vikings encountered a Gangrel and noted it in their sagas. Jesus may have healed a Gangrel, at least according to a Gnostic tradition. Gangrel aided in the sack of Rome! When European colonists came to North America, they found Gangrel among the native populace!

Here's the wildest bit: apparently the Nazis made a huge mistake in putting a Gangrel into a concentration camp along with his Romani friends. While in the camp, he turned his fellow prisoners into vampires and ghouls so they could take over and feast on Nazi blood! Now that's a b-movie Eurohorror flick I would watch, no question about it.

Remember how people were upset that the new Vampire rpg tied its World of Darkness to the real-life horrors of Chechnya? Well, it turns out that Vampire has a long tradition of that. In this book the ethnic purges in Yugoslavia are vampire-related.

Here's a very funny tidbit: Euro-Disney was built on a favored Gangrel hunting ground! Apparently the French Gangrel are so upset by this development that they have turned to violence, drugs, and feeding off the insane as coping mechanisms.

Remember when I said above that Gangrel don't keep written records of their history? Well, this is because they prefer to rely on oral traditions instead. Unfortunately, given that this was the 90s, this means that when two Gangrels meet up they might rap at each other to divulge their backstories. If the sample included in the book is any indication, the Gangrel have zero flow. They do not spit hot bars.

Aside from these chance rap battles no one asked for, the Gangrel congregate in "Gathers" that are held at solstices and equinoxes. These Gathers feature storytelling events, boasting competitions, shape-changing challenges, and--according to the book--often culminate is a lot of wrestling. 

Since the Gangrel are the most likely of the clans to interact with werewolves--either by fighting them or befriending them--the Clanbook sets aside some space to detail the various werewolf tribes found in the setting. It sort of feels like an editor wanted to find a place to squeeze in some cross-promotional lore and this was where the dart landed. 

The Gangrel share a connection with the Romani, so they get a section here too; it's delivered via fiction and it is not great, being mainly constructed from negative stereotypes. The narrator laments that the Romani keep lying to him and trying to steal from him. They only begin to respect him when they see him committing crimes. Then they teach him how to steal chickens and pigs.

Time for my favorite bit: the rundown of the included ready-to-play templates! Clanbook: Gangrel has the following:

  • Archon-in-Training: I gather that Archons are basically the Camarilla's equivalent of "military police." This one got into the game solely because they like getting into fights.
  • Babe in the Woods: A doe-eyed ingĂ©nue who doesn't realize they've been turned into a vampire, despite the mounting evidence of what they are.
  • Biologist: A vampire scientist who plans on using the vast expanse of eternity to look down the barrel of a microscope.
  • Bold Urban Commando: Basically, a Gangrel playing at being a Brujah.
  • Eco-guerilla: A vampire who's really into Earth Crisis. This is a great archetype that really resonates with the Gangrel clan's themes.
  • Explorer: A vampire Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. I question how well this one would fit most Chronicles.
  • Great White Hunter: Does what it says on the tin; fun note here about how this template views the Camarilla as a gentleman's club of sorts.
  • Lupine Impersonator: When your Gangrel becomes an otaku for werewolves. This is clearly for the player who wishes they were in a Werewolf campaign instead.
  • Stuntman: Since a vampire's body can take a supernatural amount of punishment, stuntman seems like a natural enough job for one. However, it's not noted how they get around daytime shoots.
  • Survivalist: A perfect archetype for a Gangrel! The idea of vampirism as just another tool for personal survival is a nice note.

The Clanbook ends with some notable Gangrel NPCs. They're a mixed bag, but I like the Vampira analog who was turned into a vampire by a fanboy and the Norse women who think they've awakened just in time for Ragnarok. 


RPG Player: I'd like to play as Liz Fraser from Cocteau Twins, but as a vampire.

Vampire: The Masquerade: Not a problem.


Next time we'll take a look at Clanbook: Malkavians, which I am sure will offer a sensitive and nuanced treatment of mental illness.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Genius Loci

I ran a session of Call of Cthulhu, something I'm not sure I've really done since I was in high school. What follows is a write up of "Genius Loci," one of the adventures included in the book Doors to Darkness. If you want plan on playing through the adventure, skip this recap! Spoilers ahead.


The Characters

Sirus Mean, former boxer and hobo

Leslie Cowell, antiques dealer

Hazel Murphy, flapper

Tony Tunacelli, wiseguy


The Events

The characters were all members of the Arkham Historical Society. Larry Croswell, one of their fellow Historical Society members and a noted author on the subject of New England folklore, had checked himself into the Danvers State Lunatic Asylum due to the mental strain that came with completing his latest book. Leslie received two letters from Larry. The first was a hand-written note in which Larry claimed he was in danger at the asylum and that there was something "wrong" with the institution. The letter ended with a plea for rescue, as he was not being allowed to leave even though he had checked himself in to the asylum.

The second letter was type-written and said that the first letter was written in the midst of an anxiety attack and was to be disregarded. Since the letter was signed "Lawrence," when Larry only ever goes by Larry, Leslie had reason to believe that it was a forgery. He brought the letter to his friends in the Historical Society, and as a group they decided to visit Danvers State Lunatic Asylum to check on Larry.

At first, Dr. Berger, the asylum's superintendent, did not want to let the group have an audience with Larry, as he said that Larry was currently in a state of violent agitation. However, he was persuaded to allow them to have a brief interview. The orderlies, large brutes armed with truncheons, led the group through the J Ward. Moving through J Ward was like descending into hell: the smell of urine and feces failed to be masked by chemical disinfectant, they were greeted with a cacophony of screams and sobbing, and the inmates all appeared to bear hideous scars or were missing fingers, hands, and other limbs. Even the orderlies were hiding raised puckers of scarred flesh underneath their uniforms. They remembered that the receptionist at the front desk was missing part of her ear.

Larry was as yet unmarred by his time in J Ward. Larry was insistent that something was deeply wrong in the asylum; he had been moved to J Ward, where the most dangerous inmates were kept, only after expressing a desire to leave. He also noted that the inmates were afraid of the staff, especially Dr. Berger. They pledged to get Larry out of the asylum, one way or another. On the way out of asylum, each member of the group tried to shoulder-check the orderlies to send a message that they would not be daunted; however, each of them was shoved by an invisible force--they would swear that it wasn't the orderlies who had pushed them.

The group then split up to research the situation, pursuing disparate avenues such as local newspapers, libraries, historical societies, and a call to a lawyer. Here's some of what they discovered:

  • The Danvers State Lunatic Asylum had been built on Hathorne Hill where the home of Judge John Hathorne, one of the judges in the infamous Salem witch trials, had built his home.
  • The asylum had been plagued with a bad reputation since its construction, and was noted to have low rates of recovery for its patients and higher than average incidents of fatal accidents.
  • The asylum's reputation improved when Dr. Shine became its superintendent. Dr. Shine was a world traveler, and it was reported that he had a strange granite disk featuring an artistic symbol placed on the grounds near the asylum's reservoir. 
  • The asylum's reputation took a downturn when Dr. Berger, Dr. Shine's successor, assumed control of the institution. Dr. Berger had the disk destroyed when he built an amphitheater build by the reservoir.

That night, during a raging rainstorm, the group decided to do a little night reconnaissance by the asylum's reservoir since it had come up multiple times in their research. Hazel spotted a strange puddle on the grounds; instead of water, it seemed to be filled with a blue-gray fluid. Hazel thought she spied something emerge from the puddle and scurry away, but the creature could not be found. Trying to plumb the puddle's depths revealed that it appeared to be bottomless.

The pieces of Dr. Shine's granite disk were unfortunately not to be found; they group hoped that replacing it might "cure" the asylum of whatever ailed it. While he was exploring the grounds, Sirus was jumped by an escaped madman who held a knife to his throat. The man introduced himself as Andrew MacBride; he said that he had been let loose on purpose and that Dr. Berger wanted him to kill the interlopers. MacBride let Sirus go, but Sirus promptly punched him in the face--but got a nasty cut on the arm for his troubles.

The rest of the group heard the scuffle and ran to help. Tony kept MacBride at bay with a pistol. The maniac claimed that something otherworldly lived in the asylum and its grounds: "a power that lives in the walls and the halls and the gardens." He also said that Dr. Berger planned to sacrifice Larry to the entity on the night of the new moon, which was only a few days away. At this point, the group could feel pressure building, like some sort of sentient atmospheric event was about to occur. As it reached its apex, they could see streaks of red energy in the night sky coalescing around them. The force brought a few of the investigators to their knees.

And then, Andrew MacBride's head exploded.

The group beat a hasty retreat after that.

Their sanity a bit worse for wear after their little adventure, the group hatched a violent plan. Posing as a lawyer, Leslie phoned Dr. Berger and made plans to meet with him off the asylum's grounds. (Dr. Berger agreed, though he pointedly let slip that he knew exactly who he was actually talking to.) The group ambushed Dr. Berger on a lonely country road, boxing him in with their cars. Dr. Berger insisted that even if they killed him, "the process" would continue as usual. A brief gun battle took place, and Dr. Berger was left in a shallow grave.

Time was now of the essence, so the group made plans to rescue Larry from the Danvers State Lunatic Asylum under the cover of night. Their plan involved arming themselves with tommy guns and dynamite via Tony's underworld connections. Picking a lock to avoid the asylum's main door, the group found the interior of the institution eerily silent...until they breached J Ward, where they found orderlies and unrestrained inmates fighting each other and cannibalistically feasting on the flesh of the fallen.

The group bravely fought their way to Larry's cell, with Hazel attempting to play gun moll and failing cataclysmically. Larry was cowering unharmed in his cell, so they grabbed him and fought their way past lunatics and murderers. At one point, dynamite was used to clear the way of madmen. 

As they piled into their cars, the group could feel the familiar pressure building once more.

About to thank the group for his rescue, Larry's head promptly exploded in a mist of red gore that splattered all those riding with him.

It was at this point that all of the investigators' sanity broke. Peddle to the metal, they roared out of town, leaving Danvers and its damned asylum behind them. Only when their gas ran out would they be able to regroup and begin to process what they had just been through.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Marigold, The Whisperer in Darkness, Holler, and More

Things that brought me delight in February, 2023:


Andrew F. Sullivan, The Marigold

The central character of Andrew F. Sullivan’s The Marigold is decay, though here decay is multiform, omnipresent, and overwhelming. The book considers environmental decay, the decay of the drunken dreams of capital, the decay of the human animal’s ability to recognize the shared life of humanity; it examines the skeletal linkage between seemingly disparate decompositions, tracing the taught sinews that connect the dooms that loom above and lurk below us. 

Despite being well-realized and compelling as narrative agents, the novel’s characters function as discrete elements of a larger Greek chorus–each strand of specificity they represent emerges from the profuse soup of collective decay to shine brightly in their moment before being subsumed back into the inescapable mire. In other places, by other mouths, mostly likely at the boardroom level, that mire is called progress–but The Marigold is wiser and knows better. This is what good horror is: an expanding of uncanny possibilities and an admission that our worst fears are only ever the observable symptoms of an obfuscated illness allowed to run wild. For profit, for greed, for sheer bloody-mindedness and the belief that only our finite lives matter–this is why we live in hell. The rot runs deeper than we dare admit, but The Marigold tells all.


The Lovecraft Investigations: The Whisperer in Darkness

I continued with my journey through The Lovecraft Investigations by listening to the episodes of the "Whisperer in Darkness" arc. Lovecraft's "Whisperer in Darkness" marked a turning point, where he began to experiment with mixing horror and science fiction in earnest. As part of the Lovecraft Investigations, the story bridges a similar change in the podcast; although it has some folk horror elements, it also introduces anxieties about alien abduction into its already laden version of the mythos. I love that Jack Parsons and numbers stations float around the edges.


Savage Worlds: Holler

I haven't been excited for a new game to arrive for a while now, but Holler showed up and it's so fuckin' cool. I guess this might fit into a "regional Gothic" framework: the game is about a supernaturally isolated Appalachian town where you play folk fighting back against the Big Bosses. So there's some cryptid action, backwoods hoodoo, hootin' and hollerin', and some capitalist critique going on here. Also, those ready to play character cards are a brilliant idea and more games should have them.


Jaimee Wriston Colbert, Wild Things

Jaimee Wriston Colbert's Wild Things is a collection of linked stories that survey the "regional Gothic" that clings to the broken-down places. Wild Things gives such an accurate rendering of how depressing upstate NY is I thought I might murder myself by the end of it.

However, one thing that Wild Things has left me thinking about is how the idea of the "regional Gothic," whether it be the Southern Gothic or the upstate NY version found in this collection, is at heart an invitation to turn our eyes from the entire picture of a local culture. The work of the regional Gothic in amplifying and distorting the homegrown flavor of a locale's grotesquery is always selective, perhaps even reductive--there is always more to the lives of the downtrodden than just meth and abuse. Is the act of looking away our own falling to perceive wholly what is there beneath the grime?


Worm, Gloomlord

The success of Worm's Foreverglade and the acclaim that met the recent Bluenothing ep has brought a reissue of Gloomlord. It shows the marks of being an earlier album; at times it's more primitive in conception and execution, but that doesn't mean that it's without its own guttural charm. There's a nice, churning mix of black, death, and doom metal on the album. Definitely worth checking out if, like me, you're a more recent Worm convert.


Call of Cthulhu: Doors to Darkness

Doors to Darkness is a book of five scenarios purpose-built for people new to Call of Cthulhu. The adventures contained herein all look pretty good, though they do tend to feature the user-unfriendly blocks of text that published adventures almost always have. For a game like Call of Cthulhu that places a lot of emphasis on building a picture of what's going on in a scenario from the minor details, the use of those big blocks of text opens up the possibility of the details either getting lost or being hard to find in play. That said, the book does feature solid advice for new Keepers who have just started running Call of Cthulhu. My group has played through one of the adventures so far, and we had a blast.



Jonathan L. Howard, The Brothers Cabal

After finishing Wild Things, I knew I needed to read something amusing and fun next as a counterbalance, so I settled on Jonathan L. Howard's The Brothers CabalThe Brothers Cabal witnesses the return of Horst, Johannes's vampire brother. Much of the novel is structured as Horst telling Johannes the events that have already transpired; many authors wouldn't have the chops to pull off this long stretch of retrospective storytelling where the protagonist of the series isn't present, but Howard is too skillful to fail here. 


Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Third Floor Flat, Wasps' Nest, The Veiled Lady

Finishing reading Poirot's Early Cases has left with with a nice, healthy backlog of adaptations to watch. The short fiction make for taut episodes; in truth, the stories are so pointed that they have to be expanded or fleshed out in their adapted forms. It's fascinating to see where the padding lands.


Xandria, The Wonders Still Awaiting

Gothic-symphonic metal maximalists Xandria are back and they have not pared their sound back one iota. Like many bands in their niche, they've returned bearing a new singer at the forefront; where does this endless stream of sirens come from? If anything, The Wonders Still Awaiting's biggest potential flaw for the casual listener is the epic length of the record--you need to be all in on this sound to make it to the other side, but if this is your bag you might just have your album of the year in The Wonders Still Awaiting.


Tanith Lee, Sabella or The Blood Stone

One of the promises I made to myself was to read more Tanith Lee in 2023, so I picked up Sabella this month. If you've ever in the market for a melancholic, yearning tale of the vampires of Mars, this should be your first stop. Lee's work has all the stuff people see as lacking from modern SFF: her characters are beautiful and horny, her prose is dreamlike and poetic (I heard the kids like vibes), she never over-explains anything about the fantastical elements in her fiction, and she's fairly unflinching about mature topics. It's a real shame that people who ostensibly want science fiction and fantasy written for adults haven't made the effort to rediscover her work.


Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn, The Walking Dead vols. 12-

I put down The Walking Dead back in 2017; luckily, I blogged about the volumes I was reading at the time, so I knew exactly where I had left off. I'll say this about The Walking Dead, it's extremely easy to jump back in after a multi-year hiatus in reading it. That feels like a positive right now for me because, hey picking up right where I left off!, but might be a negative overall because that might mean that not much happens overall. It's hard to believe that I'm sixteen volumes in and still haven't met Negan yet.


Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary

I decided to reach into my treasure chest of Agatha Christie books and select a non-Poirot novel. I settled on the first book to feature Tommy & Tuppence, two twenty-something knuckleheads who decide to become "adventurers" because they've got no lucrative work to attend to. The Secret Adversary is much sillier than the usual Agatha Christie book. It seems like British secret agents contract the two young dipshits for Important Duties based solely off the fact that they seem "plucky."


Lord of the Lost, Blood & Glitter

Blood & Glitter is a pretty bold about-face from Lord of the Lost's prior album, Judas. Blood & Glitter favors a glam maximalism version of the band's trademark stomping Gothic metal. This record won't be to every fan's taste--a reaction that the band has already anticipated with the track "Leave Your Hate in the Comments"--but if you're in the mood for something colorful and out of the ordinary, check this one out.


Hack/Slash Omnibus Volume 1

I was sorting some comics one day and happened upon a few issues of Hack/Slash that I absolutely do not remember buying. Where did they come from? The mystery remains. Still, I read them, enjoyed what they were going for, so I got ahold of the first omnibus collection of Cassie Hack's adventures versus undead serial killers and had a hootin' and hollerin' time. These are not deep comics in any way, shape, or form, and they certainly don't "elevate the art," but sometimes that's just what you need. 


John Langan, Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies

The and Other Autobiographies bit of the title is particularly apt for this collection of short fiction by John Langan, as it's plain to see where the lives of the characters intersect with his own. At their best, the stories mine the rich veins of childhood drama and the frustrated desire to get back at those who harmed you (as in "Homegrown Monsters) or the way stories passed down through a family become a distorted lens of monstrosity (as in "Corpsemouth").

When the formula startles, it really works. When it falls back on the same recurring ideas (far too many "it was like something out of a Stephen King novel!" moments for me, too many characters have the identical background of having Scottish parents who moved to upstate New York) it falls a little flat. Also, as forewarning, this is definitely a "grappling with the death of my father" collection, if you know what I mean.


Delain, Dark Waters

Back in 2021, Delain lost all of its members, save for founder Martijn Westerholt. Westerholt is back with an entirely new lineup on Dark Waters, and the result is uncanny. Not only has the band retained its essential sound, but Dark Waters is a damned good entry in the Delain catalog. The new singer may well have been grown in a lab, that's how close her voice is to the departed Charlotte Wessels. My favorite tracks are, of course, the ones where the keyboards and choirs conspire to bring some Gothic majesty to the proceedings, but the whole package is pretty tight.


Stephen King, The Drawing of the Three

I fell in love with The Gunslinger when I read it in the 80s. When The Drawing of the Three came out, I was disappointed. It doesn't really have the same combination of mystic Western and post-apocalyptic horror that drew me in, and at that tender age I felt the shift in storytelling to be a kind of betrayal.

Nevertheless, every time I re-read The Drawing of the Three I find more to appreciate in it. While it's not the most action-packed volume in the series--it mostly functions as an extended "getting the posse together" episode--I see more and more here that catches my imagination.


TORG Eternity: Orrorsh

To be honest, I probably wouldn't have bought this if I hadn't been able to pre-order it on Amazon for ten bucks. The Orrorsh supplement for TORG Eternity retails for $39.99, which seems pretty pricey to me since it's got less than 150 pages of content even if it is a hardcover. But for ten bones I was willing to give it a read, particularly since I have a nostalgic interest in Orrorsh--TORG was one of the "big three" games, along with WFRP and D&D, that we played in high school. 

I've always thought that TORG didn't do enough with the rich promise of "Victorian Gothic horror, but in a colonial context," and I'd say that follows through in this modern incarnation as well. That said, the monsters developed from Indian myths are quite cool, and I really like the Church featured in the setting.


Eric Powell, Hillbilly vol. 1-3 and Red-Eyed Witchery From Beyond

After finishing Eric Powell's The Goon, I made sure to have the collected volumes of Hillbilly waiting in the wings. I dove in during what I knew would be a tough week, hopeful that Powell's tales of a backwoods weirdo hunting witches would carry me through. I was not let down. Although there's plenty of limb-chopping to be found in Hillbilly, the comic is surprisingly not gory for a title focused on an accursed man bearing Satan's own meat cleaver. The comics collected in the compilation volumes are very episodic; you don't need to worry about all that continuity stuff, just dive in and have a good time. It does culminate in an epic battle of great destiny, which is fun. Red-Eyed Witchery From Beyond collects a later miniseries, with art mostly supplied by Simone D'Armini. This one has a bit of a Lovecraftian bent to it; I didn't like it as much as the main series, but it still had some pretty cool bits.


Robert Bloch, American Gothic

This was a Bad Books for Bad People read, but suffice to say that I sure am glad we read it! We have a lot more to say about the novel here, but for now I'll say that I enjoyed delving into a longer work by Robert Bloch in more detail--it definitely gave him more definition in my mind than just being "the Psycho guy" or what I knew of his fiction from anthologized short stories. Plus, American Gothic is just a cracking good read: brisk text, something is always happening, no filler!