Monday, June 27, 2016

The Best Books I Read in 2015

Nothing more arbitrary than a top-ten list and nothing more empty of meaning than the "listicle," but someone asked me what books I enjoyed most in 2015 and so here we are. I could tell you why I loved these books, but I'm going to let them sell themselves on their own merits with an excerpt.

K. J. Bishop, The Etched City

Her phantom conscience–that odd, purely intellectual, unemotional organ which had grown, like scar tissue, to replace her original conscience, lost in the war–didn’t inflict her with actual feelings for any of this suffering humanity, but she felt an aesthetic objection to the squalor and lowering of human dignity

Drew D. Gray, London's Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City

The killer epitomized all that was rotten in the slums of Whitechapel–a phantom born out of the filth and degradation of Godless communities. From the moment he started killing poor women, ‘Jack’ became a cultural construction used to serve a multitude of diverse causes. He was purifying angel, an enlightened reformer and a harbinger of revolution.

Ann Radcliffe, A Sicilian Romance

His passions were vehement, and she had the address to bend them to her own purpose; and so well to conceal her influence, that he thought himself most independent when he was most enslaved.

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

It was a strange way of killing: not by inches, but by fractions of hairbreadths, to beguile me with the spectre of a hope through eighteen years!

Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland

Whoever has pointed steel is not without arms; yet what must have been the state of my mind when I could meditate, without shuddering, on the use of a murderous weapon, and believe myself secure merely because I was capable of being made so by the death of another?

William Faulkner, The Unvanquished

I could see that too, who had had no presentiment; I could see her, in the formal brilliant room arranged formally for obsequy, not tall, nor slender as a woman is but as a youth, a boy, is, motionless, in yellow, the face calm, almost bemused, the head simple and severe, the balancing sprig of verbena above each ear, the two arms bent at the elbows, the two hands shoulder high, the two identical dueling pistols lying upon, not clutched in, one to each: the Greek amphora priestess of a succinct and formal violence.

Louisa Baldwin and Lettice Galbraith, The Shadow on the Blind and Other Stories

She walked erect before us, there was that in her bearing and appearance which reminded me of some distinguished Frenchwoman at the time of the Revolution, and I thought how many a proud head like hers had fallen from its white shoulders under the guillotine.

Felix Gilman, The Half-Made World

The Hotel’s luxury was for show, for outsiders, for the travelers who were only passing through. Was it meant to seduce? Liv took it as a threat–it said, Look how much our factories can make, and how easily. We could buy you.

Stephen Bates, The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor

Poisoning only died out as a relatively common means of murder with the increasing certainty of forensic detection … and with the introduction of more stringent rules regulating over-the-counter sales of poison. Divorce-law reform, making it easier to escape a disastrous marriage or malign partner, also eventually helped.

James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night

This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh
In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.

We finish thus; and all our wretched race
Shall finish with its cycle, and give place
To other beings with their own time-doom:
Infinite aeons ere our kind began;
Infinite aeons after the last man
Has joined the mammoth in earth’s tomb and womb. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Fresh Graves for Old Bones

Having returned from a winery dealing in demonically-infused absinthe with a retinue of the lost and damaged (two people whose sanity has been blasted by the horrors they were subjected to, one woman transformed into something monstrous by the machinations at work at the winery, and the transformed woman's traumatized brother) in tow, Grimm and Tarvin made an appointment to meet the Rue sisters at the Black Orchid tea house to seek their advice about what could be done for their new charges. 

This time, only Morrigan Rue was able to meet with them, her clothes noticeably torn and perhaps stained with blood. Morrigan offered that she might know of a church in Krevborna that could aid the transformed Emilia; she also seemed to think that recuperation in an asylum would be the best thing for Petro and Mirella. 

Since Tarvin and Grimm had done her a great service in retrieving the books of demonic lore that Josep was using to blend "demon's milk" into his absinthe, Morrigan also disclosed that she and her sister had uncovered Strahd von Zarovich's plan to annex their homeland of Krevborna and assimilate it into Barovia. As such, they were leaving Barovia through a path through the mists known only to them in hopes of returning to their homeland to prepare for Strahd's invasion.

(I'm not sure if this is overly clever, but I've pulled a "reverse Ravenloft": usually in Ravenloft campaigns the characters get sucked into the world and struggle to escape; here, I'm having Ravenloft be something that sneaks into your world and attempts to colonize it instead.)

Through a deft bit of rhetorical maneuvering, Tarvin managed to pawn off Martinus and Emilia to Morrigan's care. Grimm and Tarvin both agreed that they would travel back to Krevborna with Morrigan and Pandora in three days. Which, of course, gave the pair ample time to shore up their ambitions with the deeds they'd recovered and accept Ivara Olashenko's invitation to dinner. Ivara lives in an old manor house, complete with stone gargoyles upon the roof. While they ate borscht and roast chicken, Ivara evidenced both her gratitude to Grimm for saving her life and a keen interest in "ghost stories." 

She also seemed interested in the prospect of adventure, so much so that Tarvin offered her the chance to accompany them to Krevborna (!!!). For dessert, they were presented with fruit pastries bought from a strange old woman famous for the dream-like effects wrought by her confections. After a few bites of his, Tarvin got lost within himself, dreaming of his own nobility and the deference he craves. Grimm was unaffected by his pastry, but Ivara's eyes rolled back in her head as well--she later claimed to have dreamed of mountains of books and a loving pet snake. This left Grimm in an awkward position, waiting around for hours while his host and master indulged themselves in magical reveries. 

With a few days to kill before leaving Barovia, Tarvin and Grimm decided to return to the Death House to test some theories about the connection between Strahd's land and their own Krevborna. They found the house as they left it, but decided to give the children's corpses in the nursery proper burials. They located a church with an adjacent burial ground. However, they heard strange sounds coming from within the tool shed where they hoped to find a shovel. It turned out that the church's altar boy, Milos, a hulking red-headed boy with a pocked and pimpled complexion, lived within the tool shed. A few coins and some fast-talking got him on his feet to dig graves for the children. 

Whilst digging the graves, though, he voiced his surprise that the priest was allowing them to set anyone to rest within the burial grounds because "the ground wasn't any good." When pressed on what he meant by that, Milos told them that since the relics of the church's patron saint were stolen the burial grounds were unhallowed. Sensing that he knew more than he was letting on, Grimm and Tarvin plied him with wine and took him into their confidence, after which he revealed that he had stolen the saint's bones at the request of a carpenter in town because he badly needed extra money to help feed his family.

The carpenter's shop was unmistakable due to the coffin-shaped sign in front of the two-story brick building. Grimm picked the lock of the side door, allowing the duo entrance into a showroom filled with different makes of coffins. Stealthily scouting the building, the pair managed to surprise the old carpenter in his bed and *ahem* apply some pressure to make him explain himself. He revealed that he had been commanded by Strahd himself to make away with the saint's relics so that the church might be left vulnerable to Strahd's undead minions. Under duress, the carpenter indicated that there was a secret panel in his wardrobe where the relics were hidden. 

Grimm and Tarvin returned to the church with the relics, intent on restoring them to their proper place within the church's altar. As they made their way down the church's central aisle, they spotted a woman sitting in one of the pews; as they approached the altar, she moved to stop them. She was a pale woman in a tattered dress, beautiful save for the fangs and claws that marked her as one of the unclean. 

The pair must battle their way to the altar, then. The woman proved supernaturally fast and strong; she used her claws to fasten into Tarvin's flesh and draw his neck to her ravening maw--he felt his life's blood gushing from his torn throat as he sank to his knees and prepared to leave his life before the church's altar. And then...a voice came out of the darkness, offering him his life again in return for...something of him. Fearing death, Tarvin chose to take the offer. Although still covered in his own arterial blood, he found that he was no longer wounded. Meanwhile, Grimm (who was having better luck against this creature with his silver sword) managed to catch the woman beneath the armpit with his blade and drive her to the ground, where she quickly turned to ash.

Returning to the Blue Water Inn, the pair found Ivara waiting from them, reading a book by candle light in the common room. Tarvin went to clean himself and head to a well-deserved rest, leaving Grimm to a strange conversation with Ivara about the nature of serving others versus choosing mastery of one's self--is it better to be the dagger that is a tool used by others or to be the hand who wields the dagger for one's own gain?

Oh, and Ivara has decided to take Grimm and Tarvin up on their offer of travel to Krevborna. Perhaps she'll find that adventure she's been wondering after, no?

* * *

The spoils:
XP - 200 each
Loot - none!
Extras - for restoring the relics to the church and laying Rose and Thorn to rest, Tarvin and Grimm each gain inspiration
- Tarvin has been touched by the darkness after accepting a new lease on life; more on that at a later date (note: rolled a 13 for this)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Fables and Reflections

Some things we lose, and some things we just give away.

It's always a choice, though, when you look narrow-eyed and shrewd upon it. A choice that shapes the direction of things, a choice that gives purpose to the story as we tell it or as we will someday come to tell it.

And so it is with Fables & Reflections, a collection of self-contained issues before the next big arc of the Sandman Saga. The pace of Sandman is one that needs space and time to gather up steam for the next big advancement of the plot; the issues that allow for that building of momentum are slight, but generally serve to foreshadow the importance of themes that are about to lurch into prominence. In Fables & Reflections, those themes are all about what we lose, the consequences of that loss, and our role in making the choices about what we will lose and what we will just give away.

"Fear of Falling" is about a playwright on the verge of losing his chance at success and the act of giving away your fear of fulfillment.

"Three Septembers and a January" recasts the historical Emperor Norton as a gambit in a bet between Dream and his younger siblings, illustrating the importance to holding on to dignity as a communal act instead of grasping at baser, personal desires.

"Thermidor" tells of one of Lady Johanna Constantine's adventures during the Reign of Terror. (Yes, she is the ancestor of that other Constantine.) This story introduces Dream's son Orpheus, and also links Orpheus to loss in a myriad of ways--he has lost his father, his body, and his head becomes "lost" to the people actively searching for it. Or are any of those things truly gone? Or has Dream simply chosen to toss them aside?

"The Hunt" is a fairy tale in the Eastern European style told by a werewolf grandpa to his thoroughly modern granddaughter. The old tales, too, are things we might lose sight of--either willingly or by failing to see their value.

"August" shows Augustus Caesar donning the attire of a beggar so that he might think in peace without the interference of the gods. What he thinks on: should he choose to let the Roman Empire decline and fall? Has he lost himself to the trauma inflicted upon him by the rapist Julius Caesar?

"Soft Places" finds Marco Polo discovering that man's thirst for mapping, exploration, and putting a name to the mysterious places of the earth might strip them of their particular arcana--is it better to know or to dream?

"The Song of Orpheus" retells the Greek myth of Orpheus, but in terms of Gaiman's own developing Sandman mythology. What else could it be about but letting go or being forced to let go? Love, life, faith, family, everything.

"The Parliament of Rooks" returns to Lyta Hall and her son Daniel (remember them from The Doll's House arc?), and Daniel's encounter with Matthew the raven, Eve, Cain, and Abel in the Dreaming. Much like "The Hunt," we're stuck in a cycle of telling stories and choosing which ones we keep and which we do not.

"Ramadan" takes us from Baghdad as the jewel of all cities to a modern war-torn version of the same--do we discard the glory of the past for an enduring present?

There are cycles at work in these seemingly unrelated stories: rulers who go among their people and must make choices about what will remain of their kingdoms and what will not ("Three Septembers and a January," "August," "Ramadan"); stories that fade or lose their mystery ("Fear of Falling," "The Hunt," "Soft Places," "The Parliament of Rooks"); familial belong as a decision that is made over and over again ("Thermidor," "The Song of Orpheus," "The Parliament of Rooks").

Some things we lose, some things we just give away.

Monday, June 20, 2016

What is "Easy to Prep" and Why Haven't the Big Publishers Noticed?

A question I asked a while back on G+: What published adventure "modules" are easy to prep and run? And what makes them so usable at the table?

These were the answers that cleaved most closely to the heart of the question:

Adventure Name: Isle of Dread
What makes it easy to prep and run: modicum of details, regional maps, minimalist npcs

Adventure Name: Stonehell
What makes it easy to prep and run: room maps and keys fit on a two-page spread

Adventure Name: Sleeping Prince of the Feathered Swine
What makes it easy to prep and run: clean layout, concise text

Adventure Name: Tegel Manor
What makes it easy to prep and run: 2-line room descriptions

Adventure Name: Rusted Vault
What makes it easy to prep and run: excellently organized, concisely written

Adventure Name: Castle of the Mad Archmage
What makes it easy to prep and run: two line room descriptions

Adventure Name: Greyhawk Ruins
What makes it easy to prep and run: compact descriptions, cohesive levels

Adventure Name: Death Frost Doom/Tower of the Stargazer
What makes it easy to prep and run: extremely clear, well explained

Some Observations We Can Make From This Admittedly Slim Data:

  • The people on G+ that responded almost universally cited D&D adventures as their examples. (There was one honorable mention of Savage Worlds.) This, in itself, is a fact that asks questions: Did I skew he answers by using the word "modules" in the first place? Is G+ the hang-out of choice for people who like old D&D things? Is it just that D&D is actually synonymous with RPG adventures in our heads? I think all of those became factors that colored the kind of answers I got.
  • The overlap in answers is obvious: people are willing to buy (and recommend) modules with fewer words in them. Words like "compact," "concise," and "minimalist" detail the commonalities of what people agree on that make an adventure easy to prep and run.
  • Most of the things on that list? Made by small-press or hobbyist publishers. Again, that could be an artifact of who I polled, but I think it would be wrong to discount the ideas that small publishers have less at stake (and can therefore take bigger creative risks) and that creative inertia has set in among the major RPG publishers for reasons that are both economic and cultural.
  • Two people noted a preference for two-line room descriptions; is that the Platonic ideal? 
  • The primary skill to master if you want to make a more verbose adventure a better experience to run: taking notes with an eye toward condensing the material. If we were chefs and not gamers, I'd advise you to learn to make reductions, not gravies. 
All of this seems to beget more questions: Why do modules that are a far cry from two-line descriptions outsell those easier to prep adventures? And why haven't modules published by the big dogs of the industry changed all that much in formatting and design throughout the years if there are writing practices out there that are better suited to this kind of creative product?
  • The answer to both, as far as I can tell, is that they don't have to. There is no economic pressure on the big publishers to innovate within the space of "the adventure module"; their adventure lines seemingly must sell well enough to actively promote a mindset that assumes that the wheel does not need to be reinvented.
  • This is, of course, a pretty good example of base-superstructure at work: the economics of what has sold in the past and what continues to sell for the big publishers dictates the assumption that more expansive or dense or maximalist adventure products hit the sweet spot of being both desired and profitable, which in turn feeds into a publishing culture that doesn't have to imagine anything beyond or even explore the boundaries of the way adventures have traditionally been written and sold, which in turn feeds into an economic situation where those products dominate the marketplace, which in turn feeds into a culture get the picture.
  • Which is interesting because that kind of inertia actually dictates that any innovation will come from outside the people working on adventures for the big publishers. Hegemony, even the minor key sort of publishing elfgame books, frequently chooses the shape of its own resistance.
  • We're also going to need to be a bit uncomfortably honest for a second: most adventures that get sold aren't actually purchased by people who will run them. (And this is regardless of who published them.) If that's the case, formatting them for table-use doesn't have to be a priority, counter-intuitive as that seems.
  • Of course, none of this means that change is impossible. Best case scenario: someone who can innovate makes a big enough splash to get the chance to change publishing practices from the inside. Worst case scenario: that person gets the chance and nothing changes in the long term anyway. Most likely scenario: we continue to be better off in most case just sitting down and writing our own adventures.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Face in the Abyss

I recently bought these six novels by A. Merritt for a song; the crazy thing is that these printings are nearly as old as I am, yet all but one of them has remained unread. Somehow they've just been kicking around, yellow of page but otherwise in pristine condition.

I'm...going to do what ought to be done with them: I'm going to read them.

(I also picked up an edition that collects Merritt's other two novels in one book for fifty-eight cents. It's been good hunting lately.)

First up: The Face in the Abyss, A. Merritt
There is a particular kind of disappointment that happens when you read a "classic" of Golden Age pulp fantasy and it's a total train wreck that leaves you thinking that maybe these books were only considered classics because of the limited options available at the time.

This is not a book that will give you that feeling.

Instead, The Face in the Abyss is the platonic ideal of pulpiness: it's got a hidden city with ancient white people ruling over dusky natives (!!!), gladiator fights with dinosaurs, a snake woman with terrible magic-science weapons, a villain who strikes me as a mix between Sauron and Skeletor, an attractive and frequently-imperiled heroine, and a square-jawed hero who reminds himself that he went to the Harvard School of Mines (!!!) during a moment of self-doubt. 

So, yeah, this is not particularly forward-thinking stuff, but it's a ripping yarn. Nevertheless, for this sort of novel it does hold forth some surprisingly deft meditations on cultural degeneration. The conclusion needs some pew-pew raygun and explosion sound effects playing in the ground for maximum enjoyment, but that's left to the reader to supply. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

World-Building: When is Enough Too Much?

Requires a damned index
More people have read the Lord of the Rings novels than have read the History of Middle-Earth books. Based on that alone, there is a strong argument to be made that people are more interested in what is going to happen in an unfolding narrative than in what happened in the past of a static narrative, at least when it comes to general engagement with fantasy as a fictional mode.

This matters when it comes to RPG world-building that you want to appeal to and be read by other people. It's often the case that DMs and other world-creators spent a lot of time lovingly detailing their world's minutiae, back story, and history; you get things like time lines, essays about fictional cultures, and walls of text about Elven liturgy whether you want them or not.

And, as it turns out, a lot of people don't seem to want that stuff. Last week on G+ there were two really interesting threads asking about people's preferences when it comes to detailing the history of fictional worlds. The majority of people who responded admitted that they aren't interested in an excess of that stuff—and the degree to which they weren't interested was pretty well defined and emphatically stated. That might be an artifact of my G+ circles being heavily-weighted toward an OSR perspective; maybe there is a sharper divide between people who prefer heavy text and those that don't, but in any case the dissent against Big Setting is pretty significant even if it might not represent a majority view. 

I think I understand why people aren't interested in page after page of fictional history and paragraph after paragraph of world-building: it's the DM version of “let me tell you about my character” magnified without a sense or proportion or boundaries. 

Don't tell me about this character tho.
Since the DM's job is “being everything else” besides the player's characters, the world is essentially the DM's character; any long-running history of that world is the DM telling you all about their character, often in unnecessary detail. Dear DM: if you would roll your eyes at a five-page character back story that a player wants you to read, you should roll your eyes at your own expectation that the players will read five pages about the history of the Cult of Paradoxis and their war with the fire giants too. 

Naturally, the same applies to the hyper-detailed settings you can buy off the rack (especially when that detail is inserted into a core book), except in that case the "DM" is a game designer who doesn't even have the decency to run the game for you. For me, the net effect is the same: whether a big publisher has thirty pages of back story I am supposed to read before I get any actual game in a book or a DM gives me thirty pages of xeroxed setting notes I'm supposed to read before we can play, I've got the same set of objections.

Now, I actually like hearing about people's characters—but with some caveats: (A) keep it short and sweet; (B) I want to hear about what makes this character different and interesting; (C) I want to know more about what they've done in play than what they've done in the past before play began. These principles, when violated, are often why I don't want to read all about a DM's bespoke setting or an excessive published setting from one of the major imprints:

  • (A) While ten pages of detail on a city might be useful notes for a DM to have, if you ask me to read those ten pages before the game actually starts you're giving me homework when I signed on to have fun. Worse yet, you're actually taking away the fun of letting me discover the interesting things about the city while playing the game. Products aimed at DMs should be given some slack here, I think.
  • (B) A lot of world-builders are kidding themselves about the uniqueness of the history they've written for their settings. If it fits into the familiar pattern of “In the Age of Fire, the dragons rose and gathered these followers, but were eventually beaten back by the Knights of Gorro, led by the Great King Fajadhul who founded the city of Dahan in the Year 100030” you should realize that the words and dates could be swapped out to create the back story of a million other nondescript fantasy settings. This is sub-Tolkienism.
  • (C) People undervalue immediacy when it comes to game settings. If the important history of the setting is what just happened, chances are that they player characters can still get involved in it and push things in interesting directions. If the history (or, sigh, prehistory) is too far in the past to interact with, it might shape the setting but it doesn't really shape play—and therefore the players don't need to know about it at all. Also, please stop detailing thousands (or tens of thousands in the most egregious cases) years of history. People don't tend to have that good a grasp of thousands of years of real-world history, so they certainly aren't going to make time to learn that much made-up history—you're going to be disappointed if that's what you want out of them.
Of course, this doesn't mean that we need to swing to the extreme of having setting with no history or sense of past. It definitely doesn't mean that you're a bad person doing a bad thing if you enjoy writing down great swaths of setting material. And it doesn't mean that there is an objective standard as to what constitutes "excessive" setting detail--that's clearly a subjective, individual call. It might mean, however, that we need to rethink the extent to which we focus on heavy text when world-building and to reconsider how we deploy information about a setting if we want other people to engage with it. 

Honestly? This isn't even a game book.
If you want to have the "lonely fun" of writing up every corner of your setting for your own edification--that's one thing. If you want to appeal to that rarer sort of deep-delver that buys a two volume coffee-table Guide to Glorantha and reads it "novelistically," that's another thing. If you're giving the rough outline of your setting in a core product and are saving up all the essays and timelines for the separate setting book that you know will have a smaller audience, that's a reasonable thing. But if you're writing up your setting in glorious detail with the expectation that you'll get a big audience to read your creation as lovingly as you wrote it, I think you're setting yourself up for disappointment. 

The point is: you make choices in the presentation of your setting that will tip the level of other people's engagement with it whether you're thinking about it or not, so you might as well think about what you want, the expectations of your audience, and the area of overlap therein.

There are alternatives to the usual textbook-style infodump of delivering setting information still favored by the publishers of traditional RPG books; though the "big book" model still prevails among publishers who have been slow to embrace innovations in design, that lethargy shouldn't be confused with either a successful methodology or a winning standard. These are the best alternatives I've seen so far (and I certainly wouldn't mind seeing more):
Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that is appropriate to every world-building project and none of the above are foolproof, but it's worthwhile to think about the form for your content if you aren't getting the level of interest you want. It might not be the audience that needs to change--it might be that your invitation to the audience that could use some work.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Flesh Interface, Why is Lovecraft Still Relevant?, Italian Occult Psychedelia

An Unholy Misc.: Being a Collection of Links Worthy of 
a Fraction of Your Time Upon This Earthly Coil


"Over the last couple of weeks, Reddit users noticed a strange phenomenon unfolding in the comments (even for Reddit). A user named _9Mother9Horse9Eyes was posting elaborate, often disturbing vignettes, mostly about something called "flesh interfaces," on unrelated discussion threads. Think Lovecraft meets internet troll. After the comments were noticed,they bloomed into a minor sensation, with Reddit sleuths piecing together the stories for clues and continuity, and any information about the anonymous author. Meanwhile, the macabre tales kept coming."

"Our cover story in November’s issue of Rue Morgue is dedicated to 125 years of H.P. Lovecraft. The scribe from Providence got a lot of bad press this month, what with the World Fantasy Award statuette controversy – his visage (as designed by Gahan Wilson) has been removed from this prestigious award after four decades due to his privately expressed views of race. Still, regardless of those, the continuing and ever-growing influence of this author’s prose cannot be over-estimated. That is why seven important writers, scholars and editors are providing their own Rue Morgue exclusive answers to the same question: WHAT MAKES LOVECRAFT STILL RELEVANT TODAY AND EVEN MORE POPULAR THAN BACK IN HIS DAY?"

This just seems like a genre I should be more familiar with.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Visual Allusions

Image from the "Dark Book" in the 1987 film The Gate


Virgil Finlay's illustration for H. P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space"

* * *

Jason Rainville's cover for The Magnificent Joop van Ooms


Adoplh Menzel's "Studio Wall"

* * *

A panel from the Artesia comic


This painting of Salome by Gustave Moreau

I LOVE when artists do this, but admittedly it drives me crazy when I know there is an allusion I'm not catching or quite remembering. Case in point, I had to ask Jason Rainville about the Menzel painting. (And he made my day by responding with the answer to my question. Super nice guy.)

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Love Holocaust

The comic I wrote is now available from Soleilmoon: Love Holocaust. Of all the weird things I've made money writing, this is probably the weirdest. Looks like the deluxe hard-bound is already sold out, and the soft-bound is going fast.

"Love Holocaust is a 12 page fan-fiction comic book describing an imaginary romantic encounter between Douglas P (Death In June) and Boyd Rice (NON). The story, written by J. Guignol, draws inspiration from Death In June’s legendary songbook. Illustrator Tenebrous Kate turned the story into a comic book, and has lovingly hand-made each copy. The covers are hand-printed linocuts with gold ink on black paper. Limited numbered editions of 27 hard-bound and 50 soft-bound copies."

Here's what Dangerous Minds has to say about it.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Taste of Wormwood

When last we had seen Grimm and Tarvin, they had entered a mysterious carriage that arrived to whisk them away from the Death House of Barovia and deliver them to a meeting with "the sisters." The coachman drove on through the mists, using a path only he is privy to, that eventually rejoined Old Svalich Road and brought the duo to the fortified town of Vallaki. As they approached the town, they noticed that it was encircled with a high wooden palisade and the path leading to its iron gate was lined with the heads of wolves impaled on sharp wooden spikes; the town itself was bustling in the weak morning light, but the remnants of old festivals--banners, ornaments, and such--were festooned about the town eerily.

The carriage deposited Tarvin and Grimm in front of a tea house called the Black Orchid. Inside, they were presented with a table laden with eggs, sausages, fried bacon, breads, jam-and-honey flavored pastries, and a samovar of strong black tea. Their hosts introduced themselves as Morrigan and Pandora Rue. Both men noticed that the pale blonde sisters were dressed in the manner of noblewomen from their own country--Morrigan in a crisp riding outfit and ruffled blouse, Pandora in a frilly lace gown. The sisters explained that they too had entered (and escaped) the Death House, having been pulled into it from their native land by the same inexplicable mists. They informed Grimm and Tarvin that they were now at least temporarily trapped in a strange land, the valley of Barovia, but that escape might be possible. They also told the pair that after their ordeal in the Death House the sistes can sense when their countrymen have been pulled into Barovia--hence sending a carriage to retrieve them from the house, assuming they survived. 

Morrigan acknowledged that the sisters had prospered in Barovia (which piqued Tarvin's interest) by brokering in formation. Sensing an opportunity to get the lay of the land and perhaps forge a useful connection, Tarvin volunteered the pair's services; as luck would have it, Morrigan and Pandora did have need of venturesome souls: Morrigan explained that one of their friends had gone mad from drinking a particular bottle of absinthe that could be traced to the winery and distillery operating on the premises of the Fatted Calf Inn. The duo offered to investigate the matter for the sisters, and the sisters gratefully booked them a room in Vallaki's Blue Water Inn, gave them horses for the trip, and a map to the isolated Fatted Calf.

While Tarvin adjourned to a bath house to clean the stink of adventuring (and particularly the carrion creature he had previously tore apart) off him, Grimm dealt with an agent sent by the sisters to convert the portable items they took from the Death House into ready gold. At the close of the transaction, Grimm glanced out the window and noticed a young woman with curly brown hair and a similarly brown dress stooping to pick up items from her bag that had spilled onto the street--and that a carriage was streaming toward the oblivious woman. When yelling a warning failed to alert her to the danger, Grimm quickly darted into the street, grabbed her by the back of the dress, and pulled her out of the way in the nick of time. After recovering from her brush with death, she gave her thanks and introduced herself as Ivara Olashenko. Although she had no time at present to buy Grimm a drink as a reward, she promised that he would soon have an invitation from her. She retrieved the rest of her books from the street and hurried on her way.

Things seen upon the way: four peasants milling about by a wagon with a broken wheel (studiously avoided) and a lonesome chapel with a black stone statue of a veiled and robed woman standing before it (also avoided).

The Fatted Calf was a homely wayside inn at the foot of a hill terraced with grape vines An old barn converted to vintner's business stood beside the inn. Inside the inn, Tarvin and Grimm were greeted by a middle-aged man with thinning hair and a growing paunch. A beautiful red-haired woman (Mirella) went about the business of polishing the tables to a soft gleam, and a hulking teenage boy (Petro) sat scribbling furiously at a slate with a piece of chalk. During the small talk over food, wine, and a glass of the inn's celebrated absinthe, the proprietor (Josep Kolkov) indicated that his son had lost his wits due to an "illness." Though he never mentioned it, it appeared that the woman--slack-jawed and vacant eyed--suffered from the same affliction. A glance at the boy's slate showed that he kept drawing a demonic being only to erase it and begin drawing it over again afresh.

Tarvin bantered with Josep while Grimm attempted to slip out and explore the barn; however, as he tried to leave the inn, Grimm was met at the door by a dandy whose clothes were soiled and torn, his face bruised and battered. The fop introduced himself as Martinus di Rosalba, of the aristocratic Rosalba family, explained that he had been set upon by four ruffians lingering by a wagon with a broken wheel (an ambush avoided by Grimm and Tarvin) while searching for his sister Emilia (who ran away with a man of a lower station), and began to help himself to Tarvin's wine.

Eventually Grimm found the opportunity to approach the barn. From the windows he only saw what one would expect from a working winery: a wine press, crates of bottles, stills for absinthe, and a workbench crowded with funnels, ladles, etc. The only oddity was a wooden, carved statue of a green fairy in the center of the room. As he entered the barn, Grimm noted the presence of a tripwire, but deftly avoided it. Inside, he discovered a locked door to what appeared to be an office but the lock proved to be too complex for him to figure out. 

Back in the inn, Josep interrupted his conversation with Tarvin as he seemed to hear a sound that no one else reacted to. He rushed out of the inn, heading toward the barn, only to discover Grimm creeping out of the winery. He rushed at Grimm in a fit of anger and fear, brandishing a metal mallet. Grimm stepped on the tripwire, causing bells to ring furiously in the Fatted Calf, calling Tarvin to his aid. A brief melee ensued, and Josep was finally cowed by Tarvin's intimidation.

Re-entering the Fatted Calf, Tarvin and Grimm are greeted by the sight of an unconscious Martinus on the floor with Petro standing over him with an upraised fist. Josep claimed the since his illness his son experiences violent episodes; Tarvin and Grimm arranged to take a room at the inn and gave Martinus a berth to recover from in it as well. However, Grimm and Tarvin crept out of their room through the window, under the cover of night, to further explore the barn. 

Once again Grimm failed to pick the lock of the office door within the barn, but to his chagrin he discovered that the door was now unlocked. There was nothing unusual in the desk, but moving the rug revealed stairs going down into a basement. Down into the basement, then, where a stone well with chain running from windlass into dark, impenetrable water and five doors are found. 

Tarvin decided that there must be something interesting down in the well, so he decided to climb down the chain. Something was down there, something hard that filled the shaft beyond the waterline--no getting around it. As he began to ascend the chain, something reached up out of the water and shattered his lantern, leaving him to scramble back to safety in darkness.

The first door revealed a pile of dried human skins, shucked from their meat like ears of corn.

The second revealed a restrained man whose body suffered from inhuman swelling, distension, and bloating, as well as breasts that have become swollen with unnatural milk. Realizing that Tarvin and Grimm are not his captor, he explained that he is a son of Josep. Painfully altered in body by his father and used for some demoniac purpose, the son begs for death. He assumes a prone posture and stretches his neck as if in anticipation of a guillotine--Tarvin gives him release with one stroke of his axe.

The third door revealed another desk and bookshelves that hold a few scattered books of occult lore. One of them details Josep Kolkov's absinthe recipe; one of the ingredients is a bit out of the ordinary: "milk of the demon."

The fourth door revealed an otherwise empty room, save for chains and manacles ready for use.

The fifth door revealed a young woman in much the same state as Josep's son: her limbs rendered useless from swelling, her body wracked with an excess of...something. She begged for the pair to save her, to not let Josep continue to milk her (the secret ingredient of his madness-causing absinthe), so they released her from bondage and prepared to make good their escape when...a body came crashing down the stairs (the unconscious form of Martinus) and a jaunty whistled tune was heard from coming from the main floor of the barn. Sensing he inevitable, Tarvin issued a challenge to whistling Josep, who came down the stairs and began chanting in a strange, disquieting language. Tendrils of luminous darkness lashed out at the adventurers as they battled Josep, but none managed to grasp them. Ultimately, Grimm drove his silver short sword through Joseph's throat in an attempt to silence that hellish and unnerving chant.

Their resolve shaken, Grimm and Tarvin gathered up what valuables they could find in the Fatted Calf, managed to get Martinus, Emilia, Mirella, and Petro into the back of a wagon, located the deed to the vineyard and winery, and got back to Vallaki in one piece, even though the forest seemed to close in upon them on the path. They sent a message to the Rue sisters requesting a meeting, and found two letters waiting for them: Grimm's letter was from Ivara, inviting him and his master to dinner, Tarvin's was from Pandora Rue, letting him know that she could tell him the location of the Old Bonegrinder mill should he wish to see it out.

* * *

For record keeping purposes, the spoils;

XP - 250 each

Treasure - 
a wagon and two draft horses (no saddles) (The Rue sisters will expect their loaned horses back.)
a deed transferring the winery lands from Ezra the Patriarch (priest of the Night Mother) to Josep Kolkov.
148 electrum pieces
2 rings worth 50 gp each
earings worth 100 gp each

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Total Skull - May 2016

Things that brought me delight in May 2016.

The King of Elfland's Daughter, Lord Dunsany
(fairy tale-flavored fantasy; if you prefer The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings, you should give The King of Elfland's Daughter a chance)

X's for Eyes, Laird Barron
(imagine Dean and Hank from the Venture Bros. drinking whiskey, banging hookers, and facing off against cosmic horrors)

A Different City, Tanith Lee
(three independent stories set in a fictionalized Marseilles: the first has a distinct Balzac & Zola feel, the second is a horrifying slice of familial Gothic fantastique, and the third is an interesting take on Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray)

The People Under the Stairs
(what a strange, but effective film! uncanny murder house-meets-Home Alone slapstick as horror becomes class/race commentary)

The Duke of Burgundy
(lush, quietly really can't talk about this one without spoiling the experience for anyone who hasn't seen it)

An American Werewolf in London
(I watched this as a teenager, and thus missed how psychosexual this movie is; "the beast within us all," yes, but also the anxieties of the sexually-inexperienced man vs. his more experienced counterpart and also the lustmord of the Nazi dream sequence)

Murder Maps
(look, historical murder stuff is my jam. it is known.)

(cheese, but my kind of cheese.)

Nemesis Divina, Satyricon
(classic black metal; absolutely necessary if you're interested in the genre)

Desire's Magic Theatre, Purson
(psychedelic and decadent)

Endless, Mount Salem
(if Black Sabbath had been fronted by a woman)