Friday, December 22, 2017

The Christmas Miscellany

A Plea to Resurrect the Christmas Tradition of Telling Ghost Stories (Colin Dickey, Smithsonian)

How Charles Dickens Set the American Christmas Dinner Table (Ellen C. Caldwell, Daily Jstor)

We need the darkest Christmas stories. These are dark times (Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian)

The Christmas Service of the Dead (Sarah Elizabeth, The Unquiet Things)

The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance (A Podcast to the Curious)

And with that, Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque is on winter hiatus for a couple weeks. Happy holidays, everyone! See you in 2018.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Fear the Hunters

Fear the Hunters
Thematically, The Walking Dead is a broken record; it keeps returning to the idea that men and women are the real monsters amid the zombie apocalypse. This, in turn, makes me into a broken record because ultimately everything of interest in the comic that is worth commenting on connects to the theme of the monstrosity in the heart of man.

When you have no where else to go thematically the only thing you can do is ramp up the extremity, which is exactly what Fear the Hunters does. Brutality is the order of the day. Ben kills Billy, his twin brother, mashing the button on a number of cultural taboos: fratricide, violence against children, violence enacted by children, etc. Carl solves the Gordian knot of what the group should do with Ben by sneaking into van where he's been confined and killing him. Carl acts as judge, jury, and executioner; he is a carnivalesque parody of his father's role as patriarch of the group. 

The main event in this arc is the group's encounter with a team of murderous cannibals who call themselves the Hunters. Dale falls into their clutches and gets his leg eaten. (Joke's on them though; Dale is tainted meat because a zombie already chomped on him.) Rick stages a stand-off with the Hunters and, with the aid of Andrea's sharpshooting, manages to disarm and capture them. The group then spends the rest of the evening torturing and killing the cannibals because apparently we needed a heavy-handed reminder that the group--whom we are imagined to still believe are the "heroes" of the narrative--are really just people, and people are really just monsters.

From the hip

  • Note that the importance of the confessional act I covered in the last installment rears its head again. Rick thinks he is confessing to the horrid things he did to the Hunters to Abraham, but in reality he's confessing to Carl. Carl confesses to killing Ben to his father. Must be like staring into a mirror.
  • The cynical part of me wonders if killing off Ben, Billy, and Dale was a matter of convenience to free Andrea up for some new plot-line. My guess: she and Rick form a romantic attachment.
Previous Installments

Friday, December 15, 2017

Total Skull, November 2017

Things that brought me delight in November, 2017.


Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage
I approached La Belle Sauvage with trepidation; I loved The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, but The Amber Spyglass was a massive let down--so I was afraid that La Belle Sauvage might follow in its footsteps. Luckily, that isn't the case. The first volume of The Book of Dust is compelling, and honestly a return to form. It feels good to look forward to more books in this series again.

Jeff VanderMeer, Borne
I wrote something longer about Borne here.

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Dragons of Autumn Twilight
This was a re-read of a book I first encountered in junior high. I was utterly amazed by both how much of it I remember, and how much I didn't. You can catch more of my nostalgia trip here on Bad Books for Bad People.

Ray Russell, Incubus
This book. This fuckin' book. As with the Dragonlance book above, you'll have to wait until the episode of Bad Books for Bad People where we cover this one for my full take.


Benitez and Steigerwald, Lady Mechanika vol. 1: The Mystery of the Mechanical Corpse
Possibly a guilty pleasure (except I never feel guilt about media consumed), but the art is great and the storytelling takes some surprising turns.

Wiebe, Giani, Ferrier, Rat Queens vol. 4: High Fantasies
The fourth collected volume of Rat Queens was a low point for the series. High Fantasies feels a lot like starting over, for both the comic and its characters. It's definitely a step up, but it's not quite hitting its stride like I'd like it to. I find my brief interest in the series waning.


Blut Aus Nord, Deus Salutis Meae
Alien malignancy. 

Bell Witch, Mirror Reaper
Bass heavy doom, crushing introspection, delicious Hammond organ.

The Black Dahlia Murder, Nightbringers

I look to Black Dahlia Murder for startling brutality, and Nightbringers delivers.


Xanathar's Guide to Everything
Reading Xanathar's Guide to Everything made me want to try out a bunch of the new options it offers immediately, and that's probably the best thing you can say about a book of options. Also? This book might have my favorite D&D cover image of all time.


American Horror Story: Cult
American Horror Story is not good at subtly, which made the notion of a season drawing on the already outrageous presidential election of 2016 a daunting prospect. And Cult does not handle its subject--the myriad ways in which political allegiance in America is similar to adherence to a cult's dictates--with anything approaching deftness; it's hammers and nails all the way down. And yet, surprisingly, Cult doesn't go fully off the rails as so many seasons of American Horror Story so often do.


Gerald's Game
Admittedly, I've never read the book this one is based on. (A cursory search says I haven't read any Stephen King novels-except for the Dark Tower series--that were published after 1989.) But the nightmare premise seems fresh: a woman handcuffed to a bed in the wake of a kinky game with her husband that leaves him dead on the floor, and her facing down both the traumas of the past and a serial killer on the loose.

The Craft
Some things from your teenage years that you have a nostalgic love for don't hold up in retrospect, but The Craft is still a pretty fun movie. Yeah, the final third falls apart a bit, yet this was not cringe-worthy as I had feared.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Enter the Excruciata

Campaign: The Excruciata

Characters: The Excruciata are a new gang rising in the Tarnished Ward of Umberwell. They are looking to get in on the action of stealing, smuggling, and selling illicit industrial goods. The current members of the gang are:

Raymondo Cortiz
Former entertainer (knife thrower)

"Count" Erron Halethorpe
Former soldier
Grumli Fellhammer
Mountain dwarf 
Former tribesman
Zanna Cobblestop
Forest gnome
Wild magic sorcerer
Former urchin

Nina Kessler
Air genasi
Former spy

Events: The Excruciata had heard through the criminal grapevine that someone had smuggled a cask of gunpowder infused with sea dragon ichor into Umberwell. The fact that the gunpowder was not available for sale on the black market was curious, so the gang leaned on their contacts to learn more about this situation. Reymondo learned from his old partner in a knife-throwing carnival act, Matteus, that the Red River Jezebels, a rival gang in the Tarnished Ward, knew something about the location of the gunpowder, and that they were interested in it but did not yet have it in their possession.

The Red River Jezebels ran a protection racket in a few neighborhoods in the Tarnished Ward; the Excruciata knew that the Jezebels were throwing a "party" that the business owners they were protecting were expected to attend. Sensing an opportunity to get the information they wanted from the Jezebels and shake their "clients" confidence in their ability to provide protection, the Excruciata decided to crash the party.

Crashing the party entailed a two-prong assault. Grumli, Erron, and Zanna entered the tavern where the Jezebels were holding court and immediately started a brawl with a few well-placed insults. Meanwhile, Nina and Raymondo sneaked in the back way to corner Essie, the Jezebel's captain. As the melee raged at the front of the tavern, Nina and Raymondo had their hands full with Essie--who proved to be a proficient swordswoman. Grumli, Erron, and Zanna were quickly outmatched by the marshaled forces of the Jezebels, and beat a hasty retreat when the Umberwell Watch arrived to quell the disturbance. Essie was subdued in the nick of time by a blow to the head, and dragged through the back door to a boat waiting on the river.

A few patrolmen of the Watch gave chase to Grumli, Erron, and Zanna, but the trio managed to give them the shake. Raymondo and Nina were stopped by the Marshals Tributaria but managed to talk their way out of having their "cargo" (the unconscious Essie) searched. Back at their hideout, the members of the Excruciata got Essie to tell them the whereabouts of the gunpowder: it was still secreted aboard a blood-hunting ship docked at the Old Scar. If the gang could steal aboard and make off with the gunpowder, they could put it on the market themselves and reap a tidy profit.

Essie expected to be assassinated by her kidnappers, but they instead blindfolded her and took her on a merry ride before dropping her off in an out-of-the-way neighborhood. Will she appreciate being left alive or has the Excruciata kindled a desire for revenge in her breast?

Next time: Aboard a blood-hunting ship.

Monday, December 11, 2017

BBfBP: Dragons of Autumn Twilight

Listen to Bad Books for Bad People Episode 17: Dragons of Autumn Twilight here!

The much beloved--and also frequently reviled--Dragonlance books are a series of Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novels written by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. Combining the high fantasy of Tolkien with sword and sorcery elements from authors like Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock, these books served as the launchpad to a lifelong love of fantasy for many young readers. Jack is one such reader, and he leads Kate through the epic quest of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first book in the Dragonlance series.

How many comedy relief characters can a single fantasy narrative sustain? Does your favorite fantasy wizard share an unsettling number of characteristics with a sulky teen? Is there a secret religious message contained within the Dragonlance series? And how do Willie Nelson and Santa Claus tie into all of this? Find out all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Find us at, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook. You can discover where to get all the books featured on Bad Books for Bad People on our About Page.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Mary Reilly, #metoo, and monstrous culture

Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly retells the story of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde from the point of view of a maid working in Henry Jekyll's household. Martin's novel adds a heightened awareness of social class to the well-known story; Mary Reilly is attracted to her employer, but her frequent fretting over appearing "dirty" in front of him due to the nature of her work--carting coal inside the house, cleaning the grates of fireplaces, etc.--is an internalized reification of how the difference in their class status makes her feelings toward Jekyll mere fantasy.

Current events have a curious way of teaching you a new way to talk about a text or of lending a new lens through which to find unconsidered meanings in literature. I added this text to my syllabus months ago; at that time I had no idea that when it came time to re-read and teach it we'd be in the midst of Harvey Weinstein's long-time-coming downfall, the #metoo movement, and an absolutely insane Senate race in Alabama. Those events throw the emergent themes of Mary Reilly into sharp relief; the book's focus on the social meaning and personal politics of class difference give way to a realization that class, wealth, and power don't determine a man's goodness. Class in the novel functions as a mask, and the act of ripping it away gestures toward how women have to learn to distrust men as a necessary survival mechanism. Although a man might seem like a nice gentleman on an exterior level (like Jekyll), you can never truly know if they are actually secretly a monster (like Hyde) on the inside without sacrificing personal safety for the proximity necessary to verify that a man's internal nature matches the presented external promise. Good behavior in normal social circumstances and the social capital of respectability are no indication of the potentially horrific inner workings of a hidden and damaging second self, and they are certainly no guarantee against being blindsided with violation and violence.

The horror in Mary Reilly comes upon the reader in the specific form of dread. As readers, we're likely to already understand the gist of the Jekyll and Hyde story--good doctor takes experimental potion, becomes altered into a terrible brute--even if we haven't read Stevenson's novel. Our rough knowledge of the plot opens the door to dread, the slowest, most persistent and engulfing form of fear, because we perceive something important in advance of Martin's protagonist. As Mary kneels before Henry Jekyll's bed, smelling his sheets and actively fantasizing about Jekyll as the beneficent patriarchal alternative to both her abusive working-class father and the monstrous, ambiguously situated Hyde, we know something that she tragically does not; worse yet, we can infer that this is something Mary will be forced to learn before the novel's end: all the men in her life have the potential to be monsters, and she has been equipped with precious few tools that enable her to recognize them as such.

Mary Reilly's story--that is, the bulk of the novel--comes to us in the form of a found journal. The story we read is the record of her life, but the record has been blotted by another's hand. As the novel's afterword makes clear, the book's anonymous male editor neither credits nor fully believes Mary's first-hand experience of finding a monster lurking beneath the facade of an established and respected man. Sounds familiar.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ghost Marriage, Body Snatchers, Cupsouls

Ghost Marriage

Body Snatchers of the 18th Century

Cupsouls (Dark Souls animated like Cuphead)

Monday, December 4, 2017

Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting

A confession: I don't totally understand Critical Role as a phenomenon. I don't think it's a bad show--not by a long stretch--and I think it's awesome how many people it has inspired to enter into the hobby after getting hooked on it. But maybe I'm just a little too old to watch a livestream of people playing D&D; my attention either wanes quickly or I find myself thinking about my own games instead.

But there's no denying that Critical Role is popular and has devoted fans. There are a surprising number of people willing to fork over $125 for a deluxe art book about someone else's campaign, for example. You can also buy a tarot deck based on the characters from the Critical Role campaign, Critical Role dice, and a campaign sourcebook about the campaign world created for the Critical Role livestream. What might you get out of the latter if you don't happen to belong to their fandom?

Reading the Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting book feels exactly like reading a high-production values version of someone's notes for their homebrew vanilla D&D campaign world, which is more or less what the book is as a product. 

The world-building relies on well-established conventions--the elves were the first people of the land, they value the arts, grace, and magic, etc.--and very little is surprising. There are places named with the usual sort of compound wording: Whitestone, Daggerbay, the Frostweald. And others that seem like they could have been pulled from any number of fantasy novels you've already read (and forgotten): Drynna, Tormor Falls, the Shifting Keep. Even that extraneous apostrophe in Tal'Dorei is charmingly homespun. You can sometimes see the seams where the time-honored tradition of taking something wholesale from another campaign, filing the serial numbers off, and inserting it into your own game has been practiced; the deities in Tal'Dorei are obviously the gods of 4th edition Dungeon & Dragon's Dawn War pantheon given a quick renaming: the Raven Queen becomes the the Matron of Ravens, Bahamut becomes the Platinum Dragon, Lolth becomes the Spider Queen, etc.

The mechanical bits also seem like natural extensions of someone's home game. The new Backgrounds aren't mind-blowing wild, but they're well situated within the context and flavor of the setting. Similarly, the new class options that are introduced, such as the Way of the Cobalt Soul monk or the Juggernaut barbarian, evidence a bit of the hesitancy to add things to the game that overshadow the official options you often find in player-facing homebrewed options. None of the classes are strictly bad per se, but they seem to be either overly specific in function or occupying a space on the lower end of the power spectrum so as not to throw anything out of whack.

Similarly, the Optional Campaign Rules are explicitly called out as natural outgrowths of the house rules from their campaign: "For those who have watched along with our adventures, you may see some of these optional rules as familiar. Many of the elements included in this chapter are based on or retooled versions of the house rules we tried within our own campaign" (118). The optional rules do feel "lived in," like they were rulings that came up in response to the baseline system not quite providing what they wanted it to. Potions can be quaffed in combat without that taking up an entire turn, resurrection magic is more challenging, etc. Nothing that radically restructures the game is included here; rather, it all feels like common sense rulings to accommodate the size of their gaming group and the style of play they prefer.

The art is of the quality and style you would expect, and the book's production values are top notch. Ultimately, my take-away is that this is a very solid vanilla D&D setting. And I know some people will scoff at the idea of another vanilla setting, but I'm not joining that chorus. Although I prefer my own bespoke, not-the-usual-fantasy settings, vanilla has its place. If we're honest, we'd probably have to admit that there have been more D&D campaigns set in vanilla fantasy settings than anything else, and that the people who have played in them probably enjoyed them immensely because vanilla fantasy is what they want. 

This is perfectly serviceable vanilla; if you're already into Critical Role, this is probably a preferable alternative to the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk on the merits of familiarity alone. But you know what I really like about this book, though? It's lack of wild invention makes the idea of homebrewing your own setting look easy. Sure, your work probably won't end up getting the full-color treatment from Green Ronin, but it still looks like something approachable and possible. And maybe even fun. Whether you want to go wildly inventive or French vanilla, this book says "We made this and had fun, so can you."

Friday, December 1, 2017

What We Become

The Walking Dead, Volume 10: What We Become
In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault discusses the Catholic rite of confession as part of a larger societal innovation in the West that manages not the wrongdoing of the lone individual, but rather the maintenance and correction of a "sinful" and errant population. What We Become leans heavily on the notion of confession as a way to forge community and the bonds of "population."

To come to a place of mutual understanding, Rick and Abraham confess their sins to each other. Abraham tells Rick that the men of his previous group raped his wife and daughter; Abraham confesses to Rick that his revenge on the rapists was so extreme and grotesque that his wife and daughter were horrified by what he had done, and eventually parted ways with him. In turn, Rick confesses that he killed Dexter and Martinez at the prison to protect Lori and Carl. Even Carl pipes up to confess that he killed Shane to save his father.

These confessions serve to diffuse the growing tension between Rick and Abraham and ease the corrosive effects that those tensions were having on the rest of the group. Now that they have revealed the parts of themselves they feel ashamed about, they understand something important about each other: if each of them questions their actions, they are capable of striving to do better--and therefore worthy of a place within the "population" of survivors. They have done things that don't sit right with their sense of self, but nothing they confess to renders them unassimilable into the communal order. 

The Walking Dead works by contrast, by providing both positive and negative examples to drive a point home. In this instance, the importance of confession is underlined by a previous scene in which a character does not or cannot confess to her errant ways. Unwilling to speak about her grief at the death of her family, Maggie instead chooses to slip away into the woods and hang herself. She chooses death over confession, and the results are explosive. 

Although Maggie lives, Abraham's belief that it is better to put a bullet in her head now before she returns as a zombie bring him into conflict with Rick; Rick puts a gun to Abraham's head as a threat. Not only does Maggie's refusal to confess her feelings threaten her belief in the group as her larger "family" and her personal connection to Glenn, it spills over into a potentially violent conflict that threatens to tear the "population" apart by pitting the population's leadership against each other.

Previous Installments
Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye
Vol. 2: Miles Behind Us
Vol. 3: Safety Behind Bars
Vol. 4: The Heart's Desire
Vol. 5: The Best Defense
Vol. 6: his Sorrowful Life
Vol. 7: The Calm Before
Vol. 8: Made to Suffer
Vol. 9: Here We Remain

Vol. 10: What We Become

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Half-Orcs as Punishment

Art by Scott Purdy
Half-orcs are not a natural race. They are criminals whose bodies have been altered by mutational alchemy so that they might better perform hard labor as punishment; every half-orc was originally a creature of another race whose physicality and spirit has been changed by the introduction of orcish essences that lend strength, endurance—and an aggressive personality, as an unfortunate side-effect. As part of their punishment, half-orcs are renamed with brutish orc appellations that mark their status as convicted criminals.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Krevborna Book Art Preview

The Krevborna book is edited.
Layout is done.
Art is placed. 

It looks great. My previous rpg books have been serviceable, in my opinion. Krevborna: A Gothic Blood Opera looks polished. It's easily the nicest looking and most immediately usable book I've done. 

You can preview some samples of the layout here

Of course, a large part of why the book looks so good is that I've hired actual artists to help me with the project. I haven't mentioned the artists working on it yet, so let's rectify that.

Michael Gibbons, who you might know from his cartography and setting work over at the Metal Earth or his webcomic Cosmic Tales, supplied the setting map that appears in the book:

Gib also did a number of spot illustrations, such as these mysterious impaled bodies placed by a lonely chapel of the Church of Saintly Blood.

The chapter illustrations were provided by Becky Munich. I believe this is Becky's first foray into rpg products, but she's worked on a number of awesome projects such as film posters, t-shirt design for Sabbath Assembly, the Occult Activity Books, and my own book Morbid Fantasies. Here are some examples of her art in the Krevborna book:

Becky is also doing the cover art for Krevborna: A Gothic Blood Opera, and I'll be sure to tease that at a later date to keep appetites duly whetted.

The book will be available in two formats:
Printed book + pdf combo

There will be no Kickstarter, no Patreon. Just a book you can buy in print or digitally if you want it.

Right now it looks like I'm going with RPGNow/DriveThruRPG for distribution.  The book will be printed in color. Right now the manuscript is about 120 pages of Gothic Fantasy adventure.

Expected release date is early 2018.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Monk

Bad Books for Bad People:
Episode 16, The Monk

Matthew G. Lewis's 1796 novel The Monk represents the first sordid blooming of the gothic horror novel. Rockstar Spanish monk Ambrosio faces an increasingly jaw-dropping series of temptations thanks to a novice monk who may not be what he seems, imperiling the virginal young Antonia in the bargain. But that's just the beginning! With more plot developments per scene than most soap operas, this is a ripping yarn that adds a heaping helping of sex, grotesquerie, and hysteria to Ann Radcliffe's successful formula.

What happens when you accidentally elope with a ghost? Why did the Surrealists love this novel? Does this book contain the best character in all of gothic fiction? Who is the unexpected moral center of the story? Find out all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Intro/Outro music: "U.F.D.E.M" by Jacula

Find us at, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook. You can discover where to get all the books featured on Bad Books for Bad People on our About Page.

Listen here!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Here We Remain

The Walking Dead, Volume 9: Here We Remain
At this point in the Walking Dead's run the comic is firmly revolving around the same set of themes, with only minor variations to add to the title's profluence. This volume, taking place after the catastrophic fall of the prison stronghold, finds Rick and Carl dealing with the trauma of losing Lori and Judith. Rick begins to have telephone conversations with the representative of a mysterious group of survivors, but it is eventually revealed that these phone calls are coming from Rick's deceased wife--which means, of course, that the phone calls are symptomatic of Rick's mental breakdown. There is a spectrality to these phone calls; Lori's voice is a present non-presence reminding Rick of how his failures in the past shape the failures yet to come.

Humans are pack animals, and it isn't long before Rick and Carl are reunited with what remains of their group: Glenn, Maggie, Dale, Andrea, Ben, Billy, Sophia, and Michonne. This reunion serves to underline the tension between the need for group survival and the individual's need to deal with trauma. Rick's use of the telephone to continue dredging up the past--as well as Michonne's conversations with her dead boyfriend--are contrasted against Sophia's obliteration of the past. Sophia has simply erased the memory of her birth mother from her personal experience, refusing to believe that such a person ever existed. Neither way of grappling with trauma--keeping the past in too close proximity versus denying the existence of the past--is functional or healing.

The real problem with unresolved trauma is that it weakens the group's chances of survival and threatens the bonds that allow groups to flourish. It's trauma that has yet to be dealt with that gets in the way of the group's growth with the introduction of Abraham, Rosita, and Eugene. Fatality looms in the background during the mistrustful confrontation between Andrea and Abraham, and it applies the whip hand in the power-struggle relationship between Abraham and Rick. 

Though hardly a panacea, what bridges the gaps left by trauma is a sense of purpose. In this case, Eugene's insistence that he knows the cause of the zombie plague and can help stop it if they can get him to Washington D.C. is enough to pull the band together and get them on their feet. Movement, then, is the best medicine, a fact hinted at by the title of the volume. To remain mired in trauma is the suicidal option.

It's obvious o the reader that Eugene does not have any special knowledge of the cause of the zombie epidemic and that the trip to D.C. is a fool's errand. The fact that the comic does so little to present this journey as a sound idea isn't a narrative problem; I think we're supposed to see how hollow a gesture it is, but also recognize that the gesture is important and necessary for the characters within the narrative arc. They're willing to believe in it because they require belief to make survival an option worth effort and exertion. That's what a thin hope looks like, isn't it? People grasp at straws not out of a self-defeating impulse, but rather because it's a viable survival mechanism.

Previous Installments
Days Gone Bye
Miles Behind Us
Safety Behind Bars
The Heart's Desire
The Best Defense
This Sorrowful Life
The Calm Before
Made to Suffer

Friday, November 17, 2017

They Were Nearly Killed by a Percy Shelley Poem

Image by Odobenus
Campaign: Scarabae (open table, Google Hangouts).

Characters: Traviata (human artificer), Crumb (kenku artificer), Khajj (minotaur cleric), Dr. Aleister (human fighter), Viktor (dragonborn sorcerer).

Objective: Enter the jungles of Hygea and rescue Yuriko from the Children of Fimbul cult.

Events: The party arrived at the city of Zarubad via steamship, in hot pursuit of the Fimbul cultists who had abducted Yuriko in the last adventure. Before setting off into the jungle, the party bought provisions, including a barrel of water, additional rations, insect repellent, fishing tackle, and a canoe. 

They also learned as much as they could about the jungle: it is rife with disease and insects, undead servants of a fallen paladin prowl within it, there is a fabled "lost city" somewhere therein that is a likely location for the Children of Fimbul's ritual involving Yuriko. 

Finally, they hired a woman named Salome to be their guide; Salome told them that the other guides were either incompetent or charlatans, and that they she knew paths through the jungle unknown to anyone else.

The group departed Zarubad, choosing to canoe down the westernmost river to navigate their way more quickly through the jungle in hopes of finding the basin where the lost city was said to be located. The first noteworthy site they encountered was a camp at the foot of a massive statue of a man carrying a crocodile on his back. The camp was in ruins; there was evidence of both a fire and claw marks on the shredded tents.

The statue had an entrance built between its feet that was a passageway that led to a stone door within the statue. The group managed to guile their way past a pit trap and a scything blade trap, but when the stone door was pulled open it cause a magical explosion to erupt. The party all managed to flatten themselves against the wall and avoid the explosion...except for Salome, who was thrown through the air and nearly killed.

There were piles of large bones inside the revealed chamber that seemed to belong to giant lizards, as well as a carved central pillar with a set of stone stairs wrapping around it. Fearing that the bones would animate, Viktor conducted a magical detection ritual; the bones were not magical, but several of the stairs were enchanted with abjuration spells. Those stairs were avoided, and the safer stairs were traversed. 

At the top of the pillar was an enchanted earthenware jug. When Viktor removed the jug, pieces of the statue began to rain down upon the party; the statute was crumbling with the adventurers within it! A mad scramble to escape ensued, and it was a particularly fraught exit as several members of the party were knocked unconscious by the falling debris. Khajj's healing magic and everybody still ambulatory dragging their knocked-out compatriots to safety managed to avoid fatalities by a hair's breadth. As the unconscious party members were revived by Traviata's healing draughts, Khajj's holy magic, and Aleister's medical training, the statue was reduced to nothing but a pair of feet upon a rocky dais. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

The party made camp and explored the rest of the surrounding carnage. Crumb was lowered into a horrible latrine because the corpse of a mercenary was discovered down in the pit; he retrieved a bag of gemstones from the body. A hatchling axe beak was found in the camp's animal pens; it was made friendly with some fish and kind treatment--now the party has a (dangerous) pet named Halberd.

After resting and recuperating in the remains of the camp, the party once again began traveling by canoe. The "river" they were on emptied out into a swampy basin rumored to be the home of lobsterfolk. (In truth, Salome had made a wrong turn down a tributary of the river instead of the main branch.) Beyond the basin was a plateau with a sheer cliff-face that rose above the jungle canopy. Using his magical slippers, Viktor was able to walk up the cliff with ease. He discovered rotten doors set into the cliff with a ledge running along it like a porch. Viktor attempted to use magic to open the doors, but they crumbled...and aroused someone from their slumber within.

A wizened, hunchbacked, and blind-looking old woman emerged asking who was at her door. Viktor introduced himself and the old woman wondered if this was the Viktor who used to deliver the bread. The old woman couldn't remember her own name and preferred to be called "Nanny." The rest of the party had arrived by this point, and Nanny was ranting about the "god-damn birdmen" in a nest on the cliff that were bothering her (she said this within earshot of Crumb, a kenku) and may have dropped some not-so-nice comments about "beasts" in front of Khajj (a minotaur). But she's blind and couldn't possibly be racist on purpose, right?


Nanny also talked about her days as a young hellion practicing "dark magic," and when the group asked for any help she could provide finding the missing child she began to lick her lips hungrily. She offered to give the party a map to the where Yuriko was being kept if they agreed to bring her back some of the child to eat. The party agreed, Nanny went back into her cliff-side home to scry, and Traviata hatched a plan to poison her after she handed over the map.

Nanny eagerly drank the vial that Traviata claimed was wine and was duly poisoned...but the poison didn't kill her. It soon became apparent that Nanny could see just fine, as she attacked the party. It also turned out that her wizened old hide was as tough as iron; even Aleister had trouble piercing her flesh with his singing spear. Khajj leaned that she was incredibly strong; she easily broke the minotaur's attempt to catch her in a bear hug. Nanny put up a tough fight, but ultimately it was Salome, the guide the party had largely discounted, who executed a perfect spinning slash that sent Nanny's head tumbling down the cliff. "And that's how the sausage gets made," she said, feeling that she had proved her worth to these naive city-folk. 

The party decided to make camp and heal up from the hideous wounds inflicted by the hag. Next time they may ransack her home and get on with the map Nanny had drawn for them.

Treasure: One 10 gp eye agate each. Alchemy jug.

XP: 1033 each.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Jeff VanderMeer, Borne
Borne is a post-apocalyptic novel about a scavenger named Rachel who finds a strange pod nestled in the fur of the giant, flying, mutant bear named Mord who terrorizes the ruined city in which she lives. The pod is Borne, an organism that grows wildly, changes mercurially, adapts precisely, and forms an emotional bond with Rachel amid a backdrop of the ominous biotech-meddling Company, the rogue Magician and her roving bands of horrifically altered children, and her hiding-something lover Wick. 

Borne ambiguously straddles the lines dividing apocalypse fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy. The novel never fully explains itself or resolves all the questions posed by its world building, which is ultimately one of the novel's greatest strengths. Critics have tended to name the fantastical ambivalence of the book as a tendency toward "fairy tale," but I see as essentially absurdist in quality instead; to my mind the admixture of elements that could be taken as silly (a massive flying bear!) with elements either richly emotional (Rachel's role in nurturing Borne) or grotty (the hardscrabble existence in a world riven by a man-made ecological catastrophe) feels more Max Ernst than Hans Christian Andersen.

I've yet to read a novel by VanderMeer that wasn't strongly constructed, imaginative, lyrical, and inventive, and Borne is no different. Nevertheless, despite how good the novel is, I'm confused by the critical lauding the book has gotten--not because it doesn't deserve it (it does) but rather because the reviews often evidence a real ignorance of how many great "weird fiction" books are out there. Take, for example, this starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "What’s even more remarkable is the reservoirs of feeling that VanderMeer is able to tap into throughout Rachel and Wick’s postapocalyptic journey into the Company’s warped ruins, resulting in something more than just weird fiction: weird literature." 

Is Borne the first of its kind to ascend to the vaulted plane of "literature"? No. It's funny, the claim made by the Publisher's Weekly reviewer is meant as a compliment, but it does a disservice to VanderMeer's work in toto. He's been opening the door to the "literary weird" for quite a while. If Borne was your entry point, and you like what VanderMeer does in the novel, consider checking out Annihilation or a book in his Ambergris series. Alternately, you might want to look at a couple anthologies he's edited with Ann VanderMeer, such as The Weird or The New Weird, either of which may open your eyes as to the variety, depth, and quality "the weird" has always possessed.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Pretty Deadly

Kate and Jack explore one of the creator-owned titles from the current Golden Age of Comics, the action-packed yet poignant Weird Western Pretty Deadly. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, artist Emma Rios, and colorist Jordie Bellaire create an immersive new mythology around the American frontier that features characters who are under-seen in traditional Western stories. Readers who like their operatic action served up with an emotional wallop, take note!
What is the Venn Diagram overlap between comics fans and midnight cinema maniacs? Can American creators take some lessons from manga? Who are the worst comic shop owners in the world? These questions and more will be answered in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People!
Intro/outro music: "Desert Ceremony" by Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats
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