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

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

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