Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Dragonmede, Dishonored Tarot, Castlevania, The Ghost of Orion, A Dawn to Fear

Things that brought me delight in March, 2020:

Rona Randall,
Dragonmede was a chance find at an antique auction house. You have to roll the dice and hope for the best with Gothic romances from the 1960s and 70s, but Dragonmede was worth the gamble. This one has it all: a heroine who was raised among her mother's high class gambling den, an effete and effeminate artist, a class-conscious alcoholic evil stepmother, an aristocratic family prone to a multitude of sins, a father crippled by a stoke that prevents him from divulging crucial information, a mysteriously deadly lake and a familial curse, an aged former servant who spies on everyone via secret peepholes, paintings that disclose hidden identities, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are more reveals and circuitous connections than should be possible in a novel of this size. I was having so much fun reading Dragonmede that I finished it in a single day.

Dishonored tarot cards
This deck of tarot cards was produced as a promotional item for the first Dishonored game. I had no idea they existed until I stumbled across them on eBay. (If you didn't know about them either, rest assured that there are a bunch of them up on there if you feel compelled to pick up a deck.) The cards don't exactly follow the pattern of most tarot decks; the major arcana cards are themed around important characters in Dishonored and the suits of the minor arcana have been swapped for more appropriate in-game themes. All in all, the deck is surprisingly well done--this isn't a cheap cash-in.

Castlevania Season 3
After its triumphant second season, the third season of Castlevania had a lot to live up to. And it does! The narrative in this one follows four strands: Trevor and Sypha investigating strange happenings at a monastery, Hector "negotiating" with one of the four vampires who rule Styria, Isaac amassing an army to get revenge on Hector and Carmilla, and Alucard hosting two would-be vampire hunters from Japan that want to learn the trade...and maybe more in the bargain. The mix of dark moments (and there are some very dark moments) and comedy works really well; also apparently season three is the sexy season. Of course, there are some truly epic battle scenes.

My Dying Bride,
The Ghost of Orion
The Ghost of Orion was one of my most anticipated albums of the year, and thankfully it did not disappoint. My Dying Bride are at their best when they delicately balance two propensities for glorious excess; few bands can manage both quiet moments of melodramatic sorrow and pummeling, bombastic dirgecraft, but My Dying Bride makes the movement between the twin moods of melancholy a seamless endeavor. My Dying Bride have been justly praised for their contributions to the genre, but one thing I don't think they've received recognition for is their keen sense of grace. The Ghost of Orion feels like a medieval benediction--a breviary that promises catharsis, yet curiously out of step with the modern world. And yet, we're left with the notion that it is not the prayer for the hopeless that needs to change to suit modernity, but that it is we who have gone wrong--rendering that grace an inaccessible promise.

Cult of Luna, 
A Dawn to Fear
Cult of Luna specialize in doomy post-rock, but unlike a similar band like Neurosis their music is more cinematic than downward-crashing dirge. Unlike many groups that are often described as possessing "progressive" elements, it isn't the technical virtuosity that will stun you here--even though it is readily apparent--it's the masterful use of tension. Imagine a thick iron cable, just beginning to be dappled with rust, pulled taught to its breaking point. Now let it throb, dance, threaten to sunder while remaining straight and true, all the while a grim misery becomes transcendent when the light of a new day falls upon the surrounding quivering wreckage.

Damien Mecheri and Sylvain Romieu,
Dark Souls: Beyond the Grave
Beyond the Grave is an exploration of the history and story of the first games in the "Souls" series. It covers Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls II, detailing the history of their production, summarizing their stories, and delving into the details of their soundtracks, connections to other works, etc. This is a hard book to recommend: a Soulsborne fanatic likely already knows the material inside and out, and casual fans don't need to dig this far down. The information the book presents is interesting, but likely doesn't delve deep enough into any one aspect to make it essential. The best parts, for me, were the bits about how Miyazaki was dead-set on doing the opposite of what was popular at the time in video games when he was working on Demon's Souls and how that paid-off when the game was released.

Within Temptation,
The Silent Force
With the release of The Silent Force, Within Temptation tried on yet another persona. Their first album, Enter, launched their career with a doom-inspired sound, but that was largely discarded by the Celtic-influenced Mother Earth that followed. When "Stand My Ground," the first single from The Silent Force, dropped there were murmurs of the dreaded sell-out; the song had the same sort of electronic flourishes and soaring poppy chorus that graced Evanescence's debut--which had been a huge worldwide success. However, while it's undeniable that Within Temptation were expanding their sound for a larger audience, The Silent Force is a landmark symphonic metal album. The instrumentation is thrilling, the guitars still retain the necessary heaviness, and the vocal work is superb. Yes, The Silent Force was a commercial moment, but if you don't sing along to the infectious, anthemic chorus in "Stand My Ground," are you really even alive?

Angel's Egg
Angel's Egg is a 1985 anime collaboration between artist Yoshitaka Amano and Mamoru Oshii. The animation is somewhat sparse; this isn't a hyperkinetic display of over-the-top action. The pace of the film is languid and dreamlike. The story concerns an amnesiac young girl who protects a large, mysterious egg while she scavenges for food and water through the wreckage of a past age. She encounters a laconic young man bearing a strange, cross-like object--does he wish her good or ill? Ultimately, Angel's Egg is an artful meditation on the failure of faith and the collapse of systems of belief.

Kingdom, Season 2
It occurs to me that Kingdom is telling a story similar to that of Game of Thrones, but that it greatly benefits from keeping focus on the main elements--hordes of undead threatening civilization and nobles scheming to usurp proper authority--and from not throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the mix. It is also an unbelievably tense show with some genuinely scary moments. I really hope this one comes back for a third season.

Vivian Shaw,
Strange Practice
Deep in the throes of quarantine isolation, I was not looking for anything too weighty or emotionally heavy to read. Strange Practice came to my rescue. Strange Practice is a decidedly Gothic Lite monster mash romp in which Great Helsing, her vampire pals, a researcher at the British Museum, and a former demon team up to stop the machinations of a rather Fourth Doctor-style villain: a remnant of primordial creation that has taken up residence inside a forgotten mercury arc rectifier and formed a cult of monk-cowled religious fanatics intent on feeding their master the fear it relishes. Greta Helsing is an interesting character; although it is never explained why or when her family witched from hunting the undead to doctoring them, she feels motivated by her Hippocratic oath to mind the health of an in-need, underserved populace: monsters. Will I read the other books in the series? Well, the weeks do stretch on.

Emily Carroll, 
When I Arrived at the Castle
No one does "fairy tale Gothic" comics quite like Emily Carroll. In When I Arrived at the Castle, a cat-woman comes calling at a seductive vampiress's fortress; she has murder on her mind. But can she go through with it? And what is the root of bloody enmity? As the story unravels, it becomes a complicated web of complicity, transformation, will, and predatory reversal. Although this is a short, easily-read-in-one-sitting comic, the big, intrusive images will stay with you. The crooked take on the visual language of the illustrated children's book style only heightens the perversity. Recommended to fans of Angela Carter and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu especially.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
A young artist is called to an isolated island in Brittany to paint the portrait of a woman prior to her marriage. The young woman in question has refused to sit for her portrait, so the artist contrives to pose as a lady's companion while surreptitiously studying the features of her subject. It only gets more complicated from there. Deceit turns to questions to desire, aesthetic content, and the sacrifices required by the sordid necessity of living for other people. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful film; easily the best that I've seen so far this year.

Monday, March 30, 2020


A location in Krevborna.

Piskaro is a dense city of teetering buildings crowded together like crooked teeth built atop canals at the mouth of the River Krev. Piskaro is a center of thriving maritime trade and a haven for pirates. Its wharves bustle with the lading and unloading of full-rigged ships, prison hulks are moored offshore, and dangerous quayside taverns are frequented by cutthroats and whalers who call exotic ports home. 

Although it is governed by Cardinal Solanka, a pious Chorister of the Church, grave heresies have taken root in Piskaro. Candle-strewn shrines devoted to those lost at sea are routinely defaced, sleep in the city is often troubled by hallucinatory dreams, and the deformed remains of aberrations occasionally wash up on shore. A series of brutal murders have troubled the city in recent years; it is believed that these murders have occult significance. Sigils and runes are scrawled onto the sides of buildings with chalk to ward off violent crime.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Crucifuge

The Crucifuge
A faction in Krevborna

The Crucifuge is an order of necromancers who are fascinated by  the magical processes used to create the undead. They experiment with novel ways of combining dead flesh with arcane magic to birth new forms of undead. Many necromancers of the Crucifuge worship Orcus, the Demon Prince of Undeath, and consider their dark work to be a form of worship. Members of the Crucifuge are sometimes employed by the vampire lords of Lamashtu to craft undead monstrosities for use in their personal armies. 
    • Motto. “Our age shall be one of monsters unbound.”
    • Belief. Mankind is a stain that should be effaced by the creatures of the night.
    • Goal. Drown the world in a deluge of undead monsters.
    • Quest. Turn an undead monstrosity created by the Crucifuge against a greater evil.

Monday, March 23, 2020


Episode 42: Mephistophela

Mephistophela by Catulle Mendès (1889) is one of the key works of decadent literature, describing the various paving stones on one woman's descent into an erotic hellscape. Translated into English for the first time by Brian Stableford, the book's lush horrors are now accessible to a new audience. Jack and Kate tackle the lurid and tragic story of Baronne Sophor d’Hermelinge, lesbian seducer and damned woman.

Was the fin de siecle really as prudish as some folks seem to think it was? When does homoerotic desire become demonic possession? How do lesbians even do it? All these questions and more will be explored in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Feast Your Eyes

The semi-regular inspirational image post.

Japanese poster for Company of Wolves

 Bryan Baugh

Becky Cloonan

 John Bauer

 L Vallei

Yuliya Litvinova

Bryan Baugh

Melissa Kojima

 David Hartman

David Hartman

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Diavolos, Dhampirs, Draculeçti, Inkarnovati, Molocha

A post about the inhabitants of the Land of the Blood Moon.

In the ancestry of a diavolo is a progenitor who fornicated with a devil. This blasphemy results in a family inheritance of horns, a tail, a forked tongue, cloven hooves, and a disquieting infernal aura. Diavolos tend to be shunned; it is believed that their presence attracts bad luck. In some rural areas, they are hunted.

Vampires are lusty creatures obsessed with the pleasures of the flesh; dhampirs are the resultant children born of dalliances between vampires and humans. You will know them by their morbid pallor and sharp fangs. Dhampirs often possess supernatural abilities inherited from their vampiric parent. 

The bodies of draculeçti are reptilian, squamous, and draconic; their skins are covered in scales, they possess fangs and claws, and horns crown their heads. It is unknown why some children conceived by human parents are born as draculeçti, but many contend that their forms reflect inherited sins. The Church of Saintly Blood regards the draculeçti as spiritually unclean.

When a soul possessing divine power is reincarnated within the mortal flesh of a newborn child, they are known as inkarnovati. This spiritual rebirth occurs randomly, and those who are born with this gift seldom realize it—but some are visited by angelic mentors who urge them to hunt fiends without regret or mercy.

Molocha are humans who have become infected by the baleful influence of the Old Ones that emanates from the accursed stars. Their bodies slowly become fungal, alien, and sometimes faintly luminescent. Molocha evidence unlocked powers of the mind; when they dream, they speak with the phantasms of the past. 

* * *

Director's Commentary
All right, let's cut to how I see these ancestries being modeled mechanically. Diavolos are easy: tieflings, all day every day. Dhampirs are a bit trickier; shadar-kai and drow elves are probably the best fit, but you could make a case for gith as well. Inkarnovati were added specifically because a player in my campaign came to me with an interesting concept. I'd use aasimar for them. And really, you have to admit that inkarnovati is a better name than aasimar, right? Molocha have thus far only appeared as NPCs, but the kalashtar from the Eberron book are probably leaning in the right direction.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Entertaining Yourself in Times of Quarantine

If you're smart, and the powers that be are allowing you to, you're currently practicing social distancing and self-quarantine. That may leave you with a lot of empty time on your hands and a need for entertainment. Let me suggest a few ways to keep yourself occupied during these trying times.

If you need something to read, Gretchen Felker-Martin has made her novella No End Will Be Found pay-what-you-want. Yes, you can even opt to get it for free, but it would be nice if you left her a bit of a tip. Check it out here.

Here's twelve museums that let you take virtual tours from the comfort of your own home.

There's never been a better time to catch up with your favorite podcast. May I suggest Bad Books for Bad People, Bronze Age Book Club, or Pet Cinematary?

Maybe watching cute animals who know nothing about pandemics is more your speed. If so, here's the Monterey Bay Aquarium's live cams.

I assume Youtube is going to get quite the workout as people stay in. Might I suggest Drivetribe (if you like cars), Ola Englund (if you like guitars and metal), Matt Colville (if you like D&D), Avoiding the Puddle (if you like video games and humor), Sajam (if you like fighting game commentary), Ask a Mortician (if you like the death industry), Mary Spender (if you like guitars and a view into the life of a musician), Rachel Maksy (if you like vintage clothes and cosplay), eBay Miniature Rescues (if you like painting miniatures).

Looking for a new long-running livestream D&D game to follow? Check out this playlist for Tales from the Mists, an interesting take on Ravenloft.

Want a near-endless stream of heavy music? Follow the Nuclear Blast, Napalm Records, Metal Blade, and Century Media channels.

I also imagine people will be getting a lot out of their Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc. streaming services. Need a list of the Best Horny Movies for Quarantine? Well, somebody's got you covered.

The LA Times crossword is free online. But don't just exercise your mind; keep that body moving too with this cornucopia of workout routines

Keep washing your hands, don't hoard toilet paper, stay home and stay well.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Knights of Valancourt

The Knights of Valancourt
A faction in Krevborna

Sworn to the service of Queen Alcesta von Karlok, the Knights of Valancourt serve as the elite warriors and generals of Lamashtu’s armies. The Knights of Valancourt count both mortals and vampires among their cohort. The Knights of Valancourt are expected to represent the flower of Lamashtuan chivalry; they exhibit knightly virtues and courtly manners to uphold the honor of their beloved Queen. Aside from their sworn duty, the Knights of Valancourt also mercilessly put down any dissidence or rebellions that ignite in Lamashtu.  
    • Motto. “Body and soul, we are sworn to serve our Queen.” 
    • Belief. Queen Alcesta is the rightful ruler of all Krevborna.
    • Goal. Defend the interests of Lamashtu at home and abroad.
    • Quest. Journey to the land of the fey to broker an alliance between Lamashtu and the Unseelie Court of the fey.

Monday, March 9, 2020


A location in Krevborna

Lamashtu is a cold northern realm of defiled cathedrals and sprawling castles where the populace must pay a tithe in blood to the vampires who rule them as undying feudal lords. Once part of Krevborna, Lamashtu was annexed centuries ago by the Queen Alcesta von Karlok—a powerful vampire who continues to rule the land. A look of fear, resentment, and resignation is common in the eyes of the Lamashtuan serfs, but revolts among the serfs are becoming increasingly violent and dangerous. 

The court of Castle Siebenhurst, the seven-towered fortress of Queen Alcesta, attracts artists, writers, and musicians who find undeath to be aesthetically inspiring. Among the upper ranks, courtiers vie for the queen’s favor and noble houses of vampires intrigue against each other for political dominance. Plural marriages and harems of mortal concubines and vampire spawn are common among Lamashtu’s decadent vampires; Lamashtu’s nobles are widely considered to be vile hedonists.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Greshniks, Vodniks, Svyatogora, Zmeya, Aschen

A post about the inhabitants of the Land of the Blood Moon.

The first greshnik were cursed by the saints for idolatry and the abandonment of a sacred pilgrimage. Considered unclean, their heirs still bear the mark of their forefathers’ trespasses; their bestial forms resemble bipedal crows or turtles. The turtle-like greshnik seek holy deaths; their crow-like kin spread ruination.

Vodniks humans who have become warped due to the proximity of the Old Ones who sleep beneath the seas. They possess a disquieting fish-like appearance and are most often found in Piskaro and along Krevborna’s coast. Entire families or villages can be transformed into vodniks when the corrupting reach of the Old Ones grows strong.

Svyatogora are the weakened descendants of the giants who walked the Nachtmahr Mountains when the world was young. They are diminutive by the standards of giants, but massive by the standards of man. They exude an aura of sullen melancholy, for they are a dying people doomed to extinction among the cold mountain passes of Krevborna.

Zmeya are tainted humans found among the folk who worship the demonic apostle Rakub in the Silent Forest. The black magic of Rakub’s cult forever changes them; they appear human, save for their forked tongues and snake-like eyes, but the personality of a zmeya tends toward serpentine coldness and cruelty. Zmeya do not regard each other with fellowship—an unhallowed impulse inherent to their twisted nature inclines them toward the slaying of kin.


Aschen are dead men and women who have been mysteriously returned to life to complete a task assigned to them by a divine force. The time allotted to finish their task is limited; their memories and sanity slowly erode until they become a hollow, mindless husk. Each aschen is gray skinned and marked by a bleeding black sigil that attracts the attention of fiends.

* * *

Director's Cut
When you're designing a setting that combines the Gothic with fantasy, which ancestries are available is a big question to grapple with. Some people insist that the Gothic is a humanocentric experience. For example, the inclusion of the usual D&D races in Ravenloft is often counted as a demerit. (Though I would argue that the point of Ravenloft isn't primarily Gothic emulation; it's D&D with a Gothic repaint.)

My approach is to make space for nonhuman or inhuman ancestries that aren't typical fantasy fare in most cases. The greshnik are a good example of this; crow-folk and turtle-folk don't necessarily feel Gothic in tone at first blush, but make them victims of a saintly curse and we're back in Gothic territory. Also, I think the oddity of them adds a bit of the uncanny, which is a required element of the Gothic. In 5e, I'd use the stats for aarakocra, kenku, and tortles.

Dagonistes are pretty clearly influenced by Lovecraft's fiction, particularly "The Shadow Over Insmouth." I'd use the stats for tritons or water genasi.

I don't know why or how to explain it, but giants seem tragic to me. Thus the svyatagora. I'd use the stats for goliaths for them.

One of my favorite characters in recent memory was a zmeya. She was truly a cold-hearted bitch. So fun. The yuan-ti pureblood stats work just find for them.

The aschen came about as a way to return a beloved character back to life after their untimely death at a point in the game where resurrection magic was unavailable. We usually let the dice lie where they land when it comes to character death, but this character's story didn't feel concluded. So she was brought back, but changed. She was a human before death; when she came back to pursue her divine task she was a human with the aberrant dragonmark feat from the Eberron book. That's how I'd do aschen, until a more compelling alternative comes around.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Cochlea & Eustachia, Governesses, King's Story, and More

Things that brought me delight in February, 2020:

Hans Rickheit
Cochlea & Eustachia
Surreal body horror or an excuse to draw pert young bottoms? Why not both? Identical twins (or doppelgangers) (except ultimately there are three of them) awaken in a strange house that is buried in bird skulls. Things become less and less heimlich by the panel. Stay for the voyeuristic exploration of the house, invasive medical explorations, a kaiju-sized monster woman, the bio-mechanical contraptions, and a leisurely rafting expedition.

Anne Serre
The Governesses
Ostensibly a tale of three languid, sensual young women who look after the children of a married couple in a secluded manor house, this book is a macrocosm of human longing painted in miniature. We're told of the appetites that propel these women, of how they lure strange men into the woods and suck them dry. But aren't we all maenads in our private little fantasy lives? We're told of the old man who watches the women through a spyglass, of how he assumes he can tell their moods and personalities based on their movements and the color of their dresses. But aren't we all different people in different moments and merely just figments dreamed of in the lives of others? We're told of the couple's common story of estrangement-in-partnership, the passing fancy of motherhood, the necessary push and pull of order against chaos, how the shifting tides of alliance rule the lives of children, and the final diminishing that comes for us all at the end of things. A few short pages to this, yet somehow it feels comprehensive.

Becky Cloonan
The King's Story
The King's Story is a comic book in zine format that follows up on a story in Cloonan's By Chance or Providence. It's definitely in the realm of my beloved medieval Gothic fairy tale fantasy genre, but it's also squarely in dark "cautionary tale" vein, as per the comic's subtitle. The king's bastard son wants what his legitimate brother has inherited, but as always getting what you want doesn't necessarily satisfy--and it definitely comes at a price that is not immediately obvious.

Where Lovers Mourn, Arcane Rain Fell, The Burning Halo, Turning Season Within, A Rose for the Apocalypse, Sovran
Apparently I have arrived at the age where instead of searching out music that confronts me with new ideas and undreamed of sounds, I seek music that reminds me of past glories. Draconian brings to mind the Gothic doom of my youth; the heavy riffs, the sepulchral atmosphere, the orchestral touches, and the beauty-and-the-beast style vocal interplay all conspire to put me in mind of days gone by. Although their sound is reminiscent of Theatre of Tragedy, Paradise Lost, and My Dying Bride, I don't want to paint them as derivative--rather, think of them as a continuation of that grand tradition, a line of descent that more than earns its own share of repeated listens.

Widow's Weeds and Beyond the Veil
Sometimes you discover that there is a band that serves up music in the style you love, as with Draconian above, sometimes you discover that you missed something essential the first time around. Tristania's early albums definitely fall into the latter category. They date from the period of some of my favorite Gothic doom records, and they do all the things I like: funereal guitars, choirs of the damned, orchestral flourishes--and they add clean male vocals to the beauty-and-the-beast style of delivery. I hadn't explored Tristania's back catalog because the newer albums I had heard by them seemed firmly in the "symphonic metal" genre that doesn't really grab me. Widow's Weeds and Beyond the Veil are exactly what I want; beyond that, the band loses the main songwriter on those albums, but I may cautiously explore what comes next in the discography in the months to come.

Hand-knitted mittens and scarf
Does anything really compare with the incredible softness of a scarf and mittens that were knitted for you by a friend? The generous Mlle Ghoul made these for me, working her fingers to the very bone--so I assume. These gifts were are so nice that I honestly don't even mind that the temperature is scheduled to take a cold dip; just another excuse to indulge in these!

Sean T. Collins, Gretchen Felker-Martin, Julia Gfrorer
All Fucked Up: Erotic Tales from the "Road House" Expanded Universe
Erotic Road House fan fiction? It exists. Reading the stories in this zine is like looking through a kaleidoscope; startling patterns emerge as the colors collide in surprising ways. Pairings you'd never dream of, muted desires that you now realize were lurking under the taught skin all this time, and one hell of a hot breakfast.