Sunday, May 31, 2020

Obsidian, Creatures of Charm and Hunger, Wicked Saints, and More

Things that brought me delight in May, 2020:

Paradise Lost, 
Paradise Lost are elder statesmen at this point: they pioneered the genre of doom metal as one of the infamous Peaceville Three and have had a decades-spanning career. Their early albums, such as Draconian Times, Gothic, and Icon, are unimpeachable. However, things haven’t always gone from strength to strength with Paradise Lost. Even though I’ve been a fan since high school, I have to admit that there was a lull in my enjoyment--you know how every big doom band makes an ill-advised decision to sound like Depeche Mode, the Cure, or shifts into industrial metal? Well, that happened with Paradise Lost. But they came storming back in fine form with 2015’s The Plague Within and followed that with the also exceptional Medusa in 2017. Obsidian follows those two albums without a dip in quality. It showcases how well the band can hit all the high points of their career on a single record: it’s got crushing glacial doom riffs, anthemic goth rock bits, the big depressive mood--it feels like a greatest hits package but all the tracks are new.

Gary Reed and Galen Showman,
Renfield: A Tale of Madness
I've been immersed in Dracula-related stories lately; last month was a further adventure of Vampire Hunter D, this month started with Powers of Darkness for Bad Books for Bad People. I'm considering Renfield: A Tale of Madness as the chaser. It's a surprisingly strange comic; since it focuses on Renfield, it could have felt like a minor extract from a larger work, but singling out Renfield gives a new gloss to aspects of Stoker's novel. There's certainly something going on in Dracula with faith, God, and servitude, but here it becomes a disquieting part of the story that can't be easily pushed aside. The art feels purposefully workmanlike; there are a lot of close-ups of faces in various attitudes of emotion, but the art does occasionally get the room to speak for itself--particularly in some of the full-page illustrations.

L'Ame Immortelle, 
Auf Deinen Schwingen and Gezheiten
If you are involved with the goth scene long enough, you will come to have a favorite semi-obscure band that is fronted by an attractive redhead. L'Ame Immortelle is mine. Although many of their albums are fun, I return to the Auf Deinen Schwingen and Gezheiten era most often; these two albums are their heaviest, and in many ways I think they've weathered the test of time better than their synth-based albums. (Not for nothing, some of their biggest hits arrive at this point.) Also, I don't think Sonja Kraushofer's voice was ever in finer form than it was on these two records.

Molly Tanzer,
Creatures of Charm and Hunger
It's interesting that Molly Tanzer notes that she considered dedicated Creatures of Charm and Hunger, the third and final book in the Diabolist's Library trilogy, to her anxiety. Although the book is ostensibly the story of two young women coming to grips with their own expectations and desires as budding sorcerers during World War II, the preparation for their practical examinations in the art of diablerie uncomfortably reminded me of some of the hoops one has to jump through in graduate school.

Someplace Better and Sil3nt Scr3am
My exploration of the minor bands in the Gothic metal genre continues! Elysion diverge from the pack in two essential, but important, ways: their songs do not aim for epic lengths and Christianna, the vocalist, doesn't pursue an angelic or operatic style. The songs on Someplace Better and Sil3nt Sc3am (my god, those numbers in the title...) are punchy and to the point; most are about four minutes in length. The vocals hit harder, opting for a balance point between forceful and poppy. Elysion are not the hardest band nor the most ambitious in their genre, but they have their own charms.

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island
Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island came out when I was working at a video store as an undergrad. Despite being a childhood fan of Scooby-Doo, I didn't really trust the idea of a new offering patterned after something I liked when I was a kid. (This hasn't changed much; it still captures my feelings about modern Star Wars media.) But it turns out that Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island is a pretty fun movie! Although, it also does feel strangely exculpatory about the Confederacy; having one of the gang explain to Scoob that the Confederate zombies aren't the real villain as he literally jumps into their arms certainly feels like a statement.

Dark Sarah,
Behind the Black Veil, The Puzzle, and The Golden Moth
Dark Sarah (who is not, as you might be forgiven for thinking, the lady on all the album covers) bill their music as "cinematic metal." A curious genre tag, but it fits; Dark Sarah's music feels like a combination of symphonic Gothic metal with Disney princess soundtrack music. Like King Diamond, each Dark Sarah album tells a story, but instead of tales of Gothic horror, Dark Sarah's albums are rich Gothic fairy tales.

Julia Gfrorer,
Vision vol. 3
An uncomfortable truth: any household is potentially a powder keg just under the surface. Vision lays bare something we expend a lot of energy trying to render invisible both to ourselves and to each other: the politics of the domestic sphere are exactly like the politics of the public sphere in that they are essentially shaped by whose needs are being met, whose needs are allowed to be sacrificed, and why that kind of imbalance persists under the cover of cultural sanction.

Mortal Love,
All the Beauty and I Have Lost
Apparently I did my exploration of Mortal Love's back catalog backwards; I started with their last album the previous month, hit the middle album and then found the beginning of the thread this month. Their three albums are part of a trilogy, and if you listened to them in chronological order they're evidence that Mortal Love grew more sure-footed over the course of their career. Mortal Love's music is essentially Romantic, but instead of shrouding their longing in the mists of time, they stake out modern desire and loss as their playground. Forever Will Be Gone is probably their strongest effort, and a fitting cap to their trilogy, but I do find that their earlier albums evoke a curious nostalgia in me even though their music wasn't a part of my own past. The sound of All the Beauty and I Have Lost reminds me of cemetery picnics and driving to Sunday night shows in dank clubs where red wine and good friends awaited.

Emily A. Duncan,
Wicked Saints
Wicked Saints is the first volume in a trilogy of Gothic fantasy novels about two nations at war. On one side, the faithful (read: zealots) who still follow the dictates of the gods. On the other, a nation of bloodmage heretics. A cleric, a mage-prince, and a magically warped monster form an unlikely partnership to kill a king and end the war, but it's all too good to be true. Hearts are broken and heads are taken. In some books you can't help but feel that you're getting a window into the things the author enjoys. Within the first fifty pages it jumps right into two D&D arguments: where are the interesting portrayals of clerics outside of tie-in novels and do clerics worship one god or an entire pantheon? Wicked Saints also does something interesting with spellbooks; here, each spell is a page that must be torn out of the mage's book and activated with their own blood. I feel pretty confident the author plays rpgs, but this doesn't read like game fic thankfully. Additionally, the author is definitely into "Reylo". The romance in the novel is definitely patterned after the Reyloian libido: the woman is a "chosen one" who might bring balance to the Force restore the gods to the world; the man is a vicious, but attractively tall, Sith bloodmage. I think if I were in a less forgiving mood, I'd knock the book for that, but in this case I just find it kind of humorous and even a bit endearing. My favorite character, of course, is the flirty lesbian with the eyepatch.

Melana Chasmata and Eparistera Daimones
Triptykon will never be credited with the impact of Celtic Frost; however, although Triptykon is far less likely to be hailed as a major inspiration, I do think that the project's consistency is a point in its favor. Triptykon's blend of doom, Gothic metal, and avant-garde experimentation manages to be both steady, cohesive, and still surprising. Melana Chasmata and Eparistera Daimones are well worth returning to, especially if you (as I'm sure many people will be) are just now getting acquainted with Triptykon after the critical praise for the recording of their live set at Roadburn.

Jonathan L. Howard,
Johannes Cabal the Detective
The story of Johannes Cabal the Detective is a locked room mystery, albeit one that takes place on an airship high above a militaristic Ruritania. Johannes Cabal, infamous necromancer and reluctant hero, finds himself enmeshed in solving the murders of his fellow passengers while teemed up with a beautiful and interesting young woman who both loathes him and is fascinated by him. Full of derring-do, wry humor, and just a little necromancy, this was a rollicking tale.

The End of Life
I listened to UnSun's Clinic for Dolls last month, so once again I seem to be working my way backwards through a discography. It's really interesting to see what direction these smaller bands go when they don't opt to go full symphonic bombast; as with the follow-up record, The End of Life mixes Gothic metal and Euro pop--although this time out I detect slight traces of metalcore and the fleeting Bjork influence is absent here.

Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, and Tyler Crook,
Manor Black
As a fan of Harrow County and The Sixth Gun, I always look forward to a new comic with Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook at the helm. However, from what I read prior to getting my hands on it, it seems like many people who picked it up were disappointed with Manor Black. I both understand their complaint and think it is a bit preemptory. The premise of the comic is strong: the aging patriarch of a magical lineage is thrown together with a young woman who has lost control of her fiery supernatural totem as warped rogue magicians and members of the patriarch's own family move against them. The problem is that this collection of issues cuts off right when things start to get moving. I'm more apt to take this as a sign of good things to come, rather than the story possessing an unfortunate inertness. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Aurorae, 100.000 Faces, Darker Thoughts

Listen to them, the children of the night...

Triptykon, "Aurorae"

Cadaveria, "100.000 Faces"

Paradise Lost, "Darker Thoughts"

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Death of the Rose Princess

Art by Enamorte
The Death of the Rose Princess
Our online D&D game set in Ravenloft continues.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock/rogue
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

As the sun rose over the grounds of Our Lady in the Mists, the party trudged up the hill to the convent buildings proper. They entered the dormitory, which had been partially scorched by fire, and found austere cells and the moldy remains of nuns' habits. Another building proved to be a shrine that held the mummified remains of martyrs of the Church of Ezra, but the shrine had been defiled; the corpses of preserved saints had been toppled from their niches and lay in ruins on the floor. The tombs behind the convent held a reflecting pool that was now clogged with lumpy green fungus; in the lower level of the tombs, they party discovered a secret door that led to an underground complex that connected the tomb to the convent's main building.

The group quickly came to grips with the system of secret doors in these underground chambers. While exploring they found several stone sarcophagi, a mural depicting the founding of the convent, a mural about the faith of Ezra that had been defaced with "fungal art," a toppled statue of Ezra that had been replaced by a statue of a woman made of fungus, a large plant-like pod that was affixed to a stone coffin, and stairs that led up into the main convent building. In the convent, they found a chapel that was still sanctified--a potentially useful sanctuary that could provide them with a place to rest and recuperate, if needed. 

But they had not yet found Emilia Drachen, so they returned to the underground chambers and discovered a secret dungeon in which an unconscious, and very pregnant, woman was found shackled to the wall. They unshackled her, but nothing they tried revived her to consciousness. As they attempted to carry her back to the chapel upstairs, the party was confronted by a beautiful and pale woman with pointed incisors. The woman wore a dark gown decorated with roses and tall leather boots--which Tank recognized as responsible for the footprints he had followed while exploring in the tomb. She was accompanied by three fungus-infested nuns. The strange woman told them that she couldn't possible let them escape with her "treasure." She then flew at them with unnatural speed as her fingernails turned to venomous talons.

The combat was fierce, but brief. Gnargar unleashed a flurry of radiant sun bolts, greatly wounding her. Al' called upon his faith to turn undead; the woman transformed into hundreds of fungus-encrusted spiders and fled, leaving the party to deal with her minions. The fleeing woman was tracked back to the seed pod that was discovered earlier, but now it had split open to reveal a pool of luminescent, mucus-like fluid within it. Determining that the pod was a portal of some kind, they swallowed their pride and climbed inside...and found themselves emerging from a similar pod inside the infected watchtower they had declined to enter in their earlier explorations of the grounds. 

In the tower, their battle against the woman resumed! The group were horrified to note that the wounds they had inflicted on her previously had healed. However, the gods were on their side; Al' hit her with a particularly well placed spell that tore her apart from inside with divine power. With her death, the fungal infection in the tower began to shrivel and recede until it was nothing more than motes of black dust blowing in the wind. With Emilia now secured, the party loaded her into Bela's vardo and they set off to find a cure, and perhaps a way home, in the house of Leonora Vos.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Powers of Darkness: Icelandic Dracula

Bram Stoker's iconic creation Dracula has been translated into numerous languages, but as it turns out, some of these translations are more like adaptations. One such adaptation is Iceland's Powers of Darkness (Makt Myrkranna) by Valdimar √Āsmundsson, originally published in serialized format in 1900 - 1901 in an Icelandic newspaper. The story introduces new characters, shifts the emphasis of the plot, and focuses on a satanic Euro-conspiracy plot.
How much of Powers of Darkness incorporates Bram Stoker's early draft ideas for Dracula? What if Dracula had a coven of evil ape men living in his basement? Does this Dracula even drink anybody's blood? All these questions and more will be explored on this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Shudder Files

I took advantage of Shudder's thirty-day trial during the quarantine. Here's the best of what I watched on the service that I hadn't already talked about in April's "best of" post:

Tigers Are Not Afraid
When orphans created by the violence of the cartels in Mexico find themselves in possession of a cell phone containing incriminating evidence against a local politician/gang captain, they're hunted by human traffickers trying to get it back. But one of them might possess three magic wishes and is visited by the ghost of her mother, adding the otherworldly to what would otherwise be a standard tale of crime and degradation.

Knife+Heart was a Tenebrous Kate recommendation. (You can hear her talk about it on this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.) It is very much a self-conscious modern giallo; someone is murdering the cast of a gay porn film, and director must delve into the heart of homophobia to unmask the killer...and maybe consider her own place in the appropriation of an orientation not exactly her own.

A woman's unborn child goads her to kill the people responsible for its father's death one-by-one. Part horror, part black comedy, this one works surprisingly well. I usually have a hard time getting into horror comedies, but Prevenge went dark enough with both the laughs and the murders to keep me invested.

Society lives up to its reputation as being unlike anything else you've ever seen. Tonally, it's a bit like David Lynch started making a movie and David Cronenberg finished it. There are a lot of "the wealthy feed off the underclass" horror movies out there, but this one sticks out because of how absolutely insane it is. The end bit will either freak you out or make you groan audibly. Maybe both.

Horror Noire
Horror Noire is a documentary about black involvement and representation in horror films. Although the documentary covers some films I'm familiar with, such as Night of the Living Dead, Blackula, and Candyman, it also delves into territory that was absolutely new and eye-opening to me. It also showcases the perspectives of a wide range of black writers, actors, directors, etc. Absolutely a must-see.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance
I've seen Oldboy a few times, though the last time I watched it was a number of years ago, so it was nice to finally see the rest of the "Vengeance Trilogy." Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the most straightforward of the films--though it does pose some questions about which of the characters is "Mr. Vengeance" and if our sympathies lie with him. Lady Vengeance was fantastic; everything about it worked for me.

Ganja & Hess
Ganja & Hess is a film I had not heard of until I watched Horror Noire. It is a black vampire movie, but instead of exploring blaxploitation territory the way Blackula does, it instead pursues art film aesthetics. Although I found it a bit slow in places, the way it handles vampirism as a metaphor for addiction, race relations, and the problematic role of faith in black communities was really interesting. 
Season of the Witch
Season of the Witch has a poor reputation among the films in George A. Romero's ouvre. My gut instinct is that this is because it is a movie that deals with women's experiences and isn't really shot in a way that encourages a male perspective on what unfolds in the movie. This is the "unfulfilled housewife" version of something like Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife.

Cursed Films
This documentary series on "cursed films" that covers The Exorcist, The Omen, Poltergeist, The Crow, and Twilight Zone: The Movie. I like that it shows the people who are really invested in the idea of "cursed movies" to be kooks. (The "exorcist" guy being named "Vincent Bauhaus" felt a little on the nose.) It was also surprisingly emotionally affecting when they interviewed crew members who had to deal with some of the tragedies that happened on those sets.

One Cut of the Dead
For the first half hour of One Cut of the Dead I thought I was watching an example of how derivative the "found footage zombie" genre can be, but after that the movie takes a hard left turn and became something I definitely didn't see coming. Good job, movie, you got me! One Cut of the Dead turns out to be a surprisingly sweet romp; I'd say more, but I don't want to spoil it for you so you can have the same experience I did with it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Nox Mortis

Nox Mortis is a secretive cabal of grave robbers and resurrectionists operating out of Ludendorf in Lamordia. The criminals who belong to Nox Mortis are known to sell exhumed corpses to medical schools and doctors who have a need to procure cadavers for anatomical research and teaching purposes. The Nox Mortis syndicate also maintains a branch of assassins who permanently silence any investigators or constables who delve too deeply into their secrets. It is rumored that the organization’s inner circle is comprised solely of necromancers. 

Dread Possibilities
  • Nox Mortis's necromancers animate corpses and sell the resultant undead creatures as laborers, tireless warriors for mercenary bands, and even as playthings for brothels catering to unwholesome tastes.
  • Nox Mortis runs underground pit-fights in which reanimated corpses fight each other for the amusement of bloodthirsty, jaded audiences.
  • Even though its rank-and-file members do not know this, Nox Mortis is a front for a mystery religion that venerates the Dead Three--Bhaal, Myrkul, and Bane.

Monday, May 18, 2020

A Minor Revelry

A Minor Revelry
Our online D&D game set in Ravenloft continues.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock/rogue
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

After resting in the gardener's cottage on the grounds of the convent of Our Lady in the Mists, the party saw that there was smoke rising from the east; they surmised that the wooden barricades they had hid behind previously in the keep had been lit afire. The group decided to carry on exploring the west side of the convent grounds, starting with an unusually thick and fecund grove. As they neared the center of the grove, they could hear a mixture of masculine and feminine laughter. 

13 Shattered Mirrors and Tekla volunteered to scout ahead while the rest of the party waiting within the cover of the trees. Tekla and 13 Shattered Mirrors found that there was a clearing at the center of the grove. A woman with blue-tinted skin and green hair lounged within a pool in the clearing, a woman with leaf-life hair leaning against a tree, and a bestial man covered with shaggy red fur and who sported a crown of wildflowers woven among the horns on his head sat upon a boulder with pan pipes at his side. Clearly, they were in the presence of fey creatures.

The nereid in the pool gave her name as Mirandela, and she introduced her compatriots as Rosalva and Druzka. The fey could tell them only a little about the evil that had befallen the convent, but they did learn that a woman of supernatural origins had come to the convent and corrupted the knights and nuns--had, in fact, made them her minions through fungal infection. This mysterious woman only ever prowled the grounds by night, and she had not yet set foot within the grove. The fey were content to let her do what she would as long as she left them in peace; that, Mirandela said, was the secret to living a long life. 

The fey were able to relate to them that the waters of the pool and the fountain were said to be blessed by a saint of Ezra's faith, but this belief was mistaken; the water did have magical properties, but its source was the Feywild. Druzka was able to tell them where they might find darkling rose; he claimed that it was a rare plant that had largely died out, but that a woman named Leonora Vos was still cultivating it in her greenhouse in Lamordia. The name of Leonora Vos was known to them; they had been told to seek her out if they wanted to return to their own world.

They asked the fey if they could spend the night within the grove, since it seemed like a place of relative saftety, to which the fey enthusiastically agreed. Since they had a few hours before nightfall, the group decided to explore the rest of the west side of the grounds before retiring for the evening. 

Tekla sent her dove familiar to scout the bell tower; it seemed empty, but they didn't want to risk finding out what would happen if the bell was rung. Along the way to the watchtower at the far end of the compound, the party discovered a fountain. The fountain featured a statue of a beatific woman in robes holding a sword and a shield on which a sprig of belladonna was engraved. Al' tried various combinations of the flowers they had previously collected with the water from the spring in the silver chalice they found in the ruins of the nursery, but nothing strange or miraculous occurred. 

The watchtower appeared to be the most fungus-infested building they had yet encountered on the grounds. It was a tall spire, easily the oldest building they had discovered, but fungal matter crept up the tower walls, obscuring the stonework and windows. The party decided they wanted no part of the watchtower and instead returned to the grove. The fey brought out earthenware jugs of wine, hoping to engage the party in a night of debauchery, but the party only gave in to a moderate amount of revelry. They wanted to get an early start on their heroism in the morning.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020


One thing that D&D has rarely explored is dhampir or any other kind of playable vampire-esque race. This is a shame; it's a rich archetype that players are drawn to. After all, the notion of playable vampires was a solid enough concept to spawn a credible competitor to D&D in the 90s when Vampire: The Masquerade hit the shelves. 

The closest D&D has come to satisfying the "vampire itch" was the introduction of the vryloka in the 4th edition book Heroes of Shadow. Unlike dhampir, vryloka are not the children of vampire and mortal parents. (It's usually noted that vampires in D&D cannot reproduce naturally.) Instead, vryloka are the descendants of human nobles who were taught a ritual to lengthen their lives by a mysterious being known as the Red Witch. Although the bloodbond ritual granted them extended life spans, it fundamentally changed them into "living vampires." They are not fully undead, but neither are they wholly human.

Below is a pdf of my quick-and-dirty attempt to update them to something I could use in my 5th edition D&D games. (As a commentator on this post noted, they'd be prefect for my Teenage Goth Ravenloft campaign.) 

Vryloka for 5e pdf

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Convent of Our Lady in the Mists

The Convent of Our Lady of the Mists
Our online D&D game set in Ravenloft continues.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock/rogue
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

When we last left our heroes, they were disturbed that there was a group portrait painted by the hand of Donna Pietra Sangino that depicted a party that resembled there own. Afraid that the portrait could be used against them, they endeavored to steal it from the Watersilk Gallery. Unfortunately, almost everything went wrong during their attempted heist. Caught red-handed, they were surrounded and thrown into one of East Riding's many dungeons. Even though Nikolai and Agniezka testified on their behalf at the trial, the group could feel a thumb tipping the scales of justice--Marquis Stezen D'Polarno made a point of attending the trial, and it was likely that he pushed for a guilty verdict behind the scenes. The punishment: death by hanging. On the gallows, nooses were fitted around the necks of our heroes; then, the sudden drop with a short stop. The darkness closed in.

But in Ravenloft, death is not always the end. The party found themselves in a long corridor of black stone; light shown from a door, opened just a crack, at the end of the hallway. The door opened upon a chamber, in which a pale woman with a crown of twisted iron and a cloak of raven feathers awaited them. The group recognized her from the idol they had restored to the Old Bone Church: they had an audience with the Raven Queen.

She explained that they were currently hovering in the liminal space between the Shadowfell and the afterlives that awaited them on the outer planes. She said that their deaths could, for the moment, be avoided by agreeing to become her agents in the world. She was in need of champions to find a prophesied woman who is destined to either give birth to an apocalyptic monster or a savior for the haunted land of Ravenloft. The bargain was sealed; each member of the group drank something suspiciously coppery tasting from a chalice. They awoke, oddly pale and still bearing the marks of the hangman's noose, on a dusty road with a vardo wagon approaching.

As it turned out, the wagon was being driven by their old friend Bela Drachen. Bela had received information about his runaway sister Emilia's whereabouts: she had been taken by an unknown party to a convent. Sensing that Emilia may be the pregnant woman the Raven Queen had sent them to seek, they joined Bela and traveled to the Convent of Out Lady in the Mists, a nunnery perched atop a seaside cliff in Mordent. When they arrived, they discovered that the convent buildings were surrounded by an encircling stone wall in the front and a sheer cliff face behind.

The wall's only gate was guarded by four figures clad in knightly armor, their faces obscured by steel casques. Strange fungal patches also appeared to be growing on their armor. One of the knights told them,  in a rasping voice, they would not be admitted inside. They entered via alternate means, scaling the wall out of sight of the knights stationed at the gate. Exploration of the grounds commenced. A tower was found to be empty, save for a coffin filled filled with dark soil and a strange mixture of black, red, and pink roses. The ruins of a building that was once a nursery was investigated; amid the broken cribs and rubble, a silver grail was uncovered. The rim of the grail was decorated by a motif of shields and swords.

After leaving the nursery, the party saw a group of fungus-encrusted women wearing the habits of nuns gathered around the tower. They attempted to sneak past them, but Tank and Al's armor was just too noisy. 13 Shattered Mirrors suggested kiting the monstrous sisters--a strategy that worked well until the party found themselves sandwiched between more nuns and the knights from the gate. The party dealt with the nuns just in time; they were able to duck behind a hastily erected barricade inside the ruins of the knight's keep. The barricade made it difficult for the knights to get at them, but wounds were delivered on both sides. Noting that the situation had evolved into a stalemate, the fungal knights retreated. The group used this opportunity to quickly explore the remains of the keep and then slip out an unobstructed back door.

Now that the knights were nowhere in sight, the party entered what appeared to be the cottage of the man who maintained the convent's gardens. They found a historical account of the convent. The convent was dedicated to Ezra, a goddess of protection in the Land of the Mists. It was founded as a home for fallen women and women who become pregnant out of wedlock, which explained the nursery. The nuns were guarded by the Knights of Benefaction--many of whom were originally children given birth to on convent grounds. Clearly, though, something had gone horribly wrong. 

The party decided to rest inside in the cottage and then resume their search for Bela's missing sister after catching their breath.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Cavern of Death, Human :||: Nature, Forever Will Be Gone, Salem Branch

Things that brought me delight in April, 2020:

The Cavern of Death
The Cavern of Death is an anonymously written Gothic novel from the height of the Gothic's popularity in the 1790s. Its tale involves a knight who returns to the Black Forest region and discovers that both a man he once called friend and his friend's father have basely set their desires on the Lady Constance--the knight's one true love! Things spiral out of control in this love triangle square: the knight's friend asks him to act as an assassin and murder his father, the father sends killers to dispatch the knight, the knight's squire betrays him, Lady Constance's maid betrays her, and the ominous Cavern of Death discloses its morbid secrets. All this in less than a hundred pages.

Human :||: Nature
Never ones to shy away from either bombast or aspiration, Nightwish return with a new album that frantically gestures toward the big questions--particularly humanity's connection (or disconnection) to the natural world. Although not every song on the album is a success, for example, "Harvest" is not a track I want to hear every day, you've got to give them credit for striving to say something ambitious; few bands could even attempt an orchestral second disc without the powerful vocals of their main draw, and fewer still could make that (mostly) work.

Mortal Love,
Forever Will Be Gone
I have room in my heart to love even the Gothic metal bands that didn't really claw their way into ubiquity. Mortal Love really should have made a bigger impact; unlike many bands working in the "beautiful woman with a beautiful voice plus crunchy guitars" genre, their is quite a bit of variety to their sound on Forever Will Be Gone. The album also has some surprisingly heavy moments, particularly when compared against bands whose sonic assault mellowed over time. I suspect they were victims of a turn against the "beauty and the beast style" to some extend, but that's an aesthetic that never grows old for me. 

Lara Parker, 
Dark Shadows: The Salem Branch
I'm not sure how or when this came into my life or even who gave it to me, but it was suddenly time to give this a read. It turns out that vampire nonsense is my comfort food; should have known. It also turns out that The Salem Branch is a worthy extension of Dark Shadows, although it does contain some ideas that never would have made it onto the small screen. Barnabas, now cured of his vampirism, unwittingly eats a pot brownie; David goes skinny dipping with a hippie chick; there is a very accurate depiction of the Salem Witch Museum.

Darling very much feels like a low budget just-out-of-film-school project, and while I have no idea if that's accurate, it does feel like a very successful example of that genre. The story is fairly simple on the surface: a young woman is hired to act as the caretaker of an old house in the city, and the influence of the house either drives her insane or exacerbates previous trauma to drive her insane. Though it's true there isn't a ton happening on screen and what we get is mostly stylistic touches, there are enough interesting "gaps" to let the viewer conjecture about the story behind the story, which I generally appreciate. 

A Pale Horse Named Death,
And Hell Will Follow Me and Lay My Soul to Waste
A Pale Horse Named Death are often positioned as the continuation of Type O Negative, but that doesn't quite do anyone justice. For one, on And Hell Will Follow Me, APHND is essentially a two-man band; only one of the members was in Type O and then only for the early albums as a drummer. For another, while APHND is Gothic and doomy in a similar way to Type O--tongue-in-cheek while also delving into real-life depressive topics such as drug abuse and misanthropy--the humor doesn't really encapsulate that "Brooklyn goombas" vibe. Also, I think the comparison sells things short; APHND has a grunge-influence, think Alice in Chains or the heavier Stone Temple Pilots tracks, that gives the project its own identity. That identity does slip away at points, particularly on the absolute Type O worship that is "Die Alone." Lay My Soul to Waste has more of its own distinct sonic aesthetic; the whole album feels more cohesive overall, which gives me higher hopes for their third album. Although, oddly, a Marilyn Manson vibe creeps into the second offering.

Hagazussa is an exquisitely shot Gothic folk horror film about a young woman living near the Alps in the fifteenth century. Like her mother, she is a pariah. Abused, befriended, then abused even more. This is a quiet film, until it isn't, that ruminates on abjection and the kinds of revenge we take on others when taught that we do not belong and the kind of revenge we take on ourselves when we grow to see ourselves as hated and unclean. This film reminded me of Julia Gfrorer's comic Laid Waste; consider pairing them for your feels bad double feature.

Andrzej Sapkowski,
Sword of Destiny
The stories collected in Sword of Destiny cover a wide range of fantasy storytelling. We've got madcap fantasy adventure! And a story that centers on the fluctuating price of trade goods! And one about relationship problems! And one story about life and loss that, I kid you not, actually made me a bit emotional. A witcher story made me emotional! Can you even imagine? You can listen to me regale my cohost with a recap of "Bounds of Reason" here on Bad Books for Bad People; keep your ears peeled for another recap from Sword of Destiny as well.

Dark Waters
Dark Waters is like a three-way collision between Matthew Lewis's The Monk, H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth," and Alice in Wonderland. When a young heiress travels to a convent on a remote island to reconnect with her mysterious family legacy--and to decide whether she will continue to use the family fortune to fund the nunnery--she learns more about her past than she bargained for. Also, I wonder if the scene with all the dead fish on the beach was an inspiration for the fishing hamlet in Bloodborne.

Clinic for Dolls
As with Mortal Love above, my reappraisal of UnSun is part of a foray into the bands on the periphery. UnSun tend toward the poppy, while still maintaining a pleasantly hardened edge. However, what really sets UnSun apart is just how punchy their songs on Clinic for Dolls are; they're short, sharp, and incisive. No fat, no allowance to wallow to make grandiose gestures. (Although the keyboard textures do skew generic.) And this will sound crazy, but: I detect a slight Bjork influence at work here. 

All the Colors of the Dark
Basically anything with Edwige Fenech in it is worth watching, but this psychosexual Gothic giallo is probably one of her best. Fenech plays a woman plagued by memories of her mother's murders who fears that the killer is after her. A black mass promises the end of her fear--or is it the culmination of her terrors made manifest? All the Colors of the Dark also exposes the age-old battle between psychiatrists and Satanists. I would caution the potential viewer that All the Colors of the Dark doesn't exactly deliver a brainfuck "kaleidoscope of psychedelic horror," but you definitely shouldn't hold that against it.

Hideyuki Kikuchi (illustrated by Yoshitaki Amano),
Vampire Hunter D: The Rose Princess
This is a very strange volume in the Vampire Hunter D series--and that's saying something. In The Rose Princess, D is described as being as gorgeous and mysterious as ever, but he's also positioned to be more the villain of the piece than the hero. This volume is all about the tragedy and romance of chivalric tales, but D is the character who ends all such pretenses with a swipe of his blade. (When it doesn't break; it does so frequently throughout this volume.) (Also, the Black Knight in this has got to be patterned after Monty Python's Holy Grail. Kikuchi doesn't mention it in his afterword, but come on, that guy loses both arms and still stands around talking for a while.)

The Awakening
I liked The Awakening the first time I watched it back in 2016, but I think a second viewing actually improves the experience. It's a pity that few viewers have likely given this one multiple viewings; knowing how the trick is done helps in this instance. The Awakening is about a woman who busts fraudulent spiritualists in post-WWI Britain. She's hired by a school that is supposedly haunted...but her connection to the place goes deeper than she suspects. The Awakening is very much a Gothic thriller; the ending is a bit convoluted and the pieces that fall into place are very convenient, but that's part and parcel of the genre. The atmosphere alone is worth excuses those "faults."

Type O Negative,
Dead Again
After getting turned on to A Pale Horse Named Death, I decided it was time to revisit Type O Negative, which I plan on doing in reverse order starting with their last album, Dead Again. Dead Again feels like a complete synthesis of Type O's sometimes ill-fitting musical preoccupations; you can point to specific moments and rightly proclaim "there are the doomy Sabbath bits," or "there are the galloping punk fits," and "there are the emulation of Beatles' hits."

The Beyond
I watched all three movies in Lucio Fulci's Gates of Hell trilogy--which also includes City of the Dead and The House by the Cemetery--but this is the one I'd recommend. The Beyond centers on a young woman who inherits a hotel in Louisiana, which she intends on re-opening. What she doesn't know is that the hotel was once the home of an artist whose murder opened a gate to hell--and the house still serves as the focal point that connects our world with the netherworld. (I say "our world" in a loose sense here; many things do not operate in Fulci's world as they do in ours!) Unlike the other films in the trilogy, The Beyond manages some decent atmosphere, and it concludes with a surreal downbeat ending that pleased me.

Voice from the Stone
Voice from the Stone came up as a recommendation after I re-watched The Awakening. I can see why--they both deal in Gothic senses of dread rather than jump scares or gore--but they really couldn't be more different as films. Voice from the Stone is a direct route; whereas The Awakening concerns itself with plot, Voice from the Stone is almost entirely about setting and character: a young therapist travels to Italy to help find a "cure" for a boy who has been rendered mute by the death of his beloved mother. If anything, I think this film would have benefited from a longer runtime as in the end the story does feel quite linear.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Three Troubadours of Ravenloft

One project I've set myself is to create a bunch of pregen characters for my Ravenloft games. But rather than just make a series of random characters, I want to create three characters at a time--each a variation on a theme. This is an exercise in exploring the flexibility of 5e D&D's character creation options and carving out some niches in the Ravenloft setting. A pdf of all three characters statted out at 3rd level, ready to print and play, is linked below.

The theme of this post: troubadours

The Crossroads Nightingale
Lightfoot Halfling Fiend Patron Warlock
Not everyone has the natural musical talent to be a bard, even if the admiration of an adoring audience is their dearest wish. This troubadour was unable to achieve success through conventional hard work, practice, and determination, so they turned to darker forces for aid; a midnight sojourn to an accursed crossroads led to a meeting with a devil who proposed an unusual deal: do the fiend's bidding in return for supernatural musical skill and access to infernal magic.

The Dirge Singer
Hill Dwarf Bladesinger Wizard
Although most musicians aspire to leave their audiences feeling joyous and inspired, this troubadour sings songs that render the crowds maudlin and weeping: their ballads tell of the tragic downfall of the great dwarven heroes. As sorrowful as their music may be, there is still magic in those old songs of slain warriors and fallen thanes; in combat, the dirge singer's mournful strains and melancholy melodies embolden them to acts of bravery worthy of the subjects of their repertoire.

The Murder Balladeer
Human College of Swords Bard
Kartakass is home to many thrilling styles of musicianship, but none raise the hair on the back of the neck quite as well as the chilling art of the murder ballad. This troubadour travels the Land of the Mists to collect new tales of horrific slayings, dark magic, and warped passions; sometimes these terrible events are witnessed firsthand. These monstrous affairs are woven into musical cautionary tales that warn the populace of the horrors that lurk in the night and the violence roiling within the human heart.

Three Troubadours of Ravenloft pdf

Note: If there's an aspect of a character here that doesn't conform 100% to the rules as written, that's because I'm making these characters according to my own house rules. Or I just made a mistake. Either is probable.