Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The Woman in the Mirror, Redacted Records, The Batman, and More

Things that brought me delight in May, 2022.

Rebecca James, The Woman in the Mirror

The Woman in the Mirror has one foot in the past and one foot in the present: a new governess arrives at a cliffside manor to take charge of two uncanny twins in 1947, while an orphan in the present day discovers that the same manor has just now fallen into her hands after the death of a relative she never even knew existed. Rebecca James's novel will certainly appeal to fans of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Although its twists and turns will be unlikely to surprise anyone steeped in the Gothic novel's standard conventions, The Woman in the Mirror is a fast and fun read.

Wrath & Glory: Redacted Records

My favorite rpg supplements have always been of the "grab bags" and "odds and ends" sorts. While a hyper-focused supplement can be just what the doctor ordered for a specific need, I find that a more scattershot offering of new material often spurs my imagination in directions it wouldn't have gone otherwise. Redacted Records presents a small buffet of new widgets for the Wrath & Glory rpg: it has a few chapters on generating spacehulks to be explored, a sampling of additional talents for characters, and a handful of cults that characters might encounter. While the editing on Cubicle 7's 40k line continues to have immediately obvious issues, this is a welcome collection of stuff that will likely see use at the table.

The Batman

The Batman is probably the first movie about the character I've enjoyed since Batman Returns. It's genuinely nice to see Batman do some actual detective work instead of moving from point A to point B, punching and kicking his problems away all the while. Paul Dano's Riddler won me over; he definitely came across as genuinely mentally disturbed instead of someone acting like they are crazy. The movie is probably over-long, often feeling like both a movie and its sequel jammed together, but you can always pause it halfway through and pick it up later. Well worth the time, if not a single burst of attention span.

Dean Motter, Judith Dupre, and Sean Phillips, The Heart of the Beast: A Love Story

Sometimes it's difficult to take the temperature on a title; The Heart of the Beast has plenty of negative reviews on the usual sites, but it isn't infrequently reprinted--sometimes with the deluxe treatment. The Heart of the Beast is one of those Vertigo titles I remember kicking around in the 90s, but it wasn't until May that I finally clapped eyes on it. I enjoyed its premise of "Frankenstein's monster skimming the edge of the art world," but then I do love a painted comic. The interesting and unstated notion that the monster knew Mary Shelley and the Romantic poets hums along in the background.

Rob Zombie's Spookshow International 1-9 and The Haunted World of El Superbeasto

As I began work on a new edition of Planet Motherfucker, I decided it was time to revisit the Spookshow International comics. They're not technically good by any definition, but they are fascinating. Some stories and artists work better then others in this anthology, but even the good ones are ticking time bombs; how long will it take before an aside to the reader admits that they're lost the plot and it's all nonsense from there on out? In retrospect, it's not surprising that this comic disappeared with several stories just on the verge of conclusion. In any event, there are enough raw ideas here to make the return trip worthwhile even if nothing fully works on a satisfying comic level. One more issue to wrap things up would have been nice, but then we just don't live in a nice world, do we? 

But wait, you can wrap things up, if you have the collected edition titled The Haunted World of El Superbeasto! Not only does the collection gather all the installments of the Superbeasto, Suzi X, and Simon Deadmarsh stories that appeared in the single issues, it also includes the conclusions to those stories that never saw print! (No Captain Spaulding Presents or Screaming Lord Zombie, though). The sex and nudity are feel significantly ramped up in the concluding bits; I wonder if that's why they pulled the plug on Spookshow International?

Clive Barker, Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium and Infernal Parade

I got my hands on the collections of the little fictional vignettes that came with the Clive Barker-branded toys that McFarlane put out in the 00s. (I actually had a full set of the first run of them; I sold them for a tidy profit right before grad school.) Tortured Souls: Legends of Primordium tells the tales of the doom that befell the decadent city of Primordium; it all feels a bit like Tanith Lee on a splatterpunk kick. Infernal Parade is more of the same, except this time the stories involve foul souls being recruited for a satanic, carnivalesque collection of oddities known as, you guessed it, the Infernal Parade.

GURPS Horror

I've been reading not one, but two editions of GURPS Horror in preparation for an upcoming campaign. GURPS has a rightfully earned reputation of quality for its supplements, and I've found GURPS Horror (in its various incarnations) to be one of the best overviews of the genre out there. Plus, the cover on the older edition (on the left in that picture) is one of my favorite pieces of rpg cover art, hands down.

The Night House

Watching The Night House made me feel tense, particularly in its first half. The premise should give you a good indication of what you're in for: a widowed woman struggles to process her grief after her husband's suicide, and discovering his secret life and suspecting that her house is haunted isn't helping matters. There's a little bit of everything in here: haunted house, psychological breakdowns, occult architecture, and, of course, my favorite: repressed secrets. I went into this one expecting very little, but I really enjoyed The Night House.

MWWB, The Harvest

MWWB, formerly known by the more unwieldy (but far more evocative) name Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, continue to rocket their 90s alt-rock infused brand of doom metal into the far reaches of deepest space. The Harvest is MMWB's most mature album to date; there's something truly cinematic about it, though of course the movie in question would have to be something about a spaceship haunted by an eldritch evil from beyond the cosmos. If you like doom metal and Event Horizon, this is the record for you.

Second Inquisition

Second Inquisition is a supplement for the fifth edition of Vampire: The Masquerade. Second Inquisition is essentially a book of antagonists for Vampire campaigns, covering mortals who hunt the undead. The material in this book could help you cook up some lone hunters or even hunters belonging to well-funded and tactically proficient squads of would-be vampire slayers. I'm not an expert on Vampire's mechanics, but some of the hunters detailed here look like they'd be more than a match for even powerful vampires.


Inheritance got fairly negative reviews, but I have to confess that I actually enjoyed it! It helps to have a high tolerance for nonsense, as the movie serves up heaping helpings of it. A high-powered New York City DA from a wealthy, well-connected family receives a strange inheritance when her father dies suddenly of a heart attack: a man who has been kept locked in a bunker underneath the earth for the last thirty or so years. The man guides her through a catalog of her father's misdeeds, hoping to win his release from captivity. There's a moral struggle here: the man literally knows where the bodies are buried and could easily blow-up her brother's political aspirations and their mother's unblemished memories of her marriage. 

There's a twist in there that demolishes the ethical burden posited by the film, and though it's a twist that isn't set up precisely it is rife with the kind of "repressed family secret" flavor of Gothic nonsense that I like. Part of why this movie hit the right chord for me is that I had recently re-read Clive Barker's "The Midnight Meat Train." Although the two stories are very different in execution, they both dwell on what the rich and powerful are willing to do to maintain their place in the hierarchy and the history of horrors that always entails.

Mournful Congregation, The Incubus of Karma, The Exuviae of Gods, Concrescence of the Sophia

Funeral doom was what I needed at the end of my last semester, and I was in luck: The Exuviae of Gods, a new EP by Mournful Congregation, had just came out. Of course, in the hands of a doom metal band, an EP eats like an album. Still, I was intoxicated enough by the sound to seek out The Incubus of Karma and Concrescence of the Sophia as well. I am pleased to report that they are all of extremely high quality.

Steve Niles and Greg Ruth, Freaks of the Heartland

Trevor's family has a secret: they keep his monstrous, mutant brother under lock and key in the barn out back. And yet, their secret isn't unique; for reasons unknown, women who became pregnant in their isolated rural community all gave birth to misshapen children who have since grown to terrifying proportions. Unwilling to let his brother be executed for his supposed monstrosity, Trevor helps the misbegotten children escape. I don't want to say that it's rare for a horror comic to have heart, but Freaks of the Heartland feels more emotive than most as it dwells on the choices we make about who gets to count as family.

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie

I know I saw the Tales from the Darkside movie at some point in the 90s, but even though I was a huge fan of the show I didn't really remember much about it. Viewing it basically anew, I can say it's definitely a fun little anthology. The first tale is an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lot No. 249," the second adapts Stephen King's "The Cat From Hell," and the third is a bespoke nightmare written by Michael McDowell about a failing artist who has a run in with a murderous gargoyle. Wrapping things together is a frame narrative about a witch planning to eat a kidnapped boy, but he tries to 1001 Nights her by telling the horror stories that we see on screen.

This is the rare horror anthology where all the segments work well. With a screenplay by George A. Romero and Michael McDowell, and performances from powerhouses like Deborah Harry, Christian Slater, Steve Buscemi, William Hickey, and Julianne Moore, you really can't go wrong.

Watain, The Agony and Ecstasy of Watain

Even though Watain is a pretty high-profile black metal band, I'm not really too familiar with their impressively deep back catalog. However, the buzz (both laudatory and critical) around their new album was enough to push me toward finally checking them out. And I'm glad I did because I've been in the mood for something to scratch the traditional black metal itch. There really aren't any curveballs or jaw-dropping innovations to be found on The Agony and Ecstasy of Watain, but what you will get is satisfying black metal riffs, plenty of grim, satanic atmosphere, and occasional blasphemous touches of inverted classicalism. 

Niles, Sampson, Paitreau, Bidikar, Winnebago Graveyard

I can't fault Winnebago Graveyard for its classic horror premise: a vacationing family stops at the wrong town, their Winnebago disappears, and ultimately they find themselves on the run from satanists who want to sacrifice them to reincarnate their evil compatriots. The story sticks to the script; there really aren't any surprises, but I think a story like this doesn't strictly require them. The art is suitably grotesque; characters are cartoony, but their forms are distorted, garish, and maniacal by turns. This one is a quick read: some have complained that there aren't many words in this comic (???), but that's just fine by me.

Elizabeth Thomas, Catherine House

A young woman with a dark past has been accepted into a mysterious college that demands total isolation from the outside world for its students. For three years, they are expected to be completely cut off from their friends and families, and the larger culture in general, never straying from the Catherine House campus. The school has a divided reputation: many prominent members of society are graduates, but it is also suspected that the school does secretive experiments in some kind of occult pseudoscience. 

The characters in the novel remind me a bit of the characters in Gideon the Ninth, minus the sci-fantasy trappings, as they're gifted, talented, and amoral people who have been thrown together--even if they don't particularly like one another. There's a lot of meaningless sex and drunkenness  exploration of identity, and, perhaps above all, a lot of snacks. I really enjoyed this novel, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it to any college students or recent graduates. The way it magnifies the horrors of higher education might be a little too real.

Wolves in the Throne Room, Primordial Arcana

Primordial Arcana comes on like a summer storm; it's occasionally a little terrifying, but when it's over you feel cleansed. Wolves in the Throne Room's trademark organic black metal is in full effect on this release. "Spirit of Lightning" is a particularly fine moment--if you like that, check out the entire album. If you're already a fan of the band, this won't be a let down.

Frederic Bezian, Adam Sarlech: A Trilogy

The three tales in the Adam Sarlech trilogy all bloom from the garden of dark delights planted by Edgar Allan Poe. The tales are Gothic and psychologically layered: the first concerns a doomed family and their spiritualist fixations; the second deals with a man haunted by his vices; the third is a story of revenge from beyond the grave. Frederic Bezian's art is the perfect venue for the expression of these tales: his figures are defined by grotesque, frenzied linework, while the settings and backdrops are more solid, more grounded, and free of the psychosexual mania that troubles the agents of his dark fictive world. Absolutely recommended!

Wrath & Glory: Litanies of the Lost

Litanies of the Lost is a collection of adventure scenarios for the Wrath & Glory rpg set in the dark future of Warhammer 40k. I've been dragging my feet on running some 40k games; I like the newer version of Wrath & Glory done by Cubicle 7, warts and all, but haven't really felt like I had a handle on what the adventures should concern, how they should be structured, etc. Litanies of the Lost looks like the prefect thing to solve my issue: I can just run the adventures in this book without sweating the details so much. Now, I just need to talk some folks into point-buying their way to a cast of mutants, space marines, and agents of the Imperium.

Blut Aus Nord, Disharmonium: Undreamable Abysses

It would be nice, perhaps, if Blut Aus Nord showed a little human weakness, a little relatable failure, at least once in a while. Atmosphere has always been one of Blut Aus Nord's strong suits, and over the years the project has conjured a variety of tones, colors, and (especially) horrors. In the past the project has explored industrial terrors, dread-soaked religiosity, and grim black metal from the frigid north, byt Disharmonium: Undreamable Abysses finds Blut Aus Nord working in the fraught intersection of the spectral and the cosmic.

Katura Hoshino, D. Gray-Man, Volumes 13, 14, 15

More big brawls in these volumes of D.Gray-Man! The slugfest is livened up by a few things. For one we get to see Cross Marion in action finally--he's a got a holy firearm and a weird undead servitor, so that's something that lights up the pages a bit. We're also introduced to a high-ranking Order bureaucrat with a Hitler mustache--there's no way he's going to end up being a cool guy. Finally, we meet our first Level 4 demon, which apparently is a new kind of monster that no one has ever encountered before.

Kirstyn McDermott, The New Wife

I'm a sucker for stories based on the legend of Bluebeard, so Kirstyn McDermott's The New Wife was right up my bloody chamber. The solution to the usual "Bluebeard Problem" occurs early on in this novella, but the sudden resolution only serves to ask a more interesting question: how do the wives who died previously receive restitution for their murders, particularly if they are now trapped for an eternity in Bluebeard's castle with the dangerous specter of their abusive husband? Although this is a short, brisk read, the characterization is fairly taut and there's a lot to take pleasure in if you're a fan of Gothic fairytales.

Septicflesh, Modern Primitive

Septicflesh is back again with their brand of symphonic death metal with all the trimmings. This is a style of metal that really requires a bit of bombast; Modern Primitive is at its best when it is straining against the line of "tasteful" by brandishing heavy riffs, orchestral swells, choirs, and lines cribbed from Middle Eastern musical traditions. Septicflesh pack so much sound in each track that they feel longer than they really are; this is not a bad thing--maximal is always preferrable when it comes to Septicflesh.

Mort Todd's Monster's Attack!: The Ultimate Collection

I'm going to need to qualify this one a bit to warrant it's inclusion on my monthly best-of list; I want to consider this comic collection in two ways: as a compilation of horror comics and as a physical artifact.

It is as a collection of mostly forgotten horror comics that his collection really shines. I managed to pick up the first issue back in 1989 when it hit news stands; the throwback to the horror comics of earlier decades really captivated me, but as my local pharmacy never got the subsequent issues, it's awesome to have them collected in one place. The vast majority of the stories are worth your time if you're a fan of horror comics, Creepshow, or monster mashes in general. This will be especially valuable to fans of some big comic names (Ditko, Colan, Toth, Severin) who haven't seen the work they did for this magazine.

On the other hand, the physical presentation is a little bit of a letdown on several fronts. The reproduction of the images is good, but not what I'd call great. The pages often suffer from a common artifact of POD printing, particularly where black page edges aren't actually "full bleed," leaving an unfortunate white strip along the top, bottom, or side of the page. Monsters Attack! also warranted nicer paper for its printing; considering the amount of black ink used, the pages are a little too thin, resulting in wavy pages and a little bleed through. One of the stories is misprinted; as is, it is an incomplete tale. Finally, it's odd that the "Ultimate Collection" doesn't actually include every story that originally appeared in the magazine.

Rammstein, Zeit

No on really expects a radical invention from Rammstein at this point, right? Zeit sounds like a Rammstein record, albeit perhaps a little less hooky and grandiose than the previous album. And therein lies the challenge: it's a good record, but I'm going to need to live with it a bit more to shake off the feeling that it is a bit of a disappointment compared to their previous offering.

Stranger Things, Season 4, Part 1

It feels fashionable in some quarters to bag on Stranger Things, but personally I find it a decent show if you don't feel the need to take it seriously. (And why would you, given the premise?) This part of the season doles out four separate narrative strands: Eleven confronts her past to get her powers back, part of the gang is on the run from shadowy military agents out to stop Eleven from getting her powers back, the other part of the gang is investigating the strange murders taking place in Hawkins, and Joyce, Murray, and Hopper are battling the Soviets in a prison camp. It's an imperfect show, as always, but I still find it a fun watch. The "haunted house" elements added in this season, the Vecna-from-D&D tie in, and the cameo from Robert Englund didn't hurt!

Predatory Light, Death and the Twilight Hours

I find that it's often the case that music coming from the intersection of black metal and doom often loses its sonic definition along the way, but that isn't the case with Predatory Light's Death and the Twilight Hours. The sepulchral atmosphere is enveloping and suffocating, yet everything remains crisp and needling. As with the Wolves in the Throne Room and Watain records mentioned earlier, this certainly scratched my black metal itch for the month.

Clive Barker, Books of Blood Volume Two

Although the Books of Blood are often treated as subdivisions of the same overarching project, I think it's worthwhile to think of their individual specificities. Volume One is the introduction; its stories are the most in-line with an abstract notion of "standard horror," easing the reader into Barker's idiosyncratic universe of grotesqueries. Volume Three, on the other hand, is full on phantasmagoric fantasy. What can we say of Volume Two, then? In my estimation, it sits at the halfway point between the other two. Unpopular opinion(?): Clive Barker's "New Murders in the Rue Morgue" would be right at home in the lit anthologies they make you buy for creative writing classes.