Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Fiend of Hollow Mine

I've begun to run the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel as part of an open table campaign on my Discord. Without further ado, here's how "The Fiend of Hollow Mine," the third adventure, went for my group on Discord.

Dramatis Personae

Captain Horatio Gurthus, human barbarian

Brother Albany Palmer, human monk

Kill-sin, aasimar warlock

A Dream of Plague, Vile Bounty Hunters

Horatio and Brother Albany were joined by a new companion, Kill-sin, who shared their prophetic dreams. In the third dream granted by the angel, it broke the seal of one of its thirteen scrolls, revealing disturbing images of plague-stricken bodies being thrown into a mass burial pit. Each awoke feeling that if they intervened, the plague's progress could be halted. Unlike the previous dreams that possessed more specificity of location, this one merely pointed them to the vicinity of Strega Hollow.

The party arrived at a town called Millpool that was encircled by a low stone wall. A man in a long leather duster and a tricorne hat sat astride a horse near the entrance to the town; as soon as he spotted their approach, he spurred his horse and disappeared into the town, out of sight. As they came nearer, they heard the crack of a whip and a cry of pain. Once they passed within the stone wall, a number of men in leather coats bearing longbows sprang out of hiding and bid them to leave, immediately. The men were bounty hunters, and they assumed that the party were also manhunters after the same prey--a bandit leader named Paloma.

The bounty hunters were a little too insistent that the adventurers not enter any farther into the town, particularly as they self-described as "meddlers," so the two groups soon came to violence. The bounty hunters were hopelessly outmatched; once three of their number were slain, the rest ran to warn their companions, mount their horses, and flee. Easier said then done with a monk, barbarian, and warlock on your heels. More fell by the wayside, one was knocked unconscious by Brother Albany for later questioning, but some managed to get to their mounts and ride away. 

The Corpse Bride and the Bandit Queen

The bounty hunters left behind a wounded townsman, whom they had been torturing for information. Once the bounty hunters were gone, the townspeople began to trickle out of the homes where they had taken shelter. Among those who now emerged was a skeletal woman in a red lace dress. The skin of her hands was desiccated, her nails black and broken. She examined the wound the man had taken from one of the bounty hunters' whips, sent him on his way, and asked the trio if they fancied drinks, on the house, at her tavern. 

As she poured them ale at the tavern, the woman pulled back her red lace veil, revealing a corpse-like visage; the skin of her face had pulled back from her teeth and her sockets were devoid of eyes. Introducing herself as Rufina, the woman explained that Paloma was a local hero to the people of the town; she robbed wealthy caravans coming to and from Strega Hollow and distributed the gains to help the poor people of towns like Millpool.

Brother Albany fetched the bounty hunter he had knocked out and tied up for questioning. Bringing him into Rufina's tavern prompted two dwarf patrons to shift the table they had been sitting at and open a trap door that was hidden beneath; from the depths of the tavern emerged Paloma, a middle-aged woman with an eyepatch. Paloma was clearly afflicted by the plague of which they had all dreamed. She explained that her group of brigands had been investigating the cause of the plague. She reported that they had been attacked by an owl-like man whose wings brought a cold wind that carried the disease. One of Paloma's companions, a druid named Lope, believed that killing the creature could end the plague. She believed that the owl-fiend may be nesting in an abandoned mine to the north.

The Catastrophe in the Mine

The group traveled north to the mine, but were surprised to find that it wasn't exactly abandoned. Although the town around the mine had long been derelict, the site was swarming with soldiers in uniforms. A fancy, baroque carriage also looked distinctly out of place amid the squalor. A tiefling with a jade prosthetic horn emerged from the carriage and greeted them. Introducing himself as Itsahn, the man told them that he had bought up the mine and the town around it; he planned to restart the mining operation in the future. He gave them his permission to explore the mine if they wanted to, but cautioned them that it could be dangerous.

The first chamber of the mine featured a elevator platform suspended above the mineshaft. The trio stood atop the elevator; it shuttered with their weight, rust raining down upon them from the chain mechanism above. The elevator began to slowly descend...and then the chains snapped, causing them to plummet into the depths of the mine. A horrible crash at the bottom knocked Kill-sin and Brother Albany unconscious, but the resilient Horatio managed to pull himself and his companions from the rubble. 

After everyone was revived, they explored the chamber they now found themselves in. The walls were etched with blasphemous runes; Kill-sin was able to translate them--the words formed the Prophecies of Pazuzu, a demon lord of disease. The Prophecies concerned turning cultists into bird-like avatars of the demon lord in order to spread a supernatural plague. Additionally, they heard an explosion far above then and correctly deduced that Itsahn had detonated something in hopes of burying them alive in the mine.

The chamber also featured a tunnel leading into darkness and an altar carved from stone. Wrapped around the altar was the skeleton of a four-legged beast that no one in the party could identify. Brother Albany mounted the steps of the altar and determined that its blood-stained surface had been used for a recent sacrifice. Of course, as he examined the altar, the skeleton began to detach itself from the altar, readying itself to attack. However, despite being a fearsome beast, it was quickly felled by a combination of a guiding bolt from Kill-sin and a savage attack by Horatio. 

After the monster was slain, the group explored the tunnel, which was similarly decorated with Abyssal writings about Pazuzu. However, the walls had also been scratched by claws and they found large feathers scattered throughout. The tunnel culminated in a wall braced with wooden scaffolding. People stricken with the plague were living down in this abandoned mine after being chased from their homes by the folk above. Climbing the scaffolding led to an exit from the cavern; strangely, despite walking not nearly long enough down the tunnel to reach a different town, the group found themselves in the witch-ruled town of Strega Hollow after a festival. 

Returning back to the altar chamber, Kill-sin summoned her angelic wings and secured rope at the top of the mine shaft so they could all climb up and explore the mine passages they had passed in their fall. They found a makeshift bedchamber with many drawings of a specific manor house in Strega Hollow, a portrait of Itsahn, and a locket containing a picture of a middle-aged woman with dark hair. Further exploration uncovered a pit of stinking remains--both human and animal--and a laboratory in which three undead abominations writhed on operating tables. According to the scattered notes they found, someone was trying to weaponing the plague by creating zombies infected with the disease. The experimental zombies were destroyed before they left the chamber.

A Distraught Mother, Back Alley Murder, The Cure

Back in Strega Hollow, the group showed the charcoal drawings of the house they had found in the mine to passersby until they were given directions to it. The manor stood on a quiet street in a once-prosperous neighborhood. The dark-haired woman who answered the door was the same as the picture in the locket; she took one look at the group and asked, "Are you here to kill my son?"

Ushering them inside, Rosaria dispelled some of the mysteries of this situation. The owl-creature they were hunting was her son, Seraphio. The previous day, Seraphio had confessed that he had been transforming into a monstrous owl that was causing death and destruction throughout the area. Afterward, he had fled the house. She also revealed that before Seraphio's birth, she had discovered that Orencio (Seraphio's father) was a cultist devoted to the demon lord Pazuzu. She turned Orencio in to the Graymalk family; as diabolic witches, they would not countenance demon worshippers in their domain--Orencio was burned in a pyre in the town square. 

Rosaria believed that Orencio, or his fellow cult members who were not apprehended, were responsible for her son's transformation. She also mentioned that Seraphio had been taken under the wing of Itsahn, the wealthy owner of a local ironworks. Since the group wanted revenge on Itsahn for attempting to bury them in the mine, they got the address of his ironworks and set off.

Itsahn was closer at hand than they suspected; they encountered him outside of Rosaria's manor. (He was headed to murder Rosaria, thinking that after Seraphio's confession she knew too much.) Kill-sin cast hold person on Itsahn; he was then dragged into an alley by the group and killed while helpless!

The group continue to the ironworks and were surprised to find it inactive. Using a key they had taken from Itsahn, they ventured inside. Up on the catwalk they saw the hideous owl-demon that Seraphio had become. A combination of entreating him to atone and intimidation caused Seraphio to fight against the transformation; he reverted to his human form. Convinced that the party could help him, he allowed himself to be restrained with rope. 

The party debated what to do to effect his cure, and it was decided that they should take him to a bastion of the Church particularly adept at dealing with monstrous transformations. The group found a branch of the Church that was happy to take Seraphio into their care. He was released two weeks later, cured of demonic taint and the plague thus thwarted. However, it was clear that the Church's agents had more or less brainwashed the youth--he now had the zealous demeanor and paranoia of a forced convert.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Written in Blood

I've begun to run the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel as part of an open table campaign on my Discord. Without further ado, here's how "Written in Blood," the second adventure, went for my group.

Dramatis Personae

Captain Horatio Gurthus, human barbarian

Brother Albany Palmer, human monk

A Dream of Hands, Eyes of Blood, Unlikely Companions

Horatio and Brother Albany again dreamed of the angel, but after the previous adventure the angel only bore twelve scrolls. When the angel broke the seal of the second scroll, both characters had visions of farm-folk being pulled back into a lake by a multitude of hands that emerged from the water. Both awoke knowing that a series of murders were occurring in and around a farming community in Godsbreath called New Promise. 

The duo were soon on the road, headed to New Promise. They arrived in the morning and found that the town was in the midst of a celebration. The farming folk were joined in singing a song that told of the town's founding and its history; however, the song was interrupted by a scream when four farmers emerged from the crowd, their eyes turned red and blood flowing down their cheeks. These strange farmers raised their farming implements and began to attack their fellow townsfolk. As the townsfolk fled this sudden burst of violence, Horatio and Brother Albany entered the fray. One woman tried to reason with the rampaging farmers while Albany and Horatio cut them down.

The final farmer was knocked unconscious and restrained. Searching the bodies of the other farmers uncovered a crumpled piece of parchment with a charcoal drawing of a child swimming in dark water while hands from below tried to pull him under. The woman who had tried to reason with the murderous farmers identified the drawing as the work of her goddaughter Kianna. She explained that Kianna had a farmstead outside of New Promise, in an area called the Rattle. Since she was clearly concerned with Kianna's welfare, and the drawing roughly matched the contents of their shared dream, Brother Albany and Horatio decided they needed to pay her a visit.

As they prepared to leave, they were approached by a flamboyant trader calling herself Lady Dre. Lady Dre feigned concern as well, and offered to drive the duo to the Rattle in a wagon, sparing them a long walk. They quickly discerned that Lady Dre's motives weren't wholly altruistic; she had made a business deal with the farmers of the Rattle and wanted to check on her investment amid all these strange goings-on. The group was also joined by Proclaimer Ward, an androgynous cleric devoted to Saint Solna, the patron of learning and knowledge seekers. Proclaimer Ward felt that the rampaging farmers and the blight afflicting the red grain grown by the farmers of New Promise were connected to a supernatural occurrence they were duty-bound to investigate.

A Series of Calamities

The newly formed group set off toward the Rattle, but a series of perils stood between them and their destination. They encountered a giant coyote chasing a old farmer named Uncle Polder; after rescuing him, he confirmed that he had seen Kianna a few weeks ago and that she was looking forward to the arrival of her friend Culley. Proclaimer Ward recognized the name and explained that Culley was one of her childhood friends, but that he had drowned in Cradlelace Lake. Polder insisted that Kianna spoke of Culley in the present tense and seemed to be excited to see him again.

Further along the path, the group felt the shock of a tremor underneath them. Ten minutes later, another tremor opened up a sinkhole beneath their wagon, sending it crashing into a pit. Brother Albany and Proclaimer Ward managed to throw themselves clear, but Horatio and Lady Dre plummeted into the pit. Lady Dre broke her arm in the bargain. 

As Lady Dre was hoisted from the pit with a rope, Horatio noticed a number of holes being bored in the sides of the pit; four disembodied hands emerged from the holes and attacked Horatio! Horatio fought back, aided by Brother Albany throwing darts down at the claws from the rim of the pit. Horatio survived the encounter, but everyone was shaken by the attack. Lady Dre decided to return to Uncle Polder's house rather than press on, leaving Albany, Horatio, and Ward to continue on to Kianna's farmhouse.

The Horror at the Farmhouse

The group briefly explored the first few farmhouses they found in the cluster, but each was a house of horrors. Someone had painted a red X on the front doors in mud, but each hinted at other unheralded terrors: one had a painting of a tangle of arms on a wall, another's interior was carpeted with human bones that had been gnawed upon, and another showed evidence of the occupants fleeing by throwing themselves out of the windows--cutting themselves on the jagged glass.

Kianna's farmhouse turned out to be a larger building, unmarked by an X on the door. Proclaimer Ward went behind the house to examine the blighted crops while Brother Albany and Horatio explored the interior. They discovered more disturbing drawings of hands, lakes, and staring eyes, a hidden cache of rings in multiple sizes, and two more blood-eyed farmers. The farmers did not react to their presence in the house; instead, they stood stock still, only locking eyes with each other. Also uncovered was a trap door leading down into the root cellar. The smell of decay was strong from below, and they could hear a woman singing down in the depths. 

Down in the root cellar, one wall had collapsed, forming a tunnel. As they traversed the tunnel, both the rotting stench and sound of a woman singing increased until the tunnel opened into a cavern. In the center of the chamber stood Kianna, clutching a knife and singing. She was surrounded by a pile of putrefying corpses, each of which was missing at least one hand. Attempts to reason with Kianna proved fruitless; she alternated between telling the pair that they should leave for their own safety and entreating them to stay to meet her friend Culley. Brother Albany knocked her unconscious with his quarterstaff and they began to drag her back down the tunnel. However, something began to stir from beneath the pile of corpses, causing them to make haste to get out of the basement. Something was following them as they fled!

Final Confrontations

The blood-eyed farmers attacked Horatio and Brother Albany as they emerged back into the farmhouse's kitchen, but they were quickly dispatched. Horatio attempted to stand on the trapdoor to prevent their pursuer from gaining entry into the farmhouse, but he was thrown aside as the creature emerged; it proved to be a tangle of limbs, bound together by dark magic. The duo bravely strived against it, but it managed to gather Horatio into it's crushing embrace, which knocked him unconscious with a surge of necrotic energy. 

Brother Albany called for help from Proclaimer Ward and could hear them quickly approaching. He leapt behind the kitchen's table for cover. Proclaimer Ward ran into the kitchen, but they too were swept up by the creature; Ward's broken form fell from its grasp. Brother Albany leapt from the table, smashed the creature with his staff, and followed that strike with a fierce knee that sent it crashing into the kitchen's window--where it promptly exploded into seven disembodied hands that fled through the broken casement. Horatio was revived, and the duo took the still-unconscious Kianna to one of the other farmhouses, where they barricaded themselves in to rest until morning.

Come morning, they took Kianna to Uncle Polder's house. While explaining what had transpired at the farmhouse to Polder and Lady Dre, they heard a scratching sound coming from inside Polder's home. The seven clawed hands burst from the unlit fireplace and attacked! Each of the claws was dealt with, but Lady Dre was killed in the chaotic melee. After the destruction of the final hand, Kianna awoke and proclaimed that "Culley has gone." She had no memory of her own actions, but Horatio and Albany were convinced that whatever had taken hold of her had now departed.

Feeling that their actions in this strange saga could be misconstrued as a murder spree, the pair left Polder with instructions to take Kianna to New Promise, explain their version of what had happened, and inform the town of the deaths of Proclaimer Ward and Lady Dre. While Polder set out for New Promise, they left in the opposite direction.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Wolfen

Whitley Strieber may be best known for documenting his harrowing encounters with extraterrestrials, but before Communion, he wrote modern takes on classic monsters. In his debut novel Wolfen, he tells the story of two cops stalked by werewolves amidst the urban decay of 1970s New York City. Jack and Kate take a journey that they hope will give them the lycanthropic flavors that they crave. 

Just how does a dog trainer acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of animal prints? What is the purpose of vampire sign language? Where does the New York Post fit into the food chain? All these questions and more will be explored in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Salted Legacy

I've begun to run the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel as part of an open table campaign on my Discord. Without further ado, here's how the first adventure went.

Dramatis Personae

Captain Horatio Gurthus, human barbarian

Assistant Professor Alice Kregmire, human artificer

Brother Albany Palmer, human monk

Visions, the Heat of Anger, and Cold Shoulders

Horatio, Alice, and Brother Albany are very different folk, from wildly different backgrounds, but they are united in one thing: all three dream of a horrific, multi-armed angel bearing thirteen scrolls fastened with wax seals. In their recurring dream, the angel presents the first scroll, breaks its seal, and shows them a revelation of familial strife between two rival "noble families" that threatens to spill over into bloody violence. They know that if it is not checked, this violence will take innocent lives, and they know that the blood opera will begin in the Night Market of Dunmouth, a port town on Saragoss. All three decided to travel to Dunmouth to attempt to stop the bloodshed from blooming; they met each other on the road and banded together.

They arrived at the Night Market just as dusk was falling. The market was in a sunken plaza near the town's wharfs; a number of market stalls, tents, and vendor's carts were arranged around three larger, golden tents. The market was already busy with browsing customers, and the aroma of unusual foods from abroad filled the air. The bustle of the Night Market was interrupted when a teenage tiefling carrying a large bundle of spring onions under his arm burst from the crowd and promptly ran headfirst into Horatio. A middle-aged woman with wild hair and a wide mouth quickly followed the tiefling, accusing him of stealing the onions from her food stall. For his part, the boy claimed that he was merely taking back property that was stolen from his family's food stall by the woman.

When the party intervened in this rapidly deteriorating situation, it was revealed that the boy, Gammon Montegrey, and the woman, Lamai Kaspian, belonged to families with a long professional and personal rivalry in the Night Market. Their squabbling was soon joined by Kusa Montegrey, Gammon's mother. The argument became much more intense, with each side accusing the other of attempting to sabotage their business in a myriad of ways. The argument became so heated that Kusa reached several times for the dagger at her belt and Lamai brought forth a butcher's cleaver--it seemed as though the women might make their disagreement violent and bloody at any moment. These, then, were the two "noble" families of which the characters had dreamed.

Both families offered the party money (and a lifelong supply of food from their stalls) to prove that the other side was the belligerent responsible for rekindling the feud between their families. The party took no sides, but promised to look into the matter. However, attempts to gather information from other vendors in the Night Market proved fruitless. Alice tried to pry a few secrets from the proprietor of Va's Lucky Amulets, a shop peddling fraudulent charms, but found the woman extremely tight-lipped about doings in the Night Market--she said that the people of the Night Market keep their business to themselves. While Horatio made a distraction by knocking over displays of amulets, Alice was pulled aside by Petra, the proprietor's niece who was working in the shop for summer. Petra told her that if they wanted to get information from the sellers of the Night Market, they should consider increasing their social capital by participating in the games held in the three golden tents at the center of the market.

Fun and Games

At this point, the party split up to tackle the games in the center of the Night Market. Horatio entered himself in a hot pepper eating competition hosted by vendors in the market calling themselves the Spice Brothers. The name was something of a misnomer, as the proprietors were a brother and sister pair called Kasem and Vi Aroon. Horatio was sat at a table with two other contestants: a fat halfling and a ship's captain named Vanessa Redmayne. Each round, the contestants would reach into a wicker basket in front of them and randomly pull out a pepper to eat. Anyone who reached for the glass of goat's milk set before them was out of the competition. The halfling tapped out after the first pepper. Horatio nearly bailed at the second pepper, but he and the ship's captain managed to stick it out until the end, to the applause of the audience.

Brother Albany and Alice tried their hands at the hide and seek game in another tent. The tent was run by an ancient gnome woman named Madame Kulpa. She explained that below the tent was a series of cluttered chambers in which a number of disturbing large grubs had been hidden. In the chambers below the tent, the duo raced against an hourglass as they scurried from room to room attempting to uncover grubs and scoop them up. They literally succeeded just as the final grains ran out in the hourglass. Madame Kulpa took them outside, blew a bugle, and pronounced them victors to the Night Market's patrons.

All three reconvened to attempt the third contest, a cooking competition hosted by Sid the Squid, a former adventurer who had grown a faceful of tentacles after coming into contact with a horrible eldritch statue. The contest involved chopping a large quantity of green beans and...killing a giant, rampaging prawn drawn from a tank of murky water. Alice summoned an unseen servant to help with the chopping and also launched a bolt of fire against the monstrous prawn. Horatio ran at the prawn and decapitated it in one swing. The group turned to chopping the veg and set a new record--they had all the ingredients in the giant pan in under twelve seconds! 

A Villainous Third Party

Having successfully completed all three tasks, the group found the people of the Night Market treating them with more openness and even a bit of deference. They also discovered that more sabotage had been afoot while they were competing; a fire had broken out at Montegrey Family Seafood and Kaspian's Noodles had been pelted with unusual orange fruit that seemed to originate from the thin air. The group spoke to Sid the Squid again and learned that the rivalry between the Montegrey and Kaspian families had been going on so long that no one really knew its origins. He also let slip that Kasem Aroon, one of the "Spice Brothers," had been sniffing around, looking to buy a more established vendor stall in the Night Market, which is considered something of a taboo among the vendors.

They also spoke to Madame Kulpa again, who claimed to have seen Kasem feeding an orange fruit to a small creature that resembled a bipedal, bat-like monstrosity with big green eyes--though she did concede that her distance vision is not so great. With a number of signs pointing to Kasem Aroon, the Spice Brothers tent was their next stop. Kasem and his sister Vi were busy talking to customers, but the group managed to pull Kasem aside into the Aroon's private tent on the pretense of wanting to buy peppers in bulk.

Kasem's private quarters were a bit incriminating: he had two large birdcages, under which was a box of persimmons--the strange orange fruit that pelted Kaspian's Noodles and that Madame Kulpa had spotted him feeding a bat-like creature. The group confronted Kasem with their hypothesis that he was using an invisible creature to destabilize the Kaspian and Montegrey businesses so that he might swoop in and buy their interests cheaply. Kasem reacted by snapping his fingers and saying "They know too much. Kill them." The doors of the birdcages opened and the group heard the flapping of wings.

Kasem drew a sword blade from his cane while his invisible minions bit at the party. When they attacked, the invisible creatures became visible. Ultimately slain by Alice's crossbow bolt, Kasem lay dead amongst his vicious "pets." Alerted by the commotion, Vi entered the tent and found her brother dead. She admitted that she had been turning a blind eye toward Kasem's plan, and she blamed herself for his villainous turn. She was leaving their business to get married to a man in Strega Hollow, and Kasem's scheme was his misguided attempt to find some stability without his sister. 

Vi bribed the group to keep silent about Kasem's wrongdoing. Her plan was to sell the pepper business to both families as a joint venture, a move she hoped would get them working together. However, the group also accepted payment from the Kaspians and the Montegreys after giving proof of Kasem's attempts to pit them against each other. They had both averted the bloody crisis they dreamed of and managed to enrich themselves by exploiting a grieving sister! Of course, they left Dunmouth before their treachery could be revealed. It would be a shame if that caught up with them someday...

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Wanted: Papa Juice Tank and Trixie LePoon

I got a chance to playtest a new version of Planet Motherfucker for a couple players last week, here's what went down:

The Characters

Marion Clarence, a Face-Breakin' Goon

Violet Hacks, a Chainsaw Paladin

The Adventure

Marion and Violet had been tracking Papa Juice Tank and Trixie LePoon, two notorious outlaws, and had nearly caught up to them on numerous occasions, but the duo managed to slip away. They had heard that Trixie and Juice Tank had holed up in a small mining town called Contrition in the Militialands. The town stood at the foot of a mine bored into the mountains; off to the side was an abandoned sawmill and a foothill strewn with gravestones and crosses serving as the local burying grounds. As they approached Contrition, they could see that it consisted largely of abandoned buildings, dotted here and there with businesses (mostly bars and brothels) with lit neon signs.

Of course, they were immediately jumped by a couple of hoodlums, one wearing a Limp Bizkit jersey and the other sporting a fried chicken bucket as a hat. "Your money or your wife," cried the Limp Bizkit fan, brandishing a pistol. The two would-be thugs were quickly dealt with; Marion and Violet moved on into Contrition. 

The first stop in their search to find Juice Tank and Trixie was a bar called The Road to Ruin. The Road to Ruin was a rough bar catering to the local miners; a bar brawl seemed to have sprung up solely out of boredom and a lack of entertainment options. A group stood nearby the fight, cheering on the combatants. Among that group was a man who looked like Papa Juice Tank picture in the wanted poster in their possession: he was tall and thin, wearing a stylish pimp coat, a necklace of shark teeth, and a top hat decorated with a skull emblem. 

Marion and Violet sidled up to Papa Juice Tank and took him by surprise. Juice Tank got a gut-punch for his trouble, then he reached into a pouch of "graveyard dust" at his waist and blew it into Violet's eyes, blinding her. Marion was about to clobber Juice Tank again when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned his head and was immediately popped in the face with the butt of a shotgun by a guy with mutton-chop sideburns, a ten-gallon hat, and leather chaps. As Violet and Marion turned their attention to the interloper, Papa Juice Tank took the opportunity to flee. The interloper was dealt with by a combination of a beer bottle broken across his face and a heft punch to the jewels.

Unfortunately, when our heroes finally got out to the street, there was no sign of where Juice Tank had gone. They scoped out an unpopular brothel called The Cootchie-Coo, Keno Harry's House of One-Armed Bandits, a noodle bar called Miso Horny, and the local mines. Papa Juice Tank was not hiding out in the mines, but the duo discovered that the miners of Contrition were not extracting anything as mundane as gold or silver--they were mining glowing green rock that pulsated with light and felt cool to the touch. Violet stuffed a few fragments of the weird rock into her pockets for later examination.

Waiting for them at the entrance to the mine was Ten-Gallon Hat. He was still walking funny from the pummeling he took to the nads previously, and he was insistent that Marion and Violet were not going to steal the bounty on Juice Tank and Trixie out from under him. He let fly with a blast from his shotgun, but the pair laid him down for dirt nap. Marion took the badge he was wearing, which turned out to be the prize from a box of Buckaroo cereal.

Their next stop was VoltzMart, the local convenience store. As soon as they walked in, the proprietor turned a paranoid shotgun on them. Perhaps a little frustrated by their hunt for Juice Tank, Violet and Marion were not having it. Marion grabbed the barrel of the shotgun and laid the guy out with a punch. After tying him up and rousing him back to consciousness, he was questioned quite forcefully. The man told them that Contrition had formerly been devoted to logging and lumber production until Mr. Eyres, the owner of the town's sawmill, discovered veins of the strange glowing rock in the mountains. After which, he immediately closed his sawmill and employed his workers as miners. Although the man didn't know what the rock did or what special properties it might possess, he did let slip that men came into town to cart away the rock--and that the men wore what sounded like hazmat suits of some kind the whole while.

Violet promptly discarded the slivers of glowing rock she had taken from the mine, just in case.

The man also told them that Mr. Eyres still lived in the depths of the abandoned sawmill. Deciding that they need to have a chat with Eyres, they descended into the sawmill's creepy basement. An eerie green glow coming from a room in the basement seemed to call to them. Inside, they found old man Eyres hooked to an elaborate machine. They looked on in horror and awe at the monstrosity that was Mr. Eyres. Unphased by their entrance, Eyres answered their questions. When asked about the glowing rock, he showed them how it served to power the machines he was hooked up to and revealed the glowing patches of mutant skin on his body that were doing battle with an end-of-life illness to keep him alive. He claimed that the rock was a lucrative venture, and that his business partners shipped the rock to other ailing and wealthy oligarchs through America.

Ultimately, Eyres point the duo to Boot Hill as Juice Tank's likely plan was to use his voodoo to raise a little backup from the dead. They set off to the cemetery, only to find that Papa Juice Tank was headed back down to find them--with a posse of zombies and glowing mutant miners in tow. Violet revved up her chainsaw and made a mess of Juice Tank's zombies. The battle was joined by a whip-wielding Trixie LePoon, but Violet shredded her whip, rendering her mostly defenseless--except for her steal-toed cowboy boots. Juice Tank offered prayers to his voodoo gods and called down lightning strikes against our heroes, but a well-placed shot took him down. Their morale broken, Trixie and the remaining miners surrendered. 

Papa Juice Tank's head was taken to fulfill the bounty and Trixie was tied up to be marched out of Contrition to face justice for her crimes. But where had the strange rock from the mine been going and who was being changed by its strange, and perhaps unholy, properties?

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Black Spider, Orphan of Agony Isle, Deathwhite, and More

Things that brought me delight in July, 2022:

Jeremias Gotthelf, The Black Spider

At its heart, Jeremias Gotthelf's The Black Spider is a tale of Faustian bargains. Beleagued and abused peasants make a literal deal with the Devil in his guise as the "green man": he will do the impossible labor they've been assigned by their lord if they agree to give him an unbaptized infant! When they refuse to fulfill the terms of their pact with the Devil, he torments them in the form of a giant black spider who brings death and destruction in its wake. Although the novella is essentially a Christian allegory, it weaves together elements of Gothic horror, folk horror, and even some aspects of the mythical Green Man.

One thing that struck me about the writing in The Black Spider is how well Gotthelf is able to portray the simple and unspoken rules of social obligation. In the opening frame narrative, we see the godmother being plied with food she dare not refuse, even to the point of feeling overfull and sick. Similarly, the rhetorical dance attached to the giving of gifts, one side deploring the poor quality of the presents they've giving while the other exclaims that the gift-giver has gone to too much expense, rings particularly vivid and true.

The Black Spider also features some impressive moments of body horror, particularly when the titular spider grows from the face of the woman who made the initial deal with the Devil. Although a moralizing fable isn't my usual cup of tea, The Black Spider provides more than enough strangeness to make up the difference.

Ravenloft: Orphan of Agony Isle #1 and #2

The Ravenloft Renaissance continues! The latest addition to the microgenre of "things I would not have dreamed would exist back in 1993" is a comic series focusing on a mysterious young woman with amnesia who has fallen into the hands of Doctor Mordenheim. Admittedly, I'm not usually a single-issue guy, but since it's Ravenloft I even ventured out to three comic shops in my area to find this--to no avail, as none of them had it on the new release rack. Alas, at least the internet provides.

When I first heard Orphan of Agony Isle was coming out, I was excited that it focused on Viktra Mordenheim. Of the "revamped" Darklords, I thought she got some of the the best alterations. In previous editions, the Darklord of Lamordia was Victor Mordenheim, a pretty bare Frankenstein pastiche. Her characterization in the comic is pretty much exactly how I imagined her. I also like that the comic gives a glimpse of how regular people deal with living in a land of horrors. 

Thus far, we don't get much in the way of plot or action: we have the introduction of "Miranda," a woman supposedly saved from death by Mordenheim's experiments and also the scene of a woman who dies protecting her son from a hag in Lamordia. The second issue features a nice foiled escape from Falkovnia and the introduction of a fun severed hand servant for Viktra. Of course, as the first two issues of Orphan of Agony Isle you're left wanting more. How the various stories it's telling fit together remains to be seen, but that's the work of issues the final stretch, I suppose.

Deathwhite, For a Black Tomorrow, Grave Image, and Grey Everlasting

The titles of Deathwhite's three albums accurately tell you what you're in for: For a Black TomorrowGrave Image, and Grey Everlasting alert you to the fact that these records are somber affairs. There are clean, chorus-drenched guitars throughout that wouldn't be out of place on a goth rock record, but that isn't to say that Deathwhite doesn't know when to bring the crushing pain when the time is right.

For a Black Tomorrow and Grave Image are great, but I wanted to leave a few words specifically about Grey Everlasting because I think it has the strong potential to be my "album of the year" pick when we record our Best of 2022 episode of Bad Books for Bad People. In my estimation, Grey Everlasting is the most downtrodden and desolate album in Deathwhite's discography; there's something about the vocal timbre and songwriting that feels particularly overwrought, but in the most affective way. It's extremely powerful stuff and highly recommended.

Ravenloft: Gazetteer V and Legacy of the Blood

I got ahold of the last two books to complete my 3e-era Ravenloft collection! 

Gazetteer V covers the last of the Core domains: Nova Vaasa, Tepest, the Shadow Rift, and Keening; there's useful and interesting stuff here, but you also get a sense of why the line might have been discontinued; it does feel like the well was running dry at this point. Although their were areas of the setting yet to be "fully developed," this book perhaps serves as an example of how that full development was choking off the more interesting directions Ravenloft could have gone. Again, there is material here I'll definitely make use of--but in my own idiosyncratic, transformative way.

Ravenloft has always had a "focus on the family"; the original Realm of Terror box set came with full page cards with family portraits on one side and family trees on the other. Legacy of the Blood does an even deeper dive into the twisted families of prominence in the setting. Though much of this material is incompatible with the new iteration of the setting, it seems like there is still plenty to plunder here as well. As a supplement, Legacy of the Blood is a really slick idea, and it's odd that it hadn't occurred to anyone to make something like this before for Ravenloft. After all, twisted families (with all their buried secrets, horrible schemes, and ancestral curses) are so very central to the Gothic's conventions.

Alexis Henderson, The Year of the Witching

"The Year of the Witching is like if The Handmaid's Tale was folk horror," is probably a terrible pitch, but the premise of Alexis Henderson's novel isn't far off that mark. Immanuel is the daughter of a woman suspected of being a witch and a father who was burned in a pyre by the puritanical society in which she lives. Due to her heritage, she fits uneasily into the patriarchal theocracy of Bethel, especially since she feels drawn to the mysteries of the forbidden Darkwood.

When a series of plagues strike Bethel, Immanuel is forced to delve into her past, her mother's witchery, and the gendered legacy of hypocrisy that sustains their culture. I appreciate that in The Year of the Witching there are no easy answers; every solution that Immanuel is offered leads to deeper, darker questions. Apparently this novel is the first in a series, and I can say that I am definitely eager to read more.

Leah, The Quest

Some bands look at their albums as a rising movement that culminates in the biggest, most epic, moment they could summon for the occasion. Leah bucks that trend by storming straight out of the gate with the title track, a ten minute, bombastic statement of purpose.

Over the course of their recorded output, the Leah project has evolved into a showcase for Leah McHenry's powerful voice; the heavy guitars, Celtic and Middle Eastern elements, and symphonic flourishes serve more as a backdrop than as equal partners. However, that doesn't stop tracks like "Abyss" or "Ghost Upon a Throne" from hitting just right; top-notch songcraft on those two delights, in particular.

Katsura Hoshino, D.Gray Man volumes 22-27

After the more light-hearted interludes in the last batch of D.Gray-Man volumes, things resume a serious, high-stakes tone. Allen is held prisoner by his own Order, and seemingly threatened with assassination at the hands of a sentient Innocence named Apocryphos. 

Following his escape, he vows to remain an Exorcist locked in battle with the Noah, but he leaves the Order behind. Joined by Kanda and Johnny, the trio find themselves stalked by both former comrades and the Millennium Earl, all the while Allen struggles to contain the "14th" that lies within him.

The emergence of the 14th Noah causes Allen Walker to delve back into the past and how he is personally tied to the tragic history between the 14th and the Millennium Earl. The last volumes here feel like the series is winding up to a conclusion, but with a manga you can never really tell. In any case, now I'm all caught up on the volumes of D.Gray-Man that have been published in English!

Jose Luis Zarate, The Route of Ice & Salt

The Route of Ice & Salt tells the tale of the crew of the Demeter, the doomed schooner that brought Dracula to England. Told from the perspective of the Demeter's captain, the first section of The Route of Ice & Salt is a private memoir detailing the captain's unquenched queer desires and his fixation upon the masculine bodies of his crew. The second section is where all hell breaks loose: the captain begins using the ship's log to record the strange predation that is eliminating his crew one by one. The third and final section of the novel records a message in the bottle left by the captain to bare both his soul and the method by which he purged the undead evil from the bodies of his now-vampiric crew.

The Route of Ice & Salt is a deeply personal and lyrical novel that explores the thematic connection between queer desire and the image of the vampire; both are regarded as unnatural, inhuman, and predatory, but in considering his desires against the Count's the captain comes to understand the point at which they diverge thematically and ethically. The Dracula Industrial Complex is rife with spinoffs that will waste your time, but The Route of Ice & Salt is so philosophically rich you're only stealing from yourself if you don't read it.

Crematory, Inglorious Darkness

With something like fifteen records under their collective belt, Crematory is a certifiable institution at this point. But they're an odd institution, one whose longevity and success I find difficult to explain. I know why their music appeals to me: there is something in their combination of Gothic, metal, and industrial that feels like sonic comfort food to me. 

They have a sound that takes me back to my goth club days. I don't want to put this too derogatively, but it was a time when you didn't always hear the most artistic music--you just wanted groove and darkness, two things that Crematory has in excess. On Inglorious Darkness, as with many of their albums, Crematory verges on fishtailing into utter cheese, but they manage to just about keep things on the rails. You have to lean into what sounds like the singer going "Bwahahahaha" on the title track, for example.

Ultimately, Inglorious Darkness scratches an itch adjacent to the one left unfulfilled by Rammstein's latest offering. If you need something in your life that's dark, stompy, and fun, give Inglorious Darkness a listen. Clove cigarettes optional, but highly recommended.

Let Me In

I've always assumed that Let Me In exists solely because Americans are adverse to watching films with subtitles. Why else would you choose to watch Let Me In when the brilliant Let the Right One In is already available?

If you haven't seen either, they both tell a refreshed story about vampirism; this time, the blood-drinking fiend is a twelve year old child who befriends a misfit kid--someone who is bullied at school and neglected at home. 

Thinking about it further after I watched Let Me In, I suppose that although it's lamentable that some people won't budge from their popcorn comfort zones, the movie does at least let you share a really excellent cinematic experience with family members who would otherwise be put off by the "foreign" Let the Right One In.

When the dust settles, I still prefer Let the Right One In, but Let Me In is still a credible film in its own right. It's beautifully filmed and the leads all turn in strong performances. There are even a few noteworthy differences that make watching Let Me In worthwhile even if you've seen the original; Let Me In is more viscerally violent, the narrative is slightly complicated by a nonlinear structure, and there's an added scene that is pretty effective. Hell, let them all in, I say.

Dark Shadows (Innovation comic)

Innovation's short-lived Dark Shadows comic was a tie-in for the equally short-lived revival series that aired in the 90s. The comic's run covered three different arcs, each with its own team. All three use a painted comic style, though to differing effect. The first series is perhaps a bit too close to "realistic," which sometimes wanders inadvertently into the grotesque. Things pick up in the second arc, but it's the third arc's unique, creepy look that I found most visually appealing.

Narratively, all three arcs venture into wilder territory than the show was likely to explore. The first arc concerns Barnabas and Julia taking a trip to a town overrun by inbred mutants and their hellfire preacher leader. The second involves an encounter with the Greek gorgons, who just happen to live next door to the Collins family. The third, which sadly only got one issue before the comic was canceled, seemed to be telling a tale about ghostly children. Angelique hovers in the background in all three arcs, but sadly she never got a story in which to shine.

The thing I love about Dark Shadows ephemera is that it all carries on in unheralded tangents. In that regard, Innovation's Dark Shadows comics punch well above their weight.


Although I started reading the Claymore manga as a stopgap replacement for Berserk, by the end of the series it had become one of my favorites purely on its own merits. When I noticed that Hulu had the Claymore anime available, I made time to work through it in July.

The anime is actually a very faithful adaptation of the manga. The pitfall that adaptations can run into is avoided here: there are no moments that really rub up uncomfortably against how I imagined the manga "moving" in my head. Sure, there are a few moments where the physicality of the fight scenes makes more visual sense on paper than it does in motion, but there are no real missteps here. The picture is sometimes a hair too dark, and it's a shame the anime ended before reaching the conclusion that the manga did, but this was pretty fun. I think fans of the manga will get the most out of it, but it's a decent choice for a little animated entertainment.

Eric Powell, The Goon: Bunch of Old Crap Omnibus Volume 2

I really shouldn't have waited so long to re-read Eric Powell's The Goon comics because these things are nothing but piles of two-fisted fun. One thing I particularly like about reading them in the omnibus format is that the collections compile comics with very different styles. 

As much as I liked the Goonified riff on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge takes the beating we've all wanted to see him get, the real gem of this omnibus is Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker, which was originally published as a stand-alone graphic novel. Delving into Goon's tragic past, Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker alternates between detailing Goon's memories of his greatest pain and the present events that echo them. The use of color here is especially impressive; the past is rendered in sepia tones, while the present lives on in muted colors. They're clearly different, but the palettes aren't so far afield that you can't sense the deep connection between them. And the pages of the Goon looking at his distorting face in the mirror after experiencing heartbreak? Unimpeachable visual storytelling.

Converge & Chelsea Wolfe, Bloodmoon I

Back in the day when I listened to a lot of hardcore, Converge were one of my favorites. They were always a little darker, a bit more unhinged, and more drawn to the occult and the experimental. Of the Gothic chanteuses battling for nocturnal supremacy, Chelsea Wolfe has emerged victorious--at least in my eyes. Given their pedigrees, this collaboration had a lot to live up to.

And it does. Rather than merge their styles into a standard template for their combined songcraft, both parties weave in and out of the songs, each leaving wounds and scars. The track "Viscera of Men" is a great example: it begins as a punky burst of frantic violence from Converge, then it becomes a doomy dirge; Chelsea Wolfe arrives like a demoness summoned from the lower circles, then the track evolves into what feels like a cult's profane liturgy. By the end, these different elements mix into a crescendo. No two tracks on Bloodmoon I are similar, much to me continued delight.

The Heart, She Holler

I have no idea how The Heart, She Holler escaped my notice until July of 2022. Nominally about a political heir to control of an isolated Southern hick town, who has been kept in cave until his father's death, and his conflict with his sexually monstrous sister and his psychically empowered sister, The Heart, She Holler is a dark, surreal mixture of horror and comedy. The comedy, and the horror, are often wickedly inappropriate. Tonally, The Heart, She Holler is like if Twin Peaks or Lars von Trier's Kingdom Hospital would be like if they were Southern-fried comedies.

The last episode of the series is really something. Dueling TVs deliver a presidential speech by Jimmy Carter while strange things happen to the remaining townsfolk of the holler. Utterly unlike the rest of the series, the finale muses on the political vision we once had of a better America and the sad fallout we've inherited instead. Absolutely unnerving way to close things out, yet how could it have gone any other way?

Ava Inferi, Burdens and Blood of Bacchus

Sometimes you only get into a band after they have become sadly defunct. Such is the case with Ava Inferi; I took a chance on two of their records on a clearance sale, and what a serendipitous find they turned out to be!

Ava Inferi play a fusion of Gothic metal and doom, not too far afield from modern My Dying Bride, albeit often at a mid-tempo. The guitars crunch long, but there are also beautiful, shimmering passages as well. The vocals are the highlight for me, as they address a minor grievance I have with the genre of female fronted Gothic metal bands: with the predominance of the symphonic metal style of vocals, the genre doesn't have much variety or versatility. Ava Inferi challenges the trend by utilizing vocal styles that wouldn't be misplaced on a Projekt record. I absolutely love the pairing of those vocal techniques with this kind of metal, and I wish more bands went for something farther afield like this.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread follows the relationship between a brilliant couturier and the latest in what can be assumed to be a long string of women plucked from obscurity and thrust into a largely ornamental role in his life. 

The film progresses slowly, letting you digest its ideas about what it might be like to live with a narcissistic "genius" and how many narcissists might actually be conscious of how difficult they are--yet perhaps they may be unable to curb their own behavior without unconventional outside intervention.

Phantom Thread is beautifully filmed and exquisitely acted, but I have to confess that I thought the film was unraveling its plot in a slightly disappointing way for the first half of its runtime. However, there is a "quiet twist" right at the end that wrapped the whole thing up in a really interesting and provoking way.

Kuolemanlaakso, Kuusumu

Kuolemanlaakso--not exactly a name to conjure with. Kuusumu is my first foray into the band's discography; I gather they have a rather spotty track record, with a heavy death doom origin and a less well-received period of gothy hard rock, but I like what I hear on Kuusumu.

The band has perhaps reverted to their death-doom origins, but elements of gothic metal remain to add a more emotive strain of melancholy to the proceedings. The guitar work is crushing in places and elegiac in others. I'm quite impressed with the varied vocal textures used on Kuusumu, which range from blackened rasps, clean passages, spoken word sections, and guttural death metal growls. Love the heavy Peaceville Three vibes on "Surun Sinfonia."