Friday, September 2, 2022

A Young Person's Guide to the Gothic, The Tindalos Asset, and More

Things that brought me delight in August, 2022:

Richard Bayne, A Young Person's Guide to the Gothic

Richard Bayne's A Young Person's Guide to the Gothic is exactly what it purports to be: an introduction to Gothic fiction intended for a younger audience. Bayne explores the Gothic by breaking it down intro discreet conventional units, such as Setting, Scenery, Plot Devices, and Characters. Interspersed throughout the explanations of key Gothic concepts are copious examples pulled from Gothic texts. The book also includes several complete short stories, by the likes of Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and M.R. James, to illustrate what the Gothic looks like in action. The wonderful cover and spot illustrations were done by Richard Sala; Sala's art really is a perfect choice for this sort of thing.

As someone who is a bit persnickety about how the Gothic is taught, I do have some criticisms. The book could have used another editorial pass. Sometimes the excerpts used as examples go on for far too long; the concept they're meant to highlight can get lost in the amount of text that's used. Oddly, the Harry Potter series is frequently referenced. I understand the tactic here--use a "touchstone" that will be immediately recognizable to a young audience--but I think that dates the book straight out of the gate. Subsequent generations are likely to be less and less familiar with Harry Potter, which renders any utility mute going forward.

My criticisms aside, this really is a wonderful introduction to the Gothic. The short fiction that is included, some of which I hadn't read before, is nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Tindalos Asset

The Tindalos Asset is the third book in Caitlin R. Kiernan's Tinfoil Dossier series, in which Burroughsian spies deal with the cosmic threat posed by Lovecraftian horrors. I enjoyed the previous two installments, Agents of Dreamland and Black Helicopters, but The Tindalos Asset might have hit me at just the right time; I didn't know I needed a shot of spycraft and weird horror, but the novella delivered it anyway.

The Tindalos Asset focuses on an "occult assassin" who has been drawn out of hazy, drug-addled retirement to stop the machinations of a cultist with a powerful connection to Mother Hydra. What I really enjoy about the structure of the novella, which offers brief peaks into the story's even across a wide range of time periods, is that it gives you a palimpsest of clues and inklings to work with rather than a straightforward spy thriller. 

Marilyn Ross, The Curse of Collinwood

The Curse of Collinwood marks a significant departure from the Dark Shadows books Marilyn Ross had penned previously. The opening pages quickly upend several situations that had been simmering since the first book. Ernest Collins, a character invented for the book series to be Victoria Winters's love interest, is quickly killed offstage; Elizabeth Stoddard discovers that her "dead" husband is actually still alive, which causes her to suddenly thaw out and take on a fairly different persona; Carolyn has had a breakdown. So much change is glossed over so quickly that it's a bit dizzying.

Another big change in this volume is that the supernatural is actually real! Previous books in the series go in for an Ann Radcliffe/Scooby-Doo effect where any supposed specters or ghouls are exposed as mundane criminality in the end, but not The Curse of Collinwood, which features Derek Collins and his bride returned to haunt Collinsport as zombies!

Also, it's worth noting that Victoria goes from mourning Ernest to kissing Burke Devlin at every chance in record time.

Scare Tactics

Scare Tactics was a short-lived DC comic from the 90s about a gang of monsters on the run. To remain under the radar, they form a band and go on tour so they aren't sitting ducks for the shadowy organizations that are after them. I'm not sure how grabbing the spotlight is supposed to keep them cloaked in secrecy, but that's the premise we're rolling with.

I hadn't actually heard of Scare Tactics until last month, but I was able to buy the full run at less than cover price. Since I love a monster mash, this one felt like a no-brainer to me. It's not a "deep" comic by any means, but I love the idea of rockin' monsters getting into scrapes with men in black, vampire hunters, and hillbilly werewolves. Unfortunately, it was canceled after its twelfth issue. The series does try to wrap itself up in the face of doom, to predictably bizarre results. 

Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel

Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel feels like a very special book of D&D adventures, unlike anything that has come befpre, so I hope it's getting the attention it deserves and hitting tables for actual play. Written by a cohort of POC, many of whom don't have long list of previous credits, the book promises to offer fantasy scenarios inflected with cultural influences far from the usual conventions, images, plots, and tropes most often found in D&D. The adventures have a wide range of themes, and a wider than usual range of ways to complete them. 

Of course, the true test of any book of adventurers is actual play at the table, but the content is fascinating enough that I was looking forward to running them back to back as a campaign, much like I did with Candlekeep Mysteries. As of this writing, I've run three of the adventures in the book; so far, so good.

Allison Saft, Down Comes the Night

I picked up Down Comes the Night because it showed up on a bunch of "best new Gothic novels" lists, so I was surprised that it started off as that particularly YA genre of "young people at war in a fantasy world," not unlike Shadow & Bone or Wicked Saints. The novel focuses on Wren, a combat medic who has trouble following orders and who got redeployed to a mining operation, where she will clearly die, as a punishment. She goes AWOL to a neighboring nation to heal a nobleman's servant of a mysterious ailment. And that's where things get Gothic; she arrives at Colwick Hall, a crumbling manor that is rumored to be haunted and owned by an infamous dandy. 

(One interesting deviation from the formula: instead of the manor being an artifact of the past, it's actually more modern than the protagonist is used to in that it has electricity.)

Down Comes the Night isn't perfect. There a few plot elements that are either too convenient or blindingly obvious. For example, at one point the protagonist needs to find a key...the location of which has been pointed out in nearly flashing neon several times, but gosh she just can't figure out where it might be. Still, this one cracks along and has plenty of people wandering around with candelabras. 

Chris Dows, Colin Clayton, and Horus, Autumn: Terror in the London Underground

Originally published as a three-issue series by Caliber Entertainment, Autumn: Terror in the London Underground is a tale of obsession and revelation. During the Blitz, a young boy has to shelter in the Underground as bombs fall on London; this fateful night, a killer begins stalking the city, returning to his grisly crimes every autumn. The boy becomes fixated on the murders, well into adulthood. When the killings come close to home and involve him personally, he ventures into the depths of the Underground and discovers the strange nature of the murderer and also has a moment of terrible revelation about himself. The black & white art, combined with the subject matter, reminded me a bit of From Hell, but the horrors of Autumn are all of their own piece.

Julia Gfrorer, Tartarus

I didn't read much in the middle stretch of the month (always a bad sign), but Julia Gfrorer's latest comic zine Tartarus came in the mail, so I made an effort to read it straight away. Although the visuals don't really present any bold surprises or unexpected moments, as a whole the comic is a  pretty interesting take on the role of AI in art and having a personal, aesthetic commitment to meaning in the face of so many shortcuts and low-stakes Big Ideas.

The Sandman

Although Netflix's adaptation of The Sandman isn't an unqualified success, it deserves a place in this month's list for actually managing to film a comic I had previously considered possibly unfilmable. 

The show is mostly faithful to the source material, save for where it makes deviations to separate the story from the larger DC universe. (For example, Johanna Constantine is substituted for John Constantine, and much of Lyta Hall's storyline is altered.) Unfortunately, those changes don't always work particularly well. Additionally, there are a couple casting choices that didn't do it for me; personally, I find Patton Oswald extremely distracting as Matthew the raven.

Thing seem to be set up for the Season of Mists storyline next, but with streaming services backing away from expensive productions at the moment, who knows if we'll get it. Still, it was nice to see at least a nice chunk of Sandman's early plotlines.

Christopher Buehlman, Between Two Fires

I'll have more to say about this on the next episode of Bad Books for Bad People, but suffice to say that Christopher Buehlman's Between Two Fires challenges the notion of grimdark fantasy by asking "Why not just think of this as horror set in an earlier era?"

Concerning the journey of a fallen knight, a troubled priest, and a divinely haunted girl through the hellscape of France during the Black Death and Hundred Years' War, Between Two Fires is a travelogue of human degradation. It probably isn't for everyone, but it's probably for the freaks who read this blog.

Spelljammer: Adventures in Space

Often wrongly predicted, if not demanded, every time a new D&D product was about to be announced, 5e's update of Spelljammer is finally here. And generally, it's pretty cool. The ship designs are awesome, the new races present the right kind of Star Wars cantina vibe, and new monsters are always welcome--even if they do split the difference between silly and Lovecraftian.

If there's one failing in the set, it's that its format (three hardcover books and a screen in a slipcase) promises an abundance of riches that it doesn't quite deliver on. As a concrete example, there are rules for ship-to-ship combat, which feel essential to the milieu, but they're a cut-down version of rules we've already seen in Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Descent into Avernus. There is a feeling of squandered potential there; we could have a nice chunky section of modifications and magical weapons that ships can be outfitted with, but it's almost all the same catapults and ballistae on every type of ship.

No comment on the adventure, as I haven't read it. Someone might be running it, so I have to abstain for a bit.

The Annotated Dracula

I undoubtably have more copies of Dracula than any one person strictly needs, but my girlfriend bought me this amazing copy of The Annotated Dracula. Not only does it reproduce the entirety of Bram Stoker's novel, it also includes extensive illuminating annotations and some wonderfully otherworldly art by Wilifred Satty. Just an amazing volume all around, and now it is mine!

Eric Powell's The Goon Bunch of Old Crap An Omnibus Volume 3

Since I started my re-read of The Goon, I've been curious when I'd run across the point where I had bailed on the comic previously. It turns out that the breaking point for me was somewhere in the issues collected in this third omnibus. 

The story isn't bad by any stretch, but this does feel like the slowest, perhaps most protracted, of The Goon's arcs. Still, this time it won't kill my momentum--onto omnibus four next month!

Soul Arts

Soul Arts is a wonderfully deluxe art book that was crowdfunded by VaatyaVidya, one of the foremost Soulsborne lore youtubers. The book collects fan art from the various art competitions that VaatyaVidya has hosted over the years, with themes based on prompts such as "Imagine what Bloodborne II would be like" or "Invent new prosthetic weapons for Sekiro." Although the art in the book is "fan art," don't suppose for a second that it's amateurish; the pieces in this book are as good as any of the official art from games like Elden Ring or Dark Souls.

The Invitation

Going to the movie theater is a rarity for me these days, but I had an afternoon off and since there was a new horror movie just out...I was off to see The Invitation. The Invitation is a fun little riff on Dracula; a recently orphaned woman discovers that she's related to a posh British family, who are a little too eager to meet her. Of course, she's being lured into a dark familial mystery.

Nathalie Emmanuel turns in a credible performance as a leading actor, and the film has a nice, creepy Gothic atmosphere. I don't think this movie will blow anyone away, but I think it's a bit better than many critics are saying.

Halloween Masks

We got these on our first pilgrimage of the year to the Spirit Store. The best time of the year is fast approaching!