Things that brought me delight in September, 2022:
Tamsyn Muir, Nona the Ninth
I've been waiting for Nona the Ninth for what feels like an eternity! Thankfully, it's both an easier book to follow than the previous Harrow the Ninth and also a more upbeat book than Harrow was. Which really says something about Harrow, as Nona the Ninth takes places in a war-torn city caught in the crossfire between the Blood of Eden and the Emperor's forces.
One thing that I think Muir doesn't get enough credit for is her ability to craft strange, off-kilter characters that are instantly endearing. The third book in a series is a dangerous place to introduce a childlike (and often childish) character as a new protagonist, but it's hard not to adore Nona straight out of the gate.
There's a lot I'd like to say about Nona the Ninth, but this series is becoming increasingly difficult to write about without dropping spoilers like Lego on the carpet, so it must suffice to say that this book entirely satisfied me even with my high expectations for it. Alecto the Ninth can't come soon enough.
Last Night in Soho
If I had known that Last Night in Soho was kind of a horror movie, I would have watched it a year ago. Also, if I had known that Last Night in Soho featured Anya Taylor Joy dancing to Siouxsie & the Banshees, I would have watched it a year ago.
When a 60s-obsessed young woman moves to London to attend fashion school, she gets wrapped up in the murder of a would-be starlet in the era she idolizes--the two swapping place in what are either our heroine's "dreams," a temporal haunting, or her mental collapse. I thought the visual gimmick of cutting between the two women worked particularly well for much of the movie, and also appreciated the strong performances and fun aesthetic.
Daniel Mills, Among the Lilies
There are some authors whose new books I buy as soon as they come out--no need to know anything more than that they exist. Daniel Mills is one of them. Among the Lilies is a collection of Mills' short fiction; the tales in the book wear their influences on their sleeves: expect American Gothic in the vein of Poe, Hawthorne, and Charles Brockden Brown.
That said, Mills covers a wider range of territory in his short fiction than I was expecting. Although there are "historical" horrors to be found in this collection, there are also a number of modern-day tales as well--some of which are going to haunt me for quite some time. The particular strength in this collection, and indeed in much of Mills' work, is his take on "religious horror." I haven't delved deeply enough into his biography to make sure, but his stories feel like the work of a man of faith, or at least someone from a religious background, which makes the turn toward the horror therein all the more powerful.
When the Moon Hangs Low
When the Moon Hangs Low is a "Gothic-Action" rpg inspired by all the best things: Bloodborne, Dishonored, Darkest Dungeon, Perdido Street Station, and Berserk. Those are heady names to conjure with--a litany that nearly dooms any game from capturing the magic referenced in the influences. But you know, I think When the Moon Hangs Low just about manages it.
The game is fairly light, but the detail all hit in the right places. Characters have a mere three ability scores, which determines how many dice they get to roll for skills related to those scores. One neat aspect is that your character's degree of proficiency doesn't add a bonus or more dice to the pile, but instead determine with numbers count as successes on the roll. There are also "Knacks" (skills a character is particularly good at, and thus they get to roll extra dice) and "Edges" (basically, feats). Instead of classes, each character has a "Mark." The characters in When the Moon Hangs Low are monster hunters, but each has been tainted, or marked, by the darkness they face. Each Mark gives a benefit and a curse--and characters are likely to grow more monstrous as part of their trade, until they are too hideously warped to continue as player characters. Additionally, there are some fun rules for customizing the weapons used to hunt monsters.
However, there are some issues with the rules in When the Moon Hangs Low. Armor is way too good; rules as written, and I did confirm this with the game's author, chainmail makes a character completely immune to dagger thrusts. As written, it doesn't take much armor to reliably shrug off being shot by a pistol, which feels like an issue to me. Also, the game feels a little starved for content even if it is a complete game. The game could use a bunch of new Edges, a few more Marks, a lot of enemies, and a more intensive editing pass. I would definitely welcome more of what's already here, plus a clean up of some of the game's rules.
Ravenloft: Orphan of Agony Isle #3
Things continue to move slowly in the third issue of Orphan of Agony Isle, but at least Miranda finally has a run-in with Elise during an attempt to escape from Schloss Mordenheim! It's unclear what will be resolved in the final issue of the series, but hopefully everything will be much clearer next month. It is interesting that the depiction of Elise and Viktra's relationship in the comic runs a bit contrary to what Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft tells us; in particular, Elise doesn't run away from Viktra, but rather has no qualms about confronting her former beloved directly when they come face to face.
The backup story, which is oddly presented before the main storyline, is the star of this issue, in my opinion. It does a brief double-act of "be careful what you wish for" and "never trust a witch's bargain."
I've been meaning to scratch The Changeling off my list for years, and I finally got a chance in early September. The Changeling belongs to the style of horror movie I tend to enjoy most: it's focused on creating a haunting atmosphere and it does a lot of work with very little.
While the film is a bit slow, its tale of a grieving composer who moves into a house haunted by a perverse tragedy features some truly unnerving and memorable scenes. Also, like The Haunting, one of my all time favorite haunted house films, it uses sound design to good effect. In a spooky bit of synchronicity, I watched this the same night as I read a story by Daniel Mills that also combines classical music with flights of terror.
Catriona Ward, Sundial
Catriona Ward's Rawblood was my favorite novel of the books I read last year, so Sundial had a lot to live up to. Sundial is definitely a different kind of novel when compared against Rawblood, and it showcases a very different kind of horror. At the center of the novel is a woman trapped in a terrible marriage who has begun to suspect that her twelve year-old daughter is a potential serial killer in the making. The mother takes her daughter on a "retreat" to the house she grew up in the desert, where horrible truths are unearthed.
I found the novel to be extremely eerie, but it's a protracted sensation as you read Sundial; Ward displays an uncanny skill with narrative by setting the novel's stakes early, but deepening them as the chapters build. For me, it resulted in a curdled milk feeling in the pit of my stomach as all the pieces began to fit into place. Overall, I'd say that Sundial feels like an upmarket version of a "Paperbacks from Hell" premise. Exquisite stuff; can Ward make my best-of list two years in a row?
Barnes, Alexander, NCT, Mitten, Killadelphia volume 3
It is perhaps true that Killadelphia has something of an identity crisis. On one hand, it wants to be taken seriously as a comic saying something about race and violence in America. On the other, it does incredibly trashy, grindhouse things like having a vampire Thomas Jefferson team up with a vampire Abigail Adams as a potential undead presidential ticket. I'm not convinced it can ever cut that particular Gordian knot, but it certainly has fun trying.
As usual, I'm impressed with the variety of art styles that go into the comic; although they might work against some notion of unity, the anarchic feel is welcome as the varying art styles adds shades and tones to the emotions the characters experience.
You don't tune in to Rob Zombie's The Munsters for a high-quality cinematic experience. In fact, it's pretty easy to imagine that Rob Zombie made this movie on a shoestring using only props and costumes he already had in his house. What you tune in for with The Munsters is Rob Zombie's love letter to ghoulish schlock. This thing is going to be panned by a ton of people, I can just feel it in my bones, but you know what? I like a dopey little spookfest going into the Halloween season.
Clyde Caldwell Ravenloft Prints
I finally got around to buying frames for these prints of art from the older Ravenloft adventures, which I've had kicking around in poster tubes for literally years. Although they're easily the nerdiest art I own, I can't help but be taken back to the 90s on a wave of nostalgia to a time when we played hardcore Ravenloft campaign after hardcore Ravenloft campaign. Where are my Non-Weapon Proficiencies? Where are my Dark Powers Checks?
Franck Bouysse, Born of No Woman
The premise of Franck Bouysse's Born of No Woman has all the hallmarks of a classic Gothic yarn: diaries, discovered hidden beneath the dress of a dead madwoman in an asylum, tell the tragic tale of a young woman sold by her poor father to a sadistic man of a higher social class. Of course, the man's desires for the young woman are perverse and contemptible; however, where Born of No Woman makes a break from the usual tone of the Gothic Romance is in the brutality of its depictions of assault, abuse, and murder. There are some truly harrowing passages in this novel!
Additionally, Born of No Woman is perhaps more thoughtful in general, and more philosophical in the way it advances both a case for the rudderless nature of an immoral world and an argument for the resilience of the human spirit even in the face of grotesque adversity.
Brinkwood: The Blood of Tyrants
Brinkwood is an rpg that runs on the same basic engine and principles as Blades in the Dark. However, instead of playing as a gang of up-and-coming criminals in an industrial fantasy city, the characters in Brinkwood are outlaws and revolutionaries opposed the rule of the vampire lords who dominate their land. Since this is a premise I've used to good effect in Krevborna, I was already halfway sold on Brinkwood from the start.
Beyond the basic gist, Brinkwood is one of those games the feels very specific and tailored; not only are the characters revolutionaries, they are upstarts who have been gifted with magical masks by the Fae to aid in their efforts against the undead. These masks are the innovative part of the game--a character can choose a different mask each session, potentially altering their abilities each time they're played. Again, it's an idiosyncratic detail that probably requires some buy-in from the people at the table, but it's nice to see something different in this vein.
Blind Guardian, The God Machine
Although I don't think Blind Guardian has any truly bad albums, at least nothing dire or embarrassing, I do tend to enjoy the post-Nightfall in Middle-Earth records less than the ones that came before. Until now, perhaps, as The God Machine feels like a really strong return to form for the band. You can still hear bits and pieces of the progressive elements that Blind Guardian has developed over the years, but The God Machine mostly feels like a straightforward, vital slab of metal.
R. Murray Gilchrist, A Night on the Moor & Other Tales of Dread
The Wordsworth imprint really did the Dark Lord's work by putting out these cheap, no-frills collections of classic horror authors who should be better known, but who have mostly fallen by the wayside. Robert Murray Gilchrist is a case in point. The stories collected in A Night on the Moor & Other Tales of Dread showcase Gilchrist's studied devotion to the Gothic and the Decadent. But above all, the tales in the collection illustrate his love of Romantic horror; longing, tumultuous emotions, jilted lovers, and a fiery passion for beauty are the dominate notes in these stories--it's difficult not be be whisked away by Gilchrist's fantasia.
Tales From the Loop
I admit, I kind of slept on Tales From the Loop when it was out there racking up the award. I did read it when it first came out, thought it was cool, and then set it aside without a second thought. But now I've returned to it, and it's giving me all sorts of ideas, particularly for a one-shot I'm hoping to run as part of my Halloween season offerings.
Tales From the Loop has a fairly simple system, but it's perfect for generating a pack of kids who have to face eerie supernatural or technological wonders in a version of the 1980s that defies our own historical record. Some bits are particularly elegant, such as younger kids being luckier and older kids having more skill. Just don't tell me that the ability to push a roll is innovative!
Wicked Pursuits is the final volume of a series of books collecting the art of Der Orchideengarten, a German magazine of "weird" and horror fiction. Things end more with a whimper than a bang, but that's just how the historical record goes sometimes. In its final issues, there was less art in Der Orchideengarten as the publication struggled with the economic realities of the moment and the horrible prospect of fascism and war on the horizon. Still, what is here is absolutely amazing. Century Guild has done the world a service by reprinting all of Der Orchideengarten's art in such a high-quality series. I'm going to miss the prospect of every year bringing more of this to my mailbox.
Opvs Contra Natvram is an album I've been looking forward to since it was announced. As one of the biggest extreme metal albums of the year, and the product of a band known for going absolutely over the top, the biggest surprise is that Opvs Contra Natvram is a fairly straightforward affair. If there is a defining element to Behemoth's sound on this record, it's that they affect a bit of a martial sound on this outing. The album's greatest strength is how imminently listenable it is; although there aren't any wild, surprising moments on the album, Opvs Contra Natvram is a record you won't mind listening to on repeat.
Despite the gruesome murders that feature prominently in Pearl, I'm not sure it's actually a horror movie. Instead, Pearl is a character study clothed in layers of sumptuous aesthetics drawn from old Hollywood. Trapped with her immigrant parents, one crippled with illness, the other a hardened and empty disciplinarian, Pearl dreams of leaving her dreary life behind for a place as a dancer on the big screen. And when her aspirations are frustrated, things get bloody.
Sometimes more a mood than a movie, Pearl gets by with its stunning visuals and a powerful performance from Mia Goth. Her monolog near the end of the movie is hard to forget; rarely does an actor get the chance to actually lay it all out on the screen out like that.
Eric Powell, The Goon: Bunch of Old Crap Omnibus Volume 4
As with the previous collections of The Goon, the fourth omnibus has a nice selection of tales; you get quickie bits of over-the-top trashy, violent nonsense, but also some deeper arcs that are surprisingly emotional. The inclusion of the Buzzard's solo comic is an especially welcome treat in this omnibus.
Also, this is the volume where Eric Powell lets his disdain for modern capes comics, and by extension mainstream comic culture, unfurl like a glorious pirate flag. Fans of supes might take offense, of course, but that's probably the point. Me? I love it.
Icons of the Realms: Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft
Although I have no wish to surround myself with plastic doo-dads, like a Pharaoh entombed with mass-produced effigies and fetishes, I'm not immune to the lure of what are, essentially, toys.
The miniatures created to accompany Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft follow the illustrations in the book quite faithfully; they tend to look better in person than the pictures I've seen of them on the internet would have suggested. The gribbly ones are nicely gribbly!
Hemlock Grove, Seasons One and Two
Why did no one tell me that Hemlock Grove is an absolutely insane soap opera where characters say things like "This is a strange town, you can feel it in your balls"?
Hemlock Grove has it all: a teenage werewolf, a rich boy with mind control powers, a girl who claims to have been impregnated by an angel, a monstrous girl who has been brought back from the dead, a fortune teller-slash-sex worker, a monster hunter posing as a Fish & Wildlife agent, Famke Jannsen as a supernaturally bad mother, and plenty of incest vibes to go around. Someday, this will be known as a cult classic.
The second season also doesn't skimp on the insanity: Miraculous lactation! Vampire smoothies! Sexually transmitted prophetic nightmares! Inexplicable karaoke! Body-swapping! Miraculous lactation gets unexpectedly bloody! A super ridiculous scene to close out the season! (wtf did I just see?)