Things that brought me delight in February, 2023:
Andrew F. Sullivan, The Marigold
The central character of Andrew F. Sullivan’s The Marigold is decay, though here decay is multiform, omnipresent, and overwhelming. The book considers environmental decay, the decay of the drunken dreams of capital, the decay of the human animal’s ability to recognize the shared life of humanity; it examines the skeletal linkage between seemingly disparate decompositions, tracing the taught sinews that connect the dooms that loom above and lurk below us.
Despite being well-realized and compelling as narrative agents, the novel’s characters function as discrete elements of a larger Greek chorus–each strand of specificity they represent emerges from the profuse soup of collective decay to shine brightly in their moment before being subsumed back into the inescapable mire. In other places, by other mouths, mostly likely at the boardroom level, that mire is called progress–but The Marigold is wiser and knows better. This is what good horror is: an expanding of uncanny possibilities and an admission that our worst fears are only ever the observable symptoms of an obfuscated illness allowed to run wild. For profit, for greed, for sheer bloody-mindedness and the belief that only our finite lives matter–this is why we live in hell. The rot runs deeper than we dare admit, but The Marigold tells all.
The Lovecraft Investigations: The Whisperer in Darkness
I continued with my journey through The Lovecraft Investigations by listening to the episodes of the "Whisperer in Darkness" arc. Lovecraft's "Whisperer in Darkness" marked a turning point, where he began to experiment with mixing horror and science fiction in earnest. As part of the Lovecraft Investigations, the story bridges a similar change in the podcast; although it has some folk horror elements, it also introduces anxieties about alien abduction into its already laden version of the mythos. I love that Jack Parsons and numbers stations float around the edges.
Savage Worlds: Holler
I haven't been excited for a new game to arrive for a while now, but Holler showed up and it's so fuckin' cool. I guess this might fit into a "regional Gothic" framework: the game is about a supernaturally isolated Appalachian town where you play folk fighting back against the Big Bosses. So there's some cryptid action, backwoods hoodoo, hootin' and hollerin', and some capitalist critique going on here. Also, those ready to play character cards are a brilliant idea and more games should have them.
Jaimee Wriston Colbert, Wild Things
Jaimee Wriston Colbert's Wild Things is a collection of linked stories that survey the "regional Gothic" that clings to the broken-down places. Wild Things gives such an accurate rendering of how depressing upstate NY is I thought I might murder myself by the end of it.
However, one thing that Wild Things has left me thinking about is how the idea of the "regional Gothic," whether it be the Southern Gothic or the upstate NY version found in this collection, is at heart an invitation to turn our eyes from the entire picture of a local culture. The work of the regional Gothic in amplifying and distorting the homegrown flavor of a locale's grotesquery is always selective, perhaps even reductive--there is always more to the lives of the downtrodden than just meth and abuse. Is the act of looking away our own falling to perceive wholly what is there beneath the grime?
The success of Worm's Foreverglade and the acclaim that met the recent Bluenothing ep has brought a reissue of Gloomlord. It shows the marks of being an earlier album; at times it's more primitive in conception and execution, but that doesn't mean that it's without its own guttural charm. There's a nice, churning mix of black, death, and doom metal on the album. Definitely worth checking out if, like me, you're a more recent Worm convert.
Call of Cthulhu: Doors to Darkness
Doors to Darkness is a book of five scenarios purpose-built for people new to Call of Cthulhu. The adventures contained herein all look pretty good, though they do tend to feature the user-unfriendly blocks of text that published adventures almost always have. For a game like Call of Cthulhu that places a lot of emphasis on building a picture of what's going on in a scenario from the minor details, the use of those big blocks of text opens up the possibility of the details either getting lost or being hard to find in play. That said, the book does feature solid advice for new Keepers who have just started running Call of Cthulhu. My group has played through one of the adventures so far, and we had a blast.
Jonathan L. Howard, The Brothers Cabal
After finishing Wild Things, I knew I needed to read something amusing and fun next as a counterbalance, so I settled on Jonathan L. Howard's The Brothers Cabal. The Brothers Cabal witnesses the return of Horst, Johannes's vampire brother. Much of the novel is structured as Horst telling Johannes the events that have already transpired; many authors wouldn't have the chops to pull off this long stretch of retrospective storytelling where the protagonist of the series isn't present, but Howard is too skillful to fail here.
Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Third Floor Flat, Wasps' Nest, The Veiled Lady
Finishing reading Poirot's Early Cases has left with with a nice, healthy backlog of adaptations to watch. The short fiction make for taut episodes; in truth, the stories are so pointed that they have to be expanded or fleshed out in their adapted forms. It's fascinating to see where the padding lands.
Xandria, The Wonders Still Awaiting
Gothic-symphonic metal maximalists Xandria are back and they have not pared their sound back one iota. Like many bands in their niche, they've returned bearing a new singer at the forefront; where does this endless stream of sirens come from? If anything, The Wonders Still Awaiting's biggest potential flaw for the casual listener is the epic length of the record--you need to be all in on this sound to make it to the other side, but if this is your bag you might just have your album of the year in The Wonders Still Awaiting.
Tanith Lee, Sabella or The Blood Stone
One of the promises I made to myself was to read more Tanith Lee in 2023, so I picked up Sabella this month. If you've ever in the market for a melancholic, yearning tale of the vampires of Mars, this should be your first stop. Lee's work has all the stuff people see as lacking from modern SFF: her characters are beautiful and horny, her prose is dreamlike and poetic (I heard the kids like vibes), she never over-explains anything about the fantastical elements in her fiction, and she's fairly unflinching about mature topics. It's a real shame that people who ostensibly want science fiction and fantasy written for adults haven't made the effort to rediscover her work.
Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn, The Walking Dead vols. 12-
I put down The Walking Dead back in 2017; luckily, I blogged about the volumes I was reading at the time, so I knew exactly where I had left off. I'll say this about The Walking Dead, it's extremely easy to jump back in after a multi-year hiatus in reading it. That feels like a positive right now for me because, hey picking up right where I left off!, but might be a negative overall because that might mean that not much happens overall. It's hard to believe that I'm sixteen volumes in and still haven't met Negan yet.
Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary
I decided to reach into my treasure chest of Agatha Christie books and select a non-Poirot novel. I settled on the first book to feature Tommy & Tuppence, two twenty-something knuckleheads who decide to become "adventurers" because they've got no lucrative work to attend to. The Secret Adversary is much sillier than the usual Agatha Christie book. It seems like British secret agents contract the two young dipshits for Important Duties based solely off the fact that they seem "plucky."
Lord of the Lost, Blood & Glitter
Blood & Glitter is a pretty bold about-face from Lord of the Lost's prior album, Judas. Blood & Glitter favors a glam maximalism version of the band's trademark stomping Gothic metal. This record won't be to every fan's taste--a reaction that the band has already anticipated with the track "Leave Your Hate in the Comments"--but if you're in the mood for something colorful and out of the ordinary, check this one out.
Hack/Slash Omnibus Volume 1
I was sorting some comics one day and happened upon a few issues of Hack/Slash that I absolutely do not remember buying. Where did they come from? The mystery remains. Still, I read them, enjoyed what they were going for, so I got ahold of the first omnibus collection of Cassie Hack's adventures versus undead serial killers and had a hootin' and hollerin' time. These are not deep comics in any way, shape, or form, and they certainly don't "elevate the art," but sometimes that's just what you need.
John Langan, Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies
The and Other Autobiographies bit of the title is particularly apt for this collection of short fiction by John Langan, as it's plain to see where the lives of the characters intersect with his own. At their best, the stories mine the rich veins of childhood drama and the frustrated desire to get back at those who harmed you (as in "Homegrown Monsters) or the way stories passed down through a family become a distorted lens of monstrosity (as in "Corpsemouth").
When the formula startles, it really works. When it falls back on the same recurring ideas (far too many "it was like something out of a Stephen King novel!" moments for me, too many characters have the identical background of having Scottish parents who moved to upstate New York) it falls a little flat. Also, as forewarning, this is definitely a "grappling with the death of my father" collection, if you know what I mean.
Delain, Dark Waters
Back in 2021, Delain lost all of its members, save for founder Martijn Westerholt. Westerholt is back with an entirely new lineup on Dark Waters, and the result is uncanny. Not only has the band retained its essential sound, but Dark Waters is a damned good entry in the Delain catalog. The new singer may well have been grown in a lab, that's how close her voice is to the departed Charlotte Wessels. My favorite tracks are, of course, the ones where the keyboards and choirs conspire to bring some Gothic majesty to the proceedings, but the whole package is pretty tight.
Stephen King, The Drawing of the Three
I fell in love with The Gunslinger when I read it in the 80s. When The Drawing of the Three came out, I was disappointed. It doesn't really have the same combination of mystic Western and post-apocalyptic horror that drew me in, and at that tender age I felt the shift in storytelling to be a kind of betrayal.
Nevertheless, every time I re-read The Drawing of the Three I find more to appreciate in it. While it's not the most action-packed volume in the series--it mostly functions as an extended "getting the posse together" episode--I see more and more here that catches my imagination.
TORG Eternity: Orrorsh
To be honest, I probably wouldn't have bought this if I hadn't been able to pre-order it on Amazon for ten bucks. The Orrorsh supplement for TORG Eternity retails for $39.99, which seems pretty pricey to me since it's got less than 150 pages of content even if it is a hardcover. But for ten bones I was willing to give it a read, particularly since I have a nostalgic interest in Orrorsh--TORG was one of the "big three" games, along with WFRP and D&D, that we played in high school.
I've always thought that TORG didn't do enough with the rich promise of "Victorian Gothic horror, but in a colonial context," and I'd say that follows through in this modern incarnation as well. That said, the monsters developed from Indian myths are quite cool, and I really like the Church featured in the setting.
Eric Powell, Hillbilly vol. 1-3 and Red-Eyed Witchery From Beyond
After finishing Eric Powell's The Goon, I made sure to have the collected volumes of Hillbilly waiting in the wings. I dove in during what I knew would be a tough week, hopeful that Powell's tales of a backwoods weirdo hunting witches would carry me through. I was not let down. Although there's plenty of limb-chopping to be found in Hillbilly, the comic is surprisingly not gory for a title focused on an accursed man bearing Satan's own meat cleaver. The comics collected in the compilation volumes are very episodic; you don't need to worry about all that continuity stuff, just dive in and have a good time. It does culminate in an epic battle of great destiny, which is fun. Red-Eyed Witchery From Beyond collects a later miniseries, with art mostly supplied by Simone D'Armini. This one has a bit of a Lovecraftian bent to it; I didn't like it as much as the main series, but it still had some pretty cool bits.
Robert Bloch, American Gothic
This was a Bad Books for Bad People read, but suffice to say that I sure am glad we read it! We have a lot more to say about the novel here, but for now I'll say that I enjoyed delving into a longer work by Robert Bloch in more detail--it definitely gave him more definition in my mind than just being "the Psycho guy" or what I knew of his fiction from anthologized short stories. Plus, American Gothic is just a cracking good read: brisk text, something is always happening, no filler!