Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Bellflower Masquerade

Our last session of Savage Krevborna ended on a cliffhanger: Rebecca Reichman was revived from magical stasis by the genius of Viktoria Frankenstein. This was a great session that had a little of everything and a lot of classic Gothic conventions: a masquerade ball (loved their impromptu costume shopping!), social manipulation, site-based exploration, a Darks Souls-style boss fight, horrible realizations and dark plotting. Here's what went down.

The Characters

Raoul Carathis, occultist and necromancer

Countess Catarina Redmoore, prioress of an unsettlingly convent

Doctor Pendleton Torst, rogue anatomist


Rebecca suddenly bolted upright on the doctor's operating table, her eyes fluttering open. She proclaimed, "The cracks in the firmament align and the red window begins to open wide like the hungry mouth of the cosmos. The Chained Scholar lurches forward, broken, but undaunted. He’s waited eternities for this conjunction.” She looked directly at Raoul. “I know where the third cosmic chart may be found.” She then collapsed back onto the operating table. 

After resting a bit, Rebecca regained consciousness and was better able to explain her cryptic statement. She knew that the third cosmic chart, the last chart needed to complete the overlaying triptych of the two charts already in Raoul's possession, was somewhere in the basement of the Bellflower mansion. When she was stricken by the blast of the eldritch energy that tore through Creedhall decades ago, her mind was unmoored from her body; she was caught in-between the mortal world and an eldritch plane she referred to as "the Outer Dark." In that state she was able to observe things, but powerless to intervene. She had seen the group kill her husband, which she bore them no ill will for as he had been warped by eldritch powers and grief into a man she no longer knew, but she had also observed how an eldritch entity of great power was trying to enter the moral world.

Viktoria was able to fill in a bit of context. She theorized that Markus Bellflower had attempted an eldritch rite from within the Bellflower mansion that had resulted in the unleashing of magical energy that had put Rebecca into the accursed coma in the first place. She also added that Markus's son, Lord Aidan Bellflower, had followed in his father's footsteps by dabbling in the occult. In fact, Viktoria hypothesized that Aidan Bellflower might be preparing to undertake a ritual of his own, as he was known to throw a masquerade ball prior to attempting a magical rite--and he happened to be hosting a masquerade tomorrow night.

Sensing an opportunity to get their hands on the third cosmic chart and to stop an inadept fool from unleashing uncontrolled arcane energies as his father had, the group quickly decided that they needed to break into the Bellflower mansion under the cover of the masquerade party and steal the chart. But how to get an invite?

Raoul remember his meeting with the poseur occultist Erasmus Feist, who had tried to bilk him out of a substantial sum of money for a "cure" for Rebecca, and decided he was a likely mark. Raoul tracked Feist down to a cafe where he was holding court with his clueless acolytes. Then Catarina went to work. First she caught his eye, then she reeled him in with some flirtatious banter. He offered to pick her up in his carriage and take her as his companion for the evening at Lord Bellflower's ball. She even managed to finagle invitations for her "bodyguards," Raoul and Pendleton.

Invitations now secured, the group spent the rest of their day obtaining suitable outfits for the masquerade ball. Pendleton selected an outfit reminiscent of the one from "The Masque of the Red Death," though his was a medically accurate depiction of the plague. Raoul opted for a black suit and a starved-looking mask that made him look like the very avatar of famine. Catarina chose to represent war with a red ballgown and a ruby choker that recalled the image of a slit throat. Thus attired, the group was met by Erasmus Feist's carriage at the appointed time and whisked to the Bellflower mansion on the outskirts of Creedhall.

Once inside, the group quickly lost Feist in the press of guests. Catarina headed to the dance floor, looking to gather information on Aidan Bellflower. She was asked to dance by Baron Marius DuVry, who recognized her. She didn't know him personally, but knew his reputation: his family had successfully transition from landowners to mercantile investors, and his wife had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. As they danced, DuVry revealed another connection beside their shared upper-class origins: he flashed a pin depicting Scylla. DuVry inquired whether Catarina knew anything about the goddess growing distant of late, as well as expressing his concerns about a certain disruption of trade: "You see, I pay quite a bit of money each month to Belle Silvra to insure that the shipping business I have on the high seas is unmolested, but I keep hearing horrifying tales of some hideous scarred, red-headed terror that is disrupting everything." Catarina immediately recognized the "terror" as being Captain Laurant, but she kept quiet about that fact and filed it away as something to look into.

Pendleton decided to wander the crowd, hoping to find Lord Aidan or someone in his circle. He did not, but he was approached by a small, pale woman in a black dress and a raven-like feathered mask. She introduced herself as Serafina Mortigen and complimented Pendleton on his costume, as well as the costumes of his companions. Serafina was strangely blunt and had a general lack of affect; she asked if Pendleton's costume wasn't just a costume and if he had an interest in "morbid" things. When he admitted he did, their conversation drifted to Serafina talking about her work as a "gravedigger" (which Pendleton realized was a euphemism) and she let slip that she supplied Lord Bellflower with "materials," particularly severed heads. Serafina abruptly ended the conversation, leaving Pendleton with some disturbing facts to think over.

Raoul spent his time looking for an entryway to the mansion's cellar, and determined that there were stairs in the kitchen adjoining the ballroom that would suit their purpose. He also cast a spell to detect magical emanations and saw that servants had been tracking arcane residue up from the basement as they brought up cases of wine. When Lord Bellflower finally appeared to welcome his guests, Raoul and Pendleton took the opportunity to sneak into the kitchen and down the stairs to the cellar. Catarina stayed behind to mingle and pick up additional information about what Aidan Bellflower was up to. Also, maybe she just wanted to get a few more dances in.

In the basement, Pendleton and Raoul picked their way through the wine cellar by lantern light until they found crude stone stairs leading down. Following the stairs, they found themselves in a more ancient sublevel that was once been a dormitory of some kind. Strangely, the carvings on the walls depicted the Vlaak being served by human beings--which should have been impossible as the Vlaak we thought to pre-date the rise of humanity! They picked another corridor to follow, but their progress was checked when writhing, tentacled shadows descended from the ceiling and began to speed toward them. The duo managed to fight off the creatures, killing the last one just as Catarina arrived to join them.

As they explored the Bellflower mansion's secret cellar they stumbled upon a chamber with an altar of black stone shot through with veins of green. Above the altar was a new tapestry depicting Aidan Bellflower as a godlike figure, clad in sumptuous robes with power pouring from his hands. This narcissistic portrait only made the group hate him more than they already did. 

In a circular chamber they found a large fountain shaped like a mass of tentacles; the tentacles enwrapped a statue of a knightly figure armed with a warhammer. A tentacle was also wrapped around a bronze orb, which Raoul pried from its grasp. Unfortunately, this caused the tentacles to animate, which released the also animated knight--the knight stalked toward them with its hammer ready to strike. The ensuing battle was fairly brutal; Raoul was sent reeling. When the statue was badly damaged, it brought its hammer down on the stone floor of the chamber. The floor shattered and everyone fell into the chamber below. The fight continued. Raoul summoned a skeleton warrior to assist. Pendleton blinded the statue with an alchemical concoction, which gave Catarine the perfect opportunity to deal the killing blow. 

In this sublevel, they discovered a chamber in which a strange being--pale, cracked skin leaking black fluid, only a swirl of shadowy colors where its face should be--was trapped within a summoning circle. When questioned, it named itself the Envoy of the Black Stars and stated that it had been conjured by Aidan Bellflower to provide guidance on the magical working he was engaged in, which it identified as the same rite that Aidan's father had done that ended so catastrophically a generation past. The Envoy stated that Aidan's working was doomed to fail as well, as he did not understand that all three charts were needed to successfully open or close the Red Window to the Outer Dark. When they ran out of questions for the Envoy, they broke the summoning circle and the creature simply disappeared.

The group also found a collection of brains in jars that were connected to a cannister of fluid and eldritch machinery. The jars were all labeled; the brains of six men and five women were present. The last jar was empty, but it was labeled "Rebecca." (The brains perhaps explained the heads that Serafina had previously delivered to Bellflower.) Feeling disgusted and protective of Rebecca, Raoul commanded his skeleton minion to destroy the jars, machinery, and brains.

The group also discovered the third chart of the cosmos they had been seeking. With their prize in hand, they ascended a set of stone stairs that brought them out into a shed in the garden of the Bellflower estate. However, instead of fleeing the property, they hatched a plan to deal with Aidan Bellflower permanently. Catarina found Bellflower and convinced him to take her boating in the morning before he would be busy readying himself for his ritual.

Meanwhile, Pendleton found Serafina smoking a cigarette in front of the mansion. She asked him if the name he gave her earlier was a ruse. He admitted it was. She asked him if he weren't really Pendleton Torst. He admitted he was. She then told him that she recognized him from the description the Holland family was circulating as they tried to discover his whereabouts. She also informed him that they had hired a group of assassins known as the Black Rats to take him out. He thanked her for the intel and she gave him her business card--which read "Serafina Mortigen, The Angel of the Graves." Perhaps they'll cross paths again.

When morning came, Catarina met with Aidan Bellflower and accompanied him out on his boat. But not even the picnic lunch he packed softened her resolve. Catarina got Aidan quite drunk, then pushed him overboard and made sure he drowned. Problem solved.

When the group overlayed the three cosmic charts together, they showed an animated scene: a beam of energy fell from the heavens on a mountain peak in Sibersk. Their next destination was now clear.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Into Chateau Frankenstein

We picked up where we had left off in our ongoing Savage Krevborna campaign. This "arc" was set in motion by the players' goals: they agreed that they wanted to find a way to revive Rebecca, who was currently in a comatose state in a glass coffin due to a malignant curse. I gave them several options of locales that might have a solution to that problem; they choose to go to Creedhall in hopes of aid.

This was one of those rare "no combat" sessions you sometimes hear about. Although there were opportunities to get into scrapes, the players kept it cool--resulting in a session that was about making necessary connections and doing a bit of site-based exploration. 

The Characters

Raoul Carathis, occultist and necromancer

Prioress Catarina Redmoore, prioress of an unsettlingly convent

Doctor Pendleton Torst, rogue anatomist


The characters had arrived in Creedhall and taken rooms at an upscale inn for the duration of their stay while they looked for someone who might help them in their quest to revive Rebecca. They decided on a few avenues of inquiry. Raoul got into contact with the occult underground in Creedhall and had a meeting with Erasmus Feist, the so-called "Golden Magus." Raoul quickly realized he was dealing with a poseur and a fake, and he did not fall for Feist's insistence that he could restore Rebecca...for an extravagant price.

A more fruitful avenue was contacting Merrick Eston, professor of natural sciences at Creedhall University. Eston couldn't commit to seeing a path toward Rebecca's revification, but he did find it an interesting problem and made an appointment to examine the "patient" on the following day. However, as they left Professor Eston's office, the group were keenly aware that they were being followed by a young, malnourished man in threadbare clothes. The trio tried to shake him by visiting the most banal sights in Creedhall, but ultimately they were forced to duck into an alley--where Catarina was able to ambush him, press a blade to his throat, and question him.

The youth's name was Vadim Morello, and he was a student at Creedhall. He had overheard their conversation with Professor Eston, and he had shadowed them hoping for an opportunity to suggest what he considered a better alternative to Creedhall's aid in reviving Rebecca: he told them they should seek the help of Doctor Viktoria Frankenstein, a brilliant artificer whose understanding of the matters of life and death far surpassed those of even Creedhall's greatest scholars. They learned from Vadim that Doctor Frankenstein lived in an isolated chateau on the isle in the middle of Loch Riven.

When their consultation with Professor Eston indicated that he would be taking a slow--perhaps too slow--approach to curing Rebecca, the adventurers decided to rent a boat and sail to Frankenstein's isle. About halfway across the lake, they noticed that something was headed toward their boat under the water. The cause of the disturbance revealed itself to be a sea serpent when its long, serpentine neck erupted from the water. They attempted to sail away from the creature, but it pursued them at a distance. It never attacked their vessel; indeed, as they neared the isle's dock its head dipped below the water.

From the dock, they could see a stone cottage nearby, its chimney billowing smoke, and Doctor Frankenstein's chateau in the distance further up the shore. They decided to head to the chateau, winding their way through the doctor's rose garden. An unusual number of hawks wheeled overhead. However, the estate's iron gate was locked; they debated breaking the lock, but decided to return to the cottage they had passed and try to glean some information before taking that drastic step.

They knocked on the cottage's door and it was answered by a truly strange individual: an eight foot tall "man" whose arms were far too long, wearing a patched priest's cassock and collar and a wicker mask that obscured his face. He introduced himself as Father Prim and invited them inside for tea. Father Prim was disturbingly frank; he explained that he ate Doctor Frankenstein's failed experiments. When pressed about how they should approach Frankenstein for help, Father Prim told them that boldness would impress the doctor--Prim thought they should show some adventurousness and break into the chateau. 

Before they left the cottage, Father Prim told them they should regard Doctor Frankenstein as "god" and assume that she was already well aware of their presence on the island. This dovetailed with their supposition that the sea serpent they encountered on Loch Riven had been spying on them in some manner. They returned to the chateau's gate and had the Widow crush the lock.

As they explored the chateau's interior, they kept encountering strange phenomena that indicated that Doctor Frankenstein was tracking their movements throughout her home and was actively messing with them. The pipe organ in the great hall began to play a thundering funeral dirge on its own and a thunderstorm--complete with flashes of lightning and a downpour of rain--erupted in the courtyard when they vocally threatened to vandalize the house. 

Viktoria Frankenstein finally made an appearance on the balcony overlooking at pool in the courtyard. The doctor was acting extremely melodramatic, bemoaning the "burden" of her genius and lamenting that people kept coming to her home to beg for her aid. The characters had previously noted that the pool seemed to be incredibly shallow, so when Doctor Frankenstein climbed up onto the balcony's railing it appeared as though she was planning on plummeting to her death. They asked the Widow to try to catch her if she jumped.

And jump she did! The Widow leapt into the pool as well. When the Widow resurfaced, she reported that the pool was much deeper than it appeared and that the doctor had safely swam into a passage hidden within the pool. Frustrated by the doctor's antics, they resumed their search of the house and discovered Frankenstein's laboratory, which was like a wonderland to Pendleton. The lab was vast and had stations for alchemical experiments, mechanical inventions, messing with clockwork, etc. Perhaps most noticeable was the "man" assembled from parts of corpses who was inert on an operating table.

Doctor Frankenstein emerged in the laboratory via an elevator from below, drying her hair on a towel after her stunt in the courtyard. (Raoul animated her project on the operating table as a zombie in case they would need backup.) The doctor apologized for her prank, but assured the group that she had been testing them in various ways to observe their reactions as long as they had been in the chateau. She was actually a bit impressed with the combination of their fortitude, brashness, and curiosity--so much so that she was willing to humor whatever request had brought them to the island.

They explained the situation with Rebecca. Doctor Frankenstein was willing to help, but her aid came with a price attached. When asked what they could give her in return, Viktoria Frankenstein expressed an interest in disassembling the Widow to see how she worked. The group decided that price was something they could stomach, so long as the Widow agreed to the deal under her own free will and that the doctor would promise to reassemble the Widow afterward. Loyal to Rebecca, the Widow agreed and the deal was struck.

Rebecca's body was retrieved from their chambers back in Creedhall. Meanwhile, Doctor Frankenstein examined the Widow's mysterious innards in private. When the time came to revive Rebecca, Viktoria asked Pendleton to assist her in the operation. It was an opportunity for the group to see a true maestro operating at the intersection of the occult and science at work. Doctor Frankenstein was medically intervening to restart Rebecca's heart while at the same time unbinding the curse that kept her in an unresponsive state. 

Doctor Frankenstein had no doubts about her abilities--which turned out not to be a misplaced sense of egotism, as she was successful in bringing Rebecca back to the land of the living. At the conclusion of the operation, Rebecca's eyes fluttered open and she bolted upright on the operating table. Her mouth opened and she said--well, we'll have to wait until next time to find out.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Wizardry and Wild Romance

Wizardry and Wild Romance is Michael Moorcock's book-length examination of "epic fantasy." Overall, I think this is a book that struggles to justify itself. Wizardry and Wild Romance is light on analysis of the genre or the works within it, instead functioning as a delineation of the books and authors Moorcock thinks are worthwhile and which are not. With the absence of any deeper consideration of the genre on a textual level, we're left with what is essentially a reading list that recommends itself on the merit of having been written by Michael Moorcock. That will be enough for some, but it's a premise I found a little unconvincing.

That said, if you were to use this book as a guide to fantasy literature, you would come away with a pretty solid reading list--for beginners, at least. Since this book isn't intended on being a deep dive, it mostly stays within the realm of authors that long-time fantasy fans will already be familiar with. You will have heard of Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, and Mervyn Peake. Given his predilections, it does not come as a surprise at all that Moorcock is a big proponent of M. John Harrison.

As I was reading, I did find myself wishing that Moorcock ranged into stranger territories and unearthed a few more obscure gems, but I suspect part of the goal was to highlight what is readily available. Moorcock praises the contributions of women to the fantasy genre, but his subject remains focused on a kind of Great Men of Fantasy, for the most part.

The book also contains Moorcock's infamous "Epic Pooh," his polemic against J. R. R. Tolkien. (C. S. Lewis gets a few shots as well.) Moorcock's ire is palpable, but it feels too personal to reflect any true deficiencies in Tolkien's writing. One of the issues I have with Wizardry and Wild Romance is that it relies on extensive quotes from the texts in question to "prove" the merit or lack thereof in the books under discussion; the problem is that it isn't always clear what we're supposed to take away from the quotes used. When taken out of their native context, writerly rigor and sloppy execution aren't always apparent. To be frank, this chapter feels like a wonderful example of Harold Bloom's theory of "the anxiety of influence"; the most startling thing about it is that Moorcock laid it so bare before the reading public.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Tolkien or Lewis, many of them quite reasonable, in fact, but I don't think the critique that they are "too Christian and too middle-class" is as damning in my mind as it is in Moorcock's. Interestingly, Moorcock actually seems to prefigure a certain kind of science fiction and fantasy commentator all too common in the current moment: the earnest left-wing critic who is angry that the social politics of a piece do not fit their progressive model of what is just and good. This sort of critic operates under the impression that their particular nexus of class and taste, almost always expressed as a hybrid of working-class consciousness and claims of residing among the rarefied intelligentsia, has access to unassailable social and political truths. It's a claim that never holds water. Personally, I think it's worthwhile to try to understand other points of view without interjecting too much of the idiosyncratic self into the effort--especially when it comes to the kinds of dreams and fantasies that take shape in genre fiction. You would think that Moorcock, with his emphasis on fantasy as a window into the psychology of the individual, would take just such a broader view.

Interesting tangents do emerge here and there throughout Wizardry and Wild Romance. Moorcock mostly approves of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, but he doesn't care much for Conan comics and he loathes the Conan movies. Fair enough. Moorcock was also onto the tension between the "grimdark" and "squeecore" tendencies in fantasy long before the current Twitter fracases over them, though he terms these competing poles "brute vs. cute," which I like much better than the accepted modern terminology. Moorcock also comes close to stating outright that John Norman's Gor books should be banned; we read one for an episode of Bad Books for Bad People, and it was awful indeed, but I disagree with Moorcock's assertion that those novels are "dangerous." They're just dopey and cannot harm you.

Perhaps the most interesting bit is Moorcock's implication that authors whose influences are too near the surface, too detectible and traceable, aren't disciplined or talented enough--or at least not in love enough with language--are letting the side down. This is a striking facet of the work as a whole, especially since Moorcock quickly glosses over his own debt to Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword!

Though I found much to disagree with in Wizardry and Wild Romance, I don't regret reading it in the least. It's the kind of book that makes you rethink your assumptions, always a healthy thing.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Call of Cthulhu and the House Rule Rubric

There are many ways to judge whether a role-playing game is "good." I've talked to indie gamers who define "good games" as the ones that reliably preproduce a specific gaming experience without fail no matter who is playing. I've met OSR guys who define "good games" as ones that stick to Gary's vision of how play is supposed to proceed. I've chatted with casual gamers who define "good games" as having rules that "get out of the way" and let them get on with having fun.

Here's a different rubric: a "good game" is one that inspires a minimal amount of house rules. In this case "good" means the game feels complete and comprehensive for what it attempts to do. It neither has too much nor too little, and it works as intended. 

(Note: I'm not adopting this rubric as the one true lens through which to judge games and define fun. It's a single possible rubric, and it's obviously one with limited utility. But it does have a certain elegance to it.)

By this proposed rubric, Call of Cthulhu is a great game. I'm never really tempted to monkey with the rules. At all. I just don't see anywhere in the game's rules where I could intervene with an innovation of my own that would improve the experience.

As much as I think the small changes present in Call of Cthulhu's 7th edition are nice additions, I also think it's entirely reasonable to play an older edition without those changes. They're nice little flourishes, but I don't think it would even occur to me to create them as house rules on my own.

I'm not sure there's many other games that fulfill the terms of this particular rubric quite as well as Call of Cthulhu.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Death at the Drive In

Once I got back from vacation, I put the call out on my Discord that I could run a PLANET MOTHERFUCKER adventure if anybody was interested. I got a bunch of interested replies, so one afternoon in a Taco Bell I sketched out an adventure and then ran it later that night. You may note a heavy dose of inspiration from Joe R. Lansdale's The Drive In, which I had just finished reading. Anyway, if you want this kind of fun in your life, head on over to the Dolorous Exhumation Press site and pick up a copy of PLANET MOTHERFUCKER.

Here's what went down in our game:

The Characters

Runa Ravensbane, heavily tattooed metal babe (Church Burner)

Remington Chadsworth IV, a goon from a long line of goons (Face-Breaking Goon)

Chet, a vampire who looks suspiciously like the Naked Cowboy (Living Dead Hustler)

Fat Elvis, exactly what he sounds like; has a feral child companion named Marsha Marsha Marsha (Wastelander)


After their experience in Spaghettysburg, the motherfuckers were heading southwest in the General Lee. Along the way, they lost Dr MK Ultra, Toffy Jones, and Juice Pouch, but they picked up a hitchhiking Remington Chadsworth IV. They were doing fine on fuel for the car, but finding food was becoming an issue. But then they saw a sign for Cosmic Al's Far Out Drive In. Figuring that a drive-in theater would at least have a concession stand, they decided to pull off the highway in search of some grub.

A fat guy wearing a shirt decorated with rocket ships and planets, and wearing an alien Halloween mask over his face, was sitting by the entrance gate reading a sci-fi paperback titled Samson of Mars. He turned out to be Cosmic Al. He informed them that the drive in had three screens; one was running Prom Night, another The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the third...Bambi. They paid for tickets and decided to drive up to the screen that Prom Night would be playing on. (Runa was disappointed that it wasn't Prom Night II.)

There were already some cars parked in the lot facing the screen for Prom Night: there was a Miami Vice-lookin' douchebag talking on his car phone in a yellow Porche, two unoccupied pink Vespa scooters, a guy in a cowboy hat smoking a Lucky Strike in front of a beat-up truck (the nametag on his gas station shirt read "Corncob"), and a van with a big circle A on the side with loud, shitty punk rock coming out of it. 

The motherfuckers parked and made their way to the concession stand, where a teenage girl in a plastic "Indian Princess" Halloween mask was taking the orders of two bikini babes. When it was their turn, the motherfuckers loaded up on hamburgers, hotdogs, popcorn, and sodas. They started to eat back at the General Lee and the trailers began playing before the feature. 

Just then one of the bikini girls cried out "What's that!" and pointed to the sky. Everybody saw a big flaming rock streak through the sky and begin hovering above the drive in. It even popped open some eyes and a mouth and started laughing maniacally! As it streaked off, a wall of strange, hazy smoke rose from the ground, encircling the drive in. The motherfuckers jumped in the General Lee, hoping to find clear passage back at the gate, but no dice--the smoke had them walled in.

The motherfuckers drove back up to the concession stand where they found everybody near the edge of panic. (The punk rockers had even left their van; Fat Elvis nicknamed them "Sid and Acne.") The big flaming rock returned. Most folks kept their cool, but a few people lost their shit. The guy in the Miami Vice-lookin' suit got in Chet's face, blaming the group for the comet-thing's appearance since they were clearly "weirdos." Chet responded by ripping his finger off. He ran away, his mangled hand spouting blood. Sid and Acne decided to try to drive through the smoke in their van. Everyone present heard the result: the sound of the van's metal body being peeled open like a tin can, and then screams of agony.

The motherfuckers decided it was high time to interrogate Cosmic Al about the nature of his business here. They first questioned Shoshana, the girl in the Indian Princess mask, but she didn't tell them much. She thought that Cosmic Al was just an incompetent nerd who was too into sci-fi shit. They also paid her to take her mask off to prove that there was nothing weird going on underneath, but she was just a teen girl. She explained that the masks were simply "part of the uniform" for working at Cosmic Al's.

She did, however, point them to a small cinderblock building that served as Cosmic Al's "box office." The door to the box office was locked, and through the window they could see that the walls were covered with gore horror, grindhouse, and exploitation movie posters--but Cosmic Al was nowhere to be seen. Remington smashed the window with his barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat, and Marsha Marsha Marsha, Fat Elvis's feral child sidekick, jumped inside to scout out the situation. A voice from under the desk told them to go away; Cosmic Al was cowering in fear. In fact, Cosmic Al had pissed himself in terror and asked them to go to the other concession stand, get an American flag from in back, and bring it to him so he could fashion it into a makeshift diaper.

On the way to the other concession stand, the group decided to check out who was gathered in the lot in front of the Bambi screening. One vehicle was occupied by a newlywed couple who were busy getting busy in the backseat. They were entirely unaware that they were trapped in the drive in. The other vehicle in the lot was a van with JESUS SAVES painted on the side. Taking offence to this blatant display of Christianity, Runa slashed the van's tires. The family's patriarch saw what she had done and slapped Runa across the face. At this point a horrific and murderous brawl broke out.

The mother ran to the van to get a shotgun, but Remington smashed her up pretty badly with his baseball bat; the woman fled, terrified by the gore that clung to Remington's instrument of death. The children, who were all blonde-haired little Village of the Damned-lookin' gremlins, swarmed Chet and were biting the shit out of him. Fat Elvis looked on in horror, unwilling to take part in this particular atrocity. Runa squared off against the family's father, unsheathing her ritual dagger and stabbing the man several times. 

Heavily wounded, the man tried to make a run for a weird hill the motherfuckers had noticed earlier. Runa climbed the hill after him and managed to stab him in the back. She noticed that it felt like her dagger hit something hard as it exited his body. She flipped him over and started digging into the hill. She discovered that underneath the soil were human bones and what looked to be Native American artifacts. The drive in had been built on ancient Indian burial ground!!!

At the other concession stand, they found a teen wearing a werewolf mask manning the register. They explained Cosmic Al's situation and got the soon-to-be-defiled Old Glory that Al requested. And then, the flaming rock creature reappeared! The sky cracked with thunder and lightning. A bolt struck the kid in the wolfman mask; he leapt out of the concession stand, ripped his werewolf mask off, and revealed that he had been transformed into an actual werewolf!

The motherfuckers made a run for it toward the other concession stand. Corncob was there, and he drew a knife from his cowboy boot. Soshanna looked...distinctly calm about the whole situation. The two bikini girls freaked out and began to argue about whether this was all God's judgment or the work of the Devil. Eventually, the blonde bikini girl knocked the redhead to the ground and tore out her throat with her teeth. Meanwhile, the motherfuckers were joined by Corncob in fighting off the werewolf. The wolfman knocked Fat Elvis prone, then leapt fangs-first at Remington--but the motherfuckers were eventually triumphant. 

In the conversation that followed with Shoshana, the group learned that she knew all along that Cosmic Al had built the drive in atop sacred Native burial grounds. In fact, that's why she took the job at the drive in--all of this was her doing! She was of Native descent herself and had conjured the meteor thing to trap everyone at the movies, to be killed off one by one, as a way of reclaiming the land. Now that the jig was up, she pulled out a tomahawk and prepared to kill the motherfuckers.

Now, the motherfuckers are generally bad people. I mean, they killed a family with very little provocation like half an hour ago. But they drew the line at racism and defiling Native lands. They were especially offended that Cosmic Al had made his only Native employee wear an Indian Princess mask. They explained this to Shoshana, and her position toward them softened. As long as they weren't going to try to stop her, she offered to tell them about a way out of the drive in. She told them to go into the walk-in freezer in the concession stand, move aside the box of Otter Pops, enter the tunnel beneath and follow it to exit the drive in via an underground passage. 

Before they left, they got to see the meteor-thing conjure Leatherface from the screen showing Texas Chain Saw Massacre and watch as Leatherface murdered Cosmic Al. Everyone else was left to death at the hands of Shoshana. Fat Elvis considered not leaving the drive in, but eventually gave in. He probably realized someone other than the rest of the group should be in charge of raising Marsha Marsha Marsha.

The group hid out for a few days, then returned to the drive in once the smoke surrounding it had dispersed. Everyone was dead and Shoshana was gone. They reclaimed the General Lee and looted the remaining cars, netting a bunch of cash, a lucky rabbit's foot, a workout book written by Charles Atlas, a big box of extra-splintery chopsticks, and a box of limited edition Jim Jones Kool-Aid.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

PLANET MOTHERFUCKER PDF-Only Edition Now Available!

Now that PLANET MOTHERFUCKER has sold through most of the initial print run, I'm putting up the pdf for sale on its lonesome. Roll up and get a copy! This should make life easier for people who want a copy, but found it too expensive to ship it to ya wherever you call home. It's also a boon for you digital-only cheapskates. 

Just kiddin', I love each and every one of you.

There are still copies of the printed zine available, and frankly they're a better deal because I like making physical things. You can still grab it here, while supplies last and all that.

What's next for PLANET MOTHERFUCKER? I've got two supplements done in draft form, so when those get their chrome polished I'll put them out too. More horrible shit for your horrible games!

Sunday, July 9, 2023

The Citadel of Forgotten Myths

Below are my thoughts on the latest installment of Michael Moorcock's Elric saga. Fair warning: I found it very disappointing. 

The Citadel of Forgotten Myths finds Elric and his companion Moonglum traveling to what is essentially another world in pursuit of the origins of the Melniboneans. As a bare premise, it's not bad. Unfortunately, it doesn't really pay off: we learn very little that is either concrete or interesting. There are wild implications about the Melniboneans being descended from dragons, but those ideas never really gel into anything. It's as if Moorcock is still undecided on that point himself.

Like some of the previous novels in the saga, The Citadel of Forgotten Myths is a fix-up constructed from short stories joined together by edits and additional matter to make them work as a novel; it revises two previous published stories, linking them together, before capping things off with a longer, unpublished section at the close. The first two segments are generally in-line with Moorcock's usual brand of sword & sorcery, at least as I remember it. However, in this case the construction feels hasty and somewhat clumsy. I didn't learn that the earlier Elric novels were fix-ups until long after I read them, but I suspect I would have guessed that The Citadel of Forgotten Myths was stitched together into a lopsided whole even if I hadn't been previously aware.

The first two sections of the book are where it is at its best; they mostly fit into Elric's swashbuckling adventures of old, save that they are marred by constant references to his saga's continuity. There are two things that struck me annoyingly repetitious in the novel: allusions to Cymoril's death and references to "dream quests" and "dream couches." 

The second half of the book has a very different flavor than the shorter stories that comprise its more promising beginning. There's a narrative arc in the back half, and the occasional action scene, but that section of the novel is especially ponderous and filled with philosophizing about proper governance, feudalism, and the like. 

It also suffers from a lack of congruence. It doesn't feel like the previous two chapters at all. It's weirder, but not in a good way; it has the feel of an early draft where strange ideas are being tried out on the page, whether they're keepers or not. For example, when we plunge into the perspective of the crazed chaos goddess who has chosen Elric for her foe, we get a kaleidoscopic view that may do a fine job exemplifying chaos as a concept--but it does a poor job in portraying a character with an actual motivation. It wanders too much and for too long without justifying the indulgence. 

As a character, Elric has always been prone to fantastical philosophizing, indeed he is the poster boy for a certain style of brooding sword & sorcery antihero, but I don't remember the previous books featuring so much pointless musing that goes nowhere. It feels like Moorcock was trying to use the story to say something about government and just rule, but it's too all over the place and doesn't come to a point. I'm not sure if it was an intentional allusion to the state of modern politics, but the "Make Melnibone great again" stuff in The Citadel of Forgotten Myths especially drew me out of the story. 

The last section of the novel also has continuity errors that someone should have noticed. The most egregious example: Elric calls to his magic sword, which flies to his hand! And then, despite now having said sword in his hand, on the next page Elric calls to his magic sword, which flies to his hand! The editor was either asleep at the wheel, the author never re-read his work, or some combination of the two has conspired to wrap things up in a laughable snafu right at the climax.

I'm afraid this just isn't a good book on any of the levels that matter.

Monday, July 3, 2023

Parasite Life, Future's Shadow, The Phantom of the Paradise, and More

Things that brought me delight in June, 2023:

Victoria Dalpe, Parasite Life

It's always a trepidatious moment when you're descending in a bucket down into the Young Adult mines, but I had read Victoria Dalpe's collection of horror short fiction last month so I had some confidence that this wouldn't be too twee. My instinct was correct: Dalpe goes pretty hard in Parasite Life. The novel is about a socially isolated teenager with a pretty bleak home life taking care of her invalid mother; she discovers something truly horrible about who she is deep down. If you're afraid of YA not providing the goods, rest assured that Parasite Life takes the reader and its subject matter seriously.

Bell Witch, Future's Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate

Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper was so critically well-received that it feels like there's a lot riding on Future's Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate. The formula hasn't really changed between albums; Bell Witch still turns in epic-length slabs of contemplative, melancholy doom. And while this record might not reach the sublime heights of Mirror Reaper, I'd be hard pressed to name something recent that matches it, so this album certainly isn't a disappointment to me. It will be interesting to see where they got with a part 2.

Phantom of the Paradise

It had been quite some time since I saw Phantom of the Paradise, Brian De Palma's insane take on both The Phantom of the Opera and Faust. And you know what? It more than holds up. De Palma is known for his cinematic oddity, but usually in the form of a louder, brasher Hitchcock-esque riff. Things are different here; his filmmaking was never so frantic as it is in Phantom of the Paradise, a movie about a would-be singer-songwriter who finds both his work and his muse appropriated by a sleazy, satanic record producer. Also, I'm a major Beef fan.

Trang Thanh Tran, She is a Haunting

Things become unhinged when a Vietnamese-American girl visits her father in Da Lat to help with his attempt to turn a colonial-era home into an upscale hotel. Hanging over her head is a promised sum of money for college, but in her heart things are even more complicated as she struggles with her mixed identity, her unexpressed bisexuality, and a strained family history. While in the house, she experiences ghostly visitations, sleep paralysis, and dreams that are more than dreams. She is a Haunting excels at merging the mundane concerns of a teenager with the phantasmagoria of the otherworldly. 

Cattle Decapitation, Terrasite

I've never been the biggest death metal guy, but there's something about Cattle Decapitation's modern sound that really does it for me. On Terrasite, the band hits just the right balance between melody and brutality. There's also one really amusing moment when the singer says "What a time to be alive!" in the death metal voice. I'm sure there's something "the earth is dying, mankind is the disease" sentiment flowing throughout the album; admittedly, it was the perfect thing to have on while driving under the hazy orange sky during the bout of wildfires in June.

Deadlands: Hell on the High Plains

Hell on the High Plains is the first in a new series of supplements for Deadlands that aim to cover all corners of the Weird West. This initial volume focuses on Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. This seems like a particularly helpful book to me, as I know very little about any of those areas! Although none of the locations are treated with an avalanche of detail, the things that get picked out are of interest; they're the sort of thing that might inspire an adventure or two. Speaking of scenarios, this book includes a bunch of them. I also picked up the archetype cards that go along with this, so now I've got even more options for players to choose from. I love those things.


In Blonde Ana de Armis pilots a reimagined version of Marilyn Monroe from one Grand Guignol vignette to another. Not to be mistaken for any sort of accurate biopic, this Marilyn is a breathy vacancy, always on the verge of tears, a walking Electra complex. As a film, this is an exploitation film masquerading as arthouse fare.

I'm not entirely comfortable with rewriting the life of a real woman as the basis of a house of horrors, but I suspect the discomfort is the point. Blonde may just be poised for inclusion in my personal canon of Hollywood Gothic. Fans of Kenneth Anger's lurid Hollywood Babylon should line up for this one if they haven't already.

Edogawa Rampo, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination

I've had a copy of this book for a very long time, but thankfully Tenebrous Kate picked it for our next episode of Bad Books for Bad People--giving me a nice excuse to finally get to it. And boy am I glad we did! I'll have a lot more to say about it on the podcast episode, but this is one messed up mix of detective fiction, Gothic grotesquery, anxiety over modernity, and unchecked libidinal excesses. Really sublime stuff. This particular edition is easy to find in America, and it's pretty cheap as well, so do yourself a favor and feel the grime with this one.

Hexvessel, Kindred

There was a time when I listened to a lot of "apocalyptic folk," but the repetitiveness of the music coming out of that scene eventually turned me off on it. Enter Hexvessel's Kindred, which gives me some of the same atmosphere and thematic content as apocalyptic folk, but with a much more diverse palette of sounds. I can't believe some reviewers criticized the runtime of Kindred--it takes time to conjure something of this magnitude! 

Big Trouble in Little China

Some people didn't grow up with Big Trouble in Little China on what felt like a permanent rerun loop on the USA Network, and it shows. Big Trouble in Little China is absolutely a classic, in my opinion, and it's certainly a canonical film in the PLANET MOTHERFUCKER universe. For such a gleefully dumb movie, it really does some interesting stuff. Its reinterpretations of Chinese kung-fu movie conventions is pretty solid, but the way it frequently enforces the idea that Jack Burton is a sidekick who thinks he's the main character isn't something I can remember ever seeing elsewhere.

Adam Mansbach, The Dead Run

Adam Mansbach's The Dead Run has it all: vicious drug cartels, ancient Aztec sorcerers, hellhole prisons, apocalyptic cults, armies of zombie virgins, gunfights with nationalist bikers, and more kidnappings than seems possible! The novel really hits the sweet spot between "crime fiction" and "horror fiction," with the added bonus of fantastic bad attitude humor. I enjoyed reading this one so much that I recommended it to Tenebrous Kate immediately--and then in talking about its psychotronic-on-the-page merits, we decided it might be a really good fit for the podcast. So, uh, stay tuned for further developments.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

It had probably been literal decades since I saw Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! but you know what? Much like Big Trouble in Little China, it still holds up. Three car-lovin' go-go dancers get mixed up with a kidnapped girlie, a murder scene, and a stash of money hidden on a pervert's desolate ranch--and it's all downhill from there. This one's got sweet cars, karate chops, bosoms out to here, fried chicken--basically, a perfect movie. And man, Tura Satana really is somethin' else. 

Jim Thompson, After Dark, My Sweet

Continuing my own personal Bummer Summer, I picked up a copy of Jim Thompson's After Dark, My Sweet. Things start horribly in this novel and only get worse as the pages fly by. After Dark, My Sweet is a tale told by a former boxer who has recently escaped from a mental institution. He falls in with a boozed-out widow and a scheming con man who wants everyone to call him "Uncle." Yeah, no way that's going to work out well for anyone involved, right? Well, things take a turn for the worse when our trio of wash-outs kidnap the child of a wealthy family for ransom, only to discover that the kid has diabetes and they have little idea how to actually keep him alive until they can get their loot.

Sirenia, 1977

I keep seeing reviews that say that Siernia's 1977 has a big 80s synthpop vibe, but to be honest I don't really hear that as a throughline on the album! Sure, "Twist in My Sobriety" brings those elements to the fore, but generally I think 1977 features a pretty standard array of Gothic symphonic metal. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a solid slice of that sound, I just don't think they've really changed up the formula substantially with this one! What are people hearing here that I'm not?

Rob Zombie's Halloween and Halloween II

Controversial when it came out, Rob Zombie's Halloween remains divisive to this day. I'm still on the fence about what the extended backstory adds, aside from allowing the opportunity for Zombie to put his wife on a stripper stage, but damn the final few scenes where Michael is pursuing Laurie Strode do have a good bit of ratcheted-up tension to them. 

Halloween II is where things get weird. It feels like a sequel that Rob Zombie was strong-armed into making, given the retcons and re-castings needed to make it possible. The "hallucinations" (which include their mom, a young Michael, and a white horse) that Michael and Laurie share are intriguing, and since Michael resembles Rob Zombie himself in this one, it makes you wonder how much of this "family reunion" theming is autobiographical. Personally, I now wish Zombie had been able to bring the energy of this sequel to his original remake--just to see what would happen if he were allowed to go off the reservation earlier.

C. Derick Miller, Starving Zoe

If you don't know it by reputation, Starving Zoe is the book that got C. Derick Miller fired from his job when someone with a grudge used it as evidence of his degeneracy. Which is fuckin' rich because Starving Zoe isn't even close to the most graphic or disturbing book I've read in the Splatter Western line. This one actually struck me as a bit more of a "horror comedy" than most of the others I've read; don't get me wrong, it's still intentionally "gross," but it's so over the top and the protagonist is such a cartoonish buffoon that I am having trouble imagining anyone really having their world rocked by it.

The plot's fairly simple: a murderous scumbag returns from the Civil War to find that his wife assumed he had died and shacked up with another man--and left her with a baby. When the protagonist takes unjust revenge on the woman and her child, her mother in law brings her back as a skinwalker intent on making his life a living hell.

False Memories, Hybrid Ego System

What is it about symphonic metal that makes bands want to go to space with it? (Or, perhaps more accurately give this record's cover, the dystopian cyberpunk future.) Anyway, I'm not complaining. Hybrid Ego System is one of those albums were I'm so thankful that the band didn't push all the good songs to the front and then pad out the back end. There's some big high points on the second half that definitely shouldn't be missed.

When the Moon Hangs Low

This is the "Kickstarter Edition" even though I didn't back the Kickstarter. When the Moon Hangs Low is definitely "Bloodborne with the serial numbers filled off," but I do appreciate that the game includes a wider variety of soul- and body-warping curses that might afflict the hunters. In When the Moon Hangs Low, those who stare into the abyss and doomed to have the abyss stare back into them, which strikes me as nicely thematic. I'm not entirely convinced on all the mechanics of the game (armor doesn't seem to work right imo), but I could definitely see running this as part of my Halloween offerings on my Discord this year. 

Regina Garza Mitchell, Shadow of the Vulture

I polished off a second book from the Splatter Western series in June: Regina Garza Mitchell's Shadow of the Vulture. This one is quite short, but it manages to pack a lot of interesting characters into its slim page count. A young woman on the path of the bruja intersects with a woman who fought for her country (and whose best friend tags along as a maimed specter) so that they can take on the gringos trying to steal their homes out from under them. I do think Shadow of the Vulture could have benefitted from a little expansion in places, but this is a quick, fun read overall, so I can't really fault it.

Poison for the Fairies

Poison for the Fairies is not really a horror movie in the strictest sense, but it does have elements of folk horror and Gothic thriller. If you've ever had a childhood experience with a kid who is either a fabulist or experimenting with that particularly childlike form of "folk magic," the child characters in this movie will be immediately recognizable to you.

One interesting choice in the cinematography: the faces of the adult characters are mostly not seen at all. Their heads are just out of frame or we see them on screen with their backs to us. They become anonymous figures of authority for the viewer as much as they are for the children in the film. Poison for the Fairies feels like a movie you show to kids because it doesn't have explicit gore to it, but it traumatizes them even more despite that.

Hideyuki Kikuchi (with art by Yoshitaka Amano), Vampire Hunter D: Dark Road, Parts One and Two

The first third of Dark Road is a pretty odd Vampire Hunter D novel in that nothing really happens in it. I suppose it introduces some characters, such as the "victim" Rosaria and the powerful vampire General Gaskell, but there aren't much in the way of stake setting here.

Do things pick up steam in the second part? Eh, this is another volume where a group of powerful baddies decided to conveniently attack D one-by-one so he can pick them off with relative ease. 

But are there some weird bits to this one? But of course:

  • After one battle, a trucker offers D a back rub
  • A vampire who has the body of a ten year old falls madly in love with D; it's noted that her chest is more developed than a child's, which feels fairly sleazy
  • We also learn that the girls father probably sexually assaulted her because she looks like her mother; again, these books have some really greasy moments in them
  • We learn about a new vampire invention: a vacuum cleaner you can use after a big bloody battle that sucks up all the corpses and warps them into deep space