Sunday, December 31, 2023

Summer Sons, Hobo With a Shotgun, Spawn, and More

Things that brought me delight in December, 2023:

Lee Mandelo, Summer Sons

Summer Sons is a strange mix of contradictory and unlikely inspirations that don't quite meld together into a seamless whole: portions of the novel feel like "dark academia" for grown-ups, there are many sequences of shit-kickin' country boys drag racing, and a Southern Gothic ghost tale looms everywhere in the background, unable to make itself fully heard over the roar of the high-toned engines.

Andrew Blur has inherited a lot from his best friend-slash-brother after his apparent suicide: a graduate research project on ghostly Southern folklore, a new set of wild and potentially dangerous friends, a crushing sense of loneliness, and a self-imposed duty to discover why and how his friend actually died.

The academic bits felt the most off and nebulously rendered to me; perhaps due to my own experiences, I have an unduly difficult time imagining mentors and professors responding to messages near-instantaneously. Even so, the descriptions of the usual academic issues with thesis committees, plagiarism, and the petty clash of egos were enough to tap into some deep-seated anxieties of my own, so perhaps that element does work in the context of a horror novel. 

Things do come together into a satisfying conclusion by the end of things, even if the villains in this whodunit were obvious and the protagonist could have saved himself a lot of grief by being honest with himself much earlier in life. Though Lee Mandelo's Summer Sons isn't a perfect novel, it is a really impressive debut and a worthy addition to the rise of the Queer Gothic.

Hobo With a Shotgun

When Grindhouse released, sandwiched between the two segments were a number of fake movie trailers. Over time, some of those fake trailers have manifested as actual movies--Hobo With a Shotgun was one of them, and it is a wild psychotronic ride. You can guess how it goes: a hobo arrives in a broken-down town ruled by an autocrat and his power-mad, dumb-dumb sons. Said hobo gets pushed around, until he's had too much and acquires a shotgun. And then the fun really begins. Gleefully violent and over-the-top in its approach to everything that gets thrown onto the screen, Hobo With a Shotgun gives you both barrels at point-blank range. 

Spawn Compendium 1

We covered the first eighteen issues of Todd McFarlane's Spawn on the podcast, but once the assigned tour of duty was over I just kept trucking through this madness. Does Spawn eventually chill out and fall into a dependable groove of rich, layered storytelling in comics form? Not on your life, bud. It's crazytown all the way down. If you keep reading past what we covered on the podcast, you will get Spawn being mistaken for Santa in a Christmas-themed issue, Spawn being so dumb that he goes along with the murderous plan of a guy who is clearly McFarlane's Joker analog, and Spawn being lynched by the KKK. Yeah, you read that right; that is a thing that happens in this wild-ass comic.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

I was working in a video store when Mask of the Phantasm came out and it was a super popular rental, and yet, somehow I never watched it until just recently. It definitely lives up to the hype; it's superb, easily one of best Batman movies ever made despite being a cartoon. The art is phenomenal (even if the blu ray transfer could have used a little love) and the soundtrack is intense. Really fun set of villains working at cross purposes too. I'm pretty stoked to watch Batman: The Animated Series, which I also haven't really seen despite its glowing reputation, just off the back of how much I enjoyed Mask of the Phantasm alone.


Watching Gremlins was part of my program for "getting in the holiday spirit" this year. I'm pretty sure I haven't seen Gremlins since the 80s, but it is insane how much of this movie I remember. And, to be honest, I still think it rules as much as when I was a kid. It goes really hard for a PG movie meant for families with children, but that was the way of things back then; Phoebe Cate's character's revelation about he dad dying after getting stuck in the chimney playing at Santa, the mom's anti-Gremlin killing spree in the kitchen like she just got back from 'Nam, and the persistent 80s anxieties about "foreigners" are wild--you wouldn't get anything with that much texture for this demographic now. And the special effects are gorier and grosser that you might expect if you haven't seen it in a while, provided you weren't traumatized by it as a kid.

Mike Hutchinson, Gaslands Refueled

In December, I found a box of my old Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars in my mother's garage. By most rubrics, we could call them "well-loved," but if we're honest they are rusty, beat-up, and missing wheels in some cases. What to do with them? No better time to get into Gaslands Refuelled and give these things one last lap around the track. I'm late to the Gaslands party, but it's a miniature game that uses toy cars to catch the vibe of Fury Road and Twisted Metal. I'll even probably be able to get more mileage out of Gaslands by using it alongside PLANET MOTHERFUCKER.


Like Hobo With a Shotgun, Eli Roth's Thanksgiving started out as one of the fake trailers in the middle of Grindhouse that eventually "graduated" to a full feature film in its own right. If you've seen the trailer in Grindhouse, you'll recognize a few scenes; that said, be forewarned that the horniest and most outrageous bits from the trailer didn't make it into this one. (Maybe we'll be gifted with an unrated director's cut at some point, but I'm not holding my breath.) Even so, there are some inventive kills in this holiday-themed slasher and the opening Black Friday carnage will give anyone who has worked retail PTSD flashbacks. Thanksgiving loses a little steam about halfway through, but it's still way more enjoyable than the last few movies that called themselves Scream, so take that for what it's worth.

James Skipp Borlase, The Shrieking Skull & Other Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories

As is tradition, I read a collection of Victorian Christmas ghost tales in December if Valancourt published a book of them the previous year. Unlike previous installments, The Shrieking Skull isn't an anthology; rather, it's a single author collection showcasing the work of John Skipp Borlase. Borlase's fixation on British history, particularly the English Civil War and the religious schisms of yesteryear, color his Christmas ghost tales, giving them a very particular feel. 

Borlase also goes extremely hard in some of these stories. For example, what follows is a summary that will spoil the plot of "Twelve Miles Broad," so proceed forewarned. In "Twelve Miles Broad," a young man is spending Christmas Day with the woman he wants to marry and his future father in law at their vineyard in Australia. A tramp shows up, demands to be fed, and is booted from the premises. The tramp curses them out THEN SETS FIRE TO THE BRUSH causing them to need flee for their lives. The problem is that there is only one horse and it won't carry all three of them. The father in law solves this problem by producing a pistol and blowing his brains out in front of his daughter. Merry Christmas!

30 Coins, Season 2

It's been a few years since I watched it, but I remember the first season of 30 Coins being a really well-done take on Catholic horror. The second season--is unhinged. Everything gets thrown in the blender. A few characters begin this season literally in Hell. Conspiracy theories get introduced into the mix. Lovecraftian elements surface, sometimes with hilarious results. And then the UFO stuff starts happening. All that and it retains the biblical horror of last season. It's a mess, and the final episode doesn't make a ton of sense to me, but the second season of 30 Coins was still a fun one to watch.

Alden Bell, The Reapers Are the Angels

In general, zombie media has a pessimism issue: the vast majority of books, tv shows, and movies in that mode proceed from the premise that "man is the real monster," and use the inciting incident of a zombie apocalypse to illustrate the inhumanity of man in gory and horrifying terms. This rubs up uncomfortably against how people actually tend to behave during calamities; human beings are herd animals who survive through cooperation, and that bears out in real world behavior even if it is curiously absent in the face of the ravening undead.

Alden Bell's novel The Reapers Are the Angels takes a different tact. We follow Temple, a fifteen year-old girl, as she tries to navigate a dangerous world teeming with hungry zombies. And yet, most of the people Temple meets are pretty nice folk who are out there just trying to get by and are willing to extend a helping hand to others to get them farther down life's road too. Temple gets fed by the fading Southern aristocrats holed up in a plantation house, is invited to stay in a high-rise compound aiming to recapture the ways of the old world, and gets put on her path by groups of hunters and railroad linemen out in the wilds.

Temple herself evidences the same pro-social tendencies. Despite possessing a murderous rage that manifests as relentless zombie-stomping when needed, Temple saves and "adopts" a mentally handicapped man and tries to return him to his home, and when she has the opportunity to leave her nemesis in the novel to die at the hands of mutants, she leaves him armed to give him at least a fighting chance.

I want to say a little about the relationship between Temple and her nemesis, Moses Todd, a powerful survivalist guided by his own peculiar moral compass. Moses Todd is on Temple's trail because she fought off his brother's attempt to assault her--killing him in the process. Even though Moses Todd believes that Temple was in the right to defend herself, he feels duty-bound to avenge his brother's death. He feels the need to pursue her across the wasteland. But they're connected by more just the inciting incident; they have a grudging respect for each other and they're united in both being "travelers," folks who aren't inclined to settle down because that would take away the opportunity to travel the blighted land and see life's remaining wonders.

There's this really unintellectualized aestheticism in this novel and a focus on the still transformative sublime power of nature. For example, Temple takes solace in a memory of encountering luminescent fish and several characters trade stories of the power of having seen Niagara Falls in person. In this way, The Reapers Are the Angels brings humanity back to the apocalypse. Although the novel has a heartbreaking end, it somehow manages to be affective and moving in a way that media know, shambling undead monstrosities...doesn't usually aspire to.

Therion, Leviathan III

Therion's Leviathan trilogy has been a welcome surprise. Unlike their sprawling and often overwhelming triple-album Beloved Antichrist, each portion of the Leviathan trilogy has felt strong and invigorated; recurring themes emerge, but they aren't tooled to death over the three records in the series. Leviathan III might not hit the highest points of the second installment, but it's certainly no slouch. There are some great symphonic Gothic metal moments on the record--which bodes well for whatever they do next, be it epic or self-contained.

Wataru Mitogawa, Gunbured x Sisters

It probably says something about me that I will eschew what I know to be quality manga to read trash like Gunbured x Sisters instead, but I'm here for a good time not a 400+ volume time, you know? Gunbured x Sisters is a monster-stomping manga about a big-breasted battle nun and her pet dhampir (no, really, their relationship seems based on petplay) as they fight vampires. Gunbured x Sisters has decent action and near-constant horniness, if that helps make your mind up about it one way or another. The Gothic Fantasy version of Catholicism we get in Gunbured x Sisters has some interesting wrinkles, but I gotta tell ya: these nuns are anything but celibate. 

Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar

I finally made time to sit down and watch Army of the Doomstar after having re-watched all of Metalocalypse over the summer. Much of Army of the Doomstar is melancholic and introspective, a marked departure from what the cartoon usually deals in: brutally casual violence and jokes about metal. There are some very fun gory sequences here, but at the very end Metalocalypse tries some different--maybe even something we'd call affirming. Though different, Army of the Doomstar is a fitting end to the Metalocalypse saga.

Plastiboo, Vermis

It was probably bound to happen: I've joined the Vermis cult. Vermis has a novel concept--it's the "official guide" for a retro-styled dark fantasy video that doesn't exist. Through art and cryptic text, Vermis introduces the game's characters, locations, items of power, and monsters. Melancholic and dolorous, the world of Vermis should appeal to fans of FromSoft's Souls games for sure, but more generally I could see fans of old-school dark fantasy absolutely loving this. Being a video gamer is definitely not required--do you like grotty art and fantasy that leans more toward horror than epic quests? Unsheathe your blade and proceed.

Poor Things

There was both a lot of critical hype and a bit of derision surrounding Poor Things, and I was pretty excited for it since it was announced, and it really lived up to my expectations. The move is laugh out loud funny, and god damn that's the most sex I've seen on screen in a long time. It's really nice to sit down in a theater and watch a movie that was actually made for adults. 

I think we need to reckon with the fact that Emma Stone is one of the finest actresses currently working; her performance here is fearless, and the way she subtly plays her character's maturation is a thing to behold. Willem Dafoe also sinks his teeth into his best role since we saw him in The Lighthouse. I'm going to be thinking about this film for a long time to come.

The Muppet Christmas Carol

I got a copy of The Muppet Christmas Carol for our Christmas Eve festivities this year. I had never seen it before, but I am very well-acquainted with Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The combination of live-action Michael Caine and a cast made up entirely of muppets is pretty funny on the face of it, but The Muppet Christmas Carol is a shockingly accurate and faithful adaptation. Some of the songs are a bit much, especially where it gets maudlin about Tiny Tim, but it's not like Dickens doesn't pull the same saccharine sentiments, so again this follows the source material quite closely.

Swamp Thing

Wes Craven's Swamp Thing also featured in our Christmas Eve festivities this year. It's not a particularly seasonal movie perhaps, but maybe it fits by virtue of the fact that Swamp Thing is a Christ-like figure. No, I will not be explaining that further. I do have quite a bit of nostalgia for this movie, as it always seemed to be on the USA network when I was young, so I still have a lot of affection for this man-in-a-rubber-suit monster flick. Plus, Adrienne Barbeau is smokin' hot in Swamp Thing, and interestingly I think her character is allowed to kick more ass than women in similar roles now are generally allowed.

Spiritbox, The Fear of Fear

It feels like Spiritbox is on an unstoppable roll. From their collaboration with Megan Thee Stallion to their latest EP, The Fear of Fear, 2023 felt like a rising year for the band. The Fear of Fear starts off hard, but across its handful of songs it manages to showcase the band's many moods and mastery of many textures. If The Fear of Fear is any indication, their sophomore album will be another killer.

Sarai Walker, The Cherry Robbers

To be honest, this one is a mild delight. Sarai Walker's The Cherry Robbers has a lot of strong thematic elements that I enjoyed (a riff on the Winchester House, a family of daughters who inexplicably die after their first sexual encounter with a man, a "mad" mother who senses doom on the wind, etc.), but this one lacks the intensity that makes similar feminist Gothic novels really sing. It's not bad by any means, is actually quite engaging and well-written, and I like how it brings the Gothic into a 1950s context, but I would be more apt to recommend The Cherry Robbers to someone looking for a book more on the "literary" end than one suffused with Gothic nonsense.

Gou Tanabe, The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Gou Tanabe's graphomaniac black and white manga art is absolutely a perfect accompaniment to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," one of Lovecraft's most anxiety-riddled short stories. We live in an era where Lovecraft, and adaptations of Lovecraft, exert an outsized influence on modern horror media, but Gou Tanabe's take feels like it both honors the source material and presents a fresh version of something that has become commonplace through repetition. On the strength of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, I definitely plan on checking out the rest of his Lovecraft adaptations. I hear "The Call of Cthulhu" comes in the summer of next year, so that's pretty exciting.

Mad God

My big fear for Mad God was that it was just going to feel like an extended Tool video, but luckily it is very much its own thing. If you aren't familiar with it, Mad God is a mostly stop-motion animation film that took creator Phil Tippet over thirty years to finish. For some viewers, Mad God will be too light on storytelling. For me, Mad God is the kind of movie I can just watch without really having to think about--the whole thing just sort of washes over you with waves of grime and misery. It's probably not for the faint of heart, but the best things aren't. Lots of drippy, gross meatstuff in display here.

Blue Eye Samurai

Although it treads a fairly well-worn path of revenge, Blue Eye Samurai has enough twists and turns to be truly compelling. The art style is amazing; it's definitely a cut above most Netflix animated series I've seen. Additionally, Blue Eye Samurai can be unbelievably tense. I had to stop watching it at night because being on the edge of my seat before bedtime was messing with my sleep cycle. Tons of violence in this, a surprising amount of sex, and a fantastic cover of Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls"? Wonderful. Can't wait for another season. 

Spawn Cover Gallery Vol. 1, 1-100

The first volume of the Spawn Cover Gallery collects the covers from the first hundred issue's of Todd McFarlane's Spawn comic. Presented as a handsome hardcover, the reproductions of each cover are great. You can fault McFarlane for his pacing, his storytelling (or lack thereof), and even with losing interest in his own indie project, but you gotta admit that he truly exceled at covers--the more static and "pin-up-y" the better. His attention to detail and dynamic poses are a winning combination; some of the covers collected here are absolutely and undeniably iconic.


I do love a movie with rancid vibes and Saltburn, a film about a scholarship student at Oxford who manages to ingratiate himself with an upper class family to spend the summer at their palatial estate, has rancid vibes in abundance. This really is a movie filled with grimy little shits for characters, which is one of my favorite genres of movie. After I watched it, I heard that there was some Twitter discourse around how unsettling it is, which is funny because if I had one critique it's that the movie could have gone a little harder. But that's the moral lesson to close out 2023 with: don't pay any attention to Twitter discourse.

Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver, Uncommon Charm

I managed to squeeze one last book into 2023: Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver's Uncommon Charm, a novella about a young Jewish man who discovers he is a magician and a young woman who is delving into the haunting secrets of her own familial past. As promised, the book does possess an uncanny charm, presenting common Gothic conventions in a modern and often archly humorous light. Despite its short page count and zippy, 1920's tone, Uncommon Charm also has a degree of subtly to it as well--deeper layers beneath the distractions.

Monday, December 25, 2023

The Best of 2023

Bad Books for Bad People, Episode 73: The Best of 2023

Jack and Kate look at what they've read and watched in the year that was 2023 and make some recommendations in the world of books and beyond. The rules of engagement are simple: the hosts each choose one movie, album, TV show, and book that was the best experience of its kind, regardless of when it was actually produced. A little bit new, a little bit old, and a whole lot of weirdness is in store!
Join your hosts for a discussion that ranges from a sinister girls’ school to a rogue AI (a court-mandated topic in 2023) to gratuitous comedy penises.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Bitter Perfume of a Solstice Night

I'll probably never be able to top Melania's grim Slavic hell Christmas-scapes, but I did finish a Christmas tale set in Krevborna, which you can read here. Things you can expect from this story: weary travelers, a horrible monster, disturbing allusions to Christmas tradition, satanic magic, and a red-haired barbarian warrioress who totally rails three mercenaries.

As they say in darkest Krevborna,"Merry Khristmas to all, and to all a good night."

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The Necropolis of Omera

In last week's Savage Krevborna game the characters set off to find the Brineblade, a fabled weapon associated with the monstrous "goddess" Scylla. They had obtained a map to the sword's island location from a Polnezna seer, but the Isle of Omera was an obscure and largely forgotten place. The most likely location for the sword was the Necropolis, an ancient tomb complex that has been long sought-after by explorers and treasure hunters. Either no one has found it or no one has returned to tell the tale.

The Characters

Pendleton Torst, rogue anatomist

Catarina Redmoor, prioress of an unusual convent

Geradd, dissolute swashbuckler 

Panthalassa Laurentide, a very weird orphan

Raoul Carathis, necromancer

Daytona Midnight, dhampir gunslinger

Asudem, a drowned antiquarian brought back from the dead


Before setting off for Omera, the group decided to gather as much information as they could. Raul and Daytona visited a tavern, where they ended up drinking with an old soldier who told them that when Port Omera thrived in the past, it was the fiefdom of a bandit king and his retinue of knightly mercenaries. The bandit king was legendarily consumed with sin and known to be a collector of obscure items. He possessed a mania for hoarding items he thought would bring him immortality and power. 

Catarina visited her convent and discovered that there were a number of teachers there that she didn't hire; they were sent by Belle Silva to properly indoctrinate the younger sisters of the order into the cult of Scylla. She also found out that some of the older girls had been sent by Belle on a "mission" to establish the faith in Piskaro. While at the convent, Catarina learned that though there were a few churches in Port Omera, the Church of Holy Blood exerts no real power on the isle. There are rumors that cults operate with little need for secrecy in Omera; indeed, cults that are usually in opposition sometimes work together on the island. 

While researching the Brineblade, Raul met Asudem, an antiquarian scholar who felt a force drawing him toward the sword. He joined the expedition as the group set off for Omera. Once in Omera, the group split up to get the lay of the land. 

Catarina and Daytona went to a bath house run by Magra Govashank, a burly former pit fighter. According to Magra, a fellow gladiator told her that the Necropolis was "filthy" with morbid, skull mask-wearing dwarfs. 

Others went to see the statue of the "Old King," who was depicted as having a dragon-like head and a halo of flame. The king's name has been forgotten, lost to time. 

Raoul was surprised to discover that his disgraced cousin, Raymond, was the governor of the island. Though their meeting was mostly convivial, Raoul suspected his cousin was capable of betrayal.

Asudem heard an interesting sea shanty down by the docks that told the legend of five swords: the Brineblade, the Chain of Reckoning, the Corruption, the Boneblade, and the Fang of the Worm. The group quickly figured out that each of these swords was associated with a different eldritch entity they had encountered in the past.

Armed with as much information as possible, the group traveled though Omera's deep woods for a week until they reached what Asudem believed was the entrance to the Necropolis. They were confronted with a three-sided stone obelisk in front of a sheer cliff. Beyond the obelisk were two tunnels burrowing into the rock. Gargoyles were perched on narrow ledges above the entrances. Daytona cleared vines and moss from the obelisk; these words were inscribed upon it: "Beware trespasser, for you stand before the prison of the King Who Craves, He Who is Crowned with Fire Undying, the Lord of the Five Blades." 

Raoul's undead raven scouted the area, discovering a third possible entrance to the Necropolis. Meanwhile, Pendleton picked the lock of one of the previously found entrances; the door was made of ancient wood and looked like an arrangement of puzzle pieces that slide aside as the door was opened. Inside was a stone slab whose sides were carved to resemble screaming skulls. There was a bronze disk in the center of the slab, but the group declined not to mess with it, instead opting to open the door that Raoul's familiar had spotted. 

As they traversed the first corridor, they triggered a trap that spat poisoned darts at the party. Catarina, Panthalassa, Raoul, and Pendleton were all hit and rendered sluggish by the poison now coursing through their veins. The hallway ended in a giant stone dragon skull, the interior of its mouth was concealed by a supernatural darkness--which was soon dispelled by Raoul. A tunnel continued beyond the dragon's mouth.

The winding tunnel brought them to a burial chamber. There were alcoves near the ceiling holding a number of muddy human skulls. A pit in the center of the chamber held a stone sarcophagus. There were also three chests, one of onyx, one of rusted iron, and one of silver, on pedestals in the chamber. Geradd climbed down into the pit to get a better look at the sarcophagus while the others fooled with the chests. Daytona determined that the chests weren't trapped; however, that didn't mean they weren't cursed with powerful magic. Raoul had conjured a zombie to open the onyx chest, which triggered an explosion of necromantic energy that shredded the zombie and wounded everyone but Geradd, who was shielded by being down in the pit. 

Inside the sarcophagus was a bandage-wrapped mummy holding a crystal mace shaped like a skull crowned with spikes. Panthalassa took the mace and smashed the mummy, but it was an inert corpse, not a potential foe. 

Having located a staircase going down into the next level of the Necropolis, the group continued to explore. The group found a secret door that opened onto a narrow tunnel. At the end of the corridor, they could hear the sounds of rhythmic machinery, the occasional release of steam, and the sequel of pigs. Geradd found the spring that unlatched the door to the chamber beyond. The room was cluttered with chains, gears, caged rats, surgical implements, and basins of meat. There was an iron maiden-like device connected to glass cannisters of blood by tubing. 

The source of the swinish squealing was also uncovered: there were a number of skull-masked dwarves in the chamber, each emitting a weird, high-pitched squeal. At the sight of the interlopers, the dwarves drew hand axes from their belts and charged! The resulting melee was bloody, with the dwarves hacking away at the party and inflicting some grievous wounds. Daytona wisely shot the tubing connected to the iron maiden-like device, which caused it to open and disgorge a half-formed corpse golem. Once the group managed to kill the dwarves, including one who tried to flee, they were badly in need of rest and medical attention. 

We paused there for the evening.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Madame Valerio's House of Spirits and Maximilian's Waxworks

Two locations that could feature in adventures in Hemlock Hollow:

Madame Valerio’s House of Spirits
A painted sign depicting an evil eye hangs above the entry to Madame Valerio’s House of Spirits, a spiritualist parlor run and owned by Ivy Valerio. 
    • Madame Valerio claims to have been a Polnezna fortune teller, though the truth of her origins remains a mystery.
    • Her powers are genuine—she is able to summon the long-quiet shades of the dead for consultation and her milky white “dead eye” is capable of perceiving ghosts beyond the veil of death. 

Maximilian’s Waxworks
Maximilian’s Waxworks is a wax museum attraction run by a doppelganger named Maximilian Drear. 
    • The waxworks features a number of grisly displays, each recreating the circumstances of a murder, massacre, or natural disaster. 
    • Visitors to Maximilian’s Waxworks claim that the wax figures seem to move slightly, or flash a hellish grin, when glimpsed out of the corner of their eyes. 
    • Maximilian has endowed his creations with the power of animation and malign intelligence; anyone trespassing within the museum at night will find themselves stalked by wax figures with evil intent.
    • The wax figures and tableaux are crafted by ghouls who labor in the building’s basement. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2023


Bad Books for Bad People, Episode 72: Spawn

Todd McFarlane’s Spawn is one of the great comics success stories of the 1990s, and yet… our hosts remain in semi-complete ignorance of this undead superhero. Jack and Kate decide to educate themselves by reading the first 18 issues of the series where they encounter a world of bedazzlement, from shape-shifting demons and mafia cyborgs to a controversial Neil Gaiman collab.

Other than fighting, killing, and baseball, what exactly is Spawn good at? Can anyone possibly care about the Youngbloods? Could there be a shared Spawn / Jess Franco’s “Erotic Rites of Frankenstein” shared universe? All these questions and more will be explored in this episode.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

American Gothic, Gothghul Hollow, and More

Things that brought me delight in November, 2023:

Wayfarer, American Gothic

It feels a little unfair of Wayfarer to release an album that's a contender for record of the year this late in the game, but here we are. Wayfarer have been working at the nexus of black metal and the mythical Western Gothic for a while now; they must feel pretty confident that they have the mix right now because they make no bones about the vibe they're going for with the title of this album. Simply put, American Gothic is varied and majestic, showcasing a number of styles and moods that are jaw-dropping. Additionally, there's a Siouxsie and the Banshees cover that closes out the record that actually works. Wonders will never cease.

Anna Stephens, Gothghul Hollow

I felt like I did a lot of heavy reading in October, so I wanted to start November with something light. I went with Gothghul Hollow, a Gothic horror Warhammer novel set in the death realm of the Age of Sigmar. The premise is fine--a mysterious monster is attacking a grimdark town and it's up to a monster hunter and a noble necromancer to figure out what's going on--but I did feel like the novel is let down by a few points. For one, the Age of Sigmar feels less like a believable fantasy setting and more like a setting designed from the ground up to sell toys. For another, I had no idea that this was the first book in a series, so unfortunately I reached the end expecting a resolution that wasn't there. There is, however, a big reveal at the end of Gothghul Hollow that might surprise and please fans of the Old World's most Gothic novels.

Green Lung, This Heather Land: A Journey into Occult Albion

Although the trade dress on Green Lung's This Heather Land recalls the hauntological electronic weirdness of, say, the music released by Ghost Box, the album is actually a refinement of the band's stoner doom sound. The real star here is their use of the organ, as it adds an elements that helps Green Lung stand out from the pack. Additionally, am I crazy or is there a bit of a New Wave of British Heavy Metal in This Heathen Land that was absent on their previous records?

Rachel Hawkins, The Villa

I don't usually read books with covers as brightly hued as Rachel Hawkins's The Villa, but in this case I'm very glad that I put aside my prejudice against the colors of summer. The Villa is a dual timeline book. One timeline is set in our modern era and follows a writer of cozy mysteries who is going through a painful divorce; her much more successful lifestyle guru best "friend" whisks her away to a fabulous Italian villa for a much-needed vacation. The other timeline is set in the 1970s and focuses on drug-addled rock musicians and the women who enable their bad behavior; in a clever revision of the Haunted Summer that the Shelleys spent with Lord Byron, this timeline is destined to end both in tragedy and in the creation of some monumental works of art. The two timelines intersect and, of course, not all is what it seems. Even once you think you've got this book all figured out, the final chapter changes everything.

Kathe Koja, Velocities

Kathe Koja's Velocities is a truly astounding collection of short fiction. Broadly characterized as "weird" fiction, the stories in Velocities cover tremendous territory within the darkness of the human heart. In its pages you'll encounter a bar where patrons are encouraged to don helmets and fight it out with foam-wrapped baseball bats, Victorian rent boys with a love of hats and eyes for the stage, monstrous familiars, and violent criminals seeking absolution through art. You probably aren't prepared for the stories in Velocities; you just aren't. You won't see these stories coming, and they'll likely leave you feeling a little dazed when as they recede into the distance. 

Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Red Lamp

I picked this paperback up for a buck in one of our November forays to the antique market. Although I wasn't familiar with her before, apparently Mary Roberts Rinehart was regarded as "the American Agatha Christie." I can kinda see the resemblance in the cast and plot of The Red Lamp; I especially liked the genial, absent-minded English professor protagonist--though it's important to note that in Rinehart's novel he's as mystified as everyone else and doesn't actually solve the crime! To be honest, I'm not sure the ending makes total sense, but this was a fun romp regardless.

Grady Hendrix, The Final Girl Support Group

I was looking to give Grady Hendrix another try, so I put the question to the folks on my Discord: which Hendrix novel would you recommend? The Final Girl Support Group was one of the suggested books, and since it was easy to get ahold of, that's the one I went with. As the title suggests, the novel is about a support group for women who are all survivors of a murderer's rampage. Old wounds reopen and secrets from the past come to light when a seemingly concerted effort to bump them off one-by-one kicks into high gear. Overall, I enjoyed The Final Girl Support Group, but I do wonder if Grady Hendrix is a habitual punch-puller. This one could have gone a little harder for my tastes.

Rin Chupeco, The Girl From the Well

YA horror has a pretty bad reputation in the circles I run with, but every so often I like to dip my toe in and see what's what for myself. Rin Chupeco's The Girl From the Well is actually pretty decent. Imagine if Sadako from Ringu got to travel internationally to kill off serial killers who prey on children, and you have most of the draw down of The Girl From the Well. Layer on top of that a teenage boy whose body is the prison of a demonic specter and let it rip. I do think the novel got a bit bogged down in the final third, but I liked it enough that I'll probably make time for the sequel at some point in the near future.

Dream Unending and Worm, Starpath

Starpath is probably destined to be the most surprising release of 2023 for me. It's a split album from my two favorite bands on the 20 Buck Spin label: Dream Unending and Worm. Dream Unending continue to push their take on classic Gothic doom into an increasingly noodle-y place. Meanwhile, Worm get surprisingly goth-y and black metal-y, especially on the track "Ravenblood," which might have you reaching for the kohl eyeliner if you're not careful.

Rae Foley, Nightmare House

I picked up Rae Foley's Nightmare House from the antiques market for a buck on the same trip where I got The Red Lamp. My god, what a weird book this is! Many wild things happen in rapid succession: the heroine travels to NYC to meet her betrothed, only to find out that he's gotten married since the last time she heard from him; she has a chance meeting with a man from her past, who quickly installs her in the apartment of a woman who was just murdered; we soon learn that smoking pot is worse than committing murder (!!!), etc. This is one of those books where the "good guys" seem like the "bad guys" and it's hard to see it any other way.

Within Temptation, Bleed Out

It's often the case that when a band has a long-running career, you begin to expect them to regularly turn in solid, workmanly albums that keep pace but never real equal their gilded days. Within Temptation breaks that mold on Bleed Out, a spectacular album that has them hitting harder than they have in quite some time. The band feels revitalized--perhaps striking out on their own for this release as their own independent label has lit a new fire in Within Temptation.

Candela Obscura

Admittedly, I can't sit through an episode of Critical Role and their Legend of Vox Machina cartoon has too much theater kid energy for my taste, but when they released an occult horror rpg I had to check it out. It's probably fair to say that Candela Obscura is more or less a Blades in the Dark hack; if you're familiar with the latter, the mechanics of the former will look very familiar. The thing I find most compelling, without having had the opportunity to play the game, is the setting: it's a fantasy secondary world based on the era of the turn-of-the-century. Secondary world horror games are pretty rare, so it's always interesting to see one arrive that isn't based on Victorian era or the Cthulhoid 1920s.

Mill of the Stone Women

I'm pretty sure I've known about Mill of the Stone Women since I was in high school, but I was somehow never able to find a copy to watch until this year. Mill of the Stone Women is definitely of the "Euro-Gothic" school, which of course plays right to my tastes: we've got beautiful, imperiled women, morally weak men, and monstrous happenings in a morbid home. That windmill-powered parade of macabre "wax figures" was absolutely amazing; if I ever become hideously rich, I will commission something like that. The final sequence is quite visually arresting as well. Also, it's the first Italian horror movie to be filmed in color, really cool.

Baroness, Stone

When the dizzying prospect of a new Baroness album looms on the horizon, I find myself praying that the production will be better than on the last crop of past efforts. And this time, my prayer was answered! Baroness's sinewy, prog-inflected modern metal is in fine form on Stone, and luckily the production manages to capture the nuances and flourishes. No mud on these shoes, mama. It's so glorious to listen to that it kinda makes you wonder how great the last few albums would be if the same care had been applied to them.

Eternal Night of Lockwood

I've maintained that even though it mostly exists to file the serial numbers off Games Workshop's IP, Zweihander feels more like the Warhammer of my misspent youth than the current Warhammer rpg. Even so, a question remains: what do you do with Zweihander? Do you just plug in the best of the WFRP adventures like the system is one of those retro consoles that will play old NES carts? Eternal Night of Lockwood gives a better answer, providing a campaign-length series of adventures that look like a pretty great time with some real flexibility and utility. I absolutely don't get what is going on with the cover though.

Deadly Beloved and Other Stories

Deadly Beloved and Other Stories is a book in a Fantagraphics series focusing on the cartoonists of EC Comics. This particular volume focuses on the work of Johnny Craig. Between its covers, it brings together a great selection of Craig's work on horror, crime, and two-fisted pulp action comics. Of particular interest is the inclusion of "...And All Through the House," a twisted Christmas shocker that was adapted in the Tales From the Crypt film from the 70s and the 90s run of the Tales From the Crypt television series. If Deadly Beloved is anything to go by, the EC Artists series really does the work justice--the books are lovely objects in and of themselves, but the pristine reproduction of the original comics is wonderful.

Joseph A. McCullough, The Carpathians: Castle Fier

The Carpathians: Castle Fier is a supplement for the Silver Bayonet skirmish wargame that takes the field of battle against supernatural evil over to the haunted land of Eastern Europe. Half of the book details a competitive campaign that pits monster hunters and soldiers versus supernatural horrors. The other half can be played as either a cooperative game or a solo game. To be honest, the prospect of holing up over the cold winter with some minis and playing through the back half seems pretty tempting right now.

Katsura Hoshino, D. Gray-Man vol 28

The problem with catching up to the current state of translation on a long-running manga series is that when a new volume finally arrives, you've probably forgotten what's going on in the story. It took me a bit as I struggled through the early part of this volume, but now I'm back in the swing of things. There's way too much dead dog stuff in this volume for my fragile, animal loving emotions, but things seem to be coming to a head in D. Gray-Man. I could be wrong, but this one feels like it's ramping up for the final act. I've been wrong before, but I guess we'll see.

Seeley, Campbell, Terry, Farrell, Crank!, West of Sundown vol. 2: Youthful Blasphemies

West of Sundown is quickly becoming one of my favorite Western horror comics, and I want to tell you about one thing about it that I particularly like: a lot of comics in this vein feature "monstrous" protagonists, but West of Sundown is the rare bird that allows them to be truly monstrous. As in, they're bad people and extremely flawed, and the story is all the more compelling because of it. We get to see their failings and how they rise above them. Anyway, this volume of West of Sundown expands the comic's "canon" to include a very interesting take on Doctor Moreau. The final pages also hint at a major player to come in future issues.

Barnes, Alexander, Erramouspe, Loughridge, Killadelphia vol. 5: There's No Place Like Home

I still can't figure out Killadelphia, and as I muse on it you have to expect that the rest of what I write here will be chock full of spoilers for this volume. The comic started off as a pretty serious undertaking that used vampires as a multi-vocal metaphor for the troubling racial history of the United States. Elements of that still persist here, but it feels like Killadelphia is morphing into a different kind of comic: something less serious, less heady. To whit, most of the vampire characters--many of whom have been at the forefront of the comic's plot from the beginning--are wiped out here. And in their place we get--a Spawn crossover? What the ever-lovin' hell is going on here?

Bartosz Sztybor, Niki Montillo, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, The Witcher: The Ballad of Two Wolves

The Ballad of Two Wolves is The Witcher's take on Little Red Riding Hood. The extra-cartoony art style fits the subject matter very well, though it is weird to see The Witcher take on a "Saturday morning cartoon" aesthetic and tone. If you're at all familiar with Little Red Riding Hood, and you are, right?, you'll have suspicions about what the reveal will be in this "who is the werewolf and who's killing whom?" story, but stay with it because it at least puts some twists on the formula. Also, it's fun to see Geralt acting in the role of Poirot at the end.