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.