Archive for October, 2020

The Skeleton Crew

I love a fun roleplaying game, and this is the season to talk about some scary — or at least horror-themed — RPGs. Today, we’re talking about The Skeletons, designed by Jason Morningstar

This is a freeform roleplaying game published by Bully Pulpit Games, which is owned by Morningstar, back in 2016. Morningstar, probably best known for the brilliant “Fiasco,” sometimes described as the Coen Brothers RPG, generally specializes in experimental, educational, and even outright oddball games that don’t need a gamemaster. His specialty is games where you play people on their worst, most trying days. His games feature doomed Civil War soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, professors possessed by otherworldly roaches, child soldiers in World War II Poland, queer Soviet airwomen during WWII, star-crossed lovers, police operatives demoralizing and destroying activist groups… and rabbits. Morningstar’s games can be madcap and hilarious, but they often examine the nature of death, defeat, and tragedy.

So “The Skeletons” is a game for 1-6 players requiring a few hours of playing time and a private space where you could dim the lights or play music. It’s about 60 pages long. It’s not super-complicated.

What’s it about? Well, if you’ve ever playing a standard fantasy RPG, you’ve probably run into a situation where your party of adventurers is exploring a dungeon and comes across an ancient tomb filled with treasures, but to get the goodies, you have to battle the undead horrors guarding the crypt.

In this game, you don’t play the bold adventurers, swinging your sword and casting your spells. You play the skeletons.

In fact, you play cursed skeletons, stripped of memories and identities by a powerful wizard. You are dead, fully inanimate and insentient, until someone enters the tomb. When that happens, you rise, lift your weapons, and attack, seeking to drive the defilers from the crypt. During the brief periods when you’re active, you can think, you can feel, you can try to remember your past — but you can’t escape. And when you’ve driven out or killed the adventurers, you return to your inert state.

And the years pass. The centuries pass. The millennia pass.

The players begin by choosing their character — either a simple human skeleton wielding a sword or axe or bow, or some sort of unusual skeleton — a headless corpse, a nonhuman race, a fully inhuman monster.

You can personalize each skeleton as you please, and each character sheet includes questions you can potentially ask to help recover your own memories.

After that, all the players collaborate to determine what the tomb looks like, how it’s decorated, what treasures it contains.

And then the lights are switched off briefly. And when the lights come back on, it’s time for the skeletons to fight off their first tomb robbers. Once they’ve been driven off or killed (the outcome is never in doubt — the game isn’t about combat, and the skeletons won’t crumble for eons) and once the skeletons have had a few brief moments to ponder their forgotten lives, they return to their alcoves and their dreamless slumber.

The tomb and even the skeletons themselves are altered as the eons grind past. Walls can crack, sarcophagi can split open, metal tarnishes, cloth decays. Skeletons can lose bones, their weapons can warp, even the enchantments animating them can fade. The tables for these effects are particularly evocative: Glory Fades, Worlds Crumble, Time Devours, and Gods Laugh.

In time, however, even these deathless skeletons will fall. They will be defeated, their bones scattered, their tomb ransacked, and their consciousness sinking into the darkness one final time.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Is it horror? I think it certainly is. It’s not just that you’re playing the cursed undead, doomed to spend eternity fighting to protect a long-dead wizard’s Man Cave. There’s also the horror of the slow passage of deep time — the fact that every time you awaken, centuries can pass, with the world around you drastically changed, with the knowledge that your loved ones — who you may eventually remember — are long gone, that your own ancestors are likely dead, that you can only realize this for brief periods before you’re forced back down into the blackness for another few thousand years.

But it’s also something that transcends horror, too. The slow uncovering of your memories — What’s your name? Who did you love? Who were your rivals and friends? How did you die? What were your triumphs? — creates a game with a strong theme of loss, melancholy, and sorrow, but also a sense that there are some things that are timeless, and that death, though worth fighting against, can eventually become something to be embraced.

If you and your friends are getting bored with dungeon crawls with your murder hobos, take a break to give them a look at how the other half died.

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Take a Walk on the Wyld Side

Okay, as long as I’ve got the time and the energy, I’m gonna keep reviewing some good horror. Today, let’s take a look at one of my favorite books of the last few years, Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand.

The story is told as an oral history of a 1970s British psychedelic folk band called Windhollow Faire. Their first album was an unexpected smash hit, but since then, tough times have followed the group. One of the group’s singers recently committed suicide, and they are expected to release their sophomore album soon.

The band is a mix of personalities, all skilled musicians, and all very young. There’s Ashton, a supremely skilled bassist; Jon, the drummer, still in the closet about his sexuality; Will, a multi-talented musician who plays rhythm guitar, fiddle, and mandolin; and Lesley, the group’s sole American, a charismatic and hard-partying singer.

But the true virtuoso of the group is their lead singer and guitarist Julian Blake, a reclusive, eccentric genius.

They’ve traveled to an old run-down mansion called Wylding Hall for a little isolation, partly to rehearse, partly to mourn their deceased bandmate, partly to reconnect with each other musically, and partly to drink, get stoned, and party.

The summer is fun for everyone but… weird. Lots of strange happenings here and there. Nothing much worth mentioning, everyone thinks… but a lot of very unusual stuff going on.

And at the end of the summer, the band’s manager comes for a visit and brings his new state-of-the-art portable recording studio, all stored in the back of his van. Everyone’s been rehearsing for months, and they decide to take the new equipment for a test drive. The band sits down together in the courtyard of the mansion and plays a full album’s worth of music, all live, all one take. When the last note is played, a local kid with a camera snaps a few pictures of the band.

The music is perfect. The photos are used to create the iconic album cover. The record, named “Wylding Hall,” becomes an instant classic, acclaimed by critics, loved by fans… but quickly gone from the airwaves.

And Windhollow Faire never records another album. Because Julian Blake vanished into thin air the day after the album was recorded.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The most enthusiastic thumbs up I can give. This is a fantastic book, deliciously weird, and perfect for any reader who loves slow, subtle, creepy horror.

While much of the novella is focused on the band members, their interactions, and their recollections years after the fact, little tidbits of strangeness are scattered throughout the narrative. Wylding Hall itself is not just an old mansion but downright ancient, dating back to the 14th century and continuously built up and expanded over the centuries, so different wings of the house are from wildly different times and architectural styles — a Victorian wing, a Tudor wing, a Norman wing — and some even older…

The house is a maze of empty rooms, locked doors which are sometimes mysteriously unlocked, stairwells that lead nowhere, a room carpeted with thousands of dead, mutilated songbirds.

And every member of the band, at one point or another, suffers a small, minor injury that leaves behind a lasting, painful scar.

Even the band’s visits outside the house turn out weird. The local pub, the Wren, is mostly normal — aside from a lot of weird photos of wren hunters on the walls. And unusual bird imagery can be found almost everywhere, both inside Wylding Hall and out.

And the photographs of the band taken by the local amateur photographer focus on a girl in white who no one noticed, no one knew, no one saw again. And she clearly held the deepest and darkest secrets of anyone else.

But all the strange happenings, all the unusual moments, they can all be explained away. Life is full of strange coincidences, little surprises, odd things that never make sense. Life is strange, but the strange is, once you look at it, perfectly ordinary.

Until that moment when it isn’t ordinary at all. Until that moment when reality shifts just a bit too far out of alignment. Until that moment when you have to walk away from your friends and burn your photos because you can never look at each other again without remembering the fear.

Most people think of this book as a ghost story, a tale of a haunted house. To me, this could never be a mundane, commonplace haunting. This is a story of a group of friends accidentally straying into a liminal, otherworldly place with rules that cannot be understood, penalties that last a lifetime, and knowledge too terrible to believe. The master of Wylding Hall is cruel, capricious, beautiful, bizarre, monstrous, and all-powerful.

If you love rock and roll, if you love glorious, eerie weirdness, if you love beautifully told horror, you will want to pick this one up.

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Autumn Wonders

Okay, I’m still in a mood to review some great Halloween stuff, and it’s way past time I reviewed some comics — and this one’s a bit off-beat, as far as Halloween comics go. Let’s take a look at Pumpkinheads, written by Rainbow Rowell and illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks.

From that title, you may be expecting something having to do with vengeance demons or gourd-headed scarecrows or something horrific like that. But that isn’t what we have here at all. Instead, it’s a story of a couple high school friends, Josiah and Deja, on one final hurrah before parting ways. The title comes from the setting: the world’s greatest pumpkin patch attraction on the last night of October.

Do we all know what a pumpkin patch is? This is a lo-fi local amusement attraction, usually found in New England and the American Midwest, based around autumn and the harvest. The central attraction is usually a corn maze with a few side attractions — a pumpkin cannon, a potato cannon, a few docile farm animals in a petting zoo, a small barrel train, and some concessions. You won’t find them run by giant entertainment corporations, although they can sometimes grow quite large and make a lot of money for the people running them. They don’t usually have a lot of Halloween content — they may have a haunted hayride and encourage trick-or-treaters, but the appeal is usually the corn maze and maybe the concessions. They’re not always called a pumpkin patch — but it’s called a pumpkin patch in this book, so we’ll stick with that for now.

Our lead characters are Josiah, a tall, shy white guy, and Deja, a shorter, outgoing black girl, on their last night working at DeKnock’s World Famous Pumpkin Patch and Autumn Jamboree. Every year, they’re best friends from September 1 to October 31, and then they barely see each other ’til next year. They work in the Succotash Hut every season, and Josiah is nearly always Employee of the Month. But they’re both seniors, and after tonight, they’ll never get to work together at the Patch again. And Josiah has maintained a years-long unrequited crush on Marcy, the cute girl from the Fudge Shoppe, and Deja is going to make sure he finally — finally! — talks to her. Will the ever-diligent Josiah agree to skip out on work and go wandering all over the park? Will they eat all the amazing concession food?

Verdict: A giant thumbs-up! I read this book at my local library, and I loved it so much, I had to order a copy of my own!

The book certainly isn’t plotless, but if you’re expecting an action-oriented plot, you’ll be disappointed. This is about two friends walking through an amazing autumn-based theme park and talking to each other about life, love, dating, and the future. There’s a kid who steals Deja’s caramel apple, and there’s a goat who runs amok — and that’s about it for the action. But again, there’s more to a good plotline than action, even in comics.

Can we talk about the art? If you read many Young Adult graphic novels, you’ll see Faith Erin Hicks a lot. She’s been doing lovable, expressive, emotive comic art for longer than the current YA comics boom has been going on, and she’s in great form here. Deja and Josiah both look like people you probably knew in high school, and the friends they see in the park all look unique and interesting. She’s a master of characterization, which is so important when you’ve got a comic based around people talking to each other — and when most of the characters are park employees wearing the same same work uniform.

The strongest element in the whole story is nostalgia, primarily for the kind of perfect, pure autumn that mostly exists in dreams. But here, we have lots of the classic signifiers of fall — autumn colors, scarecrows, corn stalks, hay bales, kids in costumes, lots and lots and lots of pumpkins — and you have it inside what may be the largest and coolest pumpkin patch ever. Among the attractions are a corn maze, a hayrack ride, a pumpkin slingshot, a pumpkin drop, Gourdy Golf (a few holes of gourd-themed miniature golf), the Tour de Pumpkin mini-train, Grandma’s Chicken Races, a petting zoo, pony rides, the Haunted Hacienda, and a concert stage featuring John Colorado Springs, the world’s foremost John Denver tribute band.

And then there’s the food. The food! My friends, come marvel at the amazing selection of fun fall foods offered at the various snack stands around the park. There’s the Fudge Shoppe and Pie Palace right next to the entrance, with Pappy’s Apples, selling caramel apples, a little ways down the way. Beyond that, there’s the Chili Fries Stand, the S’Mores Pit, and a cart selling apple cider slushes. After that, there’s the trademark-evading Freeto Pie Stop, then Josiah and Deja’s usual workplace, the bizarrely popular Succotash Hut, followed by the Kettle Corn Kettle, and finally, the Pumpkin Bomb Stand. What’s a Pumpkin Bomb? I won’t spoil the recipe here, but it’s something you’ll want to try for yourself after you read the book.

And again, don’t get this expecting anything to do with the 1988 horror movie with Lance Henriksen. That one is “Pumpkinhead” — singular. This one is “Pumpkinheads” — plural, and definitely not about vengeance demons.

So is this something you should read? My answer is a loud and enthusiastic yes, particularly if you enjoy great art, characterization, and dialogue, if you love everything having to do with late October and autumn in general, and if you love the idea of eating a lot of great fall food. Go pick it up, guys!

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Treats and Tricks

I wasn’t expecting this book to come out ’til mid-October, but it showed up early! So after a fast read-through, here’s our Halloween season review of Halloween Season by Lucy A. Snyder

Snyder loves Halloween, and it’s surprising to think it took this long to get a specifically Halloween-themed collection of short stories put together. Some of them have only slight connections to the Best Holiday of the Year — in other words, they may just be set near Halloween — and a couple are really Christmas stories, but still, there’s a nice big honkin’ dose of Halloween goodness here for anyone who loves October 31.

So what kind of stories do we have here?

  • Beggars’ Night – Probably the best Halloween poem in existence.
  • Hazelnuts and Yummy Mummies – An accidental taste of drugged cookies sends a woman on a trip to the Halloweens of her past.
  • Cosmic Cola – A Halloween-loving teenager moves to a new town with dark secrets and must escape from dangers she can’t even imagine.
  • What Dwells Within – Chaos spellcaster Jessie Shimmer and her familiar Pal, stars of Snyder’s “Spellbent” series, track down a kidnap victim with a supernatural twist.
  • In the Family – When food allergies make life impossible, you must turn to your family for support.
  • Wake Up Naked Monkey You’re Going to Die – The final fight in the War on Christmas Monsters is not going well…
  • The Tingling Madness – Facing danger from cultists with their own public-access TV channels? Buckaroos and Ladybucks can change the channel to the only Chuck Tingle network, the Tingler!

Verdict: Thumbs up. Y’all know I’ve been a longtime fan of Snyder’s brand of twisted, knife-edge horror, and she brings her A-game here, particularly with tales like “Visions of the Dream Witch,” “In the Family,” and “The Kind Detective.” She has the ability to get her stories under your skin, to take familiar tales in directions you didn’t expect, and to surprise you with insights you never expected.

She also shows some excellent skills for YA fiction — “Cosmic Cola” has some very strong horror vibes, but its young protagonist is wonderfully appealing and fun — plus there are some possible connections to other upcoming YA Snyder fiction, too.

And Halloween is a fun holiday, too, not just a day for blood and guts, and this collection probably has more light-hearted tales than have been in a single collection by Snyder since her earlier days. Almost every other story has some strong humor elements, and about half could be classified as punch-your-mouth funny. So yes, it’s more than possible to get your laughs and your scares at the same time — just like any good Halloween.

And also, we’ve gotta put our hands together for that beautiful cover art by Lynne Hansen! It sets the mood wonderfully, and much like whoever’s about to open that bright orange door, it’s eager to invite you inside…

So yes, kids, go pick it up! Get it before Halloween if you can, but it’s the kind of book that lets you enjoy spooky season all year ’round.

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How to Read Lovecraft in 2020

As we discussed a few months ago, H.P. Lovecraft has become more popular and critically accepted at the same time as more readers are becoming aware of his truly noxious racism — and for those who already understood how racist he was, they’re realizing that it’s okay to say his racism was deeply wrong, no matter how popular he’s gotten.

And this leads to a pretty important question for horror fans. Lovecraft is second only to Poe as far as how influential he’s been for the horror genre. Every major writer has read him, and most have written pastiches of him, and thousands of horror readers have read his stories and, for the most part, enjoyed them.

But despite his popularity and influence, is he really someone who you want a fledgling horror fan reading? Do you want a kid who’s learning to love horror — or even worse, a young reader of color — to open the book to “The Red Hook Horror” or “Herbert West — Reanimator” or “The Rats in the Walls” or “On the Creation of We won’t finish this title because Fuck Lovecraft“?

Do you really want to take a new horror reader and rub their nose in the fact that the early foundations of the genre were built on deep, poisonous hatred and racism?

The question is: What’s the best way to read Lovecraft in the modern world? What’s the best way to introduce Lovecraft to young readers in 2020?

The answer is: Don’t.

Seriously, Lovecraft’s stories are almost a century old, most of them are written in archaic or old-fashioned styles, and he’s most important as a writer who influenced other writers. For new horror readers, it’s probably better if they read contemporary horror writers instead of the old-timers. And that’s not just my opinion — librarians and literature experts say younger readers are more likely to stick with a genre if they have new, contemporary books to read that speak their language, rather than decades-old works that have an off-putting style.

Rather than treating Lovecraft as someone who every horror fan should read, classify him as someone for intermediate- or expert-level horror readers. Once they’ve read enough to know they enjoy horror, and once they start expressing interest in reading older writers or writers who influenced current writers, start introducing Lovecraft to them — along with careful explanations of what a monstrously racist shitbag he was.

It’s not like there isn’t plenty other horror writers out there, right? And plenty other cosmic horror tales, too. The TVTropes page for “Cosmic Horror” has a gigantic list of cosmic horror tales, in literature, comics, film, TV, games, and more, by an absolutely gigantic list of creators. Lovecraft may have popularized this subgenre, but hundred, even thousands of other writers old and new have moved it forward. Many of them make wonderful, scary reads.

If you want to read Lovecraft, go ahead. I certainly don’t want to stop you — personally, I always enjoy reading “Pickman’s Model,” “The Music of Erich Zann,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” But there are so many more writers out there — and so many better. Look around for your new favorite, and let’s welcome new grandmasters as they surpass the old.

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The Return of Allie Brosh

My children, it is a hard world out there. But there are still some happy surprises out there. And thus we come to this review of Solutions and Other Problems by the one and only Allie Brosh.

The last time most of us heard anything from Allie was way back in 2013, when her previous book, “Hyperbole and a Half,” came out. For a long time, I figured she was, hopefully, just living life off the grid and away from the Internet. I also worried a bit that something worse had become of her. It’s absolutely news worth celebrating that she’s still out there creating wonderful things.

Not that it’s all great news, because things have also been damn hard for Allie, too. She got divorced, her parents got divorced, she had severe medical issues that landed her in the hospital, and her sister died. And she’s still living through depression, which certainly didn’t make anything else any easier. And it didn’t make it any easier to write and illustrate a book either, I expect.

So what do we get in this book? We get Allie’s childhood quest of making herself fit inside a bucket. We get her somewhat terrifying obsession as a toddler with sneaking into a neighbor’s house and stealing his stuff. We get the mysterious appearance of horse poop in the family’s house. We get a discussion on just how crazy animals may believe humans are.

There’s the question of fairness when dealing with a man who hammers on his roof early in the morning. There’s the argument over bananas. There’s the toddler with an unreasoning terror of dandelions. There’s the problem that “The Ugly Duckling” just doesn’t make a lot of sense. There’s Allie’s not-well-planned-out plan to conquer her fears by taking drugs and then spending the night out in the country.

There’s the question of how to make friends with yourself if yourself isn’t sure they want to be friends with you.

Verdict: Thumbs up. First, a word of warning. (“NOW A WARNING?!”) Allie’s first book was a respectable 369 pages. This one is 518 pages long. It’s an absolute doorstopper. You could kill George R.R. Martin with this. Granted, it reads a lot faster than “War and Peace,” but you may not be prepared for how gigantic this book is.

There is a lot of gloriously funny stuff in here. Frankly, it wouldn’t be an Allie Brosh book otherwise, ’cause she has a talent for finding the absurdity and humor in the everyday world as well as things that no one else would ever think was funny. She can write about a dying dog and mostly make you forget it’s dying.

But you don’t entirely forget the dog is dying. Tragedy and comedy walk hand-in-hand, and Allie’s life has been stuffed to the brim with both. And reading this book certainly paints a portrait we’ve seen play out far, far too often over the last few years — the artist and comedian who struggles against an almost overwhelming ocean of sorrow and depression and loneliness.

Allie’s artwork is still stunning. It’s evolved a lot — her preferred Allie-caricature looks less like a childish drawing and more like a very worried fish. But she still hides a lot of genuine artistic skills in her fake-bad cartoons, and you’ll find something to marvel at every few pages.

The Internet loves Allie Brosh. She’s helped shape the way we make jokes, she’s written basically the best explanation of what depression is like from the inside. She’s helped us exult in cleaning ALL THE THINGS! We want good things for her, because she’s wonderfully funny, she’s insightful, and she deserves all the possible good things.

So you should definitely get this book. And you should also think good thoughts to the Internet’s friend, Allie Brosh. She needs ’em, please.

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How Does Your Garden Grow?

Hey, my critters, sorry for yet another long stretch between blog posts. Unfortunately, October through December always tends to be a busy period for me, and there are too often times when I’ve got too many chores going on.

But hey, October is a great month for reviewing some good horror books, right? Why don’t we start things off with a look at Garden of Eldritch Delights by Lucy A. Snyder.

I’ve long been a fan of Snyder’s short stories, and I was pleased as punch when this came out back in 2018. Honestly, a lot of us horror fans know to pick up the new books by Lucy as soon as they hit the shelves. Her edgy, bloody, sexy horror tales have been picking up Bram Stoker Awards for years, and this new collection adds a few extra genres to enjoy, including science fiction, steampunk, and heroic fantasy.

Some of the stories we find inside are:

  • “Executive Functions” – A wealthy sociopath who thinks he’s a master of the business world gets a quick lesson on who the real masters are and exactly where he fits in the pecking (and puking) order.
  • “The Gentleman Caller” – A gift of a magic necklace gives a deformed woman a chance at the good life — until her benefactor reveals the horrifying cost.
  • “The Yellow Death” – A woman goes from the victim of a vampire apocalypse to a biker badass — and then meets her long-lost sister, who reveals her secret heritage…
  • “Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars” – The best way to describe this one is a mashup of Lovecraft, Frankenstein, and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in a perfect military space opera setting.
  • “A Hero of Grünjord” – A heroic warrior and her dragon successfully down a flying saucer (!!!), and then travel to a distant, dying kingdom, all while weighing the question of whether to marry into the royal family.
  • Plus there’s the astonishingly beautiful pre-apocalypse tale of “Sunset on Mott Island,” where the rise of the Old Ones takes a back seat to a quiet meditation on death and mercy.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Besides the usual assortment of amazing plotlines, shocking reveals, blood-drenched horrors, and mind-fracturing monsters, one of the great pleasures of Snyder’s stories are her characters. They’re deeply realized people, and they often have the kinds of unique characteristics you won’t find in any other work of fiction. Looking for a formerly conjoined twin who suddenly acquires the ability to body-switch via telephone? A woman with Turner’s syndrome who can rewrite reality? A woman whose terrible scars mark her as the new queen of the world? You’ll get to meet all of them here.

Snyder’s brilliant horror is the spotlight in most of these stories — and justifiably so, as she’s got a knack for terrifying tales that dig deep into your skin and set up epic shocks along every quivering nerve ending — but a lot of the fun of this collection is watching how she works her magic in new kinds of stories, from cyberpunk action to gritty fantasy.

I thought this one was a lot of fun — go pick it up!

Oh, and Snyder has another book coming out this month — the seasonal collection “Halloween Season.” I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish reading it before the 31st, but I’ll give it my best shot…

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