Archive for October, 2020

The Pumpkin King with His Skeleton Grin

My children, tomorrow is the best day of the year, and I still have time to review another horror tale. Let’s look at one of the best Halloween stories out there, Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge.

Well, here we are — it’s Halloween night, 1963, in the little podunk Midwestern town you call home, and it’s time for the biggest event of the year. But it’s not trick-or-treating. It’s not the Halloween parade. It’s the time when the October Boy, Sawtooth Jack himself, that pumpkin-headed, candy-stuffed, butcher knife-wielding scarecrow, hauls himself out of the cornfield and makes his way toward town. And if he makes it to the church before midnight, there’s going to be big trouble.

Luckily, every teenaged boy in town is in the way, armed with clubs and machetes and kitchen knives and pump handles and more. Why just the kids? Because the only way anyone gets to leave this little podunk Midwestern town you call home is to kill the October Boy before midnight. Seriously. The lucky kid gets permission to go live his life outside of this little hellhole, and the rest of you are stuck here forever. So get after it, kid. You don’t wanna be on the wrong end of the knife when you’re staring down Sawtooth Jack’s crooked grin.

Much of our story focuses on 16-year-old Pete McCormick, on his first year going after the October Boy. He’s a smart kid, smarter than most — he knows he can’t rely on brute strength and bravado to take down a nightmare with a pumpkin’s face — but like almost every other kid in town, he’s stuffed full of resentment and anger. He’s been stuck in this town his whole life, watching his drunkard father get beat down and knowing that’s the best he has to look forward to — unless he can make his escape.

But the October Boy isn’t the only obstacle Pete has to contend with. There’s every other teenaged boy in town, many of them stronger and more violent than he is. There’s Jerry Ricks, the brutal, thuggish cop who’s run the town as long as anyone can remember. And there’s Kelly Haines, the only girl participating in the competition, the person who knows all the secret scandals Pete hasn’t learned about yet.

Will Pete get his free trip out of town? Or will the October Boy drag the town to Hell with him?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a thoroughly fun book, though I hesitate to classify it as straight horror. Yeah, it’s got a pumpkin-headed scarecrow, multiple murders, a conspiracy stretching back generations, and evil both supernatural and mundane, but it feels more like a hardboiled crime novel than anything else.

A lot of Norman Patridge’s writing is in detective fiction, and his writing style in this book is picture-perfect crime noir. Almost everyone in the book is at least a little bit sleazy — the first thing the hero does on Halloween night is break into a cop’s house to steal his gun, after all. And the book is stuffed to the gills with performative machismo. I don’t even consider that a bad thing! Desperate, violent men doing desperate, violent things to other desperate, violent men is one of the best ways to write hardboiled crime fiction. And yes, Kelly Haines, essentially the only female character in the book, does manage to clock her share of dudes upside the head with a brakeman’s club, but as much fun as she is, as much as she moves the story along, she won’t be mistaken for the main character.

And the main character, by the way? It’s actually a pumpkin. Because we do spend about half the story’s length inside the October Boy’s blazing brain as he’s constructed in a cornfield, his wooden chest cavity stuffed full of candy, as he plots his way through the night, as he remembers his past, as he decides what kind of creature he’s going to be. It’s his desire for revenge that drives the story forward, it’s his decisions and planning that change the town’s fate, and it’s his ability to show mercy that brings the tale to its proper conclusion.

“Dark Harvest” was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and an International Horror Guild Award in 2007, and it won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Long Fiction in 2006. Publishers Weekly picked it as one of their 100 Best Books of 2006. So it’s not just my opinion, y’all — it’s a great Halloween story, and you should go look for it, read it, and remember what it’s like to run the streets of your hometown with a baseball bat, looking for your showdown with the October Boy.

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The Creeping Terror

We’ve talked fairly recently about the need for horror and cosmic horror to move past H.P. Lovecraft and his racism, and it turns out there’s a roleplaying game that decided to figure out how to work that out. Can you have meaningful cosmic horror that doesn’t rely on Lovecraft and his creations to work? Let’s take a look at Lovecraftesque, designed by Joshua Fox and Becky Annison.

First of all, this isn’t your standard RPG, with players throwing dice to defeat monsters and steal all the gold in the dungeon. There are no dice and no GM. It’s a storytelling game, less reliant on the random roll of the dice and more focused on collaboratively building a cohesive, satisfying story.

And this game has some significant differences from its most obvious inspiration, the classic horror RPG “Call of Cthulhu.” Players are encouraged not to use familiar foes from the Cthulhu Mythos — no deep ones, no mi-go, no King in Yellow, no Nyarlathotep, not even Cthulhu itself. The name of the game, after all, is “Lovecraftesque,” not “Slavishly Recreating Lovecraft’s Works.” This allows the players to be surprised by the terrors they conjure up themselves, rather than confronting the same monsters every player has grown accustomed to over the years.

The other difference from “Call of Cthulhu” is more controversial among certain sets of performatively assholish players. “Lovecraftesque” advises players on ways to avoid the issues that made Lovecraft’s fiction so problematic. It’s a game that says no to racism, sexism, and homophobia, and even counsels players on how to avoid harmful and untrue stereotypes about mental illness. The game even offers a tool called the X-Card, which allows a player to veto a just-introduced story element they find unpleasantly upsetting or overwhelming.

So how’s the game work?

Every player cycles between three different roles: the Witness (who plays the main character), the Narrator (who describes the action and reveals clues), and the Watchers (any other players — they support the Narrator by helping to add details to descriptions and by playing some NPCs). These roles rotate from one scene to the next.

These scenes themselves have a specific structure of their own, with the game divided into three parts. Part One is five scenes long, and Part Two can be up to three scenes long. Each scene ends with the revelation of a new clue into the strange horror menacing the Witness. Part Three starts with a “Journey into Darkness” in which the Witness is taken, willingly or not, to the location of the final confrontation. After that, the “Final Horror” scene unveils the, um, final horror, and then an Epilogue reveals what happens afterwards. The Witness does not have to die, and may even survive entirely unharmed.

There are a number of special cards that allow the game’s rules to be broken in various ways, sometimes by letting a player take over as the Narrator or Witness, sometimes by introducing new story elements or clues, sometimes by forcing an ongoing effect that must be used through the rest of the story.

Another fun rule requires the players to “Leap to Conclusions” after every scene. Each player has to look at the available clues and plot points and put together their best guess as to what the Final Horror may actually be. These guesses will mostly be completely inaccurate, but they can give players some ideas about where they’d like to steer the story, and they’re fun to review once the game is over.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I know this all sounds fairly daunting, but plenty of advice is offered on how to set up and conclude scenes, how to create and develop the Witness, and how to bring the game to a satisfying conclusion. A full teaching guide is also included, which allows the rules to be quickly communicated to an entire gaming group.

Plus there are also over a dozen scenarios offered for players to use, complete with details about the Witness, some useful NPCs, settings, special cards to use, and sample clues for players who need some more ideas. The scenarios are from a wide variety of times and places, from the familiar 1930s New England to modern-day America, World War II London, the Deep South in the 1960s, a Russian ship trapped in polar ice in 1902, a spaceship in the distant future, pre-colonization West Africa, fraternity row at a university in the Midwest, a deep sea exploration base, and many more.

(Personal favorite scenarios: a house-sitter discovering bizarre hints of the eldritch in the memorabilia inside a ritzy Hollywood mansion; a cyberpunk scientist battling a computer virus that’s somehow adapted to infect humans; and a blind occultist researching a recently-discovered Braille edition of the Necronomicon.)

A couple essays are also devoted to advice for players on how to avoid problematic areas common to Lovecraft’s fiction. The advice on racism is likely the most vital — because Lovecraft was really racist, y’all — while also acknowledging the difficulty of avoiding racist tropes in many settings. If the Witness is a black man living in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, racism is everywhere. But if you come to a game to escape from the racism of the real world, in-game racism can make the game deeply un-fun. Still, the advice is sound, straightforward, and useful — find out what the other players’ comfort levels are with depictions of racism, avoid the common racist plotlines (like humans mating with subhumans — Innsmouth stories are popular, but they were based around Lovecraft’s fear of race-mixing), don’t make a whole race of people into diabolical cultists, and when it comes to creating villains, punch up, not down.

As for mental illness, one’s initial thought may be, “Is there anything left of Lovecraft and cosmic horror if you take out getting driven mad by the shocking revelations?” But as the authors point out, lots of people have mental illnesses, of different types and varying degrees, and very few of them are down with the idea that having an illness makes them prone to carving up sacrifices, joining cults, and summoning monster-gods from beyond strange aeons. Besides a lot of Lovecraft’s “madmen” were either entirely lucid and not actually insane, were only affected for a short period of time, or were likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

So the authors’ advice is to be aware of what your players will be uncomfortable with, and to be mindful of how you’re depicting mental illness. They also suggest describing symptoms of a breakdown — it’s possible that everyone who encounters the quad-dimensional hellbeasts from the Bile Realms suffers mental trauma, but they can all have unique symptoms, tailored to their existing personality. A soldier could become hyper-vigilant or obsessed with cleaning her weapons; a professor could try to track down all information about the horrors or retreat from learning completely; or any of a very wide array of symptoms could develop. Just because Lovecraft or “Call of Cthulhu” say madness happens one way doesn’t mean players can’t look for another way to roleplay horror.

If there’s any part of the game that’s less than useful, it’s probably the section on Lovecraftian poetry. Why is there a chapter on Lovecraftian poetry in a roleplaying game? I do not know. The poems don’t seem bad, and the whole chapter is fairly short — but it’s also very skippable.

But on the whole, if you’re looking for a new kind of horror roleplaying and storytelling experience, one that emphasizes creeping terror and allows players to avoid the moral weaknesses of Lovecraft’s tales, this is a game you may want to try out.

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Werewolves on Wheels

It’s Halloween Week! It’s been a super-weird and largely awful year, but we get this whole week for celebrating the best holiday of the year — culminating in Halloween itself, on a Saturday, with a full moon! And speaking of full moons, let’s review Mongrels, a novel written by Stephen Graham Jones.

So kids, what do we know about lycanthropy? Well, it’s the power to shift your form, right? The power to become a powerful, unstoppable werewolf, master of the night, destroyer of man and animal alike, savage scourge of the forest, a beast unlike all other beasts!

Actually, according to this book, it kinda sucks. There’s so much stuff that can kill you. You can’t wear tights or panty hose, ’cause if you wolf out while wearing them, they’re sheer enough that they change with you, and when you return to human form, every hair pulled back into your skin drags artificial fibers into your body, into your bloodstream, and you spend all day dying.

You have to be careful driving, ’cause if you wolf out in the car, you can’t drive anymore, and you’re gonna die. You sure can’t go on a boat. You wolf out in the middle of the ocean, you’re gonna go overboard and drown. You can’t even eat delicious trash out of the dumpster, ’cause if the wolf eats a tin can, the human’s gonna suffer for it. And you’re not going to live very long, even if you survive all the hazards. Being a werewolf takes a toll on your body. But no matter how long you live, it’s mostly going to suck.

“Mongrels” follows a kid, an unnamed narrator, as he travels across the South with his uncle Darren and aunt Libby. They’re all werewolves, but the kid hasn’t had his first change yet. Sometimes he wants it desperately, sometimes he’s not so sure. A lot of the time, he’s not sure that time will ever come at all. Darren is a laughing good-old-boy daredevil, and Libby is more careful, but often more savage.

They’re generally flat-broke and on the run from someone — usually because Darren or Libby turned into a monster and ate someone they shouldn’t have, usually a cop. It’s not an easy life, living out of junked-out trailers, traveling in cars that don’t run well, struggling to earn enough money to buy decent food. The kid never finishes out a whole year of school, generally only a few months at a time.

The whole family is fairly invisible, working bad jobs, burning trash out back of the trailer, buying food and wine coolers at convenience stores and truck stops. (I have a weakness for this book because the family spends time in two different towns I’ve lived in, and it’s nice to imagine you could’ve been that close to werewolves while you were buying corn dogs and chimichangas at Allsup’s in college.)

So the kid learns why you don’t go trying to turn normal humans into werewolves, he follows his uncle and his aunt on bloody sprees all over the countryside, he meets other werewolves — very rarely friendly — and once in a while, he gets to make a friend. The whole family goes through uncomfortable scrapes with the law, with angry rednecks, with kidnappers who want werewolves for their pee, with an out-of-control bear. But of all the things that can destroy a werewolf pack, the biggest threat is time. Time moves on, and people, even werewolves, change.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a real hair-raiser of a novel. Sometimes, it’s intensely scary, action-soaked, and bloody. Sometimes, it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. And a lot of the time, it’s really sad. Because the life of a werewolf is hard and painful and lonely. You don’t get money, you don’t get possessions, you don’t get friends, you don’t get to settle down, and the future is always a question mark.

Characterization is a real high point for this book. You get to know every nook and cranny of these people’s heads — Libby’s stubborn nature, and her barely secret desire to go back to her lowdown scumbag mate Red; Darren’s good nature and quick wits, so often disarmed by the beast within; the kid’s questioning mind, his yearning to belong, his boundless love and trust in his aunt and uncle, his hopes and fears for his future.

We get few physical descriptions of the trio — Jones says he always considered them, like him, Native American. But we know what they look like where it counts. They look like humans. And they look like wolves.

If you love werewolves, if you love coming-of-age stories, if you ever lived the low-luck, low-rent, poor trash lifestyle, this book has something to say to you.

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Hulk as Horror

I know this title is still ongoing, at least for a few more months, and I’ve never had an opportunity to review the individual issues — but again, I live four hours away from the nearest decent comics shop, so I’ve had to make do with trades for a while. Nevertheless, let’s review this as a whole production. It’s time to look at The Immortal Hulk, written by Al Ewing and illustrated by Joe Bennett, with cover art by Alex Ross.

When the Hulk was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962, the character was as far as possible from the stereotypical lantern-jawed titan of justice. Stan Lee was inspired by a number of characters when creating him, including Frankenstein’s Monster and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

And the early Hulk showed those influences very strongly. The Hulk was a misshapen brute who could only take his powered form at night. The earliest Hulk was not a “HULK SMASH PUNY HUMANS” dimwit, but he didn’t have the refined intellect of Bruce Banner. He was cunning. He was, frankly, a raging asshole. And he could occasionally shapeshift in strange and unplanned ways.

Of course, time marched on, and it wasn’t long before we had the familiar Hulk we all know — not smart, incredibly angry, often heroic, but not always. But he’s a star. He’s been on TV, he’s been in cartoons, he’s been in movies. He’s safe, snuggly, loveable, at least to his mass media fans.

At some point in the comics, he’d gotten killed — the archer Hawkeye managed to kill Bruce Banner when he was temporarily cured of being the Hulk — but comics being comics, this didn’t last long, and the nature of Hulk’s resurrections had some wondering if he was actually immortal.

So when Al Ewing and Joe Bennett took the series over, they decided to take the Hulk back to his origins. They restored his cunning, merciless personality. They restored part of his original look.

And here’s how Issue #1 went. Bruce Banner is traveling again, staying undercover, and staying out of trouble. He stops in a convenience store at the same time as a kid with a gun decides to rob the place. He flies into a panic and starts spraying lead. The clerk catches a bullet. A bystander catches a bullet. Banner catches a bullet. All of them die.

Until nightfall. The night is when the Hulk rises from the dead. He’s smart. He’s cunning. And he’s angry. Coldly, terribly angry.

He finds the gang who ordered the kid to make the robbery. He takes them out. And the last one, the shooter, insists he only made a mistake, he’s not a bad guy.

And the Hulk smiles.

“The Immortal Hulk” isn’t a superhero comic. It’s a horror comic.

Who is this Hulk? Aside from his devious intelligence and icy rage, he’s much more controlled than most of his personas. He can converse civilly with anyone he wants, and he knows how to make intricate plans to get what he wants. And he still wants justice for the world — however, his plan to get justice involves, well, destroying the world. And Bruce Banner is, for once, in agreement with him.

The Hulk looks very much like the classic Hulk. No non-green colors, no mobster suits, nothing out of the ordinary, at least as far as gigantic green lumps of muscle and malice go. He’s got the giant Neandertal-esque browline, he’s got the snub nose, he’s got the oversized upper lip, the flat teeth, the beady eyes — but the eyes are greener than normal, and there’s plenty of white around the iris. They are eyes that say someone very smart, not very sane, and very, very scary is living inside that skull, and anyone who finds themselves eye-to-eye with that face is likely terrified out of their wits — and this definitely includes the reader.

In subsequent issues, the Hulk destroys a scientist who experimented on his own son using gamma radiation to make him immortal, he gets a hole blown clear through his chest, he tangles with Walter Langowski, the Sasquatch from Alpha Flight, who’s become possessed by an undead spirit who might be either Bruce Banner’s father or the One Below All — the Devil itself — or maybe even both at the same time. He gets carved into chunks and stored — alive and aware — in big glass jars. He gets dragged down to Hell, where he spends a whole storyarc horribly emaciated. He gets his face torn off more than once, always in loving closeups. He gets overdosed on gamma radiation and turns into a tumor of Hulks. We even visit the end of time when the Hulk is the last being alive, monstrously powerful, controlled by the One Below All, a cosmic horror smashing his way through one universe after another.

And over all of this rises the mystery of the Green Door, a magical gateway every gamma mutate sees when they die. What is its purpose? How does it work? Who controls it?

And it turns out almost anyone with powers based on gamma radiation is going through their own terrible, horrific mutation. The Absorbing Man, who can drain gamma radiation, ends up with his body split open and his skull and spine waving in the air like a serpent when he absorbs too much. Betty Ross regains the ability to turn into the Harpy, but a far more powerful, horrific version, willing and eager to kill and eat anyone who gets in her way — including the Hulk himself. And the Abomination becomes an even more dreadful monster, an acid-spitting horror with a maddening, indescribable anatomy. Rick Jones is missing, presumed dead, for quite a while before he eventually shows up and starts making his own disturbing transformations. And the Leader? No one really knows where the Leader is…

And yes, there’s horror and body horror and battles against characters who should be familiar but have become bizarre and creeptastic, but we should also acknowledge that the character work here is thoroughly excellent. It’s not just that the gamma mutates change their personalities every time they shift shape, but the other supporting characters are all well-done, too. The two most important in this series are Jackie McGee — not the antagonistic reporter from the ’70s TV show, but an African-American reporter for the Arizona Herald, who’s following the Hulk to write articles about him — and General Reginald Fortean, the commander of Shadow Base, a secret anti-Hulk military project.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The key question is this: Is the series worth reading? And the answer is: You’re damn straight it’s worth reading. It’s great to see long-form horror starring familiar superhero characters, particularly Marvel’s original Silver Age horror character. Al Ewing’s writing, stories, and dialogue are all excellent, and Joe Bennett’s art is downright revelatory. His characters are wonderfully expressive, showing every moment of fear and pain, as well as layer upon layer of rage — and the horrors he shows off are, even for those of us protected by the impenetrable barrier of the comics page, surprisingly and sometimes gut-clenchingly terrifying.

The series won’t last forever — it’s probably got about a dozen issues to go, at this writing, before it reaches Issue #50, when Ewing plans the end. But there are plenty of collected editions you can pick up right now.

Is it worth reading? If you love the Hulk, if you love horror, if you love great comics, it’s not just worth reading, it’s required reading.

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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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